book cover Excerpted from A Sentimental Education by Hannah McGregor. Copyright © 2022 Hannah McGregor. Published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

For me, there has been no better lesson in the pleasures and risks of digital life writing than becoming a podcaster.

I started podcasting in 2015, when my friend Marcelle Kosman and I decided to reread the Harry Potter books together and then, belatedly, to record our conversations. We only had one mic then, which we would pass back and forth, an accidentally feminist method that forced us to give each other space and time to really articulate a thought. When later, at live events, we had our own mics, Marcelle often had to tell me that, actually, she was not done speaking yet.

In that first episode, we were making things up as we went. We’d both reread Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and taken notes about what we wanted to discuss. Sitting on Marcelle’s couch, we started to divide those points into themes, then into segment ideas: “Granger Danger,” for our discussions of Hermione Granger and the representation of women in the books; “The Forbidden Forest,” for how the wizarding world handles race, disability, and other forms of textual othering. We charted a rough outline for ourselves and, toward the bottom of our first bottle of wine that evening, hit record.

I love going back to that first episode and listening to how nervous we sound, how fuzzy the audio is. Marcelle introduces the podcast as a discussion of our “feelings and thoughts” on the Harry Potter world, and I think that order is right; Witch, Please was always meant to be an experiment in putting feelings back into our reading, even as our feelings about books were being rigorously professionalized out of us.

In her 2015 article “When Nothing is Cool,” English scholar Lisa Ruddick identifies this problem in the academic study of literature, pointing to the “unaccountable feelings of confusion, inhibition, and loss” that students often feel in grad school as they’re taught that the way they’ve always related to books is wrong or insufficiently critical. Drawing on what Eve Sedgwick identified as “a strain of ‘hatred’ in criticism” as well as Bruno Latour’s articulation of “how scholars slip from ‘critique’ into ‘critical barbarity,’” Ruddick bemoans the “thrill of destruction” and the ruthlessness and cruelty of much contemporary criticism. “The only way now to replenish academic discourse,” she concludes, “is through innumerable tiny acts of courage in which people say the uncool things.”

When Marcelle and I started making Witch, Please, our giggly and half-drunk podcast still felt pretty damned uncool. We cried, we swore, we talked about our bodies and our feelings, and we were unabashedly and unironically invested in a popular literary property—not just the books but the movies, plays, even theme parks. When, in June 2020, Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling published an essay—replete with harmful, transphobic tropes—on her website, defending her views that the idea of biological sex should be protected and airing her concerns about what she calls “the new trans activism,” social media was full of people triumphantly announcing that they had never liked, or even read, her iconic books or that the books were silly and anyone betrayed by Rowling’s hateful politics was naive, a bad reader. In this contemporary moment, when any beloved creator might suddenly be revealed as abusive, harmful, or bigoted, publicly liking things is a dicey proposition. Better, perhaps, to keep it cool, to position yourself as a little bit better and smarter than your objects of study. For some, that’s a safe position to take; it’s hard to be hurt from there.

But, while critical coolness might feel like safety to some, it is a survival strategy for others, as we do the necessary work of dismantling the dominant narratives that have saturated our cultural landscape. Wresting textual meaning away from the author is often a liberatory act—one need only look at the fanfiction created by queer, trans, racialized, and disabled Harry Potter fans. From the earliest episodes of Witch, Please, we have insisted that it is possible to love something and critique it at the same time—that unpacking the problems in a text can produce other pleasures, a truth that many critical fandoms have known for a while.

Nevertheless, articulating feelings out loud felt like an act of courage at the time. As Witch, Please began to pick up steam—and listeners—Marcelle and I were nervous; we felt, instinctively, that public displays of emotions and fandom stripped us of our perceived expertise, that sharing personal details about our lives heightened our vulnerability as young female scholars.

Probably the best manifestation of our anxieties happened at a public talk we gave at Nerd Nite Edmonton. Nerd Nite is an event held in cities around the world that invites experts to talk in accessible ways about their area of expertise. When we were invited to talk at Nerd Nite Edmonton, it was an explicit choice on the part of the organizers to include more speakers from humanities disciplines; the event tends to be dominated by STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields and, in my anecdotal experience, by a male audience with, at best, an ambivalent relationship to the authority of women speakers. Marcelle and I chose to give a brief introduction to feminist literary criticism, using the Harry Potter books as an example. By this point, we had a wide enough following that we knew some listeners would be in the audience, but we also had to contend with the Nerd Nite regulars. During the Q&A following our talk, we were quickly taken to task by a physics professor in the audience who wanted to know two things: first, what’s Harry Potter? And, second, how old were we?

