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.

The Burst of The ITT Tech Bubble and Pedagogical Support

PALS Note: PALS welcomes this guest post from Darcy Mullen, a PhD student at University at Albany. In this post, Mullen explores the closing of the for-profit ITT Technical Institute and asks how non-profit college professors can support students coming into their classrooms from the for-profit sector. 

Things we don’t like: when students fall through the cracks of any given education system.

Things we REALLY don’t like: when predatory for-profit learning institutions take advantage of students, leaving them with piles of debt, wasted years, credits that won’t transfer, and questionable skills to show for all this.

Screenshot (75)
from http://itt-tech.info

When ITT Tech filed for bankruptcy in September of 2016, and shut its electronic doors to students in the July 2016 term, students were left in a lurch. ITT Tech offered some options. Many were offered a deal: ITT Tech will wipe out any of their loan debt, and they will lose the credits they earned, OR they can take the credits and keep the debt. Some have taken the first option, others have taken the second. I want to focus on the second group.

We don’t have concrete data on how many students have done which option. But many students have taken their credits and signed off on that option. They’ve taken their credits to local community colleges and found that many of these credits won’t transfer. Others, with the equivalent of an associate’s degree, are approaching four year colleges to find that there are major transferability issues as well. While some started this spring, another problem is that many have to wait for fall enrollments (due to major-sequencing).

The drive behind this essay is not to bash predatory for-profit institutions (although they make my blood boil). Instead, I’d like to propose some lessons to be learned from the case study of ITT Tech and its pedagogy for communication and writing in order to expand the pool of who we think  of as a non-traditional student and their pedagogical needs.

I have not yet encountered students in my first year writing classroom that have self-identified as ITT Tech transfers. My interest in this topic came from a friendly conversation with a former- ITT Tech student. I marveled over how the ITT Tech commercials were such an institution amongst all commercials ever! With other for-profit, distance-based institutions in recent news, I am hoping we start a conversation about these  students that have been discarded rather unceremoniously.

I was given access to course materials (such as syllabi, and the assignments I reference) and other information comes from a former ITT Tech student (who I am keeping anonymous here). We can still find a lot of course materials, like syllabi, online.

Non-traditional students take many forms with diverse subjectivities. However, when we consider the traditional “non-traditional” student, we don’t tend to consider the students that have been betrayed (financially, pedagogically, and so on) by a prior institution. This is a subjectivity that is important to consider in both comp/rhet and literature classrooms. Let’s take a look at some potential areas to focus on in, specifically in the case of the  American Literature classroom.

After reviewing a sample of curricula materials for the reading/writing requirements of what we would call the ITT Tech core requirements, I propose we spend some time thinking about 3 ideas. For these ideas I offer some hypothetical text-assignment-goals that might work for a classroom with either a high proportion of this type of nontraditional student, or (more generally) in a classroom where one might need to do a bit more work to build trust:

Never Underestimate Zombies

Assignments in lower-level composition courses were about procedural writing—one assignment I saw was on Surviving A Zombie Apocalypse. Zombies seem to be the thing that bring students together these days. From Colson Whitehead’s Zone One to Cormac McCarthy’s quasi-zombies in The Road, zombies get everyone’s blood flowing.

Beyond content, zombies are applicable here because these particular students have survived the closest, metaphorically hyperbolic, thing to a zombie apocalypse that American colleges have produced. These students may not have yet had the opportunity to build skills anticipated in first or second year literature and writing classes.

They are entering the American Literature classroom having experienced instability and disappointment at high levels. Regardless of one’s teaching methods for dealing with trigger warnings, this is a trigger worth noting. And like many students that have had challenging experiences, they have empathetic perspectives that should be framed as strengths for understanding complexity. Using a text such as McCarthy’s The Road, or Whitehead’s  Zone One to examine issues of identity in American culture is one way to bridge a discussion about identity issues while modeling close reading in a way that fits a variety of student literacy needs.

