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Listen globally: A guide to podcasts in summertime

July 18, 2018

Podcast earphones

In “Listen Globally: Podcasts in Summertime” Assistant Professor Sasha Senderovich, a scholar of Russian Jewish literature and culture, shares his thoughts and three podcasts that reflect how reading literature and doing close reading and  translating languages enhances our understanding of the current world:  

My academic training is in the field of literary studies. The effect of this fact on my scholarly and everyday life is that I can’t help myself but perform close readings—both consciously and unwittingly—on anything that comes my way. I’ve come to understand the practice of close reading as far more than merely an intense scrutiny of literary texts, which is how most of us encounter this exercise starting in our secondary schooling. Everything around us is constituted from smaller details that are not always visible to the naked eye.

It’s fundamentally important to identify these tiny details, place them in the larger contexts in which they appear, and ponder the inter-relation between details and their larger contexts—including how the details often create their respective larger contexts themselves and thus shape our world. I teach this way, too, as I train my students to see how an oddly placed word in a sentence can change the meaning in a short story, how a phrase uttered by a politician or a public figure is a detail that performs some intentional or unintended rhetorical heavy-lifting, how a sequence of frames in a movie can hold clues to the character of its protagonists—and how some larger takeaway message and a broader worldview always inevitably rests on these smaller details that we must never accept as givens and never cease to scrutinize.

On a break from teaching this summer, I’ve been enjoying listening to podcasts as I take walks, tidy up around the house, or cook. I couldn’t help but notice that in my podcast taste, I tend to gravitate to programs that feed my craving for insightful close readings of details, which, at the outset, appear quite small but which, upon closer scrutiny, are absolutely crucial to the shaping our world.

Here are a few recommendations of some personal favorites among brand new podcasts, with an emphasis on topics that tend to interest Jackson School students, faculty, and the larger community.

These podcasts are free; find them on whichever podcast app you use on your digital device (e.g. Apple Podcasts, PodCruncher, Google Play) and download them for your summertime neighborhood walks, hikes, and lounging around—or listen online.

Rough Translation. Its second season having wrapped up last week, NPR’s Rough Translation is a consummate Jackson School-interest podcast. Produced by Gregory Warner—formerly, NPR’s East Africa correspondent—with an impressive team of collaborators including Warner’s partner, the writer Sana Krasikov, Rough Translation poses the following question: “How are the things we’re talking about being talked about somewhere else in the world?” With extensively reported and well-narrated episodes on, among other things, tapping out the entirety of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina through the wall of one Somali prison cell to another, reading Jane Austen’s novels by Pakistani women who try to challenge social conventions of courtship and marriage, following the notion of “fake news” from American political discourse into the zone of military conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and exploring the differing meanings of apology in Japanese and American societies and attendant difficulties of a Japanese corporation’s apology to an elderly American for its exploitation of POW labor during World War II, this podcast traces indirect journeys of inter-cultural translation. 

Lend Me Your Ears: A Podcast about Shakespeare and Politics. Taking its title from William Shakespeare’s Julius Cesar, Lend Me Your Ears is produced by the writer and theater director Isaac Butler, for Slate. In carefully researched episodes, in which Butler talks to Shakespeare scholars, theater directors, actors, and historians, Lend Me Your Ears works through one Shakespeare play at a time to explore the political implications of each one—both in their respective historical contexts of Shakespeare’s England and, obliquely, in the age of Trump. With monthly episodes on Julius Cesar, Richard II, and King Lear already up, the podcast’s takes on Othello, Measure for Measure, and Coriolanus are scheduled for the rest of the summer and autumn. My favorite, so far, is the podcast’s episode on Shakespeare’s King Lear, closely read by Butler and the experts he interviews with a keen eye to the madness of tyrannical rule fueled by the sudden cessation of flattery by the tyrant’s underlings.

Unladylike. Unladylike is crafted by Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin. Both of them with extensive background in print and new-media journalism as well as on camera and the stage, the co-hosts identify themselves as “research-addicted feminists who make digital media about all things gender.” Each of the weekly episodes focuses on and close reads a specific issue in history, science, politics, and other spheres, in which gender issues have been neglected or overlooked. One of my favorite episodes so far is the ones on the “bronze ceiling,” in which, together with the Vietnam War nurse Diane Carlson Evans and her campaign for the first memorial to women veterans on the National Mall, the podcast’s co-hosts explore the near-total absence of monuments to real-life women in America and around the world. “How to Reboot Sexist Robots”—another episode I found particularly enlightening—tackles gender biases in robotics: such gendered digital assistants as Amazon’s Alexa, the podcast’s co-hosts assert, are examples of artificial intelligence that “comes with retrograde human baggage.”

Battle Tactics for your Sexist Workplace. The premise of this brand new podcast, produced by our hometown’s Eula Scott Bynoe and Jeannie Yandel for Seattle’s KUOW station, is that our workplaces are sexist, whether we notice that or not. The podcast thus tasks itself—one concrete problem close read in each biweekly episode at a time—with uncovering these sexist biases, and coming up with strategies, for people of all genders, to confront and change them. In the two episodes that dropped so far, the co-hosts look at the issues of, respectively, the pay gap between men and women employed in similar positions, and of “manterruption”—the all-too-common phenomenon of men interrupting their female colleagues in professional spaces that extend from faculty meetings and the classroom to, as the co-hosts point out, the U.S. Supreme Court.

Happy listening—and happy summer!

Sasha Senderovich is an assistant professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Jewish Studies. His current book project, How the Soviet Jew Was Made: Culture and Mobility after the Revolution explores the emergence of the “Soviet Jew” as a cultural concept. His translation, from the Yiddish, of David Bergelson’s Judgment: A Novel was published by Northwestern University Press in 2017.

Prof. Senderovich also studies contemporary literature written by Soviet-born Jewish Russians, particularly in America. In addition to his scholarship, Senderovich organizes public cultural programming and contributes to popular newspapers and magazines including the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Forward, The New Republic, Jewish Currents, and Seattle’s The Stranger. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 2010.