I’ve been philosophical about the feeling of teaching virtually in a pandemic, but now it’s time to get specific. Here’s a thing I’m doing with a literature survey class that seems to be working: a class podcast.
In short, it’s the “audio_only” part of a Zoom recording. I tack on a little musical jingle-jangle at the beginning and end in audacity, export it as an MP3, and bing-bang-boom you’ve got a podcast.
I came up with the idea in the shower a week or so before classes began. I was looking for some way to manage 27 students on Zoom in a class that was slated to meet three times a week. How was I going to get that many boxes with faces on my computer screen? How was I going to manage that many voices without losing the quiet ones entirely? How could I make sure that students who got sick or went to quarantine or were caring for sick people could stay with us?
My first thought was to divide up the class into smaller groups for smaller meetings, but in a survey class, there’s far too much material to cover in an hour a week.
I had this vision of a class discussion with only the most excited, invested, prepared students. Everyone else would benefit from being near to our lively intelligent discussion, but I didn’t have the pressure of engaging 27 squares. Just 2 or 3. Everyone could take a turn on my panel of experts!
I had heard of this kind of dialogue in a traditional classroom called a “fish bowl” discussion. But what I was imagining was looser and asynchronous. Something like a podcast.
I’m a podcast junkie. I’m listening constantly to history podcasts, highly produced storytelling podcasts, goofy beauty talk podcasts. I like my podcasts like I like my TV: a group of good friends just trying to make it in this crazy world. I’m also a podcast host. I am one of the hosts of the New Books in Food podcast with the New Books Network. The night before I was supposed to record my first interview, I called up my then 8-year-old niece Olivia to test my equipment, and thus our very silly occasional podcast was born.
A class podcast seemed like an easy and natural choice. I could leave my syllabus nearly exactly as I had taught it on-ground for a couple of years. Monday and Wednesday would be recording days. The panelists would read specific primary texts, they’d develop topics for the discussion, and I’d add some more. I would act as host, keeping the discussion on time and moving at a conversational clip. The rest of the class could tune in and listen while we record, or they could catch it after I posted the recording. On Fridays, we’d have a bigger, freer-flowing discussion with the class at large, tying up the week and drawing connections.
The students who aren’t being interviewed on the panel also participate asynchronously in a discussion forum, posting their written answers to the panel’s questions by the end of the week.
Y’all. It’s working. Exactly as I imagined.
I have four students who are super pumped about the pod and immediately volunteered to be first. In fact, those four made up the entire cast the first four weeks of class. My first new voices show up in week 5. Students are required to be on a panel only once, but they are welcome to do more.
It seemed to me a win-win. Students can make an appointment to be excellent one day of the term. I will know what date they have chosen to be excellent, and I can call directly on the most excellent student on their most excellent day. There will never be a day when no one is excellent! I don’t have to search the Zoom gallery for a face that wants to answer my question. I have three faces max to look at, and THEY wrote the questions! Of course they are ready to answer.
I have a team of honors students in the class who have taken on the job of publishing the episodes on our class blog with short summaries and original artwork. I do the audio production (which takes me about 3 minutes after the Zoom file converts while I eat lunch) and upload it to our LMS for the class to hear immediately. The students take the files from there to publish on the public facing page.
What excites me about this project is that it would never have happened in a world without Covid and virtual teaching and learning. Though face-to-face classrooms always shake out into the 8-10 students who like talking in class and the 20 or so who do not, I would never think to pre-select who participates in class. I would never think to record class discussion except for students with specific accommodations. But in this virtual classroom, we’re already talking. I’m already recording. Why not take it public?
I’ve often wondered what it might be like to “teach out.” And I do regularly ask students to make their final projects public, from digital humanities projects on Omeka or a class blog to submitting their work for publication in the campus literary magazine. This is the first time I’ve made the daily work of the class visible outside the classroom door, lasting longer than the moment we make behind it.
Give it a listen here. Tell me what you think!