Teaching Serial at the Criminal Justice College

Discomforting Ethics and Interdisciplinary Methods for Critical Thinking

By Julie L. Gafney, Hunter College

Innovative educators throughout the US have brought Sarah Koenig’s wildly popular Serial podcast into the classroom as pedagogical tool and richly rewarding text wrapped up in one. Teachers Eleanor Lear and Alexa Schlechter tout the podcast’s exciting qualities as certain to interest even the most apathetic of their students and unite the class in mutual fascination with the murder of Hae Min Lee and the guilt or innocence of Adnan Syed (Flanagan 1-2). Public radio scholar Monica Brady-Myerov claims that podcasts like Serial work well as tools for slow readers or English language learners, and high school English teacher Michael Godsey celebrates the classroom tactic of simultaneously listening to the podcast while reading its transcript. Paradoxically, Godsey claims, the podcast actually builds a reading “workout” into his class, requiring students to keep pace with the show while using critical analytics to distinguish between the unadorned transcript and the multifaceted audio resource which melds music, sound effects, conversation, interview, explanation, and documents read aloud with experts and witnesses recorded on court tapes (Godsey 1-4). The result is an interwoven text which, like a medieval manuscript, contains both overt and hidden narratives that overlap with one another and impose their meanings atop and alongside each other.

The influence of Serial has permeated higher education as well. In April 2015 the CUNY Graduate Center’s Comparative Literature department held a conference entitled “Thinking Serially,” and the Heyman Center at Columbia University hosted a day-long event on September 23, 2016 called “The New Seriality Studies,” at which participants delivered talks on the influence of the serial medium on texts from “The Sopranos” to the corpus of Lupe Fiasco. On a more traditional tack, Shakespeare Quarterly ran Vanessa Corredera’s “‘Not a Moor exactly’: Shakespeare, Serial, and Modern Constructions of Race” in its 2016 spring issue. Corredera advocates for the inclusion of Serial and other podcasts like it in the traditional literature seminar. For her, Serial specifically demonstrates that contemporary thinkers, like Shakespeare, do not subscribe to clear categories of identity, but rather conflate race, religion, culture, upbringing, outsider status and a host of other signifiers into complex and messy representations of personhood (Corredera 30-50). Categories such as race and religion are no more static or mutually exclusive to us than they were to Shakespeare or to his audiences, and Serial functions as a “very current artifact” that demonstrates this truth, and opens up a Shakespearian (or other Early Modern) text to the kinds of candid conversations on race and Otherness necessary in the contemporary college classroom (Corredera 43).

While anyone, educator or not, will attest to the addictive quality of Serial, as well as to its robust commentary on contemporary life, students at John Jay College of Criminal Justice had a much more ambivalent take on the podcast than the students in any of those experiences recounted above. Indeed, it is the very sensationalist quality of the podcast that concerned my students, and the idea of considering Adnan’s case as an aesthetic or literary object of inquiry that deeply bothered them. Should, they wondered, a case which had the potential to be reexamined by the courts become the object of national enjoyment and a text from which they might improve their reading comprehension and broaden their idea of compositional form? As an educator in the English department of a criminal justice college, I was forced to reconsider a set of questions surrounding the efficacy and ethics of employing literary texts to teach elements of legal and criminological thought. Is any literary text suitable for such a purpose and, if so, how might the teaching of those texts differ from the teaching of Shakespeare in, say, an Early Modern seminar, or teaching Joan Didion in a first-year writing class?

I am not the first English teacher to teach Serial in a criminal justice context. Michael Godsey finds in Serial one of the most successful texts he has used in his criminal justice class; he relates, “When I showed Twelve Angry Men and even an episode of Making a Murderer to my criminal justice class, they were visibly nonplussed, and openly asked for a return to something like Serial” (Godsey 3). Students in Godsey’s class “publically debated Syed’s guilt or innocence in Godsey’s classes, addressing a Common Core standard to improve speaking skills, and worked together with other students to create their own podcasts or present mock closing arguments” (Flanagan 4). For Godsey, then, the enthralling quality of Serial proved useful fodder for legal argumentation and debate.

