How Does the Fourth Season of a Course Podcast Work?

Child's hand holding a scouting patch that says "Mystery"Asking my first-year writing students to create short audio pieces in lieu of written essays was a bit of a gamble the first time I did it in 2017, but I was really pleased with the results, so I kept the assignment on the syllabus, tinkering with it each year to refine it. In 2019, I wrote a blog post titled “Building a Better Podcast Assignment” that described how the assignment changed over time from the first to third iteration. Earlier this week, my Vanderbilt Center for Teaching colleague Stacey M. Johnson and I talked about student-produced podcasts on the Leading Lines podcast (in Episode 106). That reminded me that I was due for an update on the continuing evolution of my podcast assignment. I thought I might share a few key changes to the 2021 version of the assignment here.

As I mentioned on the Leading Lines episode, one of the downsides of sharing student work publicly is that all the good topics get taken by prior students. The first three seasons of One-Time Pod, our class podcast on the history of cryptography, featured stories of codes and ciphers from the past. For the fourth seasons, I changed the assignment, asking students to tell stories from the recent history of cryptography, with “recent” being defined somewhat arbitrarily as anything since I was born in 1976. Furthermore, fourth-season stories would need to raise hard questions about privacy and surveillance, one of the themes of the course that we hadn’t explored intentionally on the podcast before.

In past semesters, I had asked students to listen to both professionally produced and student-produced podcast episodes in advance of their own work, as a way to orient them to the various genres and affordances of audio storytelling. I had students blog about their listening experiences, and then led in-class discussions about audio storytelling based on their experience. For 2021, I added a layer to this pre-assignment work by taking advantage of the social annotation tool Perusall‘s then-new feature that allowed for collaborative annotation of audio files. I loaded the example podcast episodes into Perusall, then invited my students to listen and leave comments tied to specific time codes within the episodes. Perusall made this easy to do, and I got a window into my students’ in-the-moment reactions to the audio they were hearing.

The spring 2021 semester was an odd one at Vanderbilt, with a mix of online and hybrid courses thanks to the COVID pandemic. My course was taught in-person, but I elected to make most Wednesdays in this Monday-Wednesday-Friday course asynchronous. This meant that some of my in-person lesson plans needed to be adapted to an asynchronous format. For the podcast assignment, this was fortuitous, since it motivated me to take the 20-minute walkthrough of Audacity, the free and open-source audio editing tool I suggest my students use, that I used to provide during class time and, this year, produce it as a stand-alone screencast video. It worked just as well for students, and maybe even better, since students could pause and re-watch sections. And now I have a reusable resource for future offerings of the course.

I had asked my students to submit an annotated bibliography in advance of their audio production since 2019, when I interviewed my Vanderbilt colleague Sophie Bjork-James (Leading Lines Episode 56) about her multimedia assignments and learned how valuable she found annotated bibliographies as part of the scaffolding of her assignments. After my 2019 course, however, I realized I needed to give my students a bit more direction for their bibliographies since their sources were often questionable. So I asked my 2021 cohort of students to include at least four credible sources, each with a citation properly formatted in APA style and two or three sentences about why the source was both useful and credible. This direction led to higher quality sources and a chance for me to provide targeted feedback about sources and citations.

The final change I made to the podcast assignment was something I should have been intentional about in years past. I asked students to listen and respond to a few of their peers’ submitted podcast episodes. We used Microsoft Teams for online class discussion that semester, and I posted two podcast-related questions in one of the Teams channels for the class:

  1. What were one or two effective “moves” you heard in your peers’ episodes that were made to engage the listener, tell the story, or explain something technical?
  2. How might you use one of the episodes you listened to in your final paper? Think about how it might serve as evidence for one of your arguments. (It’s okay to cite your peer’s podcast episode in your paper!)

The student responses to these prompts were enthusiastic and supportive, not unlike the reception the students might have received if we had had a “listening party” later in the semester. It was clear to me that the students enjoyed listening to each other’s audio work! Other can listen to their work, too, either on the One-Time Pod webpage or in any podcast app.

I expect I’ll keep all these changes to the assignment when I teach the course again, likely this fall. The only one I might need to modify is the first one about topic selection from the recent history of cryptography with a focus on privacy and surveillance. But I think we can get another season or two out of that theme before I need to change it up again!

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