Although podcasts hosted by academics have quickly proliferated, doctoral students Jess Engebretson and Milan Terlunen noticed that few such platforms exist for literary scholars. These English and Comparative Literature students have filled that void with How to Read, a podcast for curious readers of all types. Distinguished literature scholars join them to discuss complex literary concepts in fifteen-minute segments, in which academic terminology is kept to a minimum. We spoke with Engebretson and Terlunen about the development, evolution, and future of the podcast, which was funded in part by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
GSAS: How did the podcast originate?
Milan Terlunen: I had been listening to another podcast, Philosophy Bites, which does fifteen-minute interviews with academic philosophers, for a long time. As someone who has no training in philosophy, I liked that it was short and that there was no expectation that you knew anything about the subject. It was also fun to hear academics talking in a slightly more accessible way. After listening to Philosophy Bites for some years, I wondered, “Would that format work for literature?” Then I met Jess at Columbia.
Jess Engebretson: We had a fateful conversation at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, the locus of many conversations among Columbia graduate students. Before starting the English PhD program, I worked in radio and podcasts, both in college and then professionally for six years. I worked for a program called BackStory, a national NPR show based at the University of Virginia and hosted by three historians. Most of the interviews for BackStory were with historians or other scholars, so I had already spent a lot of time thinking about how to bridge the gap between academia and a general audience. I really valued that work, and was concerned I might lose it by going to graduate school. So when Milan mentioned this idea to me, it seemed like an exciting way to continue doing public-facing work.
MT: After that first conversation, it was still more than a year before we recorded the first interview. We spent a lot of time figuring out how to do something like this specifically for literature, and also practiced interviewing graduate students, pretending they were people we didn’t know.
GSAS: You have explored some fascinating topics for your first season, including “intriguing opening sentences,” “why description matters,” and “social networks in novels.” How do you select the topics?
JE: Sometimes we like to talk to scholars about their most recent work, because it’s often the work they are most excited about. We want them to speak with energy and enthusiasm about the topic. We also look for ideas or areas of study that are transferable. If you have to know a lot about that specific area of study, it’s probably not a good fit.
MT: We use the metaphor of the toolbox. We want each episode to contribute to people’s “reading toolbox.”
GSAS: Milan, you seem very comfortable as the podcast’s host, and have an excellent radio voice. Had you even spoken on the air before?
MT: I had never done radio, but I volunteered with a charity called Nightline. As a volunteer, you’re next to a phone, and people who need someone to talk to, for whatever reason, can call you. Nightline’s training emphasized being “non-directional,” which means never introducing new material into the conversation: You are always responsive to what the caller is saying, which is incredibly difficult. People conducting interviews, especially with academics, tend to compete with their interviewees. I felt there was something really powerful about the non-directional approach. On How to Read, I sometimes question our guests if I don’t understand them, but we want to put the emphasis on them.
GSAS: How do you keep the tone of the podcast so warm and open?
MT: Partly through embracing the idea that it’s okay to make jokes and laugh. Academic training doesn’t emphasize that, so we spent a lot of time figuring out ways to be funny—and let our guests be funny.
GSAS: What do you hope to offer your listeners?
JE: Fun and pleasure. And I hope that when people listen, they feel that their curiosity is being fueled, and that the podcast is sparking meaningful thoughts about reading they have already done and want to do.
GSAS: What feedback have you received from listeners?
JE: The first feedback was from our mothers, who were ecstatic. [Laughs] That was a good place to start. I’ve received compliments from students and professors in the English department.
MT: We’ve received nice emails from past guests and professors whom we admire are now following us on Twitter without us ever having contacting them. It’s exciting, because those are some of the people we’d like to interview.
GSAS: Has balancing this project with your doctoral studies been challenging?
JE: Yes, it takes a lot of time, and so does everything else, but there is something to be said for pursuing multiple projects that use different parts of your brain. There’s a way in which they mutually reinforce one another.
MT: It’s rewarding and time consuming, and those two things don’t cancel each other out. I hope this is something that universities will increasingly recognize as a valid form of scholarship.
GSAS: What have you taken away from producing How to Read?
MT: I has helped me learn, in practice, the importance of editing, and how powerful it can be when you get it right. The episodes are fifteen minutes at most, but the conversations themselves can last from thirty minutes to an hour. Academics don’t usually work on such a small scale.
JE: Talking about, thinking about, and being exposed to the work of a variety of academics in my field has been valuable for me. Our guests may study a different literature or be in an entirely different discipline, but their work has some connection to questions of reading. Graduate school can be so hyper-specialized that you often don’t know some of the faculty in your own department or the details of their work. It has reminded me of all of the exciting things that are going on within the broader field, and it’s nice to have an aspect of my life as a graduate student that’s more capacious.
GSAS: What are your future plans for How to Read?
JE: We’re still thinking about ways of tweaking the format. If any of our listeners have thoughts, we’re very eager for their feedback, since this is ultimately for them!
MT: We hope to expand the diversity of our guests and topics, and interview people in other countries. That requires a slightly larger travel budget than we have at this point. [Laughs] We also want Jess to play more of a role “in front of the microphone.” The hope is that this will air even after we leave Columbia. We won’t run out of people or topics anytime soon.