What distressed me most about this experience was the bone-deep feeling that he was merely putting into words what many others were thinking: that we were unserious scholars, that our attachment to a popular series should embarrass us. Luckily, Marcelle and I are both pretty fundamentally belligerent people and deeply salty feminists, and a white man mocking us only had the effect of making us double down on our commitment to the work we were doing. We kept making the podcast, kept building our audience, and I slowly began to attend to the other lessons that this foray into podcasting was teaching me.

Ilearned, first and foremost, how hungry people are for an opportunity to participate in critically engaged feminist conversations about cultural texts. I’d internalized the belief that my research interests were too niche and esoteric for most people, but here, suddenly, were all these strangers asking for advice on reading French philosopher Michel Foucault for the first time, because they agreed that Discipline and Punish seemed like a useful way of understanding Azkaban, the wizarding world’s panoptic prison.

Lots of our listeners came from outside the university system, and some specifically identified themselves as poor and/or disabled and/or caregivers who couldn’t attend university because the institution was not designed for them. The more I read about the historical formation of the modern university, the more I realize that these kinds of exclusions are features rather than bugs; if an institution is going to be built on elitism, it needs to be unavailable to some people. I didn’t care much about open-access publishing until I realized how transformative scholarly work could be for readers who otherwise weren’t able to access it. I learned, first hand, that the world is full of people outside the university system who possess knowledge and expertise that those of us working in humanities disciplines should be engaging with.

The second lesson podcasting has taught me is how hungry people within the university system are for examples of scholarship that puts feelings back into the work. Our listeners understood the feminist intervention of the podcast, perhaps better than we did at first. They understood Witch, Please as permission to care in a way that, however tacitly, is often frowned upon in academia. For us and our listeners, the podcast became a place where care could be expressed not implicitly, through critical engagement or careful reading, but in an explicitly feminized and personalized, and thus embarrassing, way. And sure, it made us feel vulnerable, and sure, we were a little worried about the impact on our careers, but we also leaned hard into care and accountability.

The lessons I learned, first from Witch, Please listeners and later from the community that emerged around my second podcast, Secret Feminist Agenda, revealed to me my own unthinking transphobia and ableism, pushed me to engage more fully with antiracist thinking and organizing, and showed me how much richer my understanding could be when I listened to perspectives not my own. This community also taught me how to speak from and about identities that I had previously held apart from my scholarly work. I learned to name and speak from my experiences as a fat woman; I slowly came to understand my asexuality, prompted by listeners’ readings of characters like Luna Lovegood and even Voldemort. Making Witch, Please taught me about the kind of publicly engaged scholar I wanted to be, not an unassailable talking-head expert but always working in collaboration with, and learning from, my community.

What felt truly transformative about making Witch, Please wasn’t just the act of passing a microphone back and forth but the sense that our conversations led toward understandings that belonged to neither one of us; instead, they were created within the time and space of the episode and expanded via our listeners’ responses. Before I became someone who mostly worked with co-creators, I did a lot of research on authorship and collaboration. Attention to collaborative authorship offers a point of feminist intervention in a deeply patriarchal and capitalist construct: the author as genius, as lone creator. Collaboration isn’t only discouraged, it’s actively erased in favour of false narratives of artistic and intellectual work that deliberately elide the presence of collaborators. But collaboration can also allow for forms of co-creation that are embedded in the radical possibilities of feminist friendship.

Witch, Please brought me joy from the beginning. The joy of collaborating with Marcelle is simple: I think that she’s brilliant, funny, and insightful. We arrived quickly at a rhythm of conversation and collaborative thinking that gained energy not through critiquing each other but by building on each other’s ideas. “Yes,” we’d say, “yes, absolutely, and that makes me think of this.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that listeners continue to misattribute ideas and jokes to the other person; sure, people aren’t very good at telling women’s voices apart but, also, our points so often felt shared. I have no desire to take ownership of anything we said on the podcast. (Marcelle might feel differently about this; she loves to get credit for a good joke.)

