Podcasts and Pedagogy

In 2014, I kept hearing people talk about this new podcast, Serial. I wrote it off. Why listen to a true crime story on a podcast when I can watch one on television? After brushing this recommendation aside for far too long, I finally clicked on the Podcasts app, figured out how to search for Serial, and began listening to its first episode. I soon realized that my initial perception was, obviously, quite wrong. I was instantly obsessed, not just with the show, but with the overall experience of listening to podcasts.

Since Serial, I have been finding excuses to discuss various podcasts with my co-workers and friends. These conversations, combined with the growing popularity of podcasts, have encouraged me to consider the ways in which podcasts can be incorporated into the courses I teach. Their content can be used for many purposes: as part of a classroom activity, as a complement to an assigned reading, or even as inspiration when planning a syllabus. Thus, in honor of last month’s social media campaign, #TryPod, which encouraged listeners to share their favorite podcasts (and show others how to access them), this post will introduce the PALS community to two of my favorites: The New York Public Library Podcast, which can be used to structure classroom discussion, and Literary Disco, which can be used as a resource for selecting new texts. 

NYCPL Podcast Icon

The New York Public Library Podcast

As Aiden Flax-Clark, Manager of Public Programs, states in its latest episode, The New York Public Library (NYPL) Podcast aims to “bring you conversations from the library’s programs that explore the work and ideas of authors, artists, and thinkers.” While the most recent episodes examine current events through conversations with innovative thinkers, many of the archived episodes found in The NYPL Podcast‘s feed center on literature and writing. Some of these episodes focus on interviews with single authors, such Junot Diaz and Colson Whitehead; however, the majority feature discussions that well-known authors have with other authors, artists, or activists. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith, Sharon Olds and Cynthia Nixon, and Toni Morrison and Angela Davis are only a handful of episodes that could be incorporated into a class discussion on one of these authors’ works.

When considering what would best benefit the students in my Literature and Composition class, I instantly clicked on Episode #98, featuring Yusef Komunyakaa. I usually include “Facing It” in my Literature and Composition courses because this frequently anthologized poem is so accessible to students. To help students critically think about the poem, I have incorporated several moments from this episode into our class discussion on “Facing It.” 

Komunyakaa is first asked by NYPL’s Jessica Strand if he considers himself to be a political poet. He responds, “Well, I think language is political…the politics are not on the surface of the poem, but I think since I use language the politics are underneath, woven into the emotional architecture of the poem.” He then references James Baldwin, before stating, “I think, perhaps, the poet is cursed to be a keen observer.” After playing this clip, I tell my students to take note of what Komunyakaa perceives as the relationship between language and politics as well as his claim that the “politics are underneath,” before I play two other clips from the episode that center on the ideas of the image and of silence.

Yusef_KomunyakaaWhen Strand asks Komunyakaa how he began writing poetry, he responds, “Images are so important to me…. When it comes to images, it was where I grew up… I would sort of lose myself in nature. I wanted to know the ritual of things. So it was a keen kind of observation… I don’t think I can write a poem without images.” After listening to this response, I ask my students to reread “Facing It” and list on a separate piece of paper any striking images that appear in the poem.

Finally, I play the class a clip that describes Komunyakaa’s use of silence in poetry. He states, “I often think about what isn’t said. It’s that space between images, that space between lines…. if we are in the rhythm of the poem, we are in the emotional architecture of the poem, and language says things that are direct, but also insinuation.” I ask students to revisit the images that they wrote down. Then, I ask them to write down what isn’t being said in the poem, or what they think is lurking underneath and in the silent moments of “Facing It.” Their responses help us to discuss the distinction between denotation and connotation when considering a poem’s word choice and the effect of imagery in the poem. I then circle back to the first clip’s main point to ask my students how the use of language in “Facing It” displays Komunyakaa’s belief that language is political. We also consider the ways in which “the poet is cursed to be a keen observer.” These clips, therefore, become the organizational framework that helps students analyze “Facing It” throughout our class discussion.

Literary Disco 

Literary Disco Logo

With episodes centered on a wide variety of texts, including poetry, short stories, nonfiction, fiction, graphic novels, and even “story songs,”  Literary Disco was created by Tod GoldbergJulia Pistell, and Rider Strong, who became friends while in Bennington College’s MFA program. In the first episode, Strong discusses the genesis of Literary Disco: “We realized that there doesn’t actually exist a book discussion group, a podcast or a radio show, that taps into that sort of…between the high brow and the low brow.” I was late to the Disco; I only started listening to this podcast in 2014, over two years after its first episode aired.

Since then, I have made my way through the archives, where I found not only hilarious commentary on texts such as the first book in the Sweet Valley High series, but also very interesting conversations about texts I had either never heard of or had not yet read. As I have listened to more and more episodes, I started to think about how some of the texts featured on Literary Disco could be incorporated into my courses. One text that really interested me was Damian Duffy and John Jennings’ graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

Kindred.JPGRecently, Literary Disco aired Episode 102, which centered on this new publication of Kindred. Goldberg, Pistell, and Strong’s discussion is extraordinarily helpful when thinking about both the benefits and drawbacks of assigning the graphic novel adaptation versus Butler’s novel. Strong is the only one of the three who had already read Kindred (he, in fact, recommended it in a previous episode), so he provides important insight into the strengths of the novel, such as point of view and pacing, versus the strengths of the graphic novel, which all three identify as the stunning artwork’s depictions of violence in the Antebellum South. Goldberg describes the panels as “unbelievable….I felt sad and I felt angry and I felt interested and entertained and amazed, all at the same time.” The rest of Goldberg, Pistell, and Strong’s conversation, especially their exploration of Butler having, as Pistell states, “a deep intellectual understanding of how empathy and compassion work, but how they can be forced and uncomfortable and so violent at times,” is one that anyone who is considering assigning this adaptation of Kindred should listen to before making a final decision.

Literary Disco and The New York Public Library Podcast are only two examples of podcasts that can serve as resources for instructors. Now, not surprisingly, I am always interested in getting recommendations for new podcasts, so I would love to hear about others that can serve as inspiration for creating new classroom activities or finding new texts.

*Featured image is “Serial Podcast,” by Casey Fletcher, from Flickr.com.


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