At its most basic, a podcast is a digital audio file of music, speech, or broadcast material, such as journalism or non-fiction, that can be made available on the Internet and downloaded to a computer or portable device (OED). But with their proliferation, podcasts have come to be recognized as a series of digital audio files, presented as episodes or installments, which listeners can subscribe to and follow from season to season, as they would a TV series.
While the iterations of podcast assignments that we present here are generally limited to a single installment, they nevertheless allow teachers and students to benefit from the best aspects of podcasting, which include:
- the exploration of an idea or a question or the development of an argument or story from multiple perspectives;
- the integration of evidence;
- the development of a line of argument or narrative;
- the creative and intentional integration of sound effects and music.
Why do this? Podcasts vs. Group Presentations
The idea for a podcast assignment emerges from the need to provide students with a more challenging, creative, and effective means of conducting the kind of critical and oral work to which we aspire when assigning group presentations.
Group presentations are valued as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of collaborative work and community, strengthen oral skills, and challenge students to analyze concepts, historical material, or other forms of knowledge, summarize, and organize ideas for a listening audience.
Podcasts allow students to do all of this while breaking away from the rigid structure of traditional presentations by asking students to shape their podcast into specific academic and public humanities genres of critical and creative thinking such as: the conversation, the debate, the argument, the story, the interview, the investigation, and more.
Whereas traditional group presentations often fail to create community because it is easy for students to divide up the work and meet only to rehearse or not at all, the podcast makes it very difficult for students to disperse simply because it requires that students meet to record it and simulate a conversation or thoughtfully structured line of argumentation or storytelling. It allows very little room for last-minute planning and no room to avoid rehearsal without negatively affecting their project.
Podcast Assignment Features and Goals
Collaboration and Community:
To be sure, it is possible to record a podcast without recording as a group. Students could ostensibly record their parts alone and then attempt to edit them into a coherent whole. Doing so would affect their grade because the disparate recordings would impact the quality of the audio. Crucially, though, podcast assignments are focused on creating a conversation, debate, storytelling, or group discussion about a text, concept, or a given issue. Neither one of these options can be achieved successfully if students are working individually.
Regardless of the genre of podcast of an assignment, the podcast should require:
- each student to speak at least once;
- encourage students to identify whether they tend to dominate a conversation or be shy and agree on community values to avoid uneven or disrespectful use of air time;
- to articulate differing views and discuss them respectfully;
- to edit collaboratively and allowing for time to edit and revise;
- for everyone to be a part of the crafting of the product as a whole;
- scripted text for students who might, for a variety of reasons (e.g., comfort level speaking or being recorded) and practice time to make sure the reading flows and is engaging.
Most podcast assignments ask students to create a conversation or develop an argument that represents different viewpoints or addresses a question from different positions. This will require them, first, to choose a position or viewpoint, or, in the case of more performative podcasts, to play a specific role. Second, students must carefully consider how to provide a well-rounded analysis or exploration of a given issue. Third, it might also ask students to anticipate the implications of arguing from a certain perspective and imagine certain responses to that particular position.
Prof. Travillian’s podcast assignment, “What is ‘Justice’ in the 21st Century?” a great example of a podcast where each speaker must take a position in relation to a central text and problem and present it clearly.
Prof. Kaufman’s assignment, “Word of the Year,” requires that students discuss one of the words of the year by both presenting it to the audience and discussing the relevance and implications of the word in the context of the year’s news, politics, or of social dynamics.
All podcast assignment require a degree of research. How much research an instructor requires will depend on the nature of the assignment, its place in the overall arch of a course, and the level of difficulty of the course.
This is an aspect of the podcast where dividing up the work might be productive if and when students come together to share their findings and develop the line of argumentation, conversation, or storytelling of the podcast.
Podcast assignments ask that students present their evidence. Because a podcast is crafted for a listening audience, this provides students with two challenges:
- how to introduce an author, the work, and the evidence in a clear way;
- how to announce the presentation of evidence and connect it to the following point.
Writing for Listeners:
While it might be easy to dismiss this assignment as devoid of writing, podcasts require their own rigorous genre of writing. Namely, podcasts require that students practice how to write a carefully crafted outline.
While we don’t encourage students to read from a script, the clarity of their ideas will reflect the care with which they planned the project.
Outlining is a skill that carries over to other forms of writing from position papers to research reports, and creative forms of writing. [Sample Outlines]
This assignment also asks students to imagine an audience of listeners since the podcast is a purely auditory. Therefore, students must write for listeners and this provides them with an opportunity to think like a listener, which means identifying moments when they have to use description and how to introduce quotations, texts, authors, and more.
“You never want to cover the fireworks show on radio… that’s for TV.”
A key element of a successful podcast project is delivery. A good outline and a good measure of dry runs and rehearsing will allow students to deliver their information in clear, engaging, and, when appropriate, spontaneous ways that speak to their project’s main line of argumentation or narrative.
Reading for an audience of listeners also asks that students practice reading a text in a way that involves the listener, rather than simply reading aloud. This has the benefit of asking students to think carefully about the language they are reading, sentence structure, tone, and more.
A successful podcast requires careful and creative editing. The editing in an assignment of this nature happens at two levels:
the editing of the information that students present,
the editing of the audio, integration of evidence, of audio clips, music, and sound effects.
