by Marissa Greenberg
Teaching premodern literatures inclusively and equitably is more necessary — and more difficult — now than it was even a year ago. In response to COVID-19 and the recession, faculty overhauled their classes for remote instruction and took on additional carework to support their most vulnerable students. Despite these added demands on our time and energy, Ambereen Dadabhoy and Nedda Mehdizadeh are absolutely right that we, as educators, remain responsible for schooling ourselves so we may cultivate anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-ableist, and anti-homophobic pedagogies. To meet these intersecting challenges, this piece presents an evolving set of strategies and tactics that I call podcast pedagogy.
I conceived podcast pedagogy a few years after I began teaching exclusively online. I started with two goals in mind: to expand my knowledge of modern critical theories and premodern histories of race, gender, disability, and sexuality, and to teach students to name, analyze, and respond to bigotry and stigmatization in premodern literatures and cultures. When the pandemic hit, I recognized that teaching with podcasts can also promote social justice by addressing systemic inequities in student access, safety, and health. By sharing this pedagogy’s theoretical underpinnings and some of its methods, I hope to add to the wealth of resources for teaching premodern literature for social justice now available as a result of the efforts of organizations and initiatives like the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, the Folger Shakespeare Institute, the English Association, and The Sundial.
In addition to the conventional text version below, this essay is available as a downloadable audio file — that is, as a podcast (Editor’s note: you can stream the podcast version of the essay here):
By offering two formats, I hope to demonstrate how reading and listening foster different if complementary experiences for us and for students. Podcasts engender a sense of proximity and community when students do not share a physical space with teachers and classmates. This effect is due in large part to medium: podcasts are more intimate and conversational than video lectures and print articles. Podcast pedagogy thus presents a way for teachers to nourish strong connections with and between students across the “distance” in distance teaching and learning.
Another reason for offering two formats is that it models a primary goal of podcast pedagogy: accessibility. Accessibility is a priority for students who have physical and mental disabilities; for students with hearing impairments and other disabilities, podcasts may even introduce issues. Providing transcripts of audio material, for instance, is a necessary part of podcast pedagogy — and just one component of the work required to incorporate, let alone to create, podcasts. As I explain below, other components of a podcast pedagogy that serves all students include conscientious selection, deliberate scaffolding, and, in some instances, purposeful production of podcasts.
I will return to these components in a moment, but I want to explore further the meaning of accessibility. Access is a critical consideration not only for students with disabilities but also for low-income, minority, and adult students. Take, for instance, Holly Watson, who completed two of my online classes that feature podcasts:
I’m a non-traditional student, as the mother of two and coming back to school a little bit later in life. And the whole stipulation for me being able to return to school is that I take as many classes as possible online, which is how I came across your classes.
Even before the pandemic, asynchronous learning extended higher education opportunities to non-traditional students like Holly, who are overwhelmingly women, first-generation, and attending school while working part- or full-time or caring for dependents. Podcast pedagogy works on the same principle. Podcasts do not require streaming internet but may be downloaded to any number of platforms/devices and then listened to at a convenient time and in a safe place. When purposefully mobilized in the classroom, they can support the academic success and personal well-being of students contending with limited internet access, insecure living situations, and increased family obligations.
Equally crucial to supporting students is selecting podcasts that feature a diversity of voices. When I cannot find a podcast that both speaks to my course syllabus and includes female and BIPOC subject-experts, I make one (a variety of advanced tools are available online here, but anyone with access to a smartphone and a computer can start podcasting). I have recorded “profcasts” with colleagues who specialize in early modern English drama and race, gender, sexuality, and disability as well as other fields, like religion and environmental studies. Driving my selection of podcasts is a commitment to amplifying voices historically underrepresented in our field, including women, people of color, and untenured faculty.
This commitment isn’t lost on the undergraduates at my minority-majority institution. Chad Jurado, who identifies as Cuban American and hopes to pursue graduate study in English and Comparative Literature, spoke with me about the purpose-made “profcasts” in my Early Shakespeare class. He observed how important it is to include a range of speakers:
especially when you’re studying something that in the traditional sense is the old white man. I think it does a lot of good when you show how different people interact with it. That way it’s not necessarily just categorized in this box that’s inaccessible to a lot of people.
