Faculty have expressed increasing interest in assigning podcasts in undergraduate courses because these exercises develop useful skills and engage technology-oriented youth. Podcasts help students develop skills, such as audio recording and editing, while crafting a product that they can build upon in their future academic and professional endeavors. For example, in interviews, students may reference their experiences with community outreach that resulted from a series of interviews they conducted for their podcast. As an intern at Emory University’s Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS), I’ve observed a rise in faculty inquiries about the resources available on campus to create podcasts. Students are interested as well. Fortunately, the Internet provides ample information for educators to demystify the seemingly daunting task of podcasting. There remains, however, a shortage of resources for educators interested in engaging sensitive topics such as human rights violations, discrimination, and violence.
Tackling the Seemingly Daunting Podcast Assignment
•Instructors can find useful ‘getting started’ resources for podcasts. I’ve found the NPR site and the New York Times series ‘Project Audio’, which guides students as they develop their own podcasts, to be particularly helpful. To conceptualize assignment design, I encourage educators to think about the concept of Backward Design. In this approach, students need to clearly understand the ultimate objectives of the assignment and have various scaffolding activities to best arrive at the desired goal. Some overarching objectives may be to encourage student collaboration and community outreach. In a course on human rights and migration concerns, for example, an instructor might ask students to create a 15 minute podcast that includes an interview a human rights activist who has worked with migrants. Scaffolding activities might require students to listen to podcasts that are relevant to the course content and discuss in class what makes (or doesn’t make) the podcasts appealing and effective. Additional scaffolding could include benchmark assignments in which students submit their topic, followed by a project plan and timeline, and then a draft script of their podcast at different points in the academic term. Educators can also invite professional podcasters or technical services staff into the classroom for tutorials on various facets of podcast creation. Professor Bethany Holmstrom’s presentation offers some great scaffolding guidelines. And there are numerous rubrics available for guidance!
•Faculty can also find numerous resources online to assist their students with interviewing skills, which will help students who conduct interviews for their podcasts . ‘Project Audio’ even provides graphic organizers, or documents that visually help students make connections between knowledge, concepts, and ideas, for classroom discussions about interviews. Educators can also direct students to these TED Talks, which explore interviewing essentials such as pace, intonation, the value of silences, and the importance of open-ended questions.
•Online pedagogical materials also address effective storytelling in podcasts. ‘Project Audio’ provides three podcasts and follow-up questions. After listening, students can discuss their effectiveness as a class while using graphic organizers to organize their thoughts
Introducing Sensitive Topics?!
Podcasts on sensitive issues will draw listener interest, but will prove especially challenging for students trying to balance the serious nature of the content with listener engagement and appeal. Unfortunately, educators will find few, if any, resources online to help them guide students as they introduce sensitive topics. Hopefully, some of these suggestions can help:
•To develop an appropriate introduction for a sensitive topic, students need to consider their target audience. Would a more informal tone appeal to high school students, or should student podcasters opt for a somber tone to reinforce the seriousness of the topic? Is it better for podcasters to maintain a formal tone if they intend to circulate their podcast among human rights activists, or could these activists benefit from a bit of levity? This is a personal choice, but I tend to prefer associating serious topics with a serious tone.
•Students can select introductory music that appropriately sets the tone for the podcast. A somber issue will likely call for a somber melody, and the music will prepare listeners by getting them into a frame of mind that can anticipate the content that follows. (Make sure to check on intellectual copyright considerations!)
•Students should consider listening to other podcasts about sensitive issues that may offer some some ideas about how to introduce their own. The TED Radio Hour podcast is particularly effective. The podcast connects several TED Talks based on a specific theme and includes interviews with the selected TED Talk givers and segments of their presentations. In the episode ‘Speaking Up,’ host Guy Raz begins, “Imagine being arrested or even tortured just for voicing your beliefs or just for being honest about who you are. What would it take for you to say something? What would happen if you did or if you didn’t?” By appealing to listeners’ empathy, Raz draws them in while preparing them for the sensitive issues he later explores.
•Students can look to non-podcast sources for inspiration. The 2016 New York Times Race/Related piece, 'Defining Ethnicity,' examined difficult conversations about race on Instagram. The project introduction helped to diffuse some of the tension that surrounds conversations about race and ethnicity:“For the last few weeks, we’ve been asking each other potentially awkward race-related questions here on Instagram and sharing the answers with you all as a way to start more open, personal conversations about race across our racial and ethnic lines.” (emphasis mine).
•Introducing a sensitive issue with humor is a possibility, but students must pursue this introductory method with caution as not to immediately offend listeners or cause them to disengage. I’ve encountered podcasters’ effective use of humor by introducing comedians who have relied on humor to deal with serious life struggles. In the TED Radio Hour’s episode ‘Painfully Funny,’ for example, comedian Sandi Toksvig jokes with Guy Raz about how many Americans will openly and honestly respond to the question, “How are you?”, whereas the British don’t actually care to know how someone is when they ask. Raz then effectively segues from their shared laughter to the seriousness of Toksvig’s role as a political activist. I again caution students who consider using humor and suggest that students do not introduce their podcasts with jokes that target certain ethnoracial groups or national identities.
•Students can also be direct about the sensitive content. After introducing themselves and the podcast, they can say something along the lines of, “Our podcast is going to deal with some difficult and sensitive issues. What we are about to discuss is likely to arouse uncomfortable and perhaps painful emotions in our listeners. However, we strongly encourage our listeners to stick with us throughout the entirety of our podcast, if possible. We believe that they can benefit from this topic and will perhaps begin to appreciate…. (whatever some of the main takeaways may be).” This strategy is similar to the “trigger warnings” now widely employed in undergraduate classrooms, which give participants the ability to opt out of activities that may prove personally traumatic.
The decision to include podcast assignments in the classroom can seem overwhelming, especially for non-expert instructors. And the challenges of appropriately guiding students as they explore sensitive issues in podcasts can seem even more daunting. But educators are likely to find that with the help of resources available online and on campus, podcast assignments are enriching for all of those involved.
Please feel free to share any additional suggestions for introducing podcasts about sensitive materials or some reflections about your experiences guiding students who worked on podcasts with sensitive issues in the comments section below.