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Productive Distraction: Some Smart Podcasts for Thesis Writers

Thesis writing is hard on the brain.

I don’t know about other writiers, but once mental fatigue sets in, I tend to get confused by my own argument, feel apathetic about the tower of books in front of me, and am very easily distracted. We all know that filtering and avoiding distractions are among the keys to remaining productive in the information age, but I’ve discovered a counterintuitive concept that is equally key for intense, thesis-like research: productive distraction, intentional distraction that wipes away my negative thoughts and re-energizes me for more thesis work. If I spend 20 minutes distracting myself by flipping through headlines in Google Reader, then I return to my thesis with more clutter in my mind.

The key, for me, is to engage with more intellectual material, deeply, but on any topic unrelated (or at least peripheral) to my research. By focusing my cranked up mind on something different, I’m able to reset my attention and, when I return to my thesis, I feel like I’m rediscovering it for the first time. Most of my breakthroughs happen through this circulation between focus and productive distraction.

I’ve found that podcasts are the perfect medium for me because, weather permitting, they can be accompanied by a leisurely walk through my neighborhood. So, without further ado, here are a few of the “smart” podcasts I’ve been listening to this semester, as productive distractions:

Digital Campus

From George Mason’s Center for History and New Media, who also brought us Zotero, the biweekly Digital Campus podcast has a bit of a split personality, alternating between a sort of tech-talk for academics (focusing on the latest trends in technology and new media and how they affect students, teaching and research) and, on the other hand, much narrower disciplinary discussion of the use of new media for historical research and museum curation. If you want a 15 minute sample of Digital Campus at its best, check out Episode 37, skip to the 20:15 marker, and enjoy a fantastic discussion of the recent Smithsonian 2.0 conference.

First Monday Podcast

First Monday is one of my favorite academic journals, but I just began listening to their monthly podcast a few months ago. They’ve landed a few big names that CCT students will recognize – Lessig, Bogost, Vaidhyanathan – and the interviewers ask tough, well-informed questions. They really let loose when they interviewed Lawrence Lessig in November, remixing the interview and tearing him apart. I disagreed with many of their points – or at least I felt that they were missing the forest for the trees – but I still highly recommend that episode.

Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me

Wait Wait is technically old media – it airs on Sunday Saturday mornings on NPR – but, more often than not, I listen to it in “new media” podcast form. I won’t bother to explain what Wait Wait is about – it’s funny and it’s smart, and that’s really all you need to know.

That’s it for my showcase, but here are a few other podcasts I’ve been into lately:

Anybody have suggestions?

Posted under: Blog
Brad Weikel

About Brad Weikel

Brad Weikel received his MA in Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT) from Georgetown University in 2009. His thesis, "From Coding to Community: Iteration, Abstraction, and Open Source Software Development" argued that programming practices, particularly iterative workflows and abstraction models, can help explain both the success and struggles of open source software. His work was a technocentric complement to prior explanations from economists, lawyers, and political and cultural theorists. While writing his thesis, Brad blogged about his topic at OpenCulture.cc, where he has since continued blogging, more broudly, about collaborative production and the commons at large. Brad was Managing Editor of gnovis during the 2007/2008 and 2008/2009 school years, and Creative Director in 2006/2007. He is currently the Web & Communications Coordinator for EarthRights International.

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