It’s Time for Academe to Take Podcasting Seriously

It offers exciting new ways to learn, create and disseminate research, write 11 scholars, who offer concrete ideas for how to harness it as a productive tool for teaching and scholarship.

September 28, 2021
 
 
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The boom in online teaching materials during the pandemic has irrevocably altered how students access information and knowledge. If screens had supplemented teaching and learning before the pandemic, tech platforms replaced in-person instruction for much of this past year. Teaching on Zoom was frustrating for many people who missed the direct human interactions and energy of classroom instruction. But the shift from in-person to digitally mediated, hybrid and asynchronous teaching has also unlocked new possibilities.

While instructors are excited to be returning to physical classrooms if it is safe to do so, many of us are thinking creatively about the post-pandemic "new normal" where technology, in-person instruction and research and learning will all be reconfigured. While this transition period poses challenges to all those endeavors, our experience producing podcasts and using them as assignments and instructional material shows the value of scholarly podcasting. Podcasts can improve the ways that students collaborate and create knowledge and that scholars disseminate it to a broad public.

Both within and beyond the university, the ground has been shifting for decades away from a strict focus on print composition toward digital modes of publishing. Podcasting as a medium has seen striking growth: whereas only 22 percent of the U.S. population had heard of podcasts in the early 2000s, 78 percent are now familiar with the medium. There are currently around 75.9 million podcast listeners in America, and that number is expected to exceed 100 million by 2024. Even during 2020, when many people were no longer commuting to and from work, podcast listening increased by about 10 percent.

More than just online radio, podcasts are beginning to displace print media for many people across the world who seek to engage with information in novel ways. In addition, podcast creators increasingly prioritize accessibility by publishing transcripts alongside their audio output, linking supplemental material and creating online discussion forums where audience members can continue the conversation among themselves.

The academy is part of the pod revolution. Endeavors to both share and create scholarship in audio -- while keeping it accessible for diverse participants -- are already underway. We have seen how podcasts can shift both teaching and research toward more dialogic, collaborative and creative forms of intellectual inquiry. Podcasting offers students, instructors and researchers new and exciting ways to learn, teach, create and disseminate research. Thoughtful use of podcasting does not undermine the importance of written composition. But we believe it will transform how students and scholars develop and communicate knowledge in the future, whether in the academy or other fields.

Now that scholarly podcasting is alive and thriving, it's time to give some shape and structure to this growing field. Universities should support this new form of knowledge creation and recognize its distinct attributes without replicating the vetting processes and gatekeeping mechanisms of yesteryear. With the return to traditional teaching formats in many locations, it is an opportune moment to deepen rather than abandon the discoveries made over the past year.

Podcasting as Pedagogy

We are creators and hosts of humanities podcasts, which are free and open to the public. Our podcasts are chiefly concerned with developing new ideas, facilitating informed conversation and dialogue, and delivering verified knowledge -- not offering entertainment, news or paywalled corporate content. We’ve discovered that podcasting creates new forms of knowledge that differ fundamentally from traditional scholarship; we are not simply putting the library on tape.

This past January at the Modern Language Association’s annual conference, we convened to share ideas and lessons as a working group of faculty and doctoral students in the humanities who host and teach a range of podcasts. In a moment when higher education is moving into a new, uncharted era, we’d like to offer the following concrete proposals for how to harness podcasting as a productive tool for teaching and scholarship.

Assign scholarly podcasts as primary material, instead of or alongside texts, in humanities courses. Podcasting as pedagogy involves assigning podcasts in place of traditional reading assignments for students to consume. To ensure accessibility, assigned podcasts should have written transcripts. Effectively using podcasts -- including both audio and transcripts -- can increase student engagement and improve listening and comprehension skills. That’s especially the case especially when podcasts are paired with well-designed listening questions that focus students on what they can learn from the podcast -- not passive, asynchronous tasks that easily become background noise.

Listservs in various fields gather and vet a range of podcasts for instructors to access. Our group is curating free-of-charge lists for humanities podcasts on our website and easily accessible teaching guides for specific podcasts. We want to make sure such lists are reviewed and approved by fellow scholars so that instructors can access high-quality, academically appropriate podcasts with verified scholarship, the way they receive vetted scholarship from peer-reviewed journals. Substituting or pairing thus vetted podcasts with traditional readings can transform the student experience, allowing them to make interdisciplinary connections and encounter academic scholarship as dynamic, relevant, dialogic and inviting.

Replace individual written assignments with team-based podcast projects that mix written and audio components. Assigning short podcast creation in place of or alongside written essays has proved to be a highly effective means of increasing engagement, deepening critical and analytic skills, and letting students learn via experience how information is transformed into knowledge. Replacing the traditional essay and exam with podcast creation also builds community: solitary acts of all-nighter essay writing and exam cramming become team-based project development. Students collaborate outside class, as many do already in study groups for STEM classes, and submit a short podcast episode based on jointly created research. Since podcast production is a communal endeavor that draws on skills besides critical thinking and verbal dexterity, it instantly boosts the participation of students not prone to mastering the specific genre of the academic essay.

