Podcast as Pedagogy

Using Serial as a Bridge to Understanding Research and Composition

By Kate Peterson, Eastern Washington University

The following article is based upon a prezi delivered at NeMLA – linked here.

It was October of 2014 and the now award-winning podcast Serial had just begun its first season. Before the first episode had even finished, I started to think about how I might use it in my classroom. It was engaging; the narrator, Sarah Koenig, was immediately trustworthy and relatable. It made me think critically, it was employing effective rhetorical strategies to keep my attention, and the stakes were high—had an innocent man been wrongfully convicted of murder? Serial is a critically acclaimed podcast that was created by the producers of This American Life. Koenig investigates the conviction of Adnan Syed, who has spent the last eighteen years in prison for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Although Koenig is looking into the case because many feel that Syed was wrongfully convicted, or at least he was denied his right to effective assistance of counsel, she does her best to remain objective throughout the entire series, shedding light on questions both never answered and never asked. She uncovers evidence and witnesses the original trial itself had not borne out. The podcast does not end with a clear answer as to whether or not Syed was indeed wrongfully convicted; however, the information gathered both from the producers and as a result of the podcast’s sudden fame, (and the spin-off podcast, Undisclosed) has led to a new trial for Syed. This development allowed for many pedagogical opportunities, such as discussing the importance of research, the responsibility of researchers and narrators to remain objective, and the value in asking questions even if they may never be answered.

When I first considered implementing Serial, I asked my students to raise their hands if they had ever listened to a podcast: only two hands went up in a class of twenty-five. Today, when I ask the same question, closer to half of my students raise their hands. According to Edison Research, an estimated 57 million people were listening to podcasts in 2016. Podcasts have been steadily rising in popularity amongst a younger generation, and true-crime stories, especially those that one can “binge,” are also very popular. Many high school teachers, too, have found implementing Serial into their classrooms useful as it meets many of the Common Core Standards: “The new standards call for challenging readings, increased emphasis on nonfiction, and a focus on depth over breadth in high school English classes. Teachers should be asking students to make written arguments using specific evidence from reading assignments, often pulling together examples from multiple texts” (Collette). The podcast helps me teach skills and concepts like rhetorical analysis, integration of quotes, authorial agency, literature review, objectivity, critical thinking, and much more. These are just a few of the many reasons that Serial is an excellent teaching tool, especially when teaching the research process.

Rhetorical Analysis

One important goal in my classes is to get students thinking more about audience. Serial is a perfect tool for this, particularly because Sarah Koenig is such a successful narrator.  In fact, the podcast won a Peabody Award in 2014 for its superb narration and innovative form, and Koenig is constantly engaging with her audience and making rhetorical decisions with them in mind. The first major assignment in my class is a rhetorical analysis paper. I use our textbook to begin teaching concepts like situation, purpose, claims, rhetorical triangle, etc. Once we have those concepts down, then I move on to using the podcast as an example. Most of the time we are thinking about the podcast from a production standpoint; thinking of Koenig and the producers as authors and trying to understand their rhetorical choices. Since it is one story told in weekly segments, we can analyze the order of the information as well and think about the purpose of each episode as part of a larger picture. We are also able to talk about Koenig’s expectations for her audience. For example, in episode eight, Koenig interviews one of the jurors. She introduces this person as such, and moves on. Later in the same episode, Koenig introduces a retired detective, Jim Trainum. The staff hired Trainum to look into the case because the original detectives refused to participate in the podcast. Koenig takes much longer to introduce Trainum, showing the audience that she understands they need a bit more information on the qualifications and background of this man in order to find his testimony relevant and credible. In the case of the juror, all we need to know is that she was an original juror assigned to Syed’s case, and we understand her purpose in the episode. This is just one small example of introducing evidence and providing context for the reader. I start and stop the recording as we listen, so that we can discuss rhetorical strategies, musical breaks, cliffhangers, the order of the episodes and why those choices matter. Once they understand how important it is to make decisions with their audience in mind, they are more prepared to write a successful, researched argument paper.

In addition, Serial’s popularity leads to many research opportunities outside the scope of the podcast, which allow students to review articles on race, privilege, journalistic responsibility, and the failings of our criminal justice system. I ask my students to analyze an article from The Atlantic, written by Conor Friedersdorf. The article is a defense of Serial, Koenig, and the style of narrative journalism that Serial’s parent podcast, This American Life, has made famous. A handful of critics accused Koenig of exemplifying white privilege in her reporting, provoking Friedersdorf to make a thoughtful and compelling argument against the backlash that Serial was facing. He asks, “Would journalism or social justice be advanced if This American Life told fewer stories like these to its huge, influential audience—or would it be better if other broadcast journalism more resembled This American Life?” Despite the difficulty of this text, the conversations which arise from it are always lively because my students become so invested in the podcast and the case. Because the students are so invested, I can also use the transcripts from the episodes to ask students to read along while we listen in class; this is especially beneficial for non-native speakers.

The Research Process

Since the central focus of the class is writing a research paper, I ask my students to choose a topic that stems from their rhetorical analysis of the podcast.  This leads them to look for answers to questions dealing with race, religion, journalism, and other issues concerning social and criminal justice. Serial works as a successful model for the research process because each episode works to answer one central question: Was there justice in this case? Sarah Koenig acts as an investigator, though she tells us that she is not a professional. She is a journalist who wants to understand what really happened, and whether or not the system got it right. This allows the students to relate to her and follow in her footsteps for their own projects. Koenig begins by looking over old documents, interviewing the key people involved, including Syed himself, and compiling a long list of questions she would need answered in order to decide for herself what happened. Most episodes focus on a specific aspect of the case that needs more investigation. Normally, students may be inclined to choose a topic with which they are already familiar, but this is not the case in my Serial classes. I explain to them that, just like Koenig, most of their time should be reserved for asking more questions in order to become experts on their particular topics. If they understand that the focus is less about the end result of their research and more about the process, just as Serial is often less about the case and more about Koenig’s journey to find the truth, then they are more likely to choose topics that will keep them interested in learning.

