Featured: In Favor of Podcasts

May 4, 2016

 My love affair with podcasts began while I was teaching. I don't recall how I stumbled across the show, but after several months of avid listening I began assigning segments from BackStory to augment US History class readings. A little to my surprise, the students liked it. They found the interactions between the hosts funny (in an admittedly dorky way) and were cautiously entertained by history jokes. Also, of course, they enjoyed a periodic break from reading and the fact that they could listen anywhere.

Eventually, segments made their way into the classroom. Sometimes I intentionally integrated them into lessons, but other times a student suggested a relevant bit and we'd pause to take a quick listen. More than once, when we had a few minutes before the bell, they asked me to pick something "interesting" and play it for them. It became such a part of our class experience (and my love for the show so amused them) that when I announced I was leaving teaching, the students actually contacted the producers and arranged a really touching goodbye message on the show.

Why Podcasts?

I could argue in favor of their variety, the always-growing access to different viewpoints, audioshows as an artform. But really, I started listening because when I was teaching time was my most precious commodity. Being able to learn and discover curriculum resources while driving (or exercising, or cleaning the house, etc.) had a completely practical appeal.

How to Choose

A quick perusal of the podcast libraries on iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher (or any of many other podcast repositories) will be a little daunting. You'll have no trouble finding Best Of lists online. (There is even an annual Academy of Podcasting Award). But from a teaching perspective, form matters as much as quality. Different kinds of podcasts suit different teaching purposes.

Here are a couple of podcast/purpose combinations you might find useful:

Classroom Use

You want quick, (hopefully) engaging pieces to mix into a class lesson:

Engaging audio pieces, like engaging films, require professional skill and practice to produce. They cut from one audio "scene" to another and use highly textured combinations of sounds to build their narrative. The interaction between the narrator(s) and other show participants are part of the narrative structure. Not only that, but if you're using it for class, you might be interested in some background resources, as well. Radiolab, a radio show also available as a podcast, epitomizes the form. Most episodes include multiple stories and, as a bonus, are backed by a resource-rich web site. One place to start your search for professionally-produced shows is the NPR podcast directory.

Caveat Auditor: Good radio is a mix of journalism and entertainment, not academic scholarship. Many shows interview scholar-experts, but just as you do with other sources, think critically about the show's narrative goals and editorial choices.

Teacher Education - Beginning

You're about to teach a new course and you want to develop some background knowledge about a topic:

One sub-genre within the podcast world is the long-form history series, often (but not always) done by amateur historians. The History of Rome is a famous example, but others include the (THoR-inspired) History of Byzantium, The History of China, and the fairly new Maritime History Podcast, to name just a couple. These shows tend to be largely chronological and more like audiobooks than radio shows in style. If you need to establish a chronological understanding of a topic, you spend a lot of hours driving or walking, and you like the somewhat idiosyncratic style, they are a tempting option. 

Caveat Auditor: These shows vary greatly in the caliber of the history they present. Several of them provide accounts that are better than (or, at least, more detailed than) those in common textbooks, but they suffer from some similar issues. When you don't hear about arguments among historians, consider that topic a subject for further reading.

Teacher Education - Advanced

You've already got a good foundation in a subject area and you're looking to expand your knowledge:

One good option is a podcast produced by scholars or a research institute. The Ottoman History Podcast, for example, features in-depth conversations between hosts and guests who have expertise in the history of the region. You can hear about everything from law to natural disasters to the olfactory landscape of Ottoman Istanbul. Africa Past and Present provides an opportunity to hear about history and current events across Africa from similarly knowledgable speakers. Alternatively, other shows let you listen in on conversations among an experienced (but not necessarily academic) group. One in this style is Sinica, a podcast that explores Chinese history and culture through the eyes of journalists, public officials, and others living and working in China.

Caveat Auditor: It can be hard to find academic shows with good production quality and skilled hosts. Discussion shows, like Sinica, also often suffer from sound-quality issues. It's worthwhile to google guest speakers and become familiar with hosts over a series of episodes so you can develop a sense of how their biases and views compare to others involved in the same field.

Add Variety to Student Resources

You'd like to broaden student resources for homework or research purposes:

Professionally produced, auditorily complex shows have an obvious student-interest-advantage, but short segments or short episodes of simpler shows can also work well. Footnoting History, for example, features graduate students who research and write their own material. Episodes often feature quirky historical anecdotes and discussion about historical sources. 15 Minute History, based at UT Austin, is specifically designed for teachers and episodes are mapped to social studies standards. History Talk, based at Ohio State University, interprets current events within a historical context. All three shows provide information about hosts and authors, as well as a mix of citations, sources for further reading, images, videos, and web links.

Caveat Auditor: Unsurprisingly, students will have varying degrees of success learning from podcasts. On the positive side, some shows offer transcripts for students who prefer to read while they listen. Others may discover that listening while they move around is actually more effective than reading or listening while stationary.

The shows mentioned here represent a tiny fraction of the available options. Shows for younger students are not represented. Nor are any of the dozens of literary, artistic, or pop culture-related options. (The list feels infinite). If you'd like suggestions for a specific topic or purpose, please feel free to contact ORIAS.

photo credit: On The Air via photopin (license)