Creating a podcast also challenges students to meld research and analysis with other modes: interviewing, dialogue, balancing conflicting points of view, and extemporaneous analysis, to name a few. Students learn how to construct an argument with regard to logic, tone and audience, and they become more aware of the power of their voices to effect change. Students value, critique and jointly improve their classmates’ contributions to shared projects as they do in a science lab or acting studio. Over all, such assignments increase students’ engagement, as peer-based work creates a sense of shared purpose that is harder to achieve when writing single-authored essays.

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During the pandemic, many of us noted that while the instructor’s expertise and pedagogy are valuable, students enter universities to connect with their peers. Collaborative assignments are standard practice in other disciplines and often a default in STEM courses, where students form study groups to complete assignments. In the humanities, however, team-based work and even jointly authored articles like this one are the exception. Researching, outlining, recording, editing and presenting short podcasts fosters deeper discussion and collaboration and meets students where they already are: deeply immersed in creative technologies.

Keep the independence of academic podcasters but value their work in hiring, review and promotion decisions. The aspects of podcast creation that set it apart from traditional scholarship warrant formal university support toward creating, disseminating and archiving this work. We propose advancing independent creators and academics in making podcasts that center scholarly knowledge production and pedagogical accessibility -- rather than focusing on the commercial goals of turning a profit, the way the MOOC conversation played out a decade ago, which often placed quantity of listeners above quality of product.

As a form of public scholarship, high-quality podcast creation reinforces the connection between the university and society at large. It offers a rare opportunity to make scholarship accessible to a far greater audience than written materials could ever reach. Podcasts also create archives of knowledge otherwise lost to the public, since much of academic life takes place in formats easily recorded but impossible to print.

It is important to keep this rapidly forming archive of knowledge accessible to anybody at any time. We want to circumvent the building of paywalls, corporate platforms and institutional log-ins that monetize access rather than serve the public. Existing standards and practices for assessing faculty output -- which include not only traditional academic publications but also editorial work, art projects, curation and public lectures -- vary widely among disciplines and universities. Our intention is to provide clear guidelines for assessing podcast production as faculty output -- to be available to hiring and promotion committees yet to avoid the kind of gatekeeping that has hampered academic publishing in the past.

Support faculty and student podcast creators at the institutional level. We have found it immensely valuable to create research hubs, already in place at several institutions, for instructors who want to learn not only the technical but also the conceptual and logistical dimensions of producing podcasts. Our group, the Humanities Podcast Network, is developing an online version of a hub. The medium is quite accessible: it is possible to make a high-quality podcast using smartphones, free editing software and low-cost hosting services. Institutional funding need not involve a major investment in equipment. But training and support, including workshops led by experienced podcasters and digital specialists, will let additional faculty incorporate this exciting new medium into their classroom practice and research projects.

In an ideal world, these resources would be available at all institutions. But the art and science of interviewing, the conceptual work needed to organize academic knowledge into an oral presentation, and the new horizons opened by podcast creation can be shared via an open-access research hub, especially important for underfunded institutions. The Humanities Podcast Network will include an accessible archive that can serve as a cornerstone of evolving humanities pedagogy and scholarship.

As pandemic restrictions are lifted across the United States, harnessing the potential of podcasts as pedagogy and scholarship will prove a major opportunity for the humanities. With our self-reflexive approach to methodology and knowledge production, humanities teachers and scholars are particularly equipped to create exciting new formats and push the boundaries of podcasting. During the pandemic, many instructors created digital teaching resources out of necessity; much of this work was highly creative, but a good part was bound to older forms -- simply recording lectures for later viewing.

This experience should motivate universities to create solid mechanisms to support and evaluate truly transformative work that can be assessed alongside publications, teaching and service, as well as to create robust structures to archive and share this work. As academic events moved online during the pandemic, talks that would have drawn a few dozen scholars attracted hundreds of engaged viewers. People are thirsty for verified knowledge and informed debate. Podcasting breaks down the academy’s walls so that this craving can be satisfied even for those not able to enroll in the academy full-time.

Podcast creation directly reflects the skills and values we hope to foster in our students while linking them to their broader communities. As the United States struggles to emerge from the pandemic, we are all more aware that the work we create impacts not only ourselves but the lives and values of those around us. Podcast creation teaches students how to listen and learn from each other, distinguish facts from opinion, interpret data, engage with the experiences of others, and express their thoughts in a succinct and engaging manner. Ultimately, podcasts allow students and faculty to share their ideas with an audience beyond the classroom, imbuing their work with more meaning and purpose.

Kimberly Adams
ACLS Emerging Voices Fellow, Stanford University

Ulrich Baer
Center for the Humanities, New York University

Olivia Leigh Branscum
Department of Philosophy, Columbia University

Saronik Bosu
Department of English, New York University

Daniel Dissinger
Writing program, University of Southern California

Annie Galvin
Opinion audio, The New York Times

Beth Kramer
Rhetoric Department, Boston University

Laura Perry
Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, University of Iowa

John Plotz
Department of English, Brandeis University

Katherine Robison
Writing program, University of Southern California

Milan Terlunen
Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University

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