In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes that classrooms generate the most intellectual excitement when they serve as “learning communities” in which students share responsibility for knowledge production, invite each other into dialogue, and learn from each other’s diverse perspectives. In such classrooms, students often work on structured activities in small or large groups, divide the work equitably, and join together to meaningfully engage in the course material. Pedagogy scholars have long referred to such processes as “collaborative learning.” In an early discussion of collaborative learning in the composition classroom, Kenneth Bruffee writes that it involves “engaging students in conversation among themselves at as many points in both the writing and reading process as possible.” Others, such as Cornell’s Center for Teaching Innovation, emphasize shared “doing,” or what Paulo Friere calls “praxis.” In “doing”-centered collaboration, students can work together to make things, whether that means generating new ideas, creating shared pieces of writing, or joining forces on creative projects.
Feminist and antiracist pedagogues often discuss collaborative learning as crucial to what hooks calls the “liberatory classroom.” Building a “classroom community” or “seeing the classroom always as a communal place,” hooks argues, allows students to take “interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.” Working together, students not only produce knowledge, but also listen and respond to each other’s ideas deliberately and with care. Scholars have also discussed how collaborative learning can foster more informal, emotional ties among students — what Ada Sinacore, Patricia Healy, and Monica Justin refer to as “integrating cognitive and affective learning.” Carolyn Shrewsbury writes that a “liberatory classroom” is one in which students enter into a “net of relationships with people who care about each other’s learning as well as their own.” Collaboration, then, can destabilize traditional structures of power and authority and combat individualistic, capitalistic, and patriarchal values of vertical knowledge dissemination, solo discovery, and intellectual “rigor.”
Teachers have developed a range of exciting techniques and projects to foster collaboration in the classroom. Danica Savonick has students write collaboratively for publication. Hannah McGregor invites students to form “feminist communities of making” by creating ’zines based on objects found in Simon Fraser University’s Special Collections. Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel discuss large-scale “mass collaboration” projects that “involve an entire class,” such as films or news media websites. Such projects, Rorabaugh and Stommel write, allow for frequent peer review and give faculty the chance to be facilitators rather than top-down instructors. Hiie Saumaa and Michael Cennamo write about collaborating on a “great books” course by creating shared creative assignments across their two classes, such as a collaborative epic poem and a multimodal newsletter.
Changing the Medium
As a literary scholar and composition instructor, I often incorporate collaborative assignments in my classes, including peer review exercises, collaborative close readings, and elevator speeches. Yet, the recent opportunity to teach an upper-level undergraduate course on music compelled me to consider how I might construct an assignment around the very medium that informed our class: sound. In my Fall 2017 course at Boston University, which was listed in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGS) department and titled “Music, Gender, and Intersectional Social Change,” I worked with 25 undergraduates (ranging from first-years to seniors) to explore the role of music in fostering, communicating, or challenging radical politics related to gender, sexuality, class, and race. While most of the assignments consisted of listening to music from a variety of genres (from classical and jazz to pop and hip-hop); discussing feminist, queer, and critical race theory; and writing song analyses, I also included a podcast assignment titled “All Songs Considered: BU Edition” (a play on NPR’s popular series). This assignment asked students to create short, five-minute episodes about songs of their choice. I invited them to discuss the lyrics, the artists’ backgrounds, and the musical qualities of the songs as well as share their own personal impressions about the music.
I had several rationales for this assignment — none of which, I admit, had much to do with collaboration at first. On a practical level, I believed that the podcast genre would allow students to easily include audio samplings of songs — the “textual evidence” for their arguments — rather than flattening them out into transcribed lyrics on the page. Podcasts would also require students to consider the relationships between auditory and written media and to produce their own sonic “texts.” Finally, I hoped that podcasting would help students practice expressing their ideas about the frustratingly intangible medium of music — and to do so clearly and concisely given the five-minute time limit.
