Teaching Applied Anthropology: Podcast Pedagogy

James H. McDonald
University of Montevallo

Recently I put together a new class on environmental anthropology. It afforded me the opportunity to try something new as an integral part of the teaching-learning process—podcast pedagogy. I came late to the podcast world, which really started to fire up in 2014. Once I discovered them, the possibilities for integrating them into various classes seemed endless. I wanted to do something different and engaging. The most compelling podcasts tell great stories. I also know from my own experience, as well as from listening to colleagues around the country, that it is hard to get students to read assigned material (even things we can provide to them that are free). So it seemed as though podcasts might just be the right alternative. The best of them have compelling narratives, interviews, and discussions. The format is flexible; you can listen during your commute to campus or while walking the dog. 

I used the Cultures of Energy podcast run by anthropologists Dominic Boyer and Cymene Howe at Rice University as the main source of material. I supplemented this with the TED Radio Hour; 99% Invisible; Global Development from The Guardian; Anthropology Airwaves; and the NDN Science Show. These were scheduled for discussion on Fridays of a MWF class with structured question prompts provided to the students in advance.

The backbone of the pod experiment was the Cultures of Energy (CoE), which takes a deep dive into the Anthropocene through in-depth interviews across a remarkable variety of disciplines and topics. Anyone familiar with that podcast will also know that those finely researched and well-choreographed episodes are not really targeted for an undergraduate demographic, but rather toward a professional and graduate-level audience. So, I held my breath to see if it would work. 

We don’t have an anthropology major at the University of Montevallo so students jumped in without much, if any, background. It is important to note that the students were environmental studies majors who are generally motivated, engaged, and enthusiastic. It pulled off far more successfully than I could have imagined. We had some really interesting and rich discussions. I was quite flabbergasted (in a good way) by the students’ responses to a CoE episode with Eduardo Kohn (How Forests Think), which I thought was easily the least accessible of the podcasts we used because of its ontological turn. The students, however, were on top of it all the way. 

Emboldened by the success, I embedded podcast pedagogy in a class on multiculturalism delivered to a class of communication science and disorders (CSD) students. There is an abundance of high-quality, mainstream-audience-oriented podcasts that run across complex dimensions of identity to the civil rights movement and identity. Drawing on NPR products (e.g., Throughline, Rough Translation, This American Life, and  Code Switch), as well as venerable standbys like the TED Radio Hour the podcast approach seemed less of a challenge than with the environmental anthropology class. It turned out to be a far harder. Students figured out quickly that if they didn’t engage, the burden shifted to me. Several things may have undergirded their reluctance. I suspect that students in CSD are socialized in a more passive-learning, content-driven model than their environmental studies counterparts. Furthermore, the course was a requirement, which raised the potential for some of the students to be less-than-open to the message. 

As with the many contingencies of the teaching-learning equation, it’s often hard to predict how our pedagogical practices will work out and resonate. There is some anecdotal assertion that students are more willing to listen (and listen longer) than they are willing to read or watch (e.g., The Chronicle of Higher Education 2018; Kaeppel and Bjorngard-Basayne 2018; Gray 2017).  Yet, as anthropologist Anar Parikh (2018) found in her own podcast pedagogy experiment, students often do not know how to be engaged listeners just as they often find it difficult to be critical, engaged readers. 

Kaeppel and Bjorngard-Basayne (2018) might well counter that the power of podcast pedagogy lies first in storytelling, which empathically ensnares a listener in webs of relatable meaning. Second, they note that podcast stories carry authentic voices and embark on a journey of vulnerability. Third, podcasts simplify complex topics by virtue of a compact format and the need to reach a broader audience. (It’s useful to think of this as a translation process rather than a “dumbing down.”) Fourth, good podcasts strive to be relevant, again connecting with peoples’ lived experience or opening up new worlds of possibility. Finally, podcasts have an experimental bent to them in terms of storyline, storyteller, and interviewer—it’s a contingent mix, which makes them really exciting when it all clicks. (Of course, that means there will also be clunkers, but so it goes.)

In closing, I am more encouraged than not with this form of teaching-learning pedagogy. It’s a fair amount of work finding a podcast per week that fits the topic at hand with the right tone and content (try finding a podcast on the anthropology of place!), and then developing prompt questions to catalyze discussion. With that said, I am embarking on a new application of podcast pedagogy in a class I am developing this summer on Climate Change and the Anthropocene. Because podcasts can be accessed from just about any device, they are a great resource that is easily available, say, under a COVID-19 lockdown order. They also lend themselves well to a remote teaching-learning environment. Who knows what fall semester will bring, but podcasts will be an important feature of my class on the Anthropocene.  

References Cited

Chronicle of Higher Education
2018     What Podcasts Can Teach Us About Teaching. URL: https://www.chronicle.com/article/What-Podcasts-Can-Teach-Us/243779 (May 11, 2020).  

Gray, Colin
2017     Podcasting in Education: What are the Benefits? The Podcast Host. URL: https://www.thepodcasthost.com/niche-case-study/podcasting-in-education/ (May 12, 2020). 

Kaeppel, Kristi, and Emma Bjorngard-Basayne
2018     The Pedagogy of Podcasts. University of Connecticut. URL: https://gcci.uconn.edu/2018/05/30/the-pedagogy-of-podcasts/ (May 12, 2020).

Parikh, Anar
2018     Teaching Podcasts in the Anthropology Classroom. Society for Cultural Anthropology. URL:https://culanth.org/fieldsights/teaching-podcasts-in-the-anthropology-classroom (May 10, 2020). 

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