Podcasting: A Multimodal Approach in the Composition Classroom

As a freeway flyer, or commuter, one solution to low student buy-in ended up being right there with me on those hour-long commutes to and from campus. The only thing that makes those drives bearable is the chance to listen to podcasts such as Chapo Trap House, Invisibilia, and This American Life. Consequently, one early morning, as I drove along the desolate stretch of I-16 between Savannah and Statesboro, Georgia, with that famous NPR vocal fry emanating from the speakers of my Toyota Corolla, it occurred to me that I should have my students produce a podcast.

As any composition instructor knows, a lack of student motivation hinders the achievement of student learning outcomes. Several factors can impede student motivation. To start, an assignment’s lack of apparent purpose and audience can often serve as a barrier to student engagement (Zumbrunn, Krause 348). In the composition classroom, for example, students may view essay writing as an esoteric activity: they compose an essay for an audience of one, the instructor, for the purpose of earning a grade. Insecurity may also obstruct student motivation. In the academy, students are often asked to write with authority. However, within the traditional teacher/student binary, the teacher occupies the privileged position. Navigating these paradoxical roles—the authority when practicing the skill and the subordinate when learning the skill—is understandably anxiety-producing (Jones 79-90).

Furthermore, student buy-in can be deterred by the ways in which instruction and instructors limit the ways students explore their own intellectual curiosity. Cynthia L. Selfe observes, “The history of writing in U.S. composition instruction…functions to…deprive students of valuable semiotic resources for making meaning” (617). Thus, an exclusive focus on writing in the composition classroom reduces the number of tools with which students come to understand their worlds and, perhaps more significantly, can be incongruous to specific learning styles, frustrating and discouraging certain students from buying into the course’s learning outcomes. Finally, there are issues of certain modes privileging students from certain cultures over others. Selfe argues, “The almost exclusive dominance of print literacy works against the interests of individuals whose cultures and communities have managed to maintain a value on multiple modalities of expression” (618). Students from cultures or communities that still place a premium on oral storytelling traditions, for example, may become discouraged that the written text stands as the singular mode of learning and articulation in the composition classroom.

Composition instructors face numerous challenges in the classroom. At times, it can feel like the deck is stacked against us. Though on the surface a long commute is but another obstacle, I’m very thankful for my commute as it turned me on to the idea of assigning podcasts. Indeed, in my first-year composition courses, I’ve had success countering low student buy-in by having students collaborate to produce an hour-long podcast that presents stories from our campus and regional communities.

To prepare for the assignment, I have students listen to examples of podcasts, such as This American Life and the premiere episode of the first season of the wildly popular Serial. I then lead a classroom discussion on the ways in which these episodes are similar and dissimilar to other texts the students have read and other assignments they have written.

For the assignment itself, I divide the students, or allow the students to divide themselves, into five small groups. With class sizes ranging from fifteen to twenty-four students, each group ends up consisting of somewhere between three and five students. Once the groups are established, group members work in collaboration to write, record, and mix an eight to twelve minute audio segment that presents a unique and interesting story from our Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, Georgia, or Southeast Georgia communities. Once students produce the five individual, completed podcast segments, the class collaboratively edits, or mixes, the five segments together and writes, records, and mixes an introduction to the podcast, transitions between the individual segments (also called bumpers), and an outro to the podcast. During the recording process, students have any interviewees fill out consent forms. Additionally, all students whose recorded voices are heard on the podcast complete similar consent forms. After obtaining all necessary permission, I publish the students’ podcast on an online audio distribution platform. Thus, the students can share their creation with their friends and families. Theoretically, the podcasts can reach a global audience.

Once the podcast is out there in the world, each student composes a brief reflection in which they outline their group members’ and their own contributions to the writing, recording, and mixing of the podcast. Not to go too far into my personal grading philosophy, but I have students write reflections more to reward students who pulled additional weight than to punish any slackers. The criteria I use to grade each group’s podcast segment are not dissimilar to the criteria I use to grade a more traditional essay. The segments should demonstrate unity; students should organize their segments in a logical fashion. Students should develop their segments around appropriate, relevant, and logical details, avoid hearsay and misinformation, and identify any presentation of their personal opinion as such. Each segment needs to include logical presentation and design, which means demonstrating logical conventions of an English grammar, recording performers speaking clearly and at an appropriate speed (not too fast and not too slow), mixing the segment at a consistent volume throughout, and integrating music and sound effects that add to the overall quality of the segment. Additionally, the students must integrate appropriate information from credible outside sources logically and ethically, which includes introducing and fully contextualizing clips from recordings of interviewees. Perhaps most importantly, each group should demonstrate an awareness of their audience. Finally, if students have demonstrated a mastery of all the previously mentioned criteria, the final goal is to demonstrate originality, a compelling purpose, thoroughness, and depth.

Now, I should take this opportunity to admit that although I am indeed a digital native, I am no wizard. I never found any of the secret whistles in Super Mario Bros. 3 by intuition alone. Fortunately, walking students through the technical end of this assignment does not require preternatural technological talents. For this assignment, I require my students to use Audacity, which is a digital audio editing and recording software program. It’s free, open-source, and totally safe. Best of all, the program is completely intuitive. I’ve been able to troubleshoot even the craziest problem in fewer than five minutes. Frankly, the first time I taught this assignment, I spent a day teaching the software, and it was a total waste of time. Most students were already familiar with Audacity, and those who had never used the software before figured it out before I had even finished the lesson. We’re a PC school at Georgia Southern, but if we were Apple, I would use GarageBand (a software program that’s similar to Audacity that comes preinstalled on nearly all Apple products), which I think is even a little easier to master than Audacity.