I didn’t realize how important the podcast would be until much later as it moved through the world and people started to find it and find something in it. Certainly, part of what they found was an opportunity to talk about Harry Potter, to reframe a favourite text through a political lens that many listeners didn’t have when they first started reading the series and perhaps hadn’t realized they could put into conversation about these beloved books. But I also think that they found something many of us are hungry for: a meaningful, and meaningfully accountable, feminist community.

In August 2020, we rebooted Witch, Please through a new partnership with the feminist podcast network Not Sorry. Like many podcasters, we turned to Patreon, an online crowd-funding platform that allows creators to develop sustainable financial support through members’ contributions. To run a successful Patreon campaign, you need to offer bonuses—special content that paying members can unlock. We decided to make our basic bonus content something that listeners had been requesting for years: access to the unedited recordings of the podcast’s original run.

And so, every month, Marcelle and I take turns listening to the unedited conversations we recorded more than five years ago, making notes along the way. Each unedited episode is posted with an accompanying content warning—a list of potentially upsetting, triggering, or otherwise difficult things we say—because in that original run, we used language we would not use now. We talked about intelligence in ableist ways, we discussed gender through a cis-normative lens, and we generally assumed a listenership with identities and experiences similar to our own.

But the reason we wouldn’t and don’t use that language today is that our listeners did not have the same identities and experiences as us, and when we fucked up, they definitely told us, and we would apologize, sometimes going back and reediting previous episodes but mostly committing to keep listening, learning, and doing better. It hasn’t always been easy. The process of being called out, whether gently or not, can feel awful. As Marcelle once said, “You’re going to screw up, and it really sucks, but you won’t die from shame, and if you’re never willing to hear how you can do better, you’ll never do better.” When we decided to release the original audio without substantive changes, it wasn’t because we felt great about everything we had said—it was because we didn’t want to erase the way our understanding has shifted as the direct result of a community of engaged listeners thinking alongside and challenging us. We are committed to thinking—and learning—in public.

When I launched my second podcast, Secret Feminist Agenda, I was driven by this understanding of the power of podcasting to build community through embodied knowledge and productive difference rather than through normative ideas of shared identity. Much like Witch, Please, Secret Feminist Agenda was a friendship project, but this time, the goal was to make new friends. Over the next three years, I built a community even as I created the podcast, making friends with guests and making guests of friends.

As the show changed, so did I. I had my first experiences of online attacks and my first brushes with the legal protections that academic freedom offers; I learned what I believed in and what I wanted to fight for. I learned to tell a new kind of story about myself, about what kind of person I was, and what kind of academic I wanted to be through the conversations and communities that podcasting opened up for me. And, throughout the process, I continued to experiment with emotional vulnerability, deliberate intimacy, and setting aside the persona of expertise and authority that I had worked so hard to build up.

Even as Secret Feminist Agenda was organized around my ideas of collectivity and collaboration, it also taught me about the limitations of shared identity. Podcasting encourages self-disclosure and a focus on what we have in common, how we are alike. But feminist community building resists this normativity, instead holding space for irreconcilable differences. When Haudenosaunee writer Alicia Elliott spoke with me, she immediately identified her fraught relationship to feminism, outlining the history of nineteenth-century white feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton who appropriated Indigenous cultural practices. A few episodes later, I pondered my own limitations as a white woman, grappling with the recognition that, even in my most intimate relationships, I cannot assume that I understand the experiences of my friends who are Black, Indigenous, or people of colour—indeed, that my desire to hold everything, to empathize with every experience, is an extension of the logic of whiteness and its desire for universality.

Writing conventional scholarship taught me to make my ideas as impermeable as possible, to anticipate and fend off potential critiques, but podcasting has shown me what’s possible when I do my thinking out loud and in community. I have put aside my desire for an unassailable version of expertise and leaned instead into my attachments and emotional investments, realizing that my scholarship is only as good as the conversations it starts.

Hannah McGregor
Hannah McGregor is an assistant professor of publishing at Simon Fraser University. She is the host of the podcasts Secret Feminist Agenda and The SpokenWeb Podcast and co-host of Witch, Please, a feminist podcast about the Harry Potter world. She also co-edited the book Refuse: CanLit in Ruins (Bookhug Press, 2018).