Beyond Academia

Q&A: Talking Legal History Podcast

Siobhan M. M. Barco is a United States legal historian focusing on women’s interactions with the law and legal thought in the long nineteenth century. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in History at Duke University. Siobhan hosts and produces the Talking Legal History podcast. You can follow her and get updates about the podcast on Twitter @SiobhanBarco.

Q: Tell us a little about your background

Currently I’m pursuing a Ph.D. in History at Duke University, where I study United States legal and cultural history, particularly women’s interactions with the law and legal thought in the long nineteenth century. I also have a background in law and worked for several years as a litigator. After graduating from law school, I started listening to lots of podcasts to help me stay connected to the academic world. Soon, I started itching to make podcasts rather than just listening to them.

Q: How (and why) did you become the host of “Talking Legal History”?

At the 2015 American Society for Legal History Annual Meeting’s closing reception (in the Supreme Court!) I had the good fortune of meeting members of the H-Law committee. After talking with them about my work podcasting for the New Books Network, they asked if I would start a legal history podcast for the ASLH. I am really pleased to have the opportunity to be part of the ASLH’s exciting initiatives to bring legal history to wide audiences through digital tools. As a junior member of the profession, I am also thrilled that podcasting has helped introduce me to such a welcoming group of scholars in my field. I believe that audio is a medium that can bring nuanced and rigorously researched scholarship to a much wider audience than print can do by itself. While many are hesitant to read books about something as reputably dry and intimidating as law, listening to a conversation may be a gentler mode of entry. Once introduced to legal history, I hope many people will see how exciting the topic is and explore the field further.

Q: What’s the ‘behind the scenes’ of an episode?

Talking Legal History episodes consist of interviews between me and experts on a legal history topic. I ask guiding questions and the guest answers each question with a mini lecture. A few examples of episodes that have been featured on the podcast include Eric Foner discussing law in the Reconstruction era, Holly Brewer discussing her article on John Locke and the origins of American slavery, and most recently Martha Jones discussing race and rights in antebellum Baltimore. As far as the interview process, I usually take a few hours over the course of a week to read the expert’s work and craft questions to ask them. I then record the interview, preferably in person. The final step is editing the interview for sound quality issues (a process that I tend to obsess over). The Talking Legal History episode is then posted on the awesome new ASLH website.

Q: Tell us a little about your experience producing a podcast while in graduate school. What are the advantages and disadvantages? 

I’m lucky to be in a graduate program that has a lot of support for public scholarship. Duke has a fantastic multimedia project studio on campus. I’ve also obtained fellowships to support podcasting through Duke’s Versatile Humanist program and the Franklin Humanities Institute’s PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge. This past fall, I gained a ton from workshopping the structure of my podcast in a course called Practicing Public Scholarship taught by Laurent Dubois. If anyone applying to graduate school is interested in public history, I would highly recommend Duke. As any busy graduate student can relate to, the biggest challenge I face is with time management. My strategy is to work on as many podcast episodes as possible, while not worrying too much about being on a rigid schedule.

Q: What role do you think podcasts play in scholarly communities?

Podcasting is a wonderful tool to enrich the networks that encompass scholarly communities. Listeners from across the globe –whether they are in or out of the academy – become a part of the legal history community. When I was practicing law, I greatly appreciated historians who engaged the public. Because of their work I was able to keep engaged with historical topics even while I was outside of the academy. I hope to do the same for others. Perhaps most importantly, academic podcasts have the potential to reach individuals from groups who have historically faced barriers entering the world of higher education. I view podcasting as a democratizing instrument that has the potential to bring fantastic scholarship to anyone with an interest in the subject.