Although the software is easy enough to come by, I am somewhat limited in terms of microphones. I personally own a Blue Snowball microphone. The Blue Snowballs retail at around $60 and, at least to the untrained ear, produce a fairly professional-sounding audio quality. Incidentally, a few students in every class tend to also own Snowballs. The microphone in most video game headsets also works produces a fairly decent audio quality. Ideally, there are enough decent microphones to go around in each class. I’m currently in the process of applying for a grant for a set of twenty-four Blue Snowball microphones for my department. However, when we don’t have enough decent microphones to go around, students can use the microphone in a typical pair of earbuds in a pinch. The sound quality is noticeably lower, but a good mix, a performer who enunciates, and an avoidance of background noise are all much more important than a decent microphone. Anyway, as long as I can understand everything at a reasonable volume, I’m much more concerned with the quality of the content than the quality of the recording.

***

Even with high hopes for this assignment, the level of student engagement has surprised me. Several students who struggled in their first full college semester—including students who finished the semester with below a 1.0 GPA—fully engaged with the task of creating a podcast. Granted I’m working with a limited sample size (I’ve only been using this assignment for three semesters now), but that data suggests students who completed very little coursework in their first semester, who demonstrated a habitual inability to manage a college workload, enthusiastically participated in the creation of a podcast.

I believe students buy in to this assignment because it presents them with an apparent purpose and audience. Beyond earning a grade, the assignment affords them the opportunity to put their voices and stories from their own communities out into the larger world. With the podcast published on an online audio distribution platform, anyone in the entire world could hear their work. Moreover, though both a student in a classroom and a writer are performative roles (Jones 79-80), the act of recording demanded by the creation of a podcast may render that performativity naked and, therefore, reduce student insecurity. Additionally, because of the tradition of spoken lecture in the academy, “the enactment of authority, power, and status in composition classes is expressed, in part, through aurality: how much one is allowed to talk and under what conditions” (Selfe 634). Therefore, because students associate aurality with authority, it stands to reason that students might feel more comfortable performing in and assuming an authoritative role for an aural assignment than for a written assignment. After all, there’s a big difference between being an authority and playing an authority: for some people, the latter is much easier. Of course, the podcast also offers additional semiotic resources beyond what a writing assignment offers—it requires a careful attention to sound and spoken word–and puts “individuals whose cultures and communities have managed to maintain a value on multiple modalities of expression” on a level playing field with those individuals from cultures and communities that value writing above all other modes (Selfe 617-18). By dismantling authority/subordinate binaries and semiotic and cultural restrictions, the podcast assignment serves to hurdle barriers to student buy-in.

***

I don’t believe I’m feeding students empty calories in the name of increasing their motivation to carry out an assignment. Remember: composing, recording, and mixing a podcast that is both informative and entertaining requires students to meet standards of unity, development, presentation, design, coherence, and audience awareness. It’s not just the student buy-in that’s impressed me; I’ve also been extremely impressed by the quality of the podcasts students have created.

The most memorable podcast segment I’ve heard to date pondered the proliferation of ducks, geese, turtles, and feral cats on our Georgia Southern University campus. The piece began with about as unforgettable a hook as is possible: “Imagine, you are heading to class on a misty spring morning. You are strolling along the path by the lake. Suddenly, you hear a splat. You pick up your foot and discover an unfortunately soft, brown turd plastered to the bottom of your shoe.” From there, the group went on to integrate a relevant interview from Steve Hein, the director of the wildlife center at Georgia Southern. The segment closed with the group drawing the following conclusion about the wildlife situation on campus: “Wildlife is something that exists on places like our campus solely due to our complacency. If we continue to do only what we have done thus far, nothing will change. All of the trouble these creatures cause us is simply a result of the condition we created for them to thrive” (Berger, et al). Not only did this podcast present a true story from our campus community that met all the criteria of the assignment, it was expertly performed and mixed. I remarked at the time of its recording, and I wasn’t joking, that the student who narrated the segment will be the next Ira Glass (who is the host of This American Life). This particular segment, humorously titled “Podcats,” is the best work—regardless of mode—I’ve ever received from students. It represents everything that excites me about the podcast assignment. Check out “Podcats” here:

I truly believe that by assigning podcasts, we are creating a lot of exciting opportunities. Other literature about using podcasting in the composition classroom exists. However, some of it is focused on how instructors can create podcasts for their students and the rest of the literature doesn’t, in my mind, quite capture the unique magic of podcasting. For me, it’s extremely exciting that in the last few years, we’ve seen technology advance in a way that has made recording equipment and software readily and widely available. Creating an audio file like a podcast would have been a luxury a decade ago and unheard of a generation ago. When I speak with laypersons, they often ask how the digital age is corrupting communication. In my eyes, the opposite is true. The digital age is empowering individuals to communicate in ways that were previously impossible. The podcast is but one of those ways.

Check out a complete episode of The Georgia Southern Experience here:

Works Cited

Berger, Andy, et al. “Episode 2.” The Georgia Southern Experience. Soundcloud, 2 Dec. 2015. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.

Jones, Leigh A. “Podcasting and Performativity: Multimodal Invention in an Advanced Writing Class.” Composition Studies 38.2 (2010): 75-91. Print.

Selfe, Cynthia L. “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.” College Composition and Communication 60.4 (2009): 616-63. JSTOR. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

Zumbrunn, Sharon, and Keegan Krause. “Conversations with Leaders: Principles of Effective Writing Instruction.” The Reading Teacher 65.5 (2012): 346-53. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.

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