Innovations in Education – October 2020

Teaching with Podcasts

by Jörg Matthias Determann

Studying history is not normally a physically dangerous activity, but it can have adverse health effects. Spending too much time sitting indoors, hunched over books and papers, and staring at the screens of various devices is hardly ideal for our backs, necks and eyes. When I was a graduate student at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) between 2008 and 2012, I experienced not just mental pressures, but also a worsening of my eyesight. One activity that helped me, besides acquiring new pairs of glasses, was listening to podcasts. I would regularly get up from my laptop and enjoy different sensory experiences: keeping my body upright, looking out of the window and into the distance, while taking in new sounds. If an inner voice was telling me that I should go back to my books and be productive, I could respond that I was still learning but just through a different medium.

Because podcasts were so beneficial to me as a graduate student, I have consistently included them in my syllabi since becoming an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar in 2013. I have assigned them in the same way as I have texts or films and, indeed, alongside them. I request my students to listen to them outside of the class time and discuss or react to them during our meetings. “You don’t have time to read an entire book until next week?” I would ask. “Why not listen to a one-hour conversation with the author in an episode of the New Books Network instead and get her main points this way?” Many podcasts, such as Time to Eat the Dogs by Michael Robinson, offer even shorter formats.

In order to demonstrate that they have understood the material, students have to produce something on the basis of their listening. This can be a short response paper or something more creative—like a visual artwork, performance or game. Some students might find one or the other program of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, for example, as boring as a textbook section. In such a case, I would encourage them to show their mastery of the subject by turning it into something more engaging. They could assume the role of a past scientist in a skit performed in front of their classmates, for instance. I have also encouraged students to cite podcasts alongside traditional academic media in longer essays due at the end of the semester.

Beyond giving my students’ eyes a break from texts and images, the spoken word has other advantages. In recorded conversations, academics tend to use simpler language than in peer-reviewed academic articles and monographs. Professors who regularly appear on public radio programs usually avoid specialized terminology. If they do use rare words, they provide my students—most of whom are not native speakers of English—with authoritative pronunciations. Programs, in which multiple speakers are disagreeing with one another, further give a good sense of academic debates that is often hidden from textbooks. Students under time constraints, such as those who care for family members, can listen to discussions while doing manual chores.

Doctoral candidate Taylan Güngör and Jörg Matthias Determann sitting in the SOAS Radio studio.
The author (right) and Taylan Güngör, a doctoral candidate in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, recording an episode of the Ottoman History Podcast on “The Arab Conquest of Space” at the SOAS Radio studio in London in July 2019.

Most of my students have enjoyed listening to podcasts, and some of them have even produced their own as part of their course work. They thus imitated and at times satirized the expert discussions they were introduced to. For that, they required little more than a recording app on their smartphones and a quiet room. Compared with making videos, they were perhaps attracted to a medium that valued their voices over their looks. No suits or makeup needed! My classes are also predominantly filled by Muslim women who are less reluctant to turn their faces to a microphone than to a camera. In order to be able to guide my students in making their own shows, I have also sought first-hand experience as a contributor to the New Books Network, Time to Eat the Dogs and the Ottoman History Podcast.

However, I have also heard criticism. Occasionally, students have expressed difficulties understanding a podcast either because of the sound quality or a speaker’s accent. While empathizing with them, I told them that they could expect similar challenges when attending an international conference. I advised them that instead of trying to transcribe the recording, they should rather focus on getting some valuable idea out of it. If every effort to extract information from an audio file fails, many websites, like that of the Ottoman History Podcast, come with bibliographies for further reading. Of course, I could have minimized complaints about sound quality by only assigning radio programs made in professional studios like those of the BBC. However, I would then also have reduced the plurality of voices that my students are exposed to. Especially when teaching the global history of science, we must not ignore those producers of knowledge without access to expensive infrastructure.

Podcasts may not be to everybody’s taste, but they have enriched my syllabi. Students with a variety of learning styles benefit from having multisensory experiences. People with disabilities also have a right to the kinds of material that best serve them. By adding audio files to texts, videos, and tactile objects, we can engage a broader spectrum of students. Because most podcasts are free or very affordable, graduates will continue to have access to them even after losing their university library accounts. As such, they also form a resource of life-long learning.

Jörg Matthias Determann is Associate Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar and the author of Space Science and the Arab World: Astronauts, Observatories and Nationalism in the Middle East.

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