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Podcasts, sound essays, and audio essays are an increasingly popular media for storytelling, education, reporting, commentary, and more. From recent hits like Serial and S-Town, to old favorites like Radiolab and This American Life, the wide variety of podcasts available represent an exciting and approachable opportunity to integrate new types of media into the classroom. (1)
As a writing assignment, podcast composition can help students to grasp key concepts such as audience, purpose, and context; as Jennifer L. Bowie argues, podcasts prove particularly effective at helping students to find purchase in classical rhetoric, including Aristotle’s five canons (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery). Students’ understanding of these concepts will help them not only to create better podcasts, but to develop a transferrable approach to writing in a variety of contexts.
But podcast composition involves much more than just reading an essay into a microphone. The framework below, adapted from Sweetland’s Basic Framework for Sequencing and Scaffolding Multimodal Composition Assignments, offers specific approaches to creating effective podcast composition assignments in any college-level course.
Scaffolding Your Podcast Composition Assignment
Step 1: Help students analyze model podcasts that you provide:
Whatever kind of media work you want your students to create, it’s useful to find examples of work in that media. (Both good and bad examples can be equally helpful!) Then you can guide students in identifying the features of the genre, the audience(s) it appeals to, where and how it’s used, and how it makes its points. This process helps students “reverse engineer” the models to see how they work.
The model podcasts you choose may depend on your particular assignment. In some cases, it may work best to choose a variety of models representing popular podcast genres (e.g. investigative journalism, interview, comedy, educational, radio drama).
If you are asking students to create podcasts in a particular genre (e.g., history education podcasts), you might choose multiple models within this genre (e.g. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Revisionist History) and have students compare varying approaches to similar material.
Regardless, you’ll want to offer students some basic vocabulary with which to analyze the model podcasts. As with any writing assignment, a great place to start is with a discussion of audience, purpose and context. That means asking questions such as:
Who is this podcast for, and what are the signs that it’s aimed at this particular audience? What stakes does this audience have in the content of the podcast?
What is the purpose of this podcast? Does it aim to educate, entertain, persuade?
What is the context of this podcast? Who writes/records it? How is it distributed? What similar podcasts exist, if any? How do these factors inform our analysis of this podcast’s content?
Sweetland’s resources on Supporting Multimodal Analysis offer useful concepts and vocabulary for analyzing podcasts as multimodal texts. The primary modes involved in podcast composition are:
Linguistic – word choice; delivery of spoken or written text (tone); organization into sentences, phrases, paragraphs, etc.; coherence of individual words and ideas.
Audio – music; sound effects; ambient noise/sounds; silence; tone; emphasis and accent of voice in spoken language; volume of sound.
In Navigating The Soundscape, Composing With Audio, Rodrigue and co-authors propose five “sonic strategies” applicable to podcast composition. These are music, silence, sound effects, sound interaction, and voice. For Rodrigue et al.’s “microexaminations” of these five strategies in the podcast composition process, see their excellent webtext.
Step 2: Have students find and analyze models they want to base their own projects on:
After working with students to guide them through the analysis process, let them find and analyze their own samples, with particular attention to work they want to emulate (or avoid!). Many students will arrive already familiar with podcasts—encourage them to draw on their existing knowledge, and to explore new podcasts, too!
During Steps 1 and 2: remind students that the purpose of analyzing models is to inform and inspire their own podcast compositions. Some effective activities during these steps include:
Write a how to. Working alone or in teams, have students write a set of instructions for “How to Make a Good Podcast.” Challenge them to use the vocabulary from Step 1—for example, how should aspiring podcast creators go about integrating sound effects? How should they think about the role of silence?
For each instruction in students’ “how to” manuals, have them provide examples from the model podcasts they find (or from models you present).
Example: When integrating sound effects, podcast creators should avoid overly obvious effects that simply replicate the spoken narration. At 4:55 in Model Podcast, you can hear the sound of tires squealing right after the host says “the car squealed away;” this kind of redundancy adds little to the listener’s experience.
Model the peer review process (see Step 7) by critiquing a less effective podcast. Ask students how they might improve the podcast, again challenging them to use the vocabulary from Step 1--for example, how could this podcast improve its sound interactions? Its use of silence?