I have employed a similar tactic with a similar podcast. At John Jay, I begin my “Crime, Punishment, and Justice in World Literature” course with a twenty minute excerpt of the Radiolab podcast episode Blame. Blame begins with a conversation between a husband and wife, both using pseudonyms, recounting the story of how they fell in love. (My criminal justice students typically stare at me wide-eyed during this portion of the class, wondering what they have gotten themselves into.) Part-way through their story, the husband and wife duo recount how “not-his-real-name-Kevin” underwent successive surgeries to combat a debilitating epileptic condition he had had for years. The final operation was successful. But, Kevin’s wife noticed increasing idiosyncrasies in Kevin’s post-op behavior. He became obsessive, playing the same songs on the piano for hours on end. He also became much more sexually spontaneous, sometimes initiating intimacy at unexpected times and throughout the house.

One day, Kevin answers a knock at his door and is met by a group of Homeland Security officers. He leads them upstairs to his computer, on which he has downloaded a massive amount of child pornography. Kevin is prosecuted and we hear a synopsis of the prosecution’s arguments, which call Kevin a criminal and demand he be sentenced as such. We hear also from the defense, including testimony from Kevin’s surgeon, who claims that the operation, and not Kevin himself, is to blame for the crimes.

At this point, just before the judge makes her decision, I pause the podcast. I ask the class to list each piece of evidence that supports the prosecution, recording their input on the board. We make the same list for the defense. Then, I ask my students to weigh the information before them. If they were the judge, what would they do? Typically opinions vary drastically, and we engage in a spirited conversation, interrogating the evidence at hand, going back to listen to crucial pieces of the podcast again, and trying to understand all of the components of the judge’s decision. At the end of the class, I play the judge’s verdict for the class, and we react and respond.

This is a favorite lesson of mine, and it certainly succeeds largely due to the manifold benefits of the podcast recounted above: the podcast is exciting, it unifies the class immediately, it costs nothing, and it is culturally and socially relevant. Blame functions both as a method to introduce the kinds of questions that texts occupied with justice bring forward, and as composition whose efficacy at storytelling and at argumentation may be examined and employed as a model of composition. Moreover, using a podcast as the first object of in-class investigation automatically breaks down preconceived notions of texts students may hold as they step foot into the literature seminar; such breakdown proves useful in a course that spans forms from Greek tragedy to the contemporary Nigerian novel.

The same students who so eagerly enjoyed the Blame experience in their literature classroom balked when I taught several episodes of Serial alongside Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata later on in the semester. I admit that my tactic in pairing Serial and Tolstoy was much like that of Corredera, who extolls the virtues of partnering older more inscrutable texts with younger texts whose appeal and substance are more easily discerned and absorbed: “teachers can more logically invite expressly relevant discussions and allow innovative pairings, like smartly and responsibly connecting “iconic” Shakespeare with “hip” Serial (Corredera 49). My aim in pairing the two texts was to compare the different iterations of revenge killing, and contrast the social and ethical concerns raised by each. Both the Tolstoy text and Serial also subscribe to a conversational form by which questions are taken up, ideas discussed, and conflicting opinions weighed via a dialectical exchange rather than by some sort of narrative telos; I hoped to pursue the intersection of form and content by highlighting this formal similarity, and by positing these textual conversations, and the conversations we have in a classroom setting, alongside the imagined conversations of a jury meting out justice. In so doing, I subscribed to Joe Moran’s theorization of interdisciplinary work, by which fruitful investigation may be yielded by acknowledging the distinctions between diverse disciplines and the products of those disciplines; in laying disparate texts from divergent literary and cultural backgrounds side-by-side, I simultaneously acknowledged “the existence and relative resilience of disciplines as modes of thorough and institutional practices,” while also encouraging what Moran refers to as “the intellectually promiscuous and interlocking nature of interdisciplinarity” (14). The formal similarities between the Tolstoy text and the podcast cast their historical and literary differences into sharp relief and allowed for a conversation that incorporated, rather than eschewed, those differences.

