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Friday, 17 January 2014

La Trobe podcast the seed of 24-hour Uni TV

Imagine if you could watch a TV channel where only the most-informed people appeared segment after segment providing you with the latest in research and scholarship on everything from deaths by handguns to antique love poetry. Imagine something like The Conversation - the Melbourne-based website that links academics with a roomful of editors and which produces quality text-based stories on a daily basis - except it's for TV. Imagine how great it would be to watch "Uni TV" at any hour of the day: free of advertising, and absent the dumbed-down, often prurient and voyeuristic, lowest-common-denominator editorialising that infects all of commercial TV news and current affairs (with the exception of SBS) and that threatens even the credibility of the ABC. How great it would be to take the aggressive anti-intellectual epithets of the looney Right and throw them back in the teeth of its hacks and flacs and their seeming-legions of mindless followers inside the world of online comments. How wonderful to finally feel comfortable with the label "elite" - we have elite sportsmen and -women, why can't we have elites of other kinds? - because you've got somewhere to go at those times during the day when you just want to kick back and relax.

So for example kick back and relax, as I did, with a discussion between two La Trobe University academics on two leading lights of late-Republican Rome, Cicero and Catullus. The low-cost production involves no anchor, with one of the women doing the intro and outro, so it's something like a Simon Schama program except with PowerPoint slides instead of expensive location shots. But it doesn't matter. The content is equally engaging as anything that the great popular historian Schama delivers in his well-produced series. The advantage with the Latrobe podcasts is that they appear more regularly. Latrobe used to deliver its podcasts using iTunes but it has now changed to YouTube, making the experience far more accessible because you don't need to download any software and can just click the video to watch.

As for the content, it's particularly welcome because Cicero and Catullus were once upon a time staples of the school curriculum, or at least at university, before tertiary institutions started teaching literary forms such as the novel around the turn of the 20th century. Antique literature and history, which were once part of the birthright of every gentleman, including men such as the founders of our federation such as William Wentworth, passed out of the realm of common currency, somewhat regrettably I think, and turned into a niche concern, the staple of specialised journals that only academics read as well as a few popular magazines that are usually hidden deep in the newsstands but that are hard-pressed to compete for readers' attention against the banks of wedding glossies and the serried ranks of monthlies dedicated to fishing or photography or real estate investment.

So while most educated people nowadays will have heard of Cicero and Catullus because they have read books of history - on the Renaissance or the Enlightenment or the Romantic revival or Victorian times - or the biographies of men and women who lived in those more recent eras, they may not know much about these antique writers themselves. The contretemps between Cicero and Catullus that the two women who run the podcast delineate is in itself fascinating, but it's even more interesting to learn about because this is precisely the kind of dialogue that would have informed the learning of someone like Shakespeare, Newton, Defoe, Samuel Johnson, Coleridge or Wordsworth. In a concrete sense therefore learning about antique literature and politics brings us materially and cognitively closer to those who, more broadly, still help us to understand the past, that foreign country that to visit is to give perspective to contemporary times.

Who knew, for example, that Cicero was a self-made man, one with a thirst for public life as well as a well-formed oratorial style? And who knew that the Roman love poet Catullus came from a patrician family but gave up opportunities to participate fully in civic life and instead spent his time penning passionate verses? It's an interesting locus of discord and illustrates much about the mores and values of the period. In the podcast the two young women analyse various elements of the debate with elan and no more technology than is normally used in the weekly budget meeting in the office. They are serious, passionate about their subject, informed and they think critically. In giving their spiel they are conscious of what an educated viewer would find interesting. Compared to the endless low-cost, low-brow programming that we are usually served up by the networks, Latrobe's podcast is like a fresh breeze.

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