By Christopher Lynn, Ph.D., University of Alabama, firstname.lastname@example.org
As we hunker down in our social isolation but reach out to each other through Zoom, social media, emails, and other creative ways, it reminds me of why my friend and colleague Cara Ocobock and I started the “Sausage of Science” podcast (which you can subscribe to on your podcast app of choice or listen to individual episodes on the Human Biology Association page) that we’ve written about in the current issue of Practicing Anthropology. I switched from majoring in journalism with a focus on anthropology as the discipline I wanted to specialize in to wanting to be the expert in something that others wrote about. But I never stopped caring about the popularization of research because that’s how I came to it myself. I remember learning as an undergraduate at Brooklyn College in around 1997 about Margaret Mead’s Redbook column and thinking no one was doing anthropology as a public intellectual like that anymore. Who was our contemporary Margaret Mead? So I thought that when I became a professional academic, I’d do something to put anthropology back into popular culture.
But that’s NOT how the “Sausage of Science” podcast started. Along the way, I realized that being a public intellectual is a defuse thing. We have many media through which we can share our work and many people doing that work who I was not seeing. At the time I was having these grandiose thoughts, blogging was taking off, which I knew, but I simply didn’t realize it was doing what I was thinking wasn’t out there. I eventually caught on after I got my PhD and job and started blogging. I found a whole community of scholars. I blogged, I Tweeted, I Facebooked, I did my research and published peer-reviewed articles. THEN, when I went to national and regional conferences, I saw how it all came together. As an example I use over and over again to exemplify what I was missing, John Hawks is a paleoanthropologist who has been science blogging since the early 2000s. In 2011 or so when I had him down to Alabama for a talk, he pointed out the kind of traffic a blog that get updated regularly can get versus other forms of scholarship, and it had a big impression on me. His current blog FAQ points out that in July 2011, his site was visited 241,000 times by 60,000 distinct computer addresses. That month, his server had 950,000 page views, which is 48,000 files daily or around one file every 1.8 seconds.
Now you may know of John’s work with Neanderthals, Homo denisova, or in conjunction with Lee Berger, he’s been one of the main proponents of open access science in sharing data from the Homo naledi expeditions. So this is no side project for John; he is fully invested in this public anthropology thing, and that makes him the type of bona fide public anthropologists I thought we were missing.
I started becoming recognized as a blogger, a Tweeter, and (I guess) a public intellectual by my peers. I got involved in more service positions and realized that putting myself out there in as many ways as possible was doing what I had naively thought the Redbook column alone had done for Margaret Mead. Now of course, I realize how ridiculous it is to think that it was the Redbook column that put her over the top. It was being generally involved, doing all the things, BEING A BADASS, training students, and getting older in one’s discipline. Getting older, going to conferences, and training students. That’s what has changed the discipline for me.
But then the podcast. Why’d we start it? For those reasons. Really, we wanted to get to know our colleagues better, have excuses to talk to them more, and have a reason for them to want to talk to us. There is a synergy wherein, as the medium by which other work gets promoted, many of the people we interview become familiar with our research, pay attention to where we work, if we have a graduate program, and then think “I might like to go to Notre Dame or Alabama to study” or to send their students to us. We don’t have any specific measure of it, but after doing the podcast for three years, we’ve been told enough times how many people enjoy it, assign it in class, says words to validate that they’ve actually listened to some episodes, etc. So it has made an impact of sorts. Maybe at the backs of our minds we hoped to be better known through the podcast (okay, I am a glory hound and definitely wanted to be better known), but that would mean doing it a lot for a long time. When we first started, we had no schedule, no sense of what that would mean. But when people seemed to like it, and when we found we enjoyed it, we went from monthly-ish to every few weeks to weekly.
And for us, the impact has been akin to being a journal editor. When you’re a journal editor, you have to read all the research coming in, and it necessarily expands your repertoire of what is out there, what is being done. Bill Leonard said as much about why he likes being editor of the American Journal of Human Biology on an episode for a special series we have called #Hackademics, or hacks for being successful in academia. Bill said he learns what is cutting edge in the field through reading the submissions to the journal. We have a similar experience as science podcast hosts and by specifically hitching our wagon to a society and its journal. We were asked, as a matter of fact, as a consequence of interviewing people whose work had recently been published, to be on the editorial board for the American Journal of Human Biology in charge of public relations. So it has been a win-win. We read articles and talk to scholars about their work every week. Then I often find myself talking about it in class, maybe even assigning it; and I start seeing all the connections.
For example, the episode we just recorded today was with Jeffrey Peterson, a postdoc at Notre Dame. One of the things Cara and I noticed over the past few years of interviewing folks, especially doing the few remembrance episodes (C. Loring Brace, Frank Marlowe, Napoleon Chagnon), is how significant the University of Michigan is as a font of biological anthropology. Now, I have no connection there, but Cara did her undergrad there. So every time we interview someone and a Michigan link comes up, she gets excited. Every time we interview a bioanth without a Michigan link, I get excited. Today Jeffrey told us about started at the University of Illinois, then going to a field school in Costa Rica and being taught by Michaela Howells (our HBA PR chair and collaborator), then doing an MA with Erin Riley (who I met through Twitter and conferences), then doing a PhD with Agustín Fuentes (Cara’s chair at Notre Dame, who I met through this same sideways network, who did a great #Hackademics interview about the ennui of coming back from fieldwork). From doing this podcast (and going to conferences), I knew exactly how all those people connect together. And, even without knowing the theory that Jeffrey was going to talk about, I could tell you he would be interested in ethnoprimatology and niche construction, and of course that’s what he talked about. Sort of an epistemology of why we study the things we study because of who we know and who we studied with. Not rocket science, but the epiphany was exciting for me.
Doing public anthropology and applied anthropology are ways of learning sideways. Rather than the linear process of reading articles in order, you interview all of these people out of order of anything other than who, on impulse, we have scheduled next, and the learning comes sideways. We’ve pieced this all together as we go. I like that metaphor because, like the niche construction model Jeffrey talked about today, it is in the interaction that both evolutionary, ecological, and sociocultural processes happen. There is very little that is actually linear about them.
I took this selfie of Cara and me at a hockey game in Albany, NY a few months before we started podcasting in 2017. It was this hangout time, I think, that affirmed for both of us that we like working and hanging out together.
Cara and I with our friend Dr. Marc Kissel (left) and his dissertation adviser John Hawks (in the hat) at the 2019 AAA meetings.
Cara with Carolyn Jost-Robinson at the AAPA meetings in NOLA and March for Science in 2017. We interviewed Carolyn about a year later and talk about the profoundness of her interview in our PA piece out now.
Sometimes fun people do cool work, and we just want to hang out with them more, such as Dr. Sarah Lacy, (who runs a cheeky public anthropology account on Instagram called HotHominins), visiting the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame with us during the AAPA meetings in Cleveland in 2019.
Cara (left) and I (right) with our HBA PR boss, Dr. Michaela Howells.