Operation ASEEES and The Slavic Connexion’s Other Adventures
This article originally appeared in the October 2020 NewsNet.
In November of 2019, a skeleton crew of The Slavic Connexion podcast attended the ASEEES convention in San Francisco to conduct what we fondly called a “guerilla podcasting” mission. For those of you who did not notice a gaggle of graduate students lugging microphones and soundboards around the Marriott, we are sorry we missed you, but we hope providing our perspective on the academic field and how we see our future in it is insightful to NewsNet readers. In San Francisco, we produced a miniseries of interviews with conference participants. Amid the impeccably organized chaos of ASEEES, we ran around meeting our guests, packing up our equipment at a moment’s notice to move to an empty room or hallway so we could record.
The objective of this miniseries was multifaceted. We had the opportunity to introduce our listenership to new topics which we had not been able to previously cover from our home base at the University of Texas in Austin, covering more diverse subject matter and engaging more broadly with scholars in the field, especially those working outside the United States. Producing the miniseries allowed us graduate students to participate in a unique way, somewhere between presenting and observing. As first-year graduate students, none of us had our own research or papers to present, so interviewing was an effective way to engage with scholars’ research beyond the limitations of panels and Q&A sessions. The interviews were informal, around 20 minutes each, and focused on the guest’s conference paper. Our ASEEES miniseries was the result of almost a year of hard work and is just the beginning of a new era of digital-focused, increasingly accessible research and instruction in our field, which we hope will actively include graduate students and our unique perspectives and abilities.
The Slavic Connexion is a student-led podcast housed at the University of Texas Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. The show focuses broadly on the region’s cultures, politics, people, and global connections. Unlike many shows in the burgeoning academic podcast genre, The Slavic Connexion works to deconstruct barriers to entry in academia, as well as providing entertaining and educational content to the general public. Although led by SEEES-oriented graduate students and aspiring scholars, this project also seeks to amplify research outside of our field. We pride ourselves on steering the narrative toward the interdisciplinary, producing a show that is accessible to many different types of listeners. A number of our episodes are recorded in Russian, and we plan to broadcast in other languages in the future, such as Czech, BCMS and Sakha (Yakut). In doing so, we hope to foster opportunities for students to apply their language skills and spotlight scholars outside of the hegemonic sphere of English-language scholarship.
The Slavic Connexion began recording in March 2019 as the brainchild of Michelle Daniel, a graduate student in the Department of Slavic & Eurasian Studies at the University of Texas, after she participated in a study on youth civic engagement in Ukraine. In this program, Michelle engaged in cross-cultural dialogue with Ukrainian youth. Listening to young Ukrainians express their thoughts and feelings about the disconnect between those running the country and the younger generations who are the future of the country, Michelle wanted to create a long-term project, framed in some way by youth-driven conversations. It was through this experience that Michelle noticed the untapped potential of students and youth, whose perspectives are too often brushed aside. Podcasting is an effective, affordable, and straightforward way to uplift their voices.
As of June 2020, The Slavic Connexion has 92 episodes, which you can enjoy and use freely in your own instruction and research. The podcast has swiftly evolved on two fronts since its humble beginnings. Firstly, the show has technically improved. Students involved with the project from the get-go learned how to properly record, edit, publish, and promote interviews, and experimented with different recording equipment. These are the kinds of applied skills graduate students are vaguely told they should acquire in order to succeed in the precarious world of academic employment, but which are rarely, if ever, formally taught. The Slavic Connexion crew has passed these skills on to newer team members, resulting in an alternative economy in which digital humanities skills are acquired in the field. Secondly, the podcast has grown in terms of its content, with regards to the diverse backgrounds of our guests, the breadth of subject matter discussed, and the approaches to said conversations. Although many of our episodes focus on politics or national security, we have worked to expand our coverage of culture and the humanities in order to better reflect the makeup of the field.
