Whether you’