Recent scholarship supported my nascent theories about the pedagogical affordances of podcasts. In the last decade, podcasts have become popular instructional tools in classrooms at all levels. Dick Ng’ambi, Annette Lombe, Alysse Weinberg, Somayah Naseri, and Khalil Motallebzadeh have all suggested that podcast listening can be an effective tool in the second-language classroom, as they can be slowed down, replayed, and repeated at home. Educators like Melanie Buffington, Evan Cordulack, and Benjamin Bolden have examined what happens when students are asked to create podcasts of their own. Buffington, for instance, instructed her undergraduate and graduate art history students to visit museums and record podcast episodes about the works of art they viewed. She discussed how podcasting helped her students to talk about art in more “casual tones.” Cordulack found that podcasting allowed his students to “express themselves in creative ways, while still learning how to craft an argument and voice their opinions.” Working in the music classroom, Bolden discovered that “learner-created podcasts” allow students to “construct and represent knowledge” by picking specific musical excerpts and weaving them into a cohesive narrative about a particular piece or composer. He also wrote that podcasts gave his students opportunities for “enhanced reflection, self-expression, enriched communication, increased self-knowledge, and creativity.”
Podcasting certainly offered my students the kinds of opportunities for argument-building, knowledge production, and creative self-expression that Buffington, Cordulack, Bolden, and others describe. They shared with me that they enjoyed the chance to explore a new medium, to experiment with technology, and to make something of their own. My students developed clear and creative theses, incorporated their own musical expertise, and shared their personalities and senses of humor. They appreciated an assignment that allowed them to speak rather than write and to engage with course material in a more “casual” way.
Students as Teachers
Yet, as the semester progressed, I gradually realized that the podcast also had enormous potential as a collaborative assignment — potential that my students recognized before I did. Unprompted by me, several students invited friends to speak on their podcasts. I was surprised and pleased to hear new voices in my ears and listen to my students discuss our course material in more conversational tones. Their embrace of the podcast’s collaborative affordances continued as they asked if I could provide them access to each other’s podcasts. We decided to link the podcasts of those who wished to share on our course Blackboard site and created a SoundCloud playlist of their episodes. We also linked this playlist on our class blog so that the podcasts would appear alongside the other public-facing projects the students created throughout the semester. To help ground their listening, I invited them to write responses to their peers’ work for a few points of extra credit. Finally, several students welcomed the podcast so eagerly that they decided to work in groups to create longer podcasts for their final projects.
Throughout the semester, I learned that podcasting — both creating their own podcasts and listening to those of their classmates — offered my students powerful opportunities for collaborative learning that intersected with the feminist and antiracist pedagogical aims of my course. The podcast assignment promoted collaborative learning in three key ways. First, students were able to work together on their podcasts more than they would on traditional papers; they created work in collaboration and engaged in constructive dialogue about music and social justice. Second, the podcast assignment also urged my students to practice critical listening skills. By listening to each other’s podcasts, they had to get used to hearing each other’s voices at length and sitting with others’ ideas before they respond. These sustained listening practices gave students opportunities to encounter other ways of writing and thinking, expand their own views on music and justice movements, and form collective strategies for social change. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this assignment encouraged students to share their affective responses to the songs they were discussing. Sharing emotions — though crucial to feminist pedagogy, as I have discussed — is sometimes difficult in a classroom setting, where public vulnerability can feel intimidating, where “analysis” and “rigor” sometimes (problematically) dominate, and where time and space don’t always allow for slow, sustained sharing. The podcast, however, gave my students a medium to communicate their emotional reactions to the music and to access, learn from, and reflect on each other’s feelings. In short, the podcast assignment allowed students to build the kind of community that hooks associates with the “liberatory” pedagogy. The social ties they built emerged as much “on the air” as in the classroom. Through podcasting, students created what I call “audible networks:” intimate, relational webs based on collaborating, listening, and sharing intellectual and affective ties.
Upon receiving the assignment, my students immediately embraced the podcast’s capacity to facilitate dialogue and involve multiple users. Several chose to create more conversational episodes in the style of popular podcasts like “Call Your Girlfriend,” “Pod Save America,” or “2 Dope Queens.” One student included her friend — a Jay-Z fan — in her podcast on Jay-Z’s 2017 song “The Story of O.J.” She and her friend discussed the song’s engagement with race, masculinity, gentrification, and economics. The friend, who identified himself as a black man, shared the personal resonance that he believed Jay-Z’s music has for members of marginalized communities. By recording this exchange, my student quite literally brought another “voice” into the conversation. Similarly, another student invited her friend as a “guest” on her podcast about feminism and “K-Pop,” or South Korean pop. Her friend did not know a lot about K-pop, so the podcast took the form of one student educating the other about the genre. This approach was mutually beneficial; it encouraged the K-pop fan to explain the genre clearly and concisely (both to her friend and to the audience) and prompted the non-fan to ask probing questions about the gendered and racial politics of a different genre.
