By Dr Ben Lohmeyer
It hasn’t gone viral. I only have a few hundred downloads. But it has been fun, I have learnt heaps, built some genuine connections, and I think I would do it again. So, I’m going to say my experiment in podcasting as a teaching tool and for doing public sociology was a success.
I had the chance to develop a new unit within a Bachelor of Social Science. The students were to be primarily youth workers and counsellors in training. I also regularly have conversations with human services practitioners who are very interested in hearing about the latest research or are looking for professional development resources. But they also point out that this information is usually locked behind a paywall or when they can access it they struggle to find time to decipher the academic code-language.
I am inspired by critical pedagogies, informal education models and I enjoy experimenting with teaching styles that promote democratic dialogue and independent enquiry rather than me delivering another monologue.
With these things in mind, I decided to create a publicly available podcast as the central piece of content for the new unit. The podcast was an opportunity to digitally invite other experts into my classroom and engage them in a conversation about their area of expertise. It also allowed me to share this conversation beyond the classroom. This approach made my subject richer and more engaging for the students. The experts had a far better knowledge of the topic than I did and the student could listen (stop, pause and rewind if needed) in a place and time that worked for them.
This topic (violence and society) is one that I have some knowledge about. My scholarship focuses on youth violence. The sociology of violence is a new and growing field so there is a large potential area for new ideas and collaboration.
I took the Sociological Imagination (C.W. Mills) (connecting personal troubles to public issues) as a lens and applied it to the area of expertise of my interviewees. This meant I didn’t need to know everything (or much at all really) about their area to develop a few critical questions that generated conversation. This approach brought a consistent theme and structure the divergent topic of each episode and it also modelled the process of critical inquiry for the students listening.
In my last episode, I interviewed Cassandra Star about climate justice and environmental security. Armed with the sociological imagination and a preliminary reading of some of her most recent publications I crafted 4 questions that resulted in a 50 min conversation. The great thing about a conversation, as compared to a lecture, is that they can go in unexpected directions and mistakes can happen. In a podcast, you can edit out the mistakes if you want, but leaving (some of) them in adds a level of humanity and relatability to the speakers. Unexpected things are also great chances to learn and model a culture of learning. Again in Cassandra’s interview, her laughing at my over-prepared introduction as well as learning about how local government and local businesses can be an important site for combatting climate change were unexpected experiences. They were also part of what made the podcast a genuine dialogue.
The best bit, of course, has been the conversations. It’s actually great fun to ask someone about the thing they are passionate about. It definitely helps when its people like Cassandra Star and Nik Taylor who are super articulate and knowledgeable about their topic and can communicate complex ideas without relying on academic jargon.
As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t need to know a lot about my interviewee’s area. In fact, I’d argue it worked better if I didn’t. Coming to the conversation as a curious outsider, helped me ask clarifying questions and offer summaries that are more accessible to a generalist audience.
I also learnt heaps about the technical aspect of creating a podcast. How to create an RSS feed, design cover art and compose intro music. Twice during an interview, the microphone ran out of memory space and stopped recording. Fortunately, Cassandra and Kris were gracious enough to restart and repeat a section of their interviews.
As I said, the podcast didn’t go viral. It averaged about 100 downloads per episode over seven episodes. Factoring in the 20 students in the class, there is still a modest but reasonable number of external listeners. Comparable to a well-attended public event. There are also a few stories from listeners that make the project worthwhile.
The first was from other people at my institution. I work at a small private higher education provider that offers a diverse range of degrees. This means there are very few people whose areas of expertise overlap. It was great to hear back from my colleagues that they enjoyed learning about my area of interest and had gone on to share it with others who they thought would enjoy it too.
The second story came from students of the class. In the first few weeks, I regularly received unsolicited feedback from students they were enjoying the podcast. One student remarked, “I feel like I have really got to know you already. I have been listening to you as I have been driving to and from class and it feels like I’ve just been listening in on a regular conversation”.
Finally, my mother in law has been listening to the podcast while volunteering at Meals-on-Wheels. She told me that she plays the podcast for the other volunteers and they talk about the topic while the cook and clean. These aren’t stories of earth-shattering impact. But they bring a sense of meaning and satisfaction to the project.