To my surprise, the Tolstoy text proved easy to discuss. Students had strong opinions on the varying expressions of misogyny and classism related by the protagonist and his companions on the train; moreover, the class had no trouble jumping from those articulations to their own experiences, or to contemporary articulations of similar positions. Serial, on the other hand, was a difficult text. Students had a lot of questions about the storyline and even more questions about what was happening to Adnan and his case right now. When they discovered that Adnan was petitioning to reopen his trial due to ineffective council, they had an even harder time talking about the story of the podcast and comparing it, text beside text, with the Kreutzer Sonata. Instead, the conversation circled current strains of police prejudice and brutality largely perpetrated against men of color, the failures of the criminal justice system in dealing with these cases, and initiatives like the Innocence Project by which some attempt to remedy those failures. I finally asked my students outright what they thought about the podcast itself and whether or not they enjoyed it. To a person, my students seemed unwilling to admit even that they had taken pleasure in the story or been interested in the characters. To them, the people in the podcast were not characters at all, but flesh and blood humans, one of whom had been murdered, another who had been sent to prison, and countless others whose lives had been turned upside down by the killing and subsequent trial and conviction.

The differences between Serial and Othello or the Kreutzer Sonata are obvious. Time and narrative fiction separate them, rendering the former “real” and the latter two “stories.” But my students also differentiated powerfully between the Serial podcast and the Radiolab podcast Blame. Why? I’ll suggest that it is because the case and trial in Blame had already taken place, the perpetrator admitted some degree of guilt, served his sentence, and had moved on with his life. He and his wife had stayed together. He was happy. Despite the fact that “Kevin” and his wife are real people, just as real as Adnan Syed is, and just as real as Hae Min Lee was, they told their story as something that had happened in the past. Moreover, their story followed the familiar and comforting narrative of wrongdoing, punishment, and redemption. “Kevin” had had a problem for which he was both to blame and not to blame. His condition and his culpability were examined and judged by a court. In fact, Kevin’s arrest led him to seek better medication to control his impulses, and he now no longer suffers from the kinds of obsessive thoughts that troubled him previously; in fact, his punishment may be read as curative as well as punitive.

Not so with Adnan Syed. Adnan maintains his innocence in Hae Min Lee’s murder and while he claims to have found peace in prison and to have become a devout Muslim in his adulthood, neither he nor his family believe that his life sentence is just or merited. In Serial, we see a criminal justice system that is flawed, prejudicial, and variable. Certainly some superheroes like Project Innocence’s Deirdre Enright emerge as bastions of juridical light. Most police, attorneys, judges and jury members who appear in the podcast, however, appear to be all too disappointing in their snap judgments, assumptions, and biases. I understand my students’ unwillingness to talk about the podcast, and their engagement with the almost magical thinking idea that speaking about Adnan’s trial would somehow jeopardize his future trial, as a form of protest against the criminal justice system that they worry will serve them poorly as citizens and as possible future employees. We all want a criminal justice system that functions as it does in Blame, but Serial poses an all-too-familiar alternative.

Contemporary college students are coming of age in a moment shaped simultaneously by increased expressions of and pride in non-normative identities, and also by police killings of men and women of color, Donald Trump’s brand of xenophobia, a rash of anti-Semitic bomb threats, and prejudicial policies like the bathroom bills that attempt to curtail and stamp out the Other. As has been exhaustively reported and discussed, college students respond by claiming their classrooms and campuses as safe spaces in which they can construct an alternative reality that disallows the violence, both literal and rhetorical, that permeates much of public life. Much controversy has arisen around the efficacy of the elite academic institution’s zealous attempts to correct troubling trends in public life by establishing a refuge in the college or university. On one hand, all students, and particularly students who may be increasingly fearful of attack, deportation, or prejudicial legislation, require the safety and comfort to attend and participate fully in their coursework. As Amira Quraishi, Catherine Fox, Tracy E. Ore, and many others have documented, any introspective or subject-driven coursework requires that all of its participants be fully capable of engaging in Socratic dialogue, and a prerequisite for such capacity is the reasonable expectation of personal safety and respect. As Quraishi notes, however, the security that shows of solidarity with queer, Muslim, black, Latino, immigrant, poor and a host of other students establish is intended not to shut down classroom dialogue, but rather to open it up: “The method for ‘getting along’ is through asking unconventional questions, putting one’s self in another’s shoes by role-playing, examining oneself and how others perceive them…” (Quraishi 209). Paradoxically, the uncomfortable dialectical exchange between students who have different backgrounds or different perceptions of the world around them is, in fact, the end goal of the safe space. Just as a pairing of Serial with Shakespeare or Tolstoy intensifies, rather than limits, dialogue between and about the paired texts, so too much safe space within the college or university encourages, rather than stamp outs, the spirited and robust dialogue that undergirds a productive and progressive liberal arts education.

