Podcasting in the Rhetoric Classroom
by Justin Tremel and Jamie Jesson
1. In 2005, the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary selected “podcast” as the Word of the Year for 2005. Defining the word as "a digital recording of a radio broadcast or similar program, made available on the Internet for downloading to a personal audio player," the editors added the word to the most recent online and printed versions of the New Oxford American Dictionary. Clearly, the term “podcast” has entered common usage, but despite the widespread and increasing usage of the term and its inclusion in the publications of such an august source as the Oxford University Press, the actual definition of “podcast” remains largely in flux. When dealing with the recently emergent technology known as “podcasting,” perhaps the most appropriate source to provide a definition is the flux-compatible wikipedia which defines podcast as follows:
A podcast is a digital media file that is shared over the web using syndication feeds, for playback on portable media players and personal computers. A podcast is a specific type of webcast which, like 'radio', can mean either the content itself or the method by which it is syndicated; the latter is also termed podcasting. The host or author of a podcast is often called a podcaster. The term "podcast" is a portmanteau of the name of Apple's portable music player, the iPod, and broadcast; a pod refers to a container of some sort and the idea of broadcasting to a container or pod describes the process of podcasting.
Reading wikipedia’s complete entry on podcast, one gets a fascinating and detailed history of the practices and uses of podcasts from its earlier “blogcast” antecedents through the explosion of podcasting terminology and usage beginning in 2004 and continuing to the present. While wikipedia defines a podcast as being shared via syndication feeds, one should note that such feeds are only a convenient delivery method for podcasting, and that one can think of the term in the more general terms of simply a digital recording made available for download in some format online, a definition better suited to the less technically expert.
2. The purpose of this article is, however, less to explore the definitions and history of podcasting than to recount and explore some initial personal attempts to incorporate podcasting technology in the rhetoric classroom. In doing so we hope to point to the more generalized pedagogical advantages and challenges of adopting the technology in the undergraduate writing classroom and suggest how the technology might find further currency and effectiveness in the multimedia 21st century classroom. Two separate but interrelated case studies drawn from the classrooms of this article's authors highlight some very practical applications in the writing classroom as well as illustrate the larger pedagogical concerns and possibilities of this emergent technology.
Pedagogy and Podcasting
3. Teaching UT’s second-level rhetoric course, RHE 309K, Topics in Writing, my particular topic was titled RHE 309K Rock ‘N’ Roll Rhetoric, and I found myself faced with the challenge of how to integrate the distribution and listening of music to the students in and out of the classroom. The pedagogical dilemma that I faced with this particular class was as follows: Listening to and rhetorically analyzing various popular songs and performers was essential to the course, yet too much actual class time could not be devoted simply to “listening” to music as this time needed to be devoted to discussing readings, writing instruction, and the like. Thus, I needed a method to deliver the music to students outside of the classroom. Two initial thoughts came to mind: I could simply post relevant songs to the course website and have the students download them, or I could put a number of compact disks on reserve at the AV library; both ideas proved problematic. With the first option, one can easily see that simply putting the relevant tracks up for download online could violate copyright issues as anybody using the web would have access to the tracks. Concerning the second, I feared that simply putting a number of compact disks on reserve in the library would fail to attract enough students to actually go the library, check out the CD, and listen to it outside of class time. After considering various options, it soon became apparent that podcasting might be just the solution for my dilemma.
4. Putting the material in the podcast format offers a number of advantages. The first is that one can assign a podcast much like a reading, and the student spends 15-20 minutes listening to the cast, as one might otherwise do with a similar short reading assignment. As a podcast operates similar to a radio broadcast, issues of illegal downloading and distribution of copyright material become moot points. Perhaps the greatest pedagogical advantage of the podcast is that I was able to guide my students in their listening. For example, I narrated in between songs on the podcast and asked the students to listen for particular things or to try to relate the music to an argument made concerning a certain song in one of the week’s readings. Thus, I was able to, as it were, extend the week’s class time by some 10 to 15 minutes every week, and concurrently expose the students to a good deal of music that otherwise would have eaten up valuable class time. Likewise, it is not unreasonable to assume that compared to the classroom setting, the students could devote greater attention to actually listening to the music via podcast, cut off from the distractions of classmates, and immured in the forced intimacy of headphones and ipod/personal computer.