Compare a podcast with another type of source that covers similar material. For example, you might compare an episode of Hardcore History about the Spanish-American War with a chapter from a history textbook on the same subject. What are the affordances and limitations of communicating information in a podcast versus a textbook? Why would a historian or educator choose to use one form instead of another?
Step 3: Provide a list of resources that students can use to seek help with technologies/platforms they’ll need to work with:
You should plan enough time for students to build competency in the technologies/platforms you are asking them to use. The ISS Media Center offers a variety of personal assistance, access to technology, and tutorials. The U of M Library’s Research Guide on Podcasting and Audio Storytelling is another great resource, aimed at students (but useful for instructors, too). Sweetland also works with students on multimodal composition projects of any kind in our Writing Workshop and Peer Writing Centers.
Step 4: Have students formally propose their projects:
Proposals provide an opportunity for students to articulate what they want to accomplish with a project as well as generate feedback from you and/or their peers. For instructors, proposals offer a chance to course-correct if students’ plans seem unviable or off-task, or to offer guidance about potential resources, strategies for success, etc. A good podcast proposal includes:
An overview of the podcast’s topic, genre, and goals (including a working thesis, hypothesis, or line of inquiry)
Students might ask themselves questions such as: what is my podcast about? Who is its audience? What similar podcasts exist, and how does mine follow/depart from the conventions of this genre? What do I hope listeners will gain from my podcast?
A plan detailing how the podcast will create and support the argument, what technologies it requires, where help with those technologies is available, and how those technologies will illuminate the research/line of inquiry
Here, you might reinforce the analytical vocabulary used in Steps 1 and 2 by prompting students to think specifically about how they will work with music, silence, sound effects, sound interaction, and voice. (While students may not have definitive answers to these questions at the proposal stage, asking them to think early and often about these specific “sonic strategies” and rhetorical approaches will reinforce the notion that podcasts are not simply essays read aloud!)
A justification for why and how a podcast is well-suited to the goal and audience of the project
A timeline for completion
This proposal could be formally written, and you could provide feedback in writing, in class, or in face-to-face conferences. Alternately, you could have students “pitch” their projects to the class for on-the-spot feedback.
Step 5: Have students script their podcasts:
Scripting allows students to seek and incorporate feedback before they go through the painstaking process of recording and editing their material. (As an early rough draft, writing a script is the podcaster’s equivalent of a mock-up or storyboard for a visually-based multimodal project, such as a poster or TV ad.)
The purpose and conventions of podcast script writing can vary depending on the type of podcast. An interview-based podcast might outline the basic line of questioning, but ad-lib as needed throughout the conversation. A radio drama, on the other hand, would likely have every line scripted exactly as it is to be spoken in the final recording. In either case, podcast scripts typically include some indication of other audio elements, such as music and sound effect cues.
Clearly define the script writing process with your students, again being specific about what kinds of elements, and what level of detail, their scripts should include. We recommend that podcast scripts include all text to be read or spoken during the podcast, and brief descriptions of other sounds that students plan to include.
One helpful exercise is to have students listen to a few minutes of a model podcast (ideally one that includes not just spoken text, but also other elements) and reverse engineer it as a script. Emphasize that students should not simply transcribe spoken words, but also include other cues for things like music, tone/volume of voice, extended silences, etc. In addition, a quick Google search for the type of podcast script you’d like students to create can yield many helpful examples--though you’ll also find that there’s no one right way to write a podcast script!
Step 6: Have students create rough cuts:
Rough cuts are one step further in development than scripts. Like scripts, they provide an early draft of most of the project’s basic elements, in order, but without everything yet in place. A rough cut provides what some people might call a “prototype” of the project--complete enough to understand, but still early enough to allow students to seek feedback and fine-tune their work as they go.
Note: A rough cut of a podcast will be impossible to create without engaging students with the necessary technology for recording and editing sounds. We recommend introducing this technology early in the scaffolding (see Step 3); if you haven’t yet, we recommend doing so before assigning rough cuts.
