Blog Post

11. Podcast/Paper: Having Students Do One Assignment in Multiple Media

For the past few years, I've been working in the Digital Writing and Research Lab at The University of Texas at Austin. During the last academic year (2012-13), a major part of my work in the lab was Zeugma, a podcast on rhetoric and technology.

As a lab staffer, I get the chance to teach in a computer classroom. That means another part of my work is coming up with ways to incorporate technology into both my teaching and the work I assign students. This is exciting, but also daunting. The time it requires for a whole class of students to engage with a new technology--whether collaborative writing platforms, video-editing software, or arduinos--is significant. And, unless I want to outsource some of my responsibilities to YouTube tutorials--not always a bad idea--I have to find time to learn the technology myself. If I want to leave time for what the university expects my courses to cover (I generally teach rhetoric and writing), I have to think carefully about the inevitable tradeoffs that come with any multimedia/multimodal assignments on my syllabus.

With these issues in mind, I decided to give students in my Rhetoric of Irony course a double-duty assignment. I divided them into groups of three, and each group had to choose an ironic "text" (Saturday Night Live skits were a popular choice, as were articles from The Onion, tongue-in-cheek op-eds, satirical films, etc.) to describe, explicate, and put in historical context for their classmates. Every student had to complete the assignment in two different media, however, whic is where my experience with the podcast became relevant. As individuals, students had to write a paper (about 1,500 words) about their group's text; as trios, they had to create a 5-6 minute "podcast" episode covering the same material and aims. I chose audio as the collaborative medium for a few reasons. First of all, because of my work on the lab's podcast (and one year spent majoring in audio production), I had some familiarity with audio-editing programs--Audacity and GarageBand--that were available on our classroom's computers. Secondly, digital audio is a relatively easy medium to work in compared to, say, digital video (which generally includes audio as well as other visual media). Finally, audio equipment is relatively ubiquitous. Even if groups didn't have access to a computer outside our classroom, they could do some recording as long as one of them had a smartphone, most of which come pre-installed with recording apps.

I'll spare you excessive exposition. Suffice it to say that I was floored by how much the podcast component motivated students. The time the put into their projects and the quality of the projects they turned out was remarkable. (Disclosure: I did have enough students with prior audio-editing experience to put one in each group. The projects impressed me, going beyond what I'd expected even though I was accounting for this experiential boost.) They recorded their own commentary and analysis, incorporated clips from their texts when possible, and often added helpful organizational cues and devices. One group, for instance, inserted a chime sound effect to let listeners know when they were transitioning from their commentary to clips from their text.

In many cases, the individual papers were relatively less imaginative. I don't say this to denigrate linear writing. I love writing and assigning writing, I think it's still an important thing to teach and talk about with students, and I'm dedicated to making it interesting for students. That last clause is a tough undertaking, however. I think I'm in the same boat as lots of writing teachers when I say that many--if not most--of my students see in-school writing as stultifyingly formulaic and/or intimidating and unlearnable. Another nice aspect of the one task/two media approach, then, was that it allowed me to teach writing by using the podcast as an analogy. We discussed both points of overlap between the two media--I was able to remind students, for instance, that a piece of writing implies an audience just as much as a podcast does--as well as points of divergence--for instance, the inflectional cues that we rely on in spoken language that don't translate to writing, as well as a strategies for compensating for those cues' absence. It didn't cause a massive upswell of affection for writing, but it did provide ways for students who were comfortable with spoken language and aural media to approach writing from some different analogical angles.

I'm certainly not the first to do this sort of thing. One helpful work on "remediation" is Jody Shipka's Toward a Composition Made Whole. But if you're interested in hearing more about my particular context and approach, feel free to drop me a line in the comments! There's also a more expository and less narrative-driven version of my lesson plan available in the lab's lesson plan library.

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4 comments

This sounds like a great idea! Would this be an assignment a beginner could potentially pull off if he/she spent a few days over the summer playing with the software? 

Slightly related question, have you ever taught podcasts before? As in, have you ever assigned podcast episodes as supplemental "reading"? I've been wanting to do this in my popular culture and film classes but haven't had a chance yet. I'd be eager to hear if you (or others) have any experiencing using podcasts as primary/secondary sources in the classroom.  

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Yes, Staci, I think a beginner could definitely pull this off with a few days of play/prep! I think the important skill set here is not the ability to teach students audio editing, but to teach students how to find and sort through online resources that teach various multimedia and software-production skills. There are plenty of free YouTube tutorials, and Lynda--though it costs some money--has a plethora of resources.

And I have taught podcasts, though not much. In the early days of Affordable Care Act controversy, I assigned a This American Life episode on the potential insurance- and health care-industry ramifications of the act. And I've assigned the last segment of this episode in a few iterations of first-year rhetoric & writing courses--I used it as a preface to having students do a similar debate about the relative merits of their selected disciplines and majors. Definitely worth considering what technologies/listening devices your students likely have access to before making the assignment, but I've had students at a variety of institutions respond positively to assigned podcasts (except for a few kneejerk reactions from NPR skeptics who thus rejected any claims put forward on This American Life).

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Thanks for the feedback and resources, Eric! I always hear great episodes of Pop Culture Happy Hour that I'm tempted to assign so I am more encouraged to now. 

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That show is so good--it could be a great point of contact for teaching a course on pop culture!

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