Podcasting in the Composition Classroom

Writing, Research, and Activism

By Bethany Holmstrom, La Guardia Community College, CUNY

My approach to using podcasts in composition classes was influenced by several factors: my own binge-consumption of the first season of Serial, the growing momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, campus programs linked to a year-long exploration of Muslim identity in America, and a desire to have students consider audience more deeply in their research and writing process. The season of theatre and performance programming at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center was part of the Beyond Sacred: Unthinking Muslim Identity grant, from the Association for Performing Arts Presenters. I felt that productive intersections on exclusion in the United States could be drawn between campus happenings connected to the grant, and the larger, national political moment. My aim was to facilitate student engagement in their own areas of interest in terms of social issues and activism, while immersing them in a variety of research and writing processes. By providing students with a platform for exploring forms of exclusion or injustice, I also hoped to expose all of us to the different and varying political interests and life experiences among us. Addressing the issues facing particular groups of people requires that students acknowledge human differences in the face of oppression. Audre Lorde points out that a “profit economy…needs outsiders as surplus people,” and thus “we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing.” Instead, we must “recognize those differences,” as Lorde suggests, which will in turn enable us to “examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation” (115). Asking students to research and present on a social or political cause that they find compelling—whether they find it directly applicable to their own circumstances or not—encourages them to examine stories about human difference and share them with others.

The concept of an “audience” in composition is particularly important (as well as being one of the objectives set for the ENG 101 course at LaGuardia Community College). Often, research papers are written in a vacuum, with the only exchange of ideas happening between student and professor (and a handful of peer editors along the way). Most writing in a range of occupations, however, assumes a particular audience: even we, as scholars, or teachers, write for our peers and colleagues. Why then should students write solely for their instructors? By devising multimodal and digital projects that are designed for a larger reach, we can encourage students to not only envision an audience, but to write and research specifically with an audience in mind: an audience that moves beyond the limited confines of the student-to-professor exchange. This awareness of audience necessitates that students articulate and meet a range of demands and skills: the purpose of writing, the possible diverse interests and backgrounds of their audience, the rhetorical methods they will deploy, how they will “hook” their audience, and accessibility of the product. Cynthia Selfe advocates for multimodal learning, arguing that, “when we limit our understanding of composing and our teaching to composition to a single modality, when we focus on print alone…we ensure that instruction is less accessible to a wide range of learners, and we constrain students’ ability to succeed” (137). More modalities, she believes, allow us to “expand the field of play for students with different learning styles and different ways of reflecting upon the world,” and better prepare them for the “changing set of communicative needs in a globalized world” (137). The end result of a multimodal project like a podcast also generates an easily shareable project, enabling an environment where students become a community of listeners and responders to one another. Of course, that is not to say that students cannot become a community via peer editing or discussion groups, but my students tend to display greater eagerness to listen to several podcasts than read several papers.

When deployed as the end product—and as an object of study—in a composition classroom, podcasts can demand a range of strategies and instructional practices that tap into the skills listed just above, and present opportunities for scaffolding writing and research skills. Podcasts are also affordable for students to make, and do not require very expensive digital tools or advanced technical training: my students executed their podcasts with smartphones for recording audio, and used the open source program Audacity (with many instructional videos available via YouTube: a round-up of the ones my students found most useful is linked here, which includes a good overview on basic editing in Audacity as part of the CNET “How To” series). While the sound quality was quite obviously not as high as more expensive equipment would yield, the podcasts produced were audible and easily shared among students.

As a way into the course, I elected to delve into the historical roots of exclusion in the U.S. In the wake of Ferguson, an exploration of how “race” and “ethnicity” are constructed and then reified provided a timely case study for our initial class discussions. For instance, an early session in the semester focused on building context and connections, and providing students the broad strokes of the history of lynching.  After watching/listening to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” students also read Mat Johnson’s graphic novel Incognegro, about a black reporter in the 1920s who can “pass” and goes undercover in the South: he reports back on the lynchings and violence he witnesses to the Harlem newspaper he works for. In addition, students listened to a Radio Diaries’ podcast that was a recovered oral history of a lynching (and included a survivor). We discussed the various forms of media; the multiple messages, stories, and voices captured in each instance; and drew connections between artistic renderings and historical realities.

But, ultimately, the aim was for students to assert their own agency: by considering their own potential audiences, defining their areas of interest, and exposing their listeners to a particular argument they wished to make. To scaffold this process, I found Kristin L. Arola, Jennifer Sheppard, and Cheryl E. Ball’s Writer/Designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Projects and Anne Frances Wysocki and Dennis A. Lynch’s Compose, Design, Advocate to be helpful. These two texts advise students through the reading, research, and writing processes; both texts also orient students towards an awareness of their audience, and ask them to consider the practical applications of their research and writing. For instance, Wysocki and Lynch ask students to craft a statement of purpose, wherein they “tie purposes, audiences, and contexts together, see how they interrelate, and suggest concrete choices for production” (32). The textbooks facilitated inquiry into a topic and a deeper consideration of audience, providing models of student work and detailed questions to guide students through the process.