The strength of The Slavic Connexion lies in its ability to serve as a casual outlet to amplify the work of scholars, journalists, and students. The show fosters collaboration to open up our field. Podcasting is a democratic medium, meaning it can amplify the voice of anyone with access to recording equipment. There are numerous formats–the “chumcast,” where two or more people chat freely about a certain topic; the interview, where hosts rely on bringing guests into the studio; the story, where a narrative unfolds over time. There are also numerous genres–comedy, news and politics, health, self-help, business, and the broadly educational, to name a few. Within the educational genre is the subgenre of the academic podcast, distinguished by the sharing of research or strengthening of preexisting academic networks. These podcasts can be a vehicle to publicize work already appearing in journals and books. However, the digital format is a space of knowledge production in its own right, bypassing the increasingly stringent and oftentimes inequitable market of academic publishing. Podcasting also benefits classroom instruction, providing a supplementary tool or creative project for students. Finally, as a collaborative space it invites cooperation of folks in different positions, of different expertise, and across various institutions. The field of podcasting continuously evolves, with new voices and perspectives emerging. Why not use the medium to add a new community element? In light of our increased dependence on online instruction, we have adapted to interviewing over Zoom (you know the one), meaning the opportunity to connect is now limited only by time zones and broadband.
The Slavic Connexion’s ASEEES miniseries was an exciting way to be introduced to the truly global field of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Researching our own projects sometimes feels like we are wearing blinders, that we are alone in our interests and what we study. ASEEES shows that there is a vibrant community of individuals who share our diverse interests. Nevertheless, we believe there is room for even more opportunities and roundtables at the conference exclusively for graduate students and other precarious members of the field, such as independent scholars, non-tenured faculty, and international scholars.
Attending the 2019 ASEEES Conference was a unique experience for each member of The Slavic Connexion crew. Here were some of their key takeaways, in their own words:
Cullan Bendig: I have been advised on more than one occasion that one way to find research topics is by picking something small and turning it into your whole world. While I have found this to be helpful advice, at the time it struck me as a prescription for lonely obsession with things that are of limited interest to most people. My experience at the 2019 ASEEES Conference dispelled that notion. When we were able to take a break from preparing and recording interviews, The Slavic Connexion crew attended panels, presentations, and discussions covering every topic imaginable within our field. As a podcast team, the ASEEES Conference also provided a space where we could hold in-person interviews that would have otherwise been impossible.
The outlook I have toward my experience at the ASEEES Conference is not the same one now that I would have expressed a few months ago. As I write this, I have not been in a physical classroom since mid-March. Virtual classrooms may get close to the real thing, but nothing compares to the lived experience of being in a room full of fervent conversations about topics so close to your own interests. Looking back on ASEEES, I am reminded of everything that motivated me to return to graduate school. Seeing the full depth and breadth of the field all gathered in one location made it clear to me that I had made the correct decision. From Lynda Park and Margaret Manges’ indispensable help to the attendees who generously and readily participated in our show, my trip to ASEEES was nothing but encouraging.
Samantha Farmer: Like most pockets of society, academia is besieged by privatization and virtually saturated with fears over the disappearing horizon of success. Jobs in humanities and our field disappear or adjunctify, and the tenure-track job market has become a lottery for the lucky few. These are not new fears, but they are certainly concerns I had (and still have) when deciding to pursue a graduate degree in the field. Attending ASEEES and seeing the colliding ecosystem of scholarly communities that exist in the field was somewhat of a balm to my worries, though that ecosystem is still vulnerable to ongoing material crises most intimately felt by our precariat. Nevertheless, at ASEEES I had the opportunity to attend panels and interview scholars whose research topics may not hold as much sway in the field, which is dominated by Russian and Soviet studies. As a student who does not study Russia, it was all the sweeter to have my pick of panels on the former Yugoslavia or on translation. It was also exciting to be able to meet with researchers who are not based in the United States. If our current exodus to the digital world has any silver linings, surely they include an increased opportunity to connect online and decenter US-based scholarship from the inside. Perhaps The Slavic Connexion provides a model for such digital disruption.
Lera Toropin: Deciding to pursue a dual degree in Global Policy Studies and Russian studies at UT was a significant departure for me from my previous career in Japanese language, one heavy with indecision. Would I be able to carve a space for myself in an entirely new realm of academia that appeared to have insurmountable barriers to entry? ASEEES, a massive conference with a dizzyingly in-depth schedule of presentations and roundtables, didn’t seem like the place to find out. Surely, I hadn’t earned enough cred yet to sit at the table and rub elbows with published authors and impressively qualified researchers.
