On this webpage, we (Nic John Ramos and Laura Garbes) share our insights on using podcasts for a course taught within the Department of Africana Studies at Brown University called African American Health Activism from Colonialism to AIDS. We have crafted this page to provide guidance and help to educators interested in experimenting with podcasting as a pedagogical tool, particularly in courses where sound or radio is not the primary object of study.
Navigating this resource: We have set up this webpage as a focused step-by-step outline of what we did at each stage of our podcasting curriculum. These “steps” are each represented by a tab. You can take it tab by tab, but you can also use each tab as a stand alone article. At the beginning of each tab you will find a short description of the step’s rationale and objectives.
Intro to the Course and Pedagogical Approach
Our course has been taught twice (Spring ‘18 and Spring ‘19) as a 20-seat maximum freshman seminar course. The course attracts a diverse set of students from both STEM and humanities concentrations, a majority of whom identify as Black or African American and many who see themselves as future clinicians. Originally, our podcasting curriculum was a small bare bones component of a larger history-based curriculum full of text readings. Through a grant from the Swearer Center, however, we re-designed the curriculum for Spring ‘19 to better incorporate podcasting into the full design of the course.
We were lucky enough to have worked alongside and pool some resources from an initiative formed out of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ) called Working Out Loud. We also received significant help from the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities (JNBC) and the Modern Media Lab (MML) at Brown. You will see us reference these partners and their resources throughout this webpage.
Our Pedagogical Perspective on Podcasting
Like many educators, we see podcasting as an opportunity to enter students on the ground floor of an increasingly popular social medium that many conceive of as a potentially more democratic sound space. We firmly believe spaces of sound, such as podcasting, however, cannot truly be democratic unless more people have the knowledge and know-how to enter their voices and the voices of their communities into the fray. In these troubling times, we especially see podcasting as an opportunity to share and tell stories often misheard, untold, and unheard in history and on the radio. It was important to us that our students recognize that the voices of the communities they come from and/or the histories rarely hear elsewhere have a legitimate place in the academy and on the airwaves.
For educators interested in assigning podcasts as a component of the curriculum, podcasts can be an attractive pedagogical tool because it departs from the traditional written expository paper that often only one person sees and evaluates at the end of the semester. We have found that the idea that listeners potentially lay beyond the ears of their peers and instructor frequently serves as a motivation for students to think more seriously about communicating difficult ideas to broad audiences. If done right, podcasting can give students something they can share with their own families and communities who might be curious about what they are learning about in college. Many of our students see the podcast assignment as a form of advocacy that can shed light and enact change on a pressing social issue.
Podcasting, however, comes with its own challenges. The K-12 system builds undergraduates to write expository papers well but students rarely come to universities knowing how to record and edit sound. Using microphones, researching in sound archives, editing software, and the ethics of using these all must be taught. Additionally, while podcasts DO require students to craft arguments and make conclusions, the manner in which these arguments and conclusions land on listener’s ears requires students to attune themselves to an entirely different method of writing and arguing that is specific to podcasts and journalism. This means students must be asked to listen to and analyze sound recordings and podcasts to develop enough of a “listening ear” to eventually “write with sound.”
The last but most important note we think important to highlight is that, just like any other assignment, we have found the quality of final podcasts from students can vary greatly no matter the amount and quality of attention and resources you provide. In that spirit, we have highlighted in yellow places where we think this curriculum can be pared down, and provide alternatives boxed below.
In this section, we have given readers a chance to see the content not specifically related to the teaching of sound, podcast production, and podcast publishing. We hope providing this material can help educators, particularly at the undergraduate level, think about how to design a course to fit the curricular needs of instructors and their departments while incorporating podcasting. In this syllabus, we openly grappled with the challenge of pushing “content” without sacrificing considerations over “method” and “approach” to teaching podcasting.
In short, we sought to craft aimed at producing both good historians and podcasters by the end of the semester. Our belief is that combining these two elements would create more space for public history and intellectualism – something we believe is sorely needed in our contemporary moment. Our syllabus thus reflects an experiment to try to push both “content” and “method” to its maximum extent. We do not, therefore, by any means, believe that a good syllabus needs all the bells and whistles of ours.
The introductory paragraph of the master syllabus explains the class as follows:
This historical survey course examines African American activism and social movements from Colonialism and Emancipation to the contemporary period through the lens of African American access to health resources. The course also explores how marginalized peoples and communities are using new digital technologies, such as podcasting, to represent and intervene on historical inequalities. Thus, the course aims to produce public historians who are well versed in the history of medicine from the perspective of African descended peoples AND can produce social justice-oriented digital content based on their knowledge of history and marginalized communities.
The master syllabus allowed students to understand the twin curriculum objectives (what we have referred to here as “content” and “method”) and how these two strands relate to each other. We understood the master syllabus might appear overwhelming to students so we provided students an addendum that allowed them to see all the elements specifically related to teaching the podcasting method. We also provided students an assignment calendar so they could see how the deadlines pertaining to content (readings) related to deadlines pertaining to assignments around developing method (podcasting listening and production skills). We hope all three documents – the master syllabus, the addendum, and the assignment calendar – make clear the two learning arcs of our single journey.
Listening to Content/Listening for Method and Reading Content/Reading Method
When possible, we assigned podcasts that related directly to course content and assigned readings that pertained directly to understanding sound and sound production. Assigning podcasts complimentary to the assigned historical text allowed students to see how other historians and podcasters have chosen to translate text to sound and, likewise, understand how scholars have translated sound into text.
The Challenge of Teaching New Content and New Ideas alongside New Media
One challenging part of expecting students to lift up stories often unheard and untold was not just exposing students to new ways of presenting arguments not taught in high school (such as podcasting) but also exposing them to histories (such as the history of medicine from the perspective of the enslaved and formerly enslaved) they also were not accustomed to knowing. We found this meant we were asking students to produce stories and tell stories that they often were just beginning to learn themselves. As any educator might suspect, this dynamic – of learning and making simultaneously – presented a challenge precisely because learning about the stories of marginalized people demands reflection and caution.