Hannah Hunter is a PhD student in Geography and Planning at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. After completing her undergraduate degree in Political Science and Master’s in Development Studies, Hannah has pursued learning that aligns with her interest in climate change and environmental policy. Since connecting with Dr. Laura Jean Cameron in the Department of Geography and Planning, Hannah’s doctoral research has focused on recorded bird sounds and the relationship of those sounds to bird species that are confirmed or presumed extinct. When asked about the diverse and interdisciplinary nature of her academic path, Hannah, a self-identified Environmental Humanities scholar, admits that her work lives on the fringes of Geography as a discipline. However, in echoing the perspective of her Supervisor, Dr. Cameron, Hannah captures the spirit of her research in a single guiding principle: “As long as you’re thinking about space or place, you’re doing Geography.”

Hannah recently completed an extended period of study at the Cornell University Archives, where the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections houses an array of notable field recordings, including those of ornithologist Arthur Allen. Hunter’s fascination with recorded audio derives from her understanding of sound as “a unique way of thinking about human relationships with the environment.” As an example, Hannah has conducted extensive research surrounding a 1935 sound recording of the Ivory-billed woodpecker, a species deemed extinct since its last confirmed sighting in 1944. She has explored the ways in which field audio has impacted the extinction story of the bird, from its now-questioned status as extinct, to the environmental impacts of human investigators who are motivated by the recording to search for evidence of the species in nature. Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that for Hannah’s doctoral dissertation, she is inspired to communicate her research through the medium of recorded sound.

For the uninitiated, a “Portfolio PhD” is an alternative option for a student’s doctoral dissertation that presents their research in a variety of formats, methods, and mediums. In contrast to a traditional thesis paper, the Portfolio PhD has risen from calls to “move beyond the seminar room and the library into a potentially innumerable readership and into a space of discourse oriented toward futurity…and join with other work in ongoing conversations about matters of public concern” (White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities 2013, 12). For Hannah Hunter, the Portfolio PhD format aligns closely with the sonic foundation of her research. She is developing a podcast series called “Bird Sounds from Before,” which will employ “sonic storytelling, historic bird sound recordings, interviews, and my own field recordings to communicate my PhD findings.” The portfolio also presents an opportunity for Hannah to explore the creative nature of her academic research. As a strong proponent of research-creation as a means to develop knowledge through creative outputs, she is excited to blend scholarly work with creative writing, sound design, and emergent technology. For Hunter, “All research is creative,” and her dissertation will allow Hannah “to offer something creative and more immediate.”

Queen’s University has awarded Hannah funding to support the creation of her Portfolio PhD, which she is using to acquire sound recording equipment and training in the podcast medium from Berkeley. In speaking with her, it quickly becomes clear that Hannah’s choice of thesis format represents far more than a novel approach to disseminating her doctoral research. She views the project through the lens of the future and her life post-academia. “It’s so cool that Queen’s offers funding like this, to help people gain other skills and to have other outputs,” says Hunter, who looks to podcasting and broadcasting as possible components of her career trajectory after completing her doctorate. Where some view their dissertation as the “finish line” of their academic pursuits, Hannah continues to find new opportunity in the challenge of creating meaningful work.

In her fervent support of public scholarship and information accessibility for all people, Hannah is also taking advantage of her Portfolio PhD to reach as wide an audience as possible. She reflects on the disparity in readership between her research in scholarly journals and the articles she has published in The Conversation, an online platform that promotes academic discourse among a much wider cross-section of readers: “People don’t realize just how easy it is to incorporate public-facing scholarship into your work.” Hunter intends her research-creation to be readily available for anyone who might wish to engage with it. By drawing on the podcast medium to create a learning artifact that is timely and accessible, Hannah is poised to add breadth and urgency to the subjects she is most passionate about: “Because what I’m thinking about is the environmental crisis, it feels completely pressing to me to do things that can be accessed by a lot of people.”


Hannah Hunter’s Portfolio PhD thesis is a multimedia work consisting of textual research and audio-visual elements. Her research at Cornell has been supported via a Mitacs Globalink Research Fellowship, while her PhD is funded by a Vanier Scholarship. For the next twelve months, Hannah is focused on recording and producing the podcast component of her dissertation. Please keep an ear to the ground (and the air).

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