Using Student Podcasts in Literature Classes

by Liz Evans, Swarthmore College

Instructor Name:

Peter Schmidt

Course Title:

U.S. Fiction, 1945 – Present


Swarthmore College

What is the overall aim of the course?:
The course is a survey of important novels published by U.S. authors since World War II. Shared themes include war, peace, complex personal and family histories, U.S. state power, border-crossings, and the use of fiction to narrate crises in individual and national identities. Students learn to vary their interpretive techniques so as to appreciate tragedy vs. comedy, satire, and farce. This is one of a number of survey courses offered by Swarthmore’s English Department designed to introduce students to a wide range of authors, historical contexts, and interpretive techniques.
Course design and scope of the project:

Forty-six students enrolled for thirteen weeks in Spring 2006. We met twice weekly for an hour and fifteen minutes per class, with a mix of lecture and large- and small-group discussion. Aside from reading the novels, students also had to do secondary assignments, including making and listening to podcasts and reading and evaluating discussion summaries.

This podcast project tied in very well to a literature course, because in addition to teaching students about particular works of fiction, the key skill modeled when students quote and expand on each other’s words is that thinking about cultural works is a collaborative process that happens in dialogue, not only in isolation. Cultural objects (including novels) are not static; they circulate, they are events. We may receive them privately, as when we read or work on a computer, but the process is not complete until we take the next step, which is to re-connect with others. We get ideas about interpretation from others, improve them (we hope) on our own, then place these ideas back into the cultural stream.

Incorporation of Technology:

Each podcast assignment consisted of a “podcast pair” (two podcasts); students made a five-minute reading of a passage from a novel, coupled with a five-minute discussion of that passage: why the student chose it, what details were most important, what themes and issues the passage raised, and how the passage related to the rest of the novel. These podcasts were posted on a server and all students in the class were required to listen to selected podcasts on what they were reading before coming to class discussions.

The students received two sets of instructions for making podcasts. One, written by the professor, stressed what kind of content was expected. The other, written by Liz Evans of Swarthmore’s Information Technology Services in collaboration with the professor, gave step-by-step technical instructions for recording and posting and subscribing to podcasts.

In order to prepare their MP3 recordings, students were given instructions for basic installation and use of recording software (Audacity or GarageBand) on Windows or Macintosh PC. In most cases, students used their own computers and devices, although additional equipment and assistance was available through Information Technology Services. After recording, students were provided guidance on posting their MP3 files on a weblog page hosted on the college’s OS X web server. This page, in turn, created the URL for subsciption to the podcast in iTunes or other players. Students were required to subscribe and listen to the recordings each week on their computers or portable media players.

A key to the project’s success with a relatively large class was placing the technology in the hands of the students themselves. Though the comfort level of individual students varied, providing good documentation from the outset helped most students handle the recording work independently, and only a very few technical problems with audio quality or file format issues were encountered.

Lessons Learned:

Podcasts are a superb new technology that can be used in any situation where instructors want students to read and perform written material and then discuss it. Beyond literature or theater classes, they can also work well in foreign language courses to help students improve their speaking and hearing skills. Requiring students to post the material before class meant that the performances, passages, and student materials could be one (not the only) focus of the in-class discussions, which greatly enriched the quality of the discussion. Students found that the readings brought the passages and the novels to life—and that when they heard passages aloud, they noticed many more things than when they just read an assignment before class. In addition, students could respond to the interpretations of the selections that the podcasts made—adding their own collaborative insights, arguing with the interpretation, etc. With literature, this new technology encourages close reading, thoughtful interpretation, and student involvement. Also, students love performing works of literature (even excerpts) aloud—it greatly adds to the fun of the class. Students took the assignments very seriously and in general did very high quality work with them.

Student-made podcasts could work well for many other kinds of courses (from history to foreign languages to any of the social sciences) where a premium is placed on texts and careful interpretation.

