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Big ideas

TVO program gives listeners a taste of academia

By Samantha Rideout

There’s something about the chill in the September air that makes us nostalgic for the start of the school year. For those who don’t have a bag full of books but still feel an ache for academia, the Big Ideas podcast will bring you back into the classroom.

Produced by TVO, Ontario’s public media organization, Big Ideas provides a weekly recording of a university lecture. The podcast explores eclectic topics, and since the lectures are drawn from undergraduate courses, they are accessible to anyone with a fair general knowledge.

Some professors are better lecturers than others, so Big Ideas is inconsistent. While most episodes are fascinating, some — such as a talk about whether contemporary society can be considered “postmodern” — are dragged down by academic jargon.

The duller episodes are not helped by the fact that Big Ideas has no production frills to enjoy: no sound effects, 
storytelling, interviews or musical interludes. There is only the professor’s voice and the occasional cough, giggle or question from a student. 

TVO, perhaps recognizing this weakness, boasts that the podcast is “a triumph of substance over style.” 

This claim has some truth to it. For instance, University of Toronto professor Steve Joordens recently served up a meaty lecture about the ethics of eating animals. A few episodes later, his colleague Nick Mount explained why T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland has an important social message today. The following week, journalist Cory Doctorow shared his thoughts about international copyright reform. 

It’s encouraging to see that universities are not just ivory towers with no interest in the muddy dilemmas and developments going on around them. On a good day, Big Ideas offers the enjoyment of learning something relevant from an expert in the field — without tuition fees, term papers or a final exam to worry about.

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