For too long the professoriate has broadcast white, cisgender, abled men as the voice of authority. Podcast pedagogy makes audible the incredible diversity of voices in which authority in premodern literary studies speaks.
When students hear experts who sound like them, they begin to embody their potential for expertise, too. This move from consumer to producer of knowledge is hard for many students, especially undergraduates taught to test rather than to think. So often, when we assign research projects, we tell students to put themselves into a scholarly conversation. For many students, this instruction is at best an abstraction and at worst jargon. Podcasts make it palpable. Students actually hear the conversations that lead to print scholarship but are usually tucked away in the stacks of library archives and behind the walls of conference hotels.
I turned to Kathryn Vomero Santos, Assistant Professor of English and Public Humanities Fellow at Trinity University, for her thoughts on podcasts as scholarly conversation. Professor Santos sat down with me twice to record podcasts about her research on Shakespeare, language, gender, and race. She reflected on the experience in this way:
having that conversation and hearing your questions and then your students’ questions inevitably helped me to rearticulate what I was trying to articulate on the page…but I also found that you as a fellow Shakespeare scholar and teacher thinking about your students’ perspective gave me new ways of looking at the plays that perhaps I had not considered…it takes an outside interlocutor to ask an unexpected question or even a question that might seem obvious…
Professor Santos’s experience echoes what Devori Kimbro, Michael Noschka, and Geoffrey Way define as “a poetics of podcasting”: dynamic, generative exchange that at once grows from and nurtures inclusive, egalitarian intellectual community. Students notice these poetics. As Chad put it,
We were able to see the natural growth of your conversation with your academic peers …
Bringing students into the conversation is not simply a matter of a few well-curated podcasts. Podcast pedagogy involves deliberate scaffolding that stimulates students’ skills in critical listening, sophisticated comprehension, and self-driven application. Tactics that I have used successfully include:
- fill-in-as-you-go listening guides that direct students to listen for key terms, historical contexts, literary features, and scholarly arguments,
- post-podcast exit tickets that ask students “What questions do you have for the podcast guests?” or “What did this podcast help you to understand better about the course material?”, and
- activities that pair podcasts with more conventional scholarship, like small group discussion of academic articles and student-driven research projects.
The choice of activities, like the amplification of diverse voices, works to authorize students’ as co-creators of knowledge. Here’s Holly again:
I actually would almost always, almost every week, I was listening to the podcast twice. Once just to listen to it and enjoy it and then once to actually go through it with your check in.
That’s the listening guide that I mentioned.
So the first time I could just let the information go in but the second time I was looking for more specifics and I think just engaging with the material that much serves its purpose, whether you’re telling your students you need to be like, learning how to engage with texts to create knowledge of your own, I think they’re doing it and whether they process that or not, by the end of the semester they definitely processed, you know?
Podcast pedagogy, although adaptable to a range of disciplines, is particularly suited to medieval and early modern literary studies. This is because podcasts, as a sonic technology, privilege an auditory experience that resonates with the primacy of sound in many premodern cultures. Due to the flourishing of podcasts and podcasting over the past two decades, many students are already comfortable relating to the world through their ear(bud)s. By incorporating podcasts into our classes, we may attune students to listening to premodern literatures as “an embodied critical sense shaping how and what we think,” as Jennifer Lynn Stoever argues.
Adding podcasts to our classes is not a panacea for the challenges that face teachers and students today. However, podcasts can ground a pedagogy that redresses some of the problems forestalling non-traditional and minority students’ success and well-being. By kicking whitewashed, patriarchal authority to the curb and connecting students to inclusive networks of knowledge-makers, podcast pedagogy can be a powerful way to pursue the mission of social justice — and to engage students in it, as well.
Marissa Greenberg is Associate Professor of English at the University of New Mexico. An award-winning teacher in brick-and-mortar and online classrooms, she has published on using virtual environments for social justice in Inside Higher Ed and, with Elizabeth Williamson, in Teaching Literature in the Online Classroom (forthcoming). She is the author of Metropolitan Tragedy: Genre, Justice, and the City in Early Modern England (2015), and her recent scholarship on Shakespeare and adaptation appears in Shakespeare Bulletin and two forthcoming collections: Shakespeare and Latinadad and Games and Theatre in Early Modern England. Currently she is working on a co-edited volume of essays on Milton and bodily motions.