The one thing I would do differently next time is cut back on the number of podcasts required for each class. For some assignments it was 3-4 podcast pairs, given the popularity of an author and the large number of students in the class. Since the reading assignments were long, most students did not have time to complete both the reading assignments and all the podcast assignments. I made a mid-course correction and had the students listen to just 1 pair of podcasts of their own choosing before most classes, and then we discussed these in class; this worked well. Professors incorporating podcast assignments into their syllabi need to be sure that they are well-integrated and well-balanced with the other assignments.

Aside from giving the students clear instructions about the goals and methods of making podcasts for the course, I recommend that some class time be devoted to discussing the podcasts when they are assigned. Otherwise, the students who make the podcasts for that day won’t get enough feedback from their fellow students, and there will be too big a break between the outside-class and in-class work. Most often I found that beginning with a discussion of the podcasts was a superb way to open a larger discussion of the themes and ideas and interpretive issues of the assigned material for that day. Podcasts also complemented well the lectures that I gave; I often found myself referring to assigned podcasts as part of my lecture on the novelist we were studying.

References, links:
Course Podcast Webpage:

Podcast Creation Guide for Students:

Measured Results:

The student podcasts did not replace traditional writing assignments, such as exams and papers; they were a very successful supplement to them. I gave students written feedback and grades on their podcasts, evaluating both their dramatic readings and the subsequent interpretation they gave of the material.

We discussed in class what the students thought of the podcast assignments, from how clear the instructions were to how they evaluated the results. Many students also gave me their opinions after class, or comments via email later and via the written course evaluations. The vast majority (40+) of my 46 students loved the assignments and put lots of effort and thought into them. They understood right away the learning possibilities in this new medium. They also much preferred making their own podcasts on material relevant to the course, over listening to long podcast lectures by the professor.

Additional measured results: Students were required to evaluate podcast content as part of some of their writing assignments, especially the in-class exams. (I had told the students that the podcast analysis would be required on the exam, so they had to listen to some as part of their exam preparation. The exam was open-book and open-notes for this reason.) In this way, I could judge how well the students were paying attention to the podcasts and using them to supplement their own ideas. Here are two examples:

The first exam essay excerpt below is on Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible. The student transcribed a quotation she liked from a podcast she had listened to ahead of time, then embedded it within her own discussion:

“In his podcast, Dan discusses how [the character] Nathan, ‘by never forgiving himself[,] … effectively prevents God from forgiving him as well, as Christianity requires both penance and acceptance of one’s own flaws, a concept that seems entirely alien to Nathan’s perception of the world…’ Because Nathan retains the characteristic of being ‘more sure of himself than I’d thought it possible for a young man to be,’ as [the character] Orleanna describes him, he can never be forgiven…”

The quotation from the student named Dan shows, first of all, the high level that some of the podcasts achieved as they discussed their chosen passage. This excerpt also hints at how the student taking the exam then proceed to develop Dan’s idea that the two major adult characters seek forgiveness but create only a cycle of self-punishment. She made the idea her own, adding her own nuances and examples and new directions. But clearly the “germ” for her idea was inspired by the podcast.

Another example, from a student writing on Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, well shows how podcast content can be “quoted” just like any text-based source would be:

“Similar to the blurring of identity found with the Thanatoid characters, there also exists in Vineland a blur between the present and the past. Throughout the novel, the reader is constantly confronted with flashbacks, many times caught unaware where the flashback ends and the present story begins. As Micah states in his podcast, the blurring of the present and past is done to such an extent so that ‘present and past are inseparable.’ The blurring is heightened by Pynchon’s use of media, notably TV and film….” The student then proceeded with discussing examples.

Podcasts are a great new way to communicate. In some ways, though, educators have been slow to explore the possibilities for back-and-forth interaction that the web allows, so that such interchanges can occur outside of the classroom as well as within it. But anything we can do to heighten the intensity and intelligence that students will bring to the classroom conversation is a good thing. Podcasts present fascinating new possibilities for doing just that.