As students become more situated in their topics and construct proposals, Serial offers further teaching opportunities about the research process.  Serial is very helpful in explaining the concept of synthesis, as Koenig manages to combine the ideas and words of so many sources throughout the series. Our discussion posts during this section of the class focus on understanding how Koenig introduces sources, how she organizes the information, and how she explains her findings in a way that her audience can clearly follow. In episode eight alone, Koenig presents information from over a dozen sources in order to paint a more objective picture of one of the key players in the case. The day we listen to this episode in class is one of the most satisfying, because I can see my students grasping important concepts like using quotes as evidence, rather than using them to tell the story or where a summary might be more successful. Koenig shows students that before they can join a conversation they need to listen to what others can teach them.

Part of having students join this academic conversation is having them create a class literature review. Serial‘s popularity means that it is easy to find dozens of articles written about its successful narration, its journalistic style, whether or not it is ethical to be a “fan” of a podcast that deals with a young woman’s murder, and many other issues. I bring between ten and fifteen articles to class, all pertaining to Serial, and my students group up to summarize them, and use keywords or phrases (I’ve found it useful to call these “hashtags”) to help find common themes or ideas. I write each article title on the board, followed by the group’s summary and chosen hashtags. We then think about a few different research questions (for example “Is Serial an effective teaching tool?”) and list all of the articles that would help answer those questions. We also think about the order and grouping of the articles, and students can see that there must be a central idea that holds all of their sources together in order to write a successful literature review, and that asking questions can often be a good way to move from source to source. My students enjoy the lesson because they are eager to read anything that might shed more light on the case, which also makes them read with a more critical eye. Having a visual representation along with the example of Koenig’s own summaries and synthesis, helps them to become more successful researchers, and writers.

Binge-worthy Curriculum

Serial is engaging on many levels, and understanding what makes it so attractive can help create more dynamic classrooms full of students who are excited to learn. One important thing to note about Serial is that it is what my students would call “binge-worthy.” Each episode ends with a question, a cliffhanger of sorts, so my students are always very interested in finding out what happens next. We know that these days so much of our entertainment is designed to be consumed quickly; we can watch an entire season of television in a single weekend, and often do — at least this is how my students are watching. So introducing them to a twelve-episode podcast they can consume in less than twenty-four hours, and expecting them to wait to listen only when I give them the green-light has potential for problems; however, establishing a weekly assignment that asks them to complete specific tasks related to our course material usually discourages them from binge-listening, and instead harnesses that excitement into completing their assignments. Some students can’t help themselves and end up listening to the series twice. “It really got us worked up,” one of my students said, “Our class as a whole seemed to enjoy it and always wanted to discuss it in class.” The fact that they are excited to do their homework and have worthwhile discussions that will help them understand both the writing and research process, is extremely valuable. Michael Godsey, one of the many educators who has found success using Serial in the classroom explores this student excitement: “Students flock to the show for several reasons. The events took place during high school, making the subject matter feel familiar and relevant in a way that classic literature doesn’t…while the excellence of the storytelling takes hold of the listener” (Godsey qtd. in Flanagan). Students can relate to Hae’s and Adnan’s lives, and are able to put themselves in the shoes of those involved. This makes them more invested in the case, and more likely to engage in class discussions to offer their unique perspectives.

Most importantly, Serial leaves its audience with thoughtful, captivating questions that are strong pedagogical moments in themselves. Was this podcast made purely to entertain? Was it made to exonerate Syed, or prove that his conviction was just? Was it made to start a larger conversation about our justice system, or about memory and truth? Adrienne LaFrance, staff writer for The Atlantic, also reminds us of the ethical implications of turning true crime into entertainment when she asks, “What is it, exactly, that people are participating in here? Are Serial listeners in it for the important examination of the criminal justice system? Or are we trawling through a grieving family’s pain as a form of entertainment? These are questions much more easily posed than answered.” Finding a podcast that gets my students to think critically about these issues and many more has been invaluable. This tool helps them to analyze a writer’s rhetoric, synthesize the ideas of others, integrate quotes properly, and remain objective throughout the research process. It has also taught them that writing an argument paper is less about proving your point, and more about joining a conversation and working hard to present your ideas in the clearest and most persuasive way, even if the answer is still unclear. The presentation and structure of this story allows students to feel like active participants in solving a crime, and in the process, they become more active participants in their own research process.  Students are not only willing but eager to listen to over twelve hours of a podcast, often more than once. In an age where short-burst entertainment is the norm, this is something that deserves our attention. I look forward to continuing to implement Serial in my classes, and reaping the benefits as both an educator and a listener.

Works Cited

Collette, Matt. “To Download or Not to Download.” Slate, 20 November 2014.

Flanagan, Linda. “What Teens Are Learning from ‘Serial’ and Other Podcasts.” KQED, 11 March 2015.

Friedersdorf, Conor. “The Backlash against Serial — and Why It’s Wrong.” The Atlantic, 3 December 2014.

Koenig, Sarah. Serial. WBEZ Chicago, 2014, https://serialpodcast.org/.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

LaFrance, Adrienne. “Is it Wrong to be Hooked on Serial?The Atlantic, 8 November 2014.

“Monthly Podcast Consumption Surges to More Than One in Five.” Edison Research, 7 March 2016.