Audio editing reinforces the critical and creative thinking at the core of the project:
Good editing during the introduction will allow students to engage their audience and invite them to follow their discussion or story, while good editing during the conclusion will allow them to bring their ideas together, assert their main point, and conclude the podcast. Ideally, the podcast will raise questions for listeners.
What happens in between the introduction and the conclusion is key and includes:
- the introduction of evidence in the form of written texts that are read aloud;
- audio clips, such as movie or interview clips, sound bites, music, or other forms of supporting their argument;
- keeping their audience engaged.
This is the last item on our list but it is perhaps the most salient characteristic of the assignment when it is finished. A good podcast will be the result of creative critical thinking. The success of this assignment resides less on students’ individual talents and more on how carefully they have structured the podcast, integrated evidence, practiced reading for an audience of listeners, on their exposure to podcasts and the opportunity to discuss what makes a good podcast.
Below we provide several resources and suggestions for how to ensure your assignment is successful.
Planning Your Podcast Assignment
Planning a podcast might seem overwhelming, just as recording one can also seem a daunting task. But both are actually much, much easier than it might appear. Below we provide numerous resources that will help as you either consider whether or not to take on this assignment and as you plan it and execute it.
Is the podcast right for me?
- To answer this crucial question, we recommend making an appointment with us. The DH Lab and Instructional Technologies team will help you consider your options and determine whether or not this is the right assignment for you.
- Please email email@example.com to set up an appointment.
- Read examples of previous assignments.
- Sample the different podcast genres we have provided below and listen to examples from past student projects.
Once you have decided to assign a podcast, the first step in ensuring good planning is to set an appointment with Instructional Technologies (iTech) and invaluable support for this assignment. You can do so by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
iTech will provide support with the following aspects of the assignment throughout the semester:
- Help you identify needs specific to the kind of podcast you would like students to craft.
Teach students how to download Audacity (our recommended software) a week before the main workshop.
- Provide a full class period workshop on how to get started with Audacity.
- Provide ongoing support as students record and edit the podcast.
- Attend podcast presentation sessions to assist with assessment questions.
For a successful podcast assignment we strongly recommend the following:
- Make an appointment with the DH Lab and Instructional Technologies team before the semester or right at the beginning of the semester by emailing email@example.com, and then again with Instructional Technologies (firstname.lastname@example.org) as soon as you decide to assign the podcast.
- Assign podcasts as part of the course materials. Students should listen to at least five different individual episodes of podcasts before recording their own. Ideally, the episodes will be from diverse kinds of podcasts.
- Assign class time to listen to one podcast episode–ideally, two–as a class. Using the rubric we have provided below, ask students to identify aspects of a successful podcast for each episode. Discuss the weaker points of the podcast as well. This step is crucial in helping students understand how to analyze a podcast and, thereby, how to craft one successfully.
- Schedule a thirty-minute session with Instructional Technologies (email@example.com) a week prior to the main podcast workshop.
- Require students to use The Studio in order to record their podcast. Let them know well in advance that they should book their times fast. The studio is used by different groups on campus.
The Ideal Timeline
Ideally, podcasts will be presented to the class as a whole by each group. In the past, instructors have held two class periods (depending on the size of the group) for students to present their podcasts.
The following timeline is designed with this model in mind:
3-4 weeks before the presentation/deadline:
Listen to podcasts in class to examine their features, discuss examples of successfully and less successful podcasts. If at all possible, this should take place at least four weeks out so that students have ample time to listen to podcasts on their own before working on their own projects.
3 weeks before the presentation/deadline:
- Schedule a session for Misty and Tommy to help students download Audacity.
- Schedule a full class period workshop on how to use Audacity.
2 weeks before the presentation/deadline:
Provide one class period for students to plan and brainstorm on their project and start practicing how to use Audacity.
1 week before the presentation/deadline:
Use class time or office hours to meet with each group. Ask them to bring a draft of the outline and, ideally, a draft example of a clip of the podcast that you can listen to. If using class time, the rest of the groups can use the time to continue developing the project or even to start recording.
TIP: We highly recommend asking students to label their podcasts carefully. Course name, last names, and abbreviation for podcast title will be very helpful as you play them in class and as you grade!
Prof. Seth Dowland (Religion)
Prof. Rona Kaufman (English/Writing)
Prof. Adela Ramos (English/Literature/WMGS)
Prof. Tyler Travillian (Languages and Literatures)
Student Podcast Examples
Through the Eyes of Immigrants is an engaging podcast created by Zach Hill, David Johnston, and Aidan Liddiard for their FYEP 190 Spring 2017 course on border literature. Their podcast examines the documentary Made in L.A. and discusses how sweatshop labor and the exploitation of immigrant laborers reveal the incongruences of the American Dream. It is an excellent example of the following podcast characteristics:
- Topic Clarity
- Use of external resources (research)
- Technical production
The Naked Podcast is an engaging podcast created by Deanna Babaeav, Sophia Drewelow, Destiny Kauffman, Matthew Salzano, and Cassandra Thompson for their Women and Gender Studies 201 course in Spring 2017. They examine Instagram’s rules on nudity and consider why nudity is policed on social media. We recommend this podcast as an excellent example of the following characteristics:
- Topic Clarity
- Technical production
- Engaging approach to and development of topic
Listening and Writing Aids
Misty Berlin and Tommy Skaggs have created these helpful aids for the listening and writing stages of the podcast assignment: