Podcasting Themes and Issues in American Literature

[This is a guest post by Julia Kaziewicz, a PhD candidate in American Studies at William & Mary. In it, she talks about how her Rich Media Grant project turned out.]

Last semester I had the students in my GER 5 non-major English 207 course Themes and Issues in American Literature write and record review podcasts.  Students were assigned a text and told to write a script that explained the importance of one of the themes of the course as it presented itself in the novel/short story/poem; for example, the presence of consumerism in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, or rebellion against the status quo in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”  Students assigned to the same text used the discussion forum on Blackboard in order to figure out who would write about what.  The goal was to create a complete review guide for each text that all the students in the class could then use to study for the final.

In my first post on the project I listed my main goals for using podcasting in the classroom: to build a collaborative learning environment where students create the content of their final exam, to create a classroom of students that remained engaged in the material of the course regardless of their majors, to get students into the Media Center and using various types of recording technology, and to have students learn writing and technology skills that would be valuable regardless of their academic concentration.

At first I thought it would be best to have students work together to create one master podcast, but I realized the length of a “master podcast” would be too long.  Instead, I divided the class up by text, and assigned each student two works that they would write about.  While students had to talk with one another about what they were writing about, each student was responsible for his own writing and recording.  Grading was a bit tricky.  Knowing these scripts would eventually be recorded, I assigned at least two rounds of mandatory revision with the caveat that if the writing wasn’t up to snuff, more rounds of revision would follow. This lead to some students submitting four or five drafts before getting the okay to record.  If a student completed all rounds of revision, and recorded her podcast and study questions within the time frame allotted, she would receive an A.  Because students knew they would get an A if they did all the required work, they were more receptive to actually thinking about how to improve their writing rather than just making the changes they thought I wanted them to make in order to up their grade (we’ve all had the student that only makes the changes we suggest in red pen and doesn’t actually read through or think about her writing).

I used an app called GoodReader to grade student papers.  This is an inexpensive PDF reader for the iPad that allows you to mark up PDFs.  Students would send me their scripts and I would grade them and send them back via email.  Paperless grading meant I didn’t have to wait until class time to return student work, and that meant I could create a schedule of deadlines that was not dependent on class meetings.  I exchanged several emails with each student over the course of the semester, which created a more personal relationship between me and each one of my students.  Also, students recorded study questions for each podcast.  I had students come in to my office and record their study questions via a mobile recording application called SoundCloud, which is free for all iOS and Android devices.  The face-to-face time I had with each of my students further increased our familiarity. So much interaction on the editing and email level, as well as the interaction in office hours when we were experimenting with SoundCloud, led to a level of intimacy in a classroom of 33 that I had never experienced.  Lectures were well-attended and lively.  Everyone participated.  It was really incredible to watch the students open up.

This isn’t all post-project rosy hogwash, either.  I asked the students in my class to participate in a post-podcasting survey, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

  • 44% of students found the usefulness of the podcasting skills (e.g. planning, recording, using the equipment and editing) “extremely useful;” 40% found it “very useful.”
  • When asked about the usefulness of skills and ideas learned in this class compared to other GER classes the students have taken, 52% said the skills were “extremely useful,” and 44% said “somewhat useful.”  Only 4% said “neither useful or not useful.”
  • 92% of students read through the podcast scripts while studying, and 76% looked at the study questions.
  • Interestingly, only 32% actually listened to the podcasts and study questions while preparing for the final exam.  I’m not sure why this is, but I bet it has something to do with students reading to study rather than listening to study

And here are my two favorite statistics:

  • 100% of the students would recommend this GER course to a student NOT majoring in English.
  • 100% of the students said they felt their writing improved because of this project.

Students felt the podcasting project helped their writing improve in these ways:

  • “The podcast project helped me to develop a clear thesis and improved my use of supporting quotations.”
  • “Overall improvement in paragraph structure.”
  • “I have gotten better at using examples in the texts I study to support my thesis statement for my different papers rather than trying to reason support through my own thinking.”
  • “Since completing the podcast project, I would say that my writing has become more clear and concise.  Knowing that I had to read my writing aloud forced me to be more selective and become a better editor.”
  • “Because we were writing scripts for this project, we had to think constantly of the listener — to make sure that our writing was simple enough to easily comprehend, but complicated enough to drive home a complex point. I think that the fact we were writing scripts really improved my writing.”

The community feeling I had in the classroom wasn’t all in my head, either.  This is what the students wrote about the environment fostered in the classroom by the podcasting project:

  • “It allowed me to meet people from the class that I hadn’t before, thus making the classroom environment more comfortable.”
  • “I thought working on the podcasts outside of class made me more prepared for the themes we discussed inside class.”
  • “I had to speak to other members of the class that I otherwise wouldn’t have, so the project definitely made the class closer.  We all had to do something that might feel a bit uncomfortable, so we were all in the same boat.”

It was important for me that the students felt like they were contributing to the creation of our course content.  It is for that reason that I used the podcasts and study questions to create the final exam — in fact, all of the short answer questions (which made up 40% of the exam) came directly from the study questions written by the students.  I think it is for this reason that 100% of the students felt the final exam was fair.

Ultimately, the project gave me a chance to explore one way to use rich media in the classroom, and it gave the students the opportunity to learn about American literature and technology.  One student commented, “The skills I learned with the audio equipment will be extremely helpful in the future,” and another wrote, “I think this is a good project because it encourages close reading, and also stresses the importance of several drafts of an essay.”  As for my aim to make the class accessible to students outside of the English department, one student chimed in

I do not plan on being an English major, but this class was my favorite one this year.  At the beginning of the semester, I was concerned that I was not going to be able to keep up with the reading schedule, but the books we read were very interesting and this class definitely made me a better reader and writer.  Thank you so much.

Using podcasting as a way to get students more interested in the reading they were doing really seemed to work.  Yes, I spent an incredible amount of time editing student papers, and I probably wouldn’t undertake the project in the same way alone (if I was team teaching or had a TA, I would do it in a heartbeat).  However, I feel the project really prepared students with skills they can use across all of their classes while engaging them with the course material in a way they wouldn’t have previously.  Because they didn’t want to crash and burn in front of each other, the students put a lot of effort into understanding our texts in order to make strong podcasts.  They knew the podcasts would be used to study for the final, and the pressure to provide worthy study aids to their classmates made the students work harder to fundamentally understand our course texts.

The podcasting project was hard work, but very rewarding.  I could write endlessly about its nuances, but instead I’ll leave you with one last student comment:

Enjoyed it! Much more fun than just writing a boring paper.

If you are interested in learning more, or would like any of my podcasting teaching aids/rubrics, please send me an email at jxkazi@email.wm.edu