From our team’s very first interview, a fascinating and warm discussion with Dr. Vladimir Golstein, I was immediately proven wrong. The field of SEEES isn’t necessarily vast, but it finds its strength in the small, supportive circles that promote collaboration and exchanges of ideas. All our cold interview requests were answered with enthusiasm. All the interviewees we spoke with were welcoming and generous with their time, glad to share their work and explain the fascinating research they were pursuing, and the conference organizers went out of their way to make us feel welcome by providing us spaces to record. I found encouragement at ASEEES; really, it was the first time I felt that my sharp career change had been the right choice.
ASEEES made it clear that there’s room in this field; room for our podcast crew, and certainly room for a questioning dual-degree graduate student to come to the table, though perhaps not necessarily to rub elbows – need to keep room for the microphones, after all.
Katya Yegorov-Crate: I attended the 2018 ASEEES Convention during a rather uncertain time in my academic career and my life in general. I had just graduated with my bachelor’s degree in May of that year and was still unsure what I wanted to do in the future, so I went to the conference on a whim with hopes it would provide me some kind of direction. I visited with many of my old colleagues and former professors, and I found the panels and roundtables (although a little daunting) to be incredibly illuminating and motivating. A year later, I went to the 2019 ASEEES Conference as a new graduate student in a master’s program, and felt inspired to continue on in academia, although it remained daunting, to some extent. My biggest take-away from our miniseries project at this year’s conference was how enthusiastic people were to invest their time and energy in a project with four students at its helm, and how encouraging our guests were of our aims to synthesize research into compact segments for listeners who come from a range of backgrounds. I would also add that I enjoyed the opportunity to attend panels that in one way or another touched on a great deal of my personal interests – Indigenous peoples of Russia and climate change.
In continuing this project, we at The Slavic Connexion aim to bring a level of joy and pleasure to academic work, to demonstrate that no barrier to entry exists in podcasting (nor should it in academia), and to carry on creating content that is both intellectual and public-facing. This means adapting to new, digital means of collaborating, which foster solidarity within academia, as well as with those who are excluded from academia altogether. This also means holding ourselves accountable to include communities and issues in our regions of study that are often obscured by the unquestioned whiteness of Eastern Europe and Eurasia, and working to make our field more equitable for Black, Indigenous, POC, and queer scholars and students among us. The Slavic Connexion is determined to remain true to its principles of facilitating dynamic dialogues, making real connections, and embodying the University of Texas’ motto: “What starts here changes the world.” We are excited about what we do, and if you are too, we are just an email away. Listen to episodes of The Slavic Connexion on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or on our website at https://www.slavxradio.com/episodes.
Thanks and recognition: Podcasting is an inherently collaborative effort and so we have many to thank for the successes of The Slavic Connexion. We would first like to thank ASEEES for allowing us to record at the conference, and we are especially grateful to Lynda Park and Margaret Manges for their immeasurable help in realizing our ASEEES miniseries. A special thanks to all the guests who agreed to be on the show and who graciously took time out of their busy conference schedules to speak with us. Thank you to the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies for the financial support necessary to attend ASEEES and for the Center’s constant enthusiasm for our work. Thanks to Dr. Craig Campbell for inspiring the miniseries project, and Michelle Daniel for being an extremely supportive executive producer.
Samantha Farmer (Associate Producer, Host) is a graduate student at the University of Texas specializing in BCMS and literary translation.
Lera Toropin (Associate Producer, Host) is a dual degree Global Policy Studies/Russian Studies graduate student with a research focus on U.S.-Russia relations and Track II/III diplomacy programming.
Cullan Bendig (Associate Producer, Host) is a graduate student at the University of Texas-Austin interested in the use of digital consumer media as a tool for public history with a focus on media produced in the SEEES region.
Katya Yegorov-Crate (Supervising Producer, Host, Audio Engineer) began her graduate studies at the University of Texas-Austin in the fall of 2019 and has primarily worked on topics related to Indigenous peoples of Russia and native language revitalization in practice.