In a podcasting workshop that I helped organize and lead for the course MCB64, students explored storytelling through distinct media. I started the workshop by playing short clips from some successful podcasts, including the Radiolab and Homecoming. The question I wanted the class to explore was: in the short clip, what do we learn, and what remains a mystery? One of the central challenges of audio storytelling is how to keep a listener engaged. As students discovered, this engagement often occurs because of the introduction of distinct types of unanswered questions. As each question is answered, another mystery emerges. In fact, creating a compelling narrative for a podcast is a lot like teaching a good class, in that producing curiosity is often a central feature.
With students hopefully curious about the way podcasts construct the experience of mystery, we got to work identifying the core features of an audio track. Jordan had previously developed a great activity in which students model the first twenty seconds of the “Serial” podcast. Using colored papers, markers, pom poms, and other art supplies, each group envisioned the sound as it might be displayed in a visual, tactile medium. The class of around sixty students put together elaborate designs, listening closely to the sound, music, speech, affect, and other features of the audio. After they had finished, we went around the room with a camera and projected the creations of different groups onto a screen visible to everyone. This allowed us to discuss details of the designs up close, while students pointed out features of their creations. Because we were able to set up cameras and screens, students in a large class had the opportunity to share and discuss their own creations in ways normally only possible in much smaller environments.
This activity introduced students to the distinct features of podcasts in preparation for a course assignment, which used podcasting as a method of featuring the human stories that undergirded a course unit on genetic disease. But the workshop also showcased a central pedagogical premise of the Learning Lab: the important relationships between making and thinking. A podcast might appear at first listen to be a seamless narrative. But by asking students to construct a section of audio visually, they had to contend with the many distinctions, layers and seams that make up even the smallest section of many podcasts today. It was by creating, in other words, that students found the motivation to listen and observe closely.