Two possible approaches to rough cuts are as follows:
Make an actual rough recording of the podcast. At this stage, students shouldn’t worry about smoothly editing in songs or sounds; depending on time and availability of equipment, they might even just read their descriptions of sounds (instead of including the actual sounds), or approximate the sounds in some other way (e.g., saying “sound of rainfall--shhhhhhhhhhhhh” as a placeholder for where they will eventually add the actual recorded sound).
Have students collect audio elements and note their place and function in their scripts. Have students create a sound library keyed to specific moments in their scripts, focusing on collecting music and sound effects rather than recording voiceover text. In this approach, the rough cut would take the form of a script and an accompanying set of audio files.
Step 7: Have students peer review each other’s scripts and rough cuts along the way:
As with any writing project, peer review of multimodal compositions can provide students with helpful insight into how their project is working, and where they may need to make adjustments.
When peer-reviewing podcasts, be specific and explicit about the form students’ feedback will take. Should students take notes as they listen, or afterwards? Should they timestamp their feedback? Should they write directly on scripts, or in a separate feedback document? If in-class peer review activities are planned, will students be able to listen to the piece they are reviewing during the class period? These questions depend on a number of factors, including class size and location.
For more on peer review, see Sweetland’s Using Peer Review to Improve Student Writing resource.
Step 8: Have students create final cuts:
Ask students to revise their podcasts, to the extent that they can, given the time and resources available, incorporating feedback they’ve received along the way.
Step 9: Assign a final reflection:
Because few students’ podcasts are likely to be at an expert level in the short time they have to create them, it can be useful to ask students to submit reflections with their final cuts. These reflections should explain and justify the rhetorical choices they made as they planned, researched, designed, executed, and revised their podcasts. In other words, this step asks students to make an evidence-based argument about what they were doing and how it met or didn’t meet their aims for the project. You can then use this reflection to inform your own assessment of their projects.
Some podcasts are presented online with supplementary materials such as behind the scenes audio clips, additional interviews, images, videos, and other forms of further reading/listening/viewing. Though these supplementary materials will likely need modification or adjustment for a classroom setting, they often model reflective practices, especially when podcast creators are interviewed or asked to discuss their creative processes. Asking students to imagine a “real world” role for their reflection in the production of their podcast can help students to feel invested in the reflection assignment.
For more on reflection, see Sweetland’s Cultivating Reflection and Metacognition resource.
Step 10: Assessment:
As Step 9 suggests, assessing multimodal composition assignments presents special challenges--are you grading based on who made the best podcast, or whose podcast best reflects the learning goals of the class? Once again, we recommend using consistent terminology throughout this 10-step process; for example, you can crowdsource evaluative criteria from students’ analyses of podcasts in Step 2, use these criteria during peer review, and then use them again in a final assessment rubric. For a broader consideration of effective multimodal assessment practices, please see Sweetland’s Some Considerations for Multimodal Assessment resource.
Bowie, Jennifer. “Rhetorical Roots and Media Future: How Podcasting Fits into the Computers and Writing Classroom.” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, vol. 16, no. 2, Spring 2012, http://technorhetoric.net/16.2/topoi/bowie/index.html
Cordulack, Evan. “Four Mistakes I Made When Assigning Podcasts.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 Jul 2012, https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/four-mistakes-i-made-when-assigning-podcasts/41377.
Rodrigue, Tanya K., et al. “Navigating The Soundscape, Composing With Audio.” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, vol. 21, no. 1, Fall 2016, http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/21.1/praxis/rodrigue/index.html
(1) A note on terminology: podcasts vs. audio essays. A podcast is technically a means of distribution for a show that is “cast” (or streamed) online. Many podcases consist of one or more segments. The types of segments are often determined by the genre of the podcast; for example, a radio drama podcast might have a segment called an “audio story” or “audio fiction.” An “audio essay,” then, is a segment that its authors classify as an essay, perhaps because it includes research or makes an argument.
However, we found that many podcast creators, listeners and educators use the term “podcast” to refer to the segments or content of the podcast itself. So, for the purposes of this resource, we use the term “podcast” to refer to any kind of audio or sound essay you might have a student create.