James M Cochran, University of Baylor
Following Maura Kelly’s and others’ recent calls for “slow reading” or “Slow Books,” movements that encourage people to “pick up a meaningful work of literature” instead of “scanning Twitter for something to pass the time,” this activity calls for educators to encourage “slow listening,” a practice that involves listening carefully, critically, and empathetically to an extended argument. Ideally, “slow listening” practices will encourage students to listen more carefully in the classroom and also approach all texts—aural or visual—more critically.
Because many current students are digital natives, this activity aims to integrate technology in a productive manner rather than dismiss the digital world altogether. To incorporate “slow listening” strategies, this activity assigns a long-form podcast (one that covers a single issue or event over multiple episodes) throughout the semester. This activity introduces students to a digital manifestation of a storytelling mode dating back to the serialized radio dramas of the 1940s. Podcastsrepresent a particularly useful pedagogical tool because they are part of the modern digital world, but they do not rely on the short-form common to most social media. Ideally, students will apply the “slow listening” skills that they develop to the rest of their digital lives.
Be sure to listen to the podcast prior to the start of the course. Schedule the podcast episodes throughout the semester as preferred. Require students to write discussion questions or take notes for each episode. Design and assign short writing assignments to correspond with the course objectives. For example, in a first-year writing course, I assign the following assignments:
Consider the rhetorical situation of the podcast. In particular, how does the “podcast genre” impact how you understand the narrative? How does the genre change how the writers and producers construct each episode? How does hearing the narrative differ from reading it? How does the episode’s music complement the narrative?
Describe the explanation practices in this week’s podcast episode. Point to examples of formal definitions and extended definitions. Describe moments of process analysis and causal analysis in the podcast’s episode.
List three criteria for a “good” podcast (e.g. “interesting story,” “an engaging narrator,” “upbeat background music”). Evaluate this week’s podcast episode based on these criteria.
After students listen to a podcast episode for homework, have students use their discussion questions to lead discussion (for 15-30 minutes). To help encourage discussion, ask students what they found most confusing, interesting, or amusing about the episode. Provide historical and cultural context, as needed, during discussions.
To ensure that students listen to each episode, require students to write discussion questions. In addition to discussion questions, occasionally assign 1-2 page writing tasks that connect the podcast to the course’s content.
web browser, podcast app
Small to medium
Level of preparation
Students will spend approximately 40 minutes to an hour, depending on the episode’s length, listening to the podcast each week. Instructors also need to listen to the episode and might need to spend time familiarizing themselves with the broader context of the episode.
In general, students have responded favourably to listening to podcasts. Students find the podcasts to be “very engaging” and a “good example of sophisticated storytelling.” Many students find that an assignment of listening is a pleasant break from reading. Although this activity was originally designed for the composition classroom, it could easily be adapted for other subjects, like digital media, journalism, psychology, or history.
One challenge is grounding the class discussions in the text. It is sometimes difficult for students to remember the precise events of the episode without having the “text” in front of them. To address this, I recommend that students take notes while listening. Another problem is “distracted listening.” I encourage students to listen to the podcast without multitasking, but some students have admitted to listening to the podcast while completing other assignments, during tutoring, or even while playing video games. Unfortunately, this runs counter to the practice of “slow listening.”
Baran, Madeline. In the Dark. www.apmreports.org/in-the-dark
Hunt, Amber & Amanda Rossman. Accused: The Unsolved Crime of Elizabeth Andes. 2016. cincinnati.com/series/accused/
Koenig, Sarah. Serial.2014. www.serialpodcast.org
Lindsay, Payne. Up and Vanished: The Disappearance of Tara Grinstead.2016. www.upandvanished.com
—. Atlanta Monster.2017. www.atlantamonster.com/
Reed, Brian. Stown.2017. www.stownpodcast.org
Smerling, Mark & Zac Stuart-Pontier. Crimetown. 2016. crimetownshow.com
Kelly. Maura.A Slow-Books Manifesto. The Atlantic, 26 March 2012.