During the course, each student recorded two podcasts. These recordings could be done collaboratively, or as solo endeavors, but the second built upon the first, in terms of skills and—potentially—content. The first recording was a “riff” podcast, where students mulled over and responded to texts and media we had encountered thus far in class together. The “riff” podcast might not necessarily posit an argument: students could use this as way of reflecting and making connections, without making an explicit claim per se. To help prepare them for the initial recording, students developed a written design plan, which included a statement of purpose, and a research narrative with talking points. This assignment asked students to articulate clearly what they intended to explore (the topic/theme), and to choose texts that we shared in common that were most appropriate for their “riff.” In addition, students clearly had to set up quotes and references for their listeners, since the visual cues would not be in place due to the change of medium: this was a very efficient way to highlight both citation practices and the introduction of textual evidence. Because we were drawing on shared texts, students were better able to advise one another on their choices during the peer-editing process. I recorded an example with colleague Naomi Stubbs as a model, and executed a written design plan as well.  The reader can listen to our model podcast linked here. These models served as a point of reference, and offered yet another potential podcast format for them to consider: a “chat” that was perhaps more informal in nature than some of the prior recordings we encountered. The “riff” podcast also gave students an opportunity to play with the digital tools required to execute the project, and acquainted them with the research and writing process. The audience for the first podcast was their own section of 101, along with another section I was running during the same semester. Students deposited their “riffs” into a Dropbox folder shared between the classes. They were asked to listen to at least two or three other podcasts in preparation for the midterm, where they responded to the products, reflecting upon the analyses offered and making broader connections.

The second podcast had to include at least one interview subject, and had to be explicitly argument-driven. The impetus for including an interview subject was three-fold: to encourage engagement with a member of the community; for students to identify a subject and justify (in the design plan) the subject’s “expertise” or unique qualifications to speak to this issue; and to encourage students to approach their subjects with a developed and carefully considered list of questions. Students devised a research topic/question, and pitched their statement of purpose to their composition peers orally during one class session. The pitch was suggested in Writer/Designer, though the pitch proposed in the textbook is more in the spirit of an “elevator speech” and a means of “convincing audience members that…you know what you are talking about;” our pitches, however, also served to point out gaps and solicit further input and sources (55). Students used it as an opportunity to get feedback, narrow the scope of their project, and/or receive suggestions on how they might need to provide more background for the audience before launching into the interview. The statement of purpose additionally included their intended audience, the best/worst outcomes, their personal connection to the topic, and their thesis. After receiving feedback, they completed this initial part of the design plan and moved on to the next steps: showing how they were going to deploy the rhetorical strategies of ethos, pathos, and logos; developing their research narrative; and identifying the aforementioned interview subjects and questions. This entire design plan was completed before they began recording. I created a Prezi to walk students through the process and give them a sense of the overall shape of the project before we went through the various stages.

The range of products was impressive and spoke to the many and diverse interests and concerns held by students. One student explored standardized testing, after helping her child prepare for a high-stakes standardized test. Another focused on broken-windows policing, and interviewed a criminal justice professor at the college; this “classist and racist policing…has been devastating for our community,” the student claimed in her design plan and podcast linked here. A particularly effective podcast looked at the lack of resources for single parents (especially mothers) who are enrolling in college classes, interviewing both fellow students and staff at the college. The student said she “strongly believes…an improvement in these programs is necessary and that it will help more single mother students that will eventually finish their degree;” she went on to discuss statistics on the lack of programs and college drop-out rates, along with available initiatives and programs in the plan and in her podcast. Others used talking points and findings arrived at in their initial podcasts as jumping off points to explore issues like misogyny, colorism, or Islamophobia more deeply. Many students pointed out the personal nature of their work: “my motivation for this…stemmed from the fact that I am a Muslim and have personally felt discriminated against on a number of occasions,” one student revealed, before interviewing friends and family about “living in America before 9/11, directly after 9/11 and how they feel now.” This particular student hoped to push back against media portrayals, and move beyond the limited or biased representations others might have “heard, seen and read on television and/or minor articles.” Another student focused on immigration, particularly looking at the issues facing the Mexican community; though he was legally safe and protected, he worried about the status of other members in his community, especially when deportation could tear families apart: “these undocumented parents help build the economy…[and] they have built a new life in the U.S.” In his podcast, this student also focused on the effects on children’s mental and emotional health if their parents are deported.

Our original plan was to share these final podcasts with an even wider audience; however, several students did their podcasts on immigration, and even after utilizing the voice-altering functions in Audacity, students were anxious about protecting undocumented interview subjects. Though we made this another inter-class exchange (and thus left it in a semi-closed forum), the sharing was productive, and students responded to each other’s podcasts as part of their final reflection for the class. The podcast-generating process laid bare some of the fundamental components of research and writing that we attempt to instill in students: carefully choosing, justifying, and explaining research sources; identifying experts and relevant sources (even if the experts, in some cases, were identified via their backgrounds and experiences, rather than their educational or occupational credentials); careful planning; the inherent process-oriented nature of writing and research; and writing with a particular audience and objective in mind. By asking students to position themselves as advocates for a particular social/political cause, they were encouraged to draw upon their own experiences and the community around them, instilling a sense of agency and revealing how the personal is always political.

Works Cited

Arola, Kristin L., Jennifer Sheppard, and Cheryl E. Ball. Writer/Designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Projects. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014.

CNET. “How To – Edit Your Podcast Using Audacity.” YouTube, uploaded 5 June 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAyF-i604Hs&feature=youtu.be.

Johnson, Mat. Incognegro. Vertigo, 2008.

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

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Sister Outsider. The Crossing Press, 1984, pp. 114-123.

Selfe, Cynthia L. “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.” Multimodal Composition: A Critical Sourcebook, edited by Claire Lutkewitte, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014, pp. 113-149.

“Strange Fruit: Voices of a Lynching.” Radio Diaries from NPR, 6 August 2015, http://www.radiodiaries.org/strange-fruit-voices-of-a-lynching/.

Wysocki, Ann Frances and Dennis A. Lynch. Compose, Design, Advocate: A Rhetoric for Integrating Written, Oral, and Visual Communication. Pearson, 2012.