Podcast Pedagogy

Now that term is nearly over, I’m bringing together my experiences of interesting teaching methods. I was interviewed for a student-podcast a few weeks ago and have been adding them to my reading lists since the start of the year. They are an untapped teaching tool in my discipline of geography.

I discovered podcasts in 2014 at the beginning of my PhD. I stopped listening to music on my commutes. Podcasts were free; Spotify was not. I got hooked on the TED Radio Hour. It struck me that academics who appeared on it worked at universities that charged £9000 a year for that same knowledge.

I then moved into uncharted digital waters that soon became my mainstay territory: Desert Island Discs, How I Built This and the wonderfully funny ‘The Dollop’. These are delightful podcasts that I’ll gladly sacrifice a train journey to.

When it comes to teaching geography students, none compare to the Radiotopia network. Radiotopia is a family of podcasts that have honed the art of slick, stylised podcasting. My favourites are: Song Exploder; a beautiful idea about music where songwriters talk through their songs lyric by lyric or instrument by instrument. What Trump Can Teach us About Con Law, a rigorous set of fascinating thought experiments on the current presidency and The Constitution; the West Wing Weekly, a precision-crafted episode-by episode trip through The West Wing and finally, The Allusionist;, a leisurely stroll into linguistics.

The Radiotopia podcast with a permanent place amongst my reading lists is 99% Invisible or 99pi. Hosted by velvety-voiced Roman Mars and supported by a formidable select staff, this podcast draws attention to design in everyday life. This includes the usual culprits (buildings, cities), but 99pi reminds us that design is everywhere, and because it is 99% invisible, we must look hard to appreciate it. 99pi has examined contraceptive pill packaging (#266), sports bras (#278) and the Brazilian football kit (#260).

Some 99pi episodes have obvious topical relevance for geographers; Professor Stephen Graham of Newcastle University’s Geography Department was interviewed about artificial land construction in episode #228 called ‘making up ground’. I used the Chamizal episode (#294) for my class on political geography and moving borders. Episode #301 is a history of cloud seeding that slotted nicely into a lecture on geo-engineering. Some don’t have an obvious geographical slant. I’ve already worked episode #331 on the Acoma Pueblo tribe and conquistador Juan de Oñate foot into a lecture on the significance of spaces of memorialisation.

I use other podcasts that warrant a mention. The second season of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History discussed the Bengal Famine. This features in a session on Food Security. Two episodes of The Dollop made for an excellent, (and fully referenced) cultural and social history of opium for a third-year module called ‘Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll: The Geographies of Pleasure’.

There is something about the podcast that is deeply appropriate for education in the contemporary university. I’ll deal first with their pedagogical value, then their practical versatility and finally some short comings. I’m 27, but I’ve inherited baby boomer grumbles about students (and staff) uses of tech. I’ve had meetings with students who keep one earphone in throughout. Students show me essay plans on their phones. The current generation of students are more attached to, dependent on and distracted by their phones than any other. There are reasons to be worried about this, and elsewhere I’ve written about techniques that help students manage their distractions.

None of this detracts from the pedagogical potential of the podcast. 99pi released a mini-series called Articles of Interest. Presenter Avery Trufelman discusses the importance of Tartan patterns and fabric. She draws on social, cultural and historical issues into one output. In current University parlance, that is exemplary interdisciplinary.

Anyone who teaches a qualitative research methods course knows the value ethnographic approaches aren’t immediately apparent to students (ethnography is sometimes described as ‘deep hanging out’ or ‘thick description’). In a 99pi episode #346 called Palaces for the People, Sociologist Eric Klinenberg talked about his ethnographic method. He’d observe how people used libraries, and suggests their many varied uses means they are part of our ‘social infrastructure’. Palaces for the People is 44-minutes long. It’s unarguably a faster way of grasping the value of ethnography than the collected writings of Clifford Geertz. I am not an expert, but I imagine the same could be said for the value of quantitative methods in Nate Silver’s 538 family of podcasts.

I use podcasts as a substitute for an essential academic reading. The traditional approach to setting readings is to pick two or three papers per session that students should read, then a further set they can consult if interested. This might be multiplied across three, maybe four modules often taught twice a week. It’s not implausible to have 20-24 academic readings to process a week. If each paper averages 8,000 words, that’s 192,000 words (Crime and Punishment is 211,591). That’s just the core readings. Then there’s the quality and access. Academic papers are complicated, long and sometimes hidden behind paywalls.  

A good podcast is the opposite of these things; it is a palate cleanser best served between denser content. I do not mean that pejoratively. They let you slow down. You may sacrifice the hallmarks of academic knowledge: peer review, exacting detail and cautious qualification and circumspection of findings and conclusions. But you might not. In the same way news articles infiltrate readings lists, excellent podcasts that source and cite offer a new type of knowledge just like excellent print journalism does. If students listen critically and don’t only cite podcasts in their assignments, I see no compromise in academic rigour.

An example required reading list using a podcast for a 'memory geographies' lecture

An example required reading list using a podcast for a 'memory geographies' lecture

Practically, a podcast is learning on-the-go. It’s where thoughtful daydreaming can meet content. Had enough of the library during a sunny day? Go get some free-learning with a podcast in a park Exercise?  I have friends who won’t finish a 10k run until their podcast is done. They are a lifeline for getting unprepared students engaged. If you haven’t primed anything for your seminar at 9am, a podcast can gently prep you as you rush for the bus. I spent my PhD wrestling with Deleuze and Guattari. Stephen West’s Philosophize This! explained the basics in five, twenty-five minute episodes.

I’m a junior staff member. I don’t teach my own courses so my experiments are limited, but academics are awakening to the pedagogical value of popular culture. The obvious example is Jason Mitchell’s “Watching The Wire: Urban America and Serial Television. I see no reason why a podcast couldn’t help structure a course. An obvious contender for an American politics programme is Radiotopia’s The West Wing Weekly.

There are problems with podcasts pedagogy. It’s easy for the London Underground to drown them out the buffering bogeyman may pay a visit. Some forgo heavy post-production work in favour of a free-flowing soliloquy or interviews that are unchecked by a judicious editor. But an editor is not the same as peer-review. Like The Dollop, I will assign this style of podcast, but only if they have a reference list.

I’m also uncertain about the value of podcasts submitted as assignments. Recording audio content offers students new employable skills, challenging assessment criteria and an interesting marking experience for staff, but a good podcast requires professional recording equipment, if not a studio and staff to boot. If a student submits a scratchy group interview in a noisy cafe recorded onto an iPhone, I’m not sure this is faithful to the style or spirit of podcasting; I’m not sure it counts as a podcast.

For now, I think podcasts will remain at the margins of module design in geography. It will require a cultural shift away from extended writing and traditional academic outputs to do more with them. As universities recognise the value of creative assessment and pioneering PhD students like Obasi Shaw do amazing things with thesis submission, I’m hopeful for the future.