Some students conducted live interviews of experts on their topics. One student, whose final podcast project focused on sexual misconduct in the Boston music scene, interviewed three of her friends — women of color who worked in the music business and thus were, as my student wrote in her reflection essay, particularly “aware of the power dynamics between venue employees and concert-goers in a scene primarily dominated by white men.” This student’s podcast, created in the midst of the #MeToo movement’s fall 2017 discursive explosion, allowed her to include new, non-academic, and often marginalized voices into her analysis — voices that she would not have found in traditional academic journals or books but that were nonetheless the most up-to-date and on-the-ground sources for her project. Together, the four women brainstormed ways to cope with the problem of sexual misconduct in Boston music clubs, including developing more transparency between club owners and audience members, hiring more women at music venues, and refusing to book bands in which members have been accused of harassment or assault. In her final reflection, my student wrote that this kind of “open dialogue” is the best way to tackle such difficult subjects:
The benefit of being able to record [my friends] is that the bulk of my podcast is a conversation, and I think that’s the best way to approach a subject like sexual assault. There have been so many think pieces, news stories, tweets and posts on social media about sexual assault in the last few months that it’s almost overwhelming…on some level I think the best way to really talk about it is to sit down with friends and really have a conversation as opposed to posting something online.
The podcast genre allowed this student to facilitate a dynamic conversation and engage in a process of joint problem-solving and collaborative meaning-making.
It was not only creating podcasts of their own, but also listening to each other’s work, that provided students with fruitful opportunities for collaborative learning. As hooks writes, “To hear each other (the sound of different voices), to listen to one another, is an exercise in recognition.” On a basic level, my students shared with me that listening to each other’s podcasts was simply more “fun” and “easier” than reading each other’s papers. They appreciated the opportunity to listen when so many of their other academic assignments are written. Many of my students admitted that they rarely read each other’s academic essays, even if they were instructed to do so for a class assignment. However, they enjoyed, as one student put it, “hearing each other’s voices.” The students also described the podcasts as “accessible.” Though podcasts are certainly not a universally accessible medium (for instance, for people with hearing difficulties), several of my students with learning differences found the podcasts more accessible than traditional reading or writing assignments, which, as some shared, they had trouble focusing on for sustained amounts of time. Many students reported the “portability” of the podcasts; they listened to their peers’ episodes in their dorm rooms, while walking to class, and at the gym. The process of collaborative learning became woven into the fabric of their everyday lives.
Listening to their peers’ podcasts also provided students with models for their future thinking and writing. One student remarked, “One thing I really got out of X’s podcast is how she structured it and how she always went back to the themes and points she addressed in the beginning; I think it all really connected really well, which mirrors that of a thesis in a paper which I found helpful.” Another student wrote, “X’s decision to talk about the differences between an artist’s old and new music is a great technique I’ll use in my first paper because it shows…how the artist’s music changed over time.” By listening to how their classmates organized and presented their thoughts, my students were able to see (or rather, hear) examples of successful approaches to thinking and writing and ponder how they might use similar strategies in their own work. In doing so, the students enacted a central practice that Robbin D. Crabtree and David Alan Sapp align with the feminist classroom, in which students and faculty abandon hierarchal learning in favor of practices in which everyone in the class “work[s] together to improve learning outcomes for all students.” Rather than me simply telling the class what a successful thesis looks like or describing how to incorporate evidence for an argument, students were able to share their own insights and absorb each other’s ideas — and thus work and learn together.
