Sound Education 2019 – Reflection

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October 14, 2019 by Dr. G

At the end of every conference I attend, I pull together a reflection of my thoughts on what I learned, what new information made me want to do a deeper dive into that topic, and what parts I wasn’t so thrilled about. I’ll try to pull together my thoughts about Sound Education 2019, but this reflection is a hard one for me to compose.

Sound Education 2018 had 150 speakers with 600+ conference participants. I haven’t seen the statistics from this year’s conference, but it looks comparable. From Thursday through Saturday, people gathered from the local Boston area and from quite a distance (Canada, Mexico, Scotland, Germany, Latvia) for learning and networking with educational podcasters, audio producers, and listeners.

So this was a very different conference for me. The geoscience conferences I typically attend have anywhere from 8,000 to 25,000 people in the convention center, and the presentations are on topics related to my professional background. Although I have attended podcasting workshops and have experience creating audio narratives with students, it was a different collection of people gathered together. On the plus side, I find that as I progress in my career, I’m actually learning more from going to conferences outside of my discipline – communications conferences, for example, have been extremely beneficial and complimentary to my teaching, outreach, and science communication efforts.

But when things go opposite of what I expect at a conference, I get thrown off and sometimes frustrated. For example, several of the sessions had titles and descriptions at this conference that did not match what was presented. My geoscience conferences require a 500-word abstract, and in that case, more is better – I have an understanding of what will be covered. Podcasters are creative people, and some of the titles had words/concepts in them that were not part of the session, so I was left confused and frustrated. I do exercises with my students on developing meaningful titles that reflect the content of what they are writing about in my courses, and this needs to be carried through to all professional dissemination opportunities.

I wish I had known exactly where the conference venues were well in advance, when I had booked my hotel. Since this was my first time attending, and the conference was listed as being hosted by a podcast at Harvard Divinity School, I assumed the conference was being held on Harvard University’s campus. It turns out that almost all of the sessions were across the Charles River at Boston University (see map on right). I tried to use public transit as much as I could, but a couple of sessions were too far away and required Uber (I know, students – I talk all the time about how Uber is causing more traffic problems and increasing overall CO2 emissions on the planet – I feel guilty enough!).

Now the conference app was very helpful, and it had some neat features to try to create a sense of community with discussion forums and ways to message other participants. I’m pleased to see more and more conferences use mobile apps to help with keeping the schedule organized and to send out “blast” announcements of last-minute changes.

If I had to describe my overall conference experience, I would use the phrase “hit and miss.” Some of the sessions and keynotes really knocked it out of the park for me. The training by Hindenburg on the first day was exactly something I was looking for. But the keynote on the first evening left me frustrated.

And there was some strange bowing down to Malcolm Gladwell. During one keynote, I counted that his name was dropped over 8 times (in less than an hour!). I’ve read his books, and his content is interesting. But it was really strange to hear the nonstop mentioning of his name – to me, it reflected a community too focused on one person/speaker and again not open and receptive to the many voices that are podcasting.

On the flip side, Tom Webster from Edison Research provided such an informative overview of the changing audiences for podcasts (even though I already heard him speak at Podcast Movement, I appreciated hearing the data again!). And there were useful tips I took away from each of the sessions that related to podcasting and higher education, such as:

I think the two sessions that will have the longest impact on me (and now that it is a few days after the conference has ended and I’ve had time to reflect) were the sessions by Ian Elsner and museums and their podcasts (can/should museums always be a trusted source? How can we think more critically about museums?) and Jason Gots “closing his laptop” and not running podcast interviews from a script but instead embracing “play” to create stories with guests.

And of course, I learned about some excellent new podcasts to check out, from TIL Climate to Museum Archipelago. And I even got to spend a little time with a Penn State colleague, Jenna Spinelle, who is key to the production of Penn State’s Democracy Works podcast!

Me and Jenna!

I still felt that there was a lack of scholarship when it came to podcasts presented at this conference, a lack of research and assessment, which is the world I live in as a faculty researcher. I was also shocked at how few presenters and rooms were equipped and ready to play podcasts during the presentations, which impacted my experience. I’m off to one additional podcast conference this academic year, Podfest Expo 2020, and it will be interesting to compare my experiences across Podcast Movement, Sound Education, and Podfest Expo 2020. I still have much to learn about podcasting, but where to go for this professional development in the next year remains to be seen…





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