While I would not espouse the incendiary rhetoric and needless pugnacity of the University of Chicago’s recent letter pushing back against trigger warnings and safe spaces, I do find that the classroom must be a place for discomfort as well as for comfort. I find Serial a supremely valuable text not because of its accessibility and potential to entertain, but rather because it produces precisely the kinds of conversations about aesthetic texts and their place in contemporary ethics. As the American Association of University Professors put it in 2014, “Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they have taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered, and, more generally, expand their horizons so as to become informed and responsible democratic citizens” (Graham 1). My students’ unwillingness to discuss Serial and the conversations that their hesitation and discomfort raised are, I think, essential to the contemporary criminal justice classroom, as well as the contemporary literature seminar. Serial straddles the border of literary text and news report; its messiness, its resistance to generic categorization, its discomforting coexistence of a capacity to entertain alongside its influence on a decades-long murder trial, raise just the kinds of concerns that criminal justice students, or any students for that matter, must consider in their college classrooms. Rather than presenting a static example of a court case, as I had initially imagined, the podcast opened up the question of how unstable and messy identities can function as part of a just legal system. How can a system that relies on the perceptions and judgments of a flawed public avoid putting the wrong man of color in prison, or shooting a man of color for being at the wrong place at the wrong time? Such questions are painful to ask, and painful to answer. But to avoid the asking, to exclude a text like Serial because it prompts discomfort would be to do a disservice to the students who will become the next generation of criminal justice professionals, as well as to the public they will serve.

Works Cited

Blame. Radiolab.  WNYC Radio, 12 September 2013, http://www.radiolab.org/story/317421-blame/.  Accessed 1 April 2017.

Corredera, Vanessa. “’Not a Moor exactly’: Shakespeare, Serial, and Modern Constructions of Race.” Shakespeare Quarterly Vol. 67, no. 1, 2016, pp. 30-50.

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

Fox, Catherine. “From Transaction to Transformation: (En)Countering White Heteronormativity in “Safe Spaces”” College English vol. 69, no. 5, 2007, pp. 496-511.

Fox, Catherine O., and Tracy E. Ore. “(Un) Covering Normalized Gender and Race Subjectivities in LGBT ‘Safe Spaces.’” Feminist Studies, vol. 36, no. 3, 2010, pp. 629–649.

Gosdey, Michael. “The Value of Using Podcasts in Class.” The Atlantic,  17 March 2016, 1-3.

Graham, Edward J. “Mandated Trigger Warnings Threaten Academic Freedom,” AAUP

November-December 2014, https://www.aaup.org/article/mandated-trigger-warnings-threaten-academic-freedom#.V-VOOvkrLcs.

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

“Letter: Faculty Respond To Ellison With A Letter Of Their Own.” Letter to the Editor. Chicago Maroon. 13 September 2016.

Moran, Joe. Interdisciplinarity. New York, Routledge, 2002.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd Edition. Edited by G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin, Houghton-Mifflin, 1996.

Tolstoy, Leo. The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories. Penguin, 2008.

Quraishi, Amira. “Making Safe Space for Questioning for Young American Muslims.” From Passing on the Faith: Transforming Traditions for the Next Generation of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Edited by James L. Heft, Fordham University Press, 2006, pp. 204-217.