Every now and then Paragraph City shoos its faculty together and tries to dust the rust and mold off them before returning them to the classroom. It’s a losing battle, but a valiant effort nevertheless. A recent skirmish on podcasting I thought was pretty interesting, mainly in how we have such trouble knowing what to do with something new.

The podcast: totally portable, entirely voice & sound (and later, maybe, visuals), 24/7 availability, endless reiterations at the user’s demand, and endlessly patient with interruptions and pauses. Even at my best in the classroom, those are things I cannot do. So why is the best we can think to do with podcasting is to capture a classroom lecture for people who want to hear it again, or who missed the class and want to have it in their car or computer or phone or mp3 player? You don’t buy a car that can fly and then sit in traffic jams with rusted Impalas.

When the technology pushes the pedagogy (instead of the other way around) it can be hard to know what to do, and even to know whether it’s worth doing. The old way often isn’t the worst way. But here are my suggestions for podcasting, nascent as it is in my community college.

  • Walking commentary, museum-tour-style. Imagine Communications podcasts guiding students on a people-watching mall-walks. Art History podcasts guide students through the architecture of Paragraph City or the iconography of a church. Botany classes run podcast field trips of a field, a wetland, a forest.
  • Guided assignments. Instead of the instructions given in class or via a handout, build a listen-as-you-do-it assignment. My Creative Writing assignment takes a student to a store or a restaurant or a body of water and the podcast guides the student in using all his senses to perceive the setting, taking notes, catching the perception in words. My basic writers are guided to find all the verbs in their rough drafts and to compare them with more meaning-rich possibilities, to sift the piece for metaphors, to winnow out a few wordy constructions I target for them; or they are guided to build an error log from a just-returned paper. The podcast coaches at their elbow.
  • Imagine campus tours for prospective students & parents; library tours for new students, with built in scavenger hunts and assignments.
  • Instead of lecturing, I’m thinking of a loosely scripted interview, where a colleague feeds the faculty questions that lead to the subject of the day.
  • Imagine modeling the thinking that typifies my field, talking out in the podcast my own interior monologue that unpacks an assigned poem, that discovers the effect the last word of the essay has on me, that maps my sifting of topics on an assignment until I arrive at a thesis.  The physicist models her thinking as she watches a YouTube car crash; the statistician gives her stream-of-consciousness in designing an unbiased survey; the faculty of any subject lets the student listen in on what runs through his mind – the reaction and criteria and commentary – as he grades an assignment.

I suppose it’s that last possibility that is biggest for me. That professorial voice at the head of the classroom might come from the Land of Nod, it’s that foreign. But the podcast that comes through earphones makes the voice so interior to the student. It’s as if the inside thoughts of the person trained to think as a sociologist can become the inner thoughts of the student-sociologist for a moment. This is the training the great Renaissance artists offered in their schools; it’s the mentoring the writers and scientists and experts of all sorts have offered their favored pupils. Come see how I think, they said. I will open my ways of knowing to you, and you will first mimic and then perhaps go beyond.


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