Podcast Project in the Class Part 1: Podcasts as an English 102 Research Paper

I am still reworking and adding materials to this series of posts

Part 1: Introduction

This is an expanded discussion of a presentation I made for my English department faculty meeting at the end of 2019.

Currently, the roadmap takes this path:

  1. Introduction
  2. Working with Groups
  3. Contextualization
  4. Elements of Podcasts and Stories
  5. Interviewing
  6. The Practice Podcast
  7. The Suicide Podcast
  8. Workflow and Mechanics of Evaluations
  9. Final Thoughts
  10. Resources

It has been a while since I’ve written about my classroom experiments. A few years ago, my English 102 composition students created researched video essays. We had some really interesting results. Maybe I will eventually write about them. But today, I am going to walk through my English 102 class from last winter (2020), where instead of the traditional research essays, we created podcasts.

As my note above explains, this post is an attempt to fill in the gaps of a mere slide pack. I say, “this post” but really mean “these posts” as after having read through it/these, I realized that I’ve gone into much more detail and explanations than I would have for a slide presentation. So, as with an earlier set of posts, I’ve broken out this discussion into multiple sub-posts for readability’s sake as well as to satisfy my own tendency to beat to death horses:

The Backstory

The idea for using podcasts as research papers was born out of work for an NEH grant my dean at the time had written for creating contextualized courses for both English and Math with other disciplines–any approach was okay. I had recently started working with Bonne Smith, one of our Journalism instructors, on developing a contextualized English 102 research writing course for a newspaper course. At first, we wanted to take a community learning approach (teaching both the newspaper and the composition classes together). However, as the newspaper course requires students to interview and be accepted in order to become a member of the editing staff, it became apparent that those logistics would not work for every student. So instead, we decided to treat the composition class as a feeder course for the newspaper class, using journalism as the framework to generate student interest in the newspaper. After much brainstorming about various projects that could teach journalism skills as well as allow me the ability to still cover the principles of composition, research, documentation, and organization of information, we decode that the vehicle for this endeavor would be podcast creation. But as a feeder class, we needed the newspaper to be involved.

So Bonne and I decided that the topics for the podcast would be chosen by the editors of the college’s newspaper each quarter (pending their approval, of course). These topics would revolve around the campus and larger community issues (we’re a small community college and saw this as a opportunity to encourage our students to learn more about their college and town). The topics would be based on sets of stories and articles on which the newspaper had published during previous quarters. This not only provided the field in which my students played, but also acted as a source from where students could begin their initial research, to get a lay of the land, so to speak. Also, it showed how students just like them could produce/publish materials that would be seen by a much larger audience than their classmates.

It just so happened that the during previous quarter, the newspaper had published a series of articles regarding suicide. These articles provide an overview of other research and statistics that we used to prompt discussion for our students. We then asked the students to look for topics in the articles about which they wanted to know more; that is, to find topics they were interested in and in which they could dig deeper. At the end of the quarter, the students would be able to submit their podcast to the newspaper, and if selected, would be published on the paper’s website. This way, we could better connect the class to the college’s newspaper.

A continual source of surprise for me still is the realization that the front part of the course proved to be so much more difficult and demanding than any technological aspects, whatever that may be (audio, video, multimedia).

Because of that lesson, I’m going to spend much more time over the course of the next few posts discussing Groups, Interviews, and Medium Structure [BLAH BLAH BLAH]. While I do not plan on getting into the trenches of specific technology such as Audacity or even the Rodecaster Pro (compliements of our Library’s still developing Audio/Visual lab), I will note what we used, or at least some of my suggestions to students on what they could use. I am currently developing instructional materials for that new A/V lab (which is in desperate need of naming!). The quick explanation for why I am not going to discuss that is because I did NOT teach the specifics of any recording devices or audio editing package. I merely suggested apps and general approaches, offering my assistance as needed. Only once or twice over the years of doing projects like this has any group actually asked me for specific help. And in those cases, I googled alongside them and learned as they learned. Of course, having lots of experience with all sort of programs did help. But still, the lesson ought to be clear: trust your students’ abilities.

So why a podcast?

Like an essay, a podcast typically introduces the topic that is the subject of the episode, then supports it (using primary as well as secondary sources), then arrives at some sort of conclusion. In the movies or in books, this is commonly referred to as a beginning, middle, and end, though a podcast’s beginning and ending may be much shorter. And like an essay, some research will be required prior to interviewing anyone. That is, in order to know what kinds of questions should be asked of the interviewees (sources), the interviewers (author) will need to know more about the topic of their podcast (research paper).  But all this will stem from developing a research or focus question (The Pitch).

This is not to say that all podcasts are research projects. They obviously can be creative works such as stories, poems, plays, music, etc.. All of which require no research. I can easily imagine for an English 101 class, a professor who is teaching the narrative essay. This could make for an interesting podcast as well as learning moment to reinforce the elements of a story such as translating written transitions to audible ones. What all these modalities of essays, or any creative work, require is the ability to tell a story. Depending on the goal of the class or project, there will be different ways to tell that story. The same is true of podcasts.

However, what I typically focus on in my English 101 composition course is the argumentative essay and its elements and structure; it allows me to touch on all the other types (narrative, compare/contrast, etc.) because a well-written argument, in my experience, often includes many elements/strategies from those other modes. I personally am of the ilk who believe that all communication is a form of argument. In English 102, I continue to focus on structure and elements but switch to a medium with which students have much less (even zero) experience. I do this in order to help slow students down during the creation (writing) process to be more deliberative and reflective so that they can make more informed choices about that structure and why they use whichever elements they choose. Part of that process is choosing what not to include, which is just as important as what to include. Organizing that content is dependent upon what story is being told as well as its goal and audience—and the medium. In other words, the medium of the story isn’t a special case; as with podcasts, those dependencies are true of other mediums like videos, multimedia projects, blogs and all the rest.

The goals behind this contextulized English 102 composition class were for students to learn:

  • more about the structure of writing by using a less familiar medium (podcasts) and so, more about the possibilities and power of narratives
  • research methods, documentation and integration of sources
  • collaborative learning (group work)
  • more about journalism: interviewing and reporting, integrity and ethics
  • empathy; how to create relationships within the community and the value of primary resources; that is, not merely using people as resources for their own gain
  • more about the college’s newspaper course to increase their student enrollment

Part 1: Introduction

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