The Eye of The Tiger vs. Unsupervised Hours

Part of the ITT Tech curriculum included a large emphasis on independent learning that wasn’t always supervised or used as an opportunity for feedback. I saw one assignment, for example, focusing on a profile of Bruce Lee. The assignment was structured around independent learning. We know students tend to do better with mentoring and, well, teaching. The grade the student received was not great. Not a big surprise, and not cool either. The work seemed to come with very brief feedback or opportunities for revision, or many other elements of the writing process for that matter.

Some of these students, I’m sure, will be happy to have more supervision and hands-on feedback from conferences, face-to-face classes, workshops, requirements of revisions, and so on. But this will also be a new thing for many students coming into four year colleges as Juniors. What we would see as normalized classroom processes may  be perceived with resistance—“Why do I need to do this?” In other words, “This is not a process I’m used to.” I think first person, or a good old Bildungsroman, in combination with modeling the workshop process can help with this.

A text like Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird or Karen Russell’s Swamplandia can demonstrate the need for community in critical thinking. Like any other transfer student, changes in expectation of the rhetorical situation is to be expected. Novels like these are great for writing assignments that identify the role of communication and rhetoric  within communities and the dangers of breakdowns in communication. The next tactic I would take with such a project is to do collaborative writing on these texts. Small writing groups could begin with the common ground granted in a template from They Say I Say, and to make decisions together about how to present an argument.

Apples and Oranges

In another assignment, a student compared the visual rhetoric of the company Apple with The Department of Homeland Security. One of the biggest issues that the instructor’s marginalia indicated was a lack of citations. If I had gotten that paper in my classroom, I would have reported it for plagiarism, period.

All institutions have different standards for what is a plagiarism offense or not, and the specifics of those standards are not my point. I’m trying to get at the idea that institutions do have standards and disciplinary procedures for plagiarism. But it is also a good reminder not to take both college-level skills and expectations for interaction and Welcome to Braggsvillesupervision in the American Literature classroom for granted. This was a skill that slipped through the cracks in a second-year level writing course, and the loss of this particular skill might be one that causes serious problems with irrevocable consequences.

For this, I’d prescribe Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Jackson, and maybe some exercises from, the not as popular textbook, Writing Analytically. The relationship between actions and consequences is pretty much what drives most American Literature. Using literature that takes that relationship seriously isn’t the worst way to deal with cause and effect in: argument structure, how to build a paper, close readings, and the role of procedures in college.

[Apples to Oranges: Appendix

Apples to Apples

When in doubt– or when there’s a problem in comprehending materials or re/building community in the classroom–my go to is having students make red and green cards for Apples to Apples. We play that, with small groups acting together as a single-player. It’s a pedagogical exercise that forces group decision-making, and the competition acts a solidification tactic. Working out concepts as a whole class, like “failure” in Welcome to Braggsville, through a discussion of hypothetical “red cards” like “college,” “performance art,” “America,” “adviser,” and/or “spring break” gives the opportunity for a discussion of how the narrative operates. I have not obtained rights to “copy” Apples to Apples in my classroom. This is my public mea culpa if I am violating intellectual property rights.]


We don’t have much data, yet, on the scope of students impacted by ITT Tech’s collapse. We won’t have that hard data for a while. Many students are still trying to decide if they should erase their debt or keep their credits and start in a new college in the fall. The shift in demographics of non-traditional students to include this demographic hasn’t happened yet.

Until we have more information with which to make better-informed decisions, I suggest we keep an eye on the fallout from ITT Tech and hope that students haven’t been put off from higher education by the whole process. It is worth keeping in mind that these students are not just transfer students. They were dropped by a school they trusted. When they end up in our classrooms, we can, and will, do better.

Contributor Bio:

FullSizeRenderDarcy Mullen is a PhD student at University at Albany, studying  Rhetoric, Food Studies and Protest Writing. Her most recent publications include articles exploring the use of “local” as a cartographic tool in the local food movement, one on the  politics of place and tourism in Myanmar, and a chapter on pedagogy and disability studies using “Beowulf” as a case study. Darcy blogs regularly about stories and soil, and tweets #bookselfies with her adorable #souphound @FarmsWatson.