5. I experimented with a number of programs in creating the podcasts. Apple has its podcasting software Garageband, and there are a host of others that can be used such as Audacity, and Epodcast Producer. I ultimately settled on Cakewalk Home Studio. While this software may initially appear overly complex for some users, becoming familiar with a few basic functions is not difficult and is enough to produce a successful podcast.
6. Ultimately, I ended up creating three podcasts on early rock and roll figures, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan, with each highlighting some aspect of the readings or rhetorical topics that we would be discussing in class. I had the casts downloadable from my course website in mp3 format. Endeavoring to create my first podcasts, I chose not to include RSS syndication, primarily because of my own personal technical knowledge and also because of the very limited audience of my students which would not benefit sensationally from the added encoding. That being said, in future I may include RSS syndication in my presentation of the casts, because of the unexpected but valuable response that I got from other instructors. While I had intended the casts only for my students, a number of colleagues in cultural studies and rhetoric from across the nation emailed me after having stumbled upon my website and listening to my casts. Impressed with the content presented, they were curious about how the podcast worked in the classroom, and I’ve maintained a cordial and mutually beneficial email correspondence. As such, another unforeseen pedagogical advantage of the podcast is the ability to connect with previously unknown colleagues, forging professional and academic relationships across the indefinite and serendipitous terrain of cyberspace.
Podcasts in Writing Assignments
7. In addition to being an efficient way to communicate with students, podcasts can provide an interesting new genre of student writing. Since my class investigated American countercultures, and I also used podcasts to present music to my students, an experiment with student-produced podcasts seemed like a natural conclusion to the class. Many of my students had enrolled because of their interests in music journalism. They were interested, therefore, in learning how to analyze and comment on popular music, and as a result many students elected to add an optional podcast component to their final essay. In this option, students wrote essays evaluating popular music’s potential to create social or political change. The authors then recorded themselves reading their essays aloud and used audio-editing programs like GarageBand to splice musical clips into appropriate moments in these oral arguments.
8. The primary goal behind designing this assignment—other than creating a fun and interesting project—was to challenge students in their use of quotations as evidence. Musical clips may initially appear to be very different from textual quotations, but ultimately they need to be treated very similarly. Having heard a number of my podcasts as part of their homework, students already had a model for how such musical quotations could be presented—with introductions of background information about the artist and context of the song’s production preceding the song, which was then often followed by my analysis. These strategies translated well into essays in which students explained certain songs’ significance to their line of argument--for example, the argument that politically committed rock-and-roll had survived the disastrous Altamont concert of 1969. The skills they developed in introducing, explaining, and analyzing these musical quotations transfer well to similar strategies in purely textual arguments.
9. In fact, students’ lessons concerning quotations went beyond the initial goals of the assignment and helped revise my own use of podcasts. The podcasts they had listened to for homework included three to five songs in their entirety, with podcasts lasting from roughly fifteen to twenty-five minutes. The main goal was to play the music for students, with a relatively small amount of additional commentary, allowing students to form their own interpretations of the music and lyrics. In the students’ essays, in contrast, their analysis became the focus. Most students began by imitating my podcasts, with complete songs interrupting their arguments. They soon realized that this strategy severely interrupted the flow of their arguments and made it difficult to focus on the most significant parts of the songs they were quoting. Students, therefore, revised their podcasts to include short, focused clips of songs (and this prompted me to do the same in my podcasts for a future class). This process demonstrated the need to choose evidence selectively, and the choices students’ made helped them think about how to select the most forceful, relevant evidence to illustrate their points. Therefore, the project taught them important lessons about when to summarize evidence in their own words and when (and how much) to quote directly.