The podcasts enabled students to encounter each other’s theoretical ideas as well as writing techniques. One student wrote that her peers’ podcasts were “revealing [and] intriguing, and ultimately the songs resonated much more profoundly with me after hearing what my peers had to say.” Another student, discussing her classmate’s episode on Ke$ha’s 2017 single “Praying,” wrote,
This background X gave about this song showed me how vulnerable an artist can be with the public through their music and how meaningful their music can be to them. This also made me realize that songs like these can help people overcome not only abuse, but various other kinds of emotional pain as well, a technique I’ll use in my paper to show how one kind of social change, for instance, can inspire other kinds of social change.
The creator of the Ke$ha podcast thus helped her classmate to consider the connections between specific musical techniques and projects for social change. Another student commented on her classmate’s effective incorporation of a “call-to-action” at the end of her podcast, which helped her realize that “we’re the next generation of leaders who should make our voices heard.” Through the medium of the podcast, my students were able to disseminate a variety of insights much wider than I as the instructor could communicate. Rather than just discussing social change from their own perspectives, the students developed shared strategies for it. These responses reflect Jane Rinehart’s statement that feminist and anti-racist classrooms should serve as “places of activity where ideas are worked out together rather than passively received.”
Perhaps most strikingly, listening to each other’s podcasts enabled students to engage with each other affectively as well as intellectually. As Chris Friend has written in Hybrid Pedagogy, “Audio is far more intimate than text. The vibrations of our vocal chords shake the air that shakes a microphone. Recreations of that sound through speakers or headphones then shake the air that shakes listeners’ eardrums.” Indeed, the podcasts enabled students to share their own emotions as well as access those of their peers. In a moment of what McGregor might call “fannish affect,” one of my students wrote that she was glad the podcast gave her space to simply “share [her] love for Childish Gambino” with her classmates. Another student — deeply frustrated with the portrayal of Nina Simone’s mental illness in Netflix’s 2015 documentary about the artist (“What Happened, Miss Simone?”) — noted that the podcast allowed her to express her visceral frustrations about the film; she recorded her impassioned — and even at times tearful — responses to specific moments of the film as she watched. In response, her classmates wrote that they were immediately engaged in her work and moved by her emotional assessment of the documentary. In response to her classmate’s podcast on Sara Bareilles’s “Brave” — a song that the podcaster described as a “punch in the gut” — another student shared that hearing her classmate’s passion for the song made her realize the extent of the song’s power in a way she had not noticed before. Though we had reflected on the emotional power of music at several points throughout the semester, the podcast gave students the chance to slowly and thoughtfully share their feelings — to “shake” each other’s eardrums with their words. As scholars like De Santis and Serafini, Shrewsbury, and Sinacore et al. have discussed, though academia does not often make formal space for emotional reactions (often deemed unscientific or lacking in scholarly rigor), we must foster the sharing of informal, affective responses to academic material.
By the end of the semester, once my students had convinced me of the podcast’s potential to foster collaborative learning, I began to consult with them about ways to continue our conversations and perhaps even widen their scope – to enact, as Cathy Davidson writes, a “public contribution to knowledge” with a “bigger impact and value beyond the course.” Several students wished to share their podcasts beyond the confines of our class. They chose to upload their pieces to a SoundCloud playlist and decided to make the link to their playlist public so that they could send it to their friends and family members. This electronic transmission helped us extend our conversations far beyond the classroom. Our class blog, the WordPress site to which we linked the SoundCloud playlist, received 64 distinct visitors and 89 views from November 2017 to January 2018. WordPress statistics revealed that the site garnered 81 views from the US, seven from India, and one from Taiwan, which suggests that some students were sharing the links to their podcasts with friends and family members both in the U.S. and abroad. Some students developed other strategies to share their podcasts with wider audiences. The two students who completed the project on K-Pop, for instance, wrote in their final paper that they planned to submit their podcast to Boston University’s student radio station WTBU.
The podcast thus represented a particularly effective way for my students to expand the reach of their ideas — to engage in collaborative learning beyond the confines of the traditional academic classroom. As Shrewsbury writes, collaborative learning can allow for the “web of interrelationships in the classroom…to stretch to the local, regional, and global communities.” The most valuable affordance of the podcast, then, was that it made visible — or rather, audible — these webs and relations, the intellectual and affective ties possible among students. Through the podcast, students learned to hear and listen — and by doing so, to learn, think, and feel — together.