10. Beyond the musical clips, the essays looked in many ways like traditional essays. Students turned in a transcript of their “papers” so that it was clear this was still a writing assignment. But performing the essays aloud created an experience that differed from the typical writing assignment. Hearing their essays read aloud often illustrated dramatically the areas that students need to improve in their compositions. Awkward transitions, for example, can be painfully apparent when read aloud, as can confusingly long sentences. One student, who had struggled all semester with overly wordy writing, suddenly achieved a great improvement in economy and clarity through recording a podcast essay. And almost every student who did the assignment improved transitions between paragraphs and smoothed out other awkward writing. It must be noted, of course, that the instructor’s feedback remains important for pointing out such problems in a first draft. While some students might independently recognize awkward or confusing writing through reading it aloud, others might camouflage problems through tricks of oral delivery such as a long pause between paragraphs to make up for missing transitional elements. Peer review can be the instructor’s friend here, as presentations of the podcasts in class can prompt other students to point out where the essay is awkward or unclear. But the instructor must also point out how writing requires added work to achieve the effects of tone and pacing that the spoken word naturally attains.
11. This discussion of podcasts’ potential for improving student writing points to their possible use in a wide range of classes beyond those concerned with popular music. The benefits of using podcasts can transfer into most literature or rhetoric courses, and into many other writing-intensive courses. In most cases, podcasts may work well as a series of regularly produced episodes; students listening throughout the semester to the instructor’s podcasts can get a feel for how the genre works and can compare the relative success of different issues. This, then, prepares the student to create his or her own podcasts later in the semester for a final project. Another variation would involve a few podcasts by the instructor to introduce the genre to students, followed by a schedule assigning students to create podcasts that the entire class will listen to before specified dates. For example, one group of rhetoric students might be assigned to create a podcast several days before a class lesson on ethos. The group would gather notes on this rhetorical term; find audio clips from news programs, popular songs, television shows, or other sources demonstrating different types of ethos; and combine their research into a multimedia presentation to the class. Having heard the podcast before the lesson on ethos, the entire class could discuss the concept as well as the success of the students’ presentation in demonstrating it. Student-produced podcasts on additional rhetorical terms would follow. Such an assignment could benefit both the students producing the podcasts--whose understanding of the terms they explained would have to be extensive in order to create the podcasts--and the rest of the class, who would receive a more polished and engaging discussion than the typical in-class presentation, with its half-hearted delivery from a hastily prepared handout.
12. With the wealth of audio recordings readily available today, literature classes might also benefit from the use of podcasts. Instructors of poetry classes might create podcasts (or assign students to do so) including clips of authors or actors reading poems aloud. Hearing these audio files can help students notice prosodic elements more clearly than they might with written texts alone. While instructors might also present these audio clips through other means, such as a URL included on a syllabus or a compact disc placed on reserve, the podcast provides not only a great convenience for students, who can download the file to a computer or iPod, but also a genre of argument in which the instructor can model textual analysis that takes account of both semantic and prosodic features. Such modeling can then lead into assignments that ask students to create their own podcasts analyzing audio files of poems (or excerpts from short stories available on audio books or on radio programs like "Selected Shorts" or the BBC’s “Afternoon Reading”). Such an approach could work equally well with rhetoric classes analyzing the rhetorical appeals of radio pundits like Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken. In any undergraduate class dealing with language, students can have trouble picking up on tone and other elements of address that are more elusive than semantic meaning. Analyzing and writing about spoken arguments or works of literature can help students bridge the gap between sound and sense.
13. Podcasts combine elements of old, familiar genres of instruction and writing to create a new forum for teaching and learning. As a very new genre, the podcast’s utility in instruction is still being determined through experimentation. One lesson to be drawn from our experience is that podcasts, although using elements of traditional instruction, should be recognized as a distinct instructional medium. While the podcast may seem like an extended classroom lecture, it may be best to limit the instructor’s spoken part and devote more time to recordings of speeches, readings, or music, which can be incorporated into the podcast effectively using digital-editing software. When it comes to student-created podcasts, it is also important to recognize where such projects intersect with traditional writing projects and where they must diverge from writing and inhabit a new genre of composition. Students and instructors alike may become frustrated by the results of an assignment that merely asks students to turn a written paper into a podcast without a recognition of how written and oral genres differ. However, there are enough intersections between the skills needed to create a podcast and those employed in writing to make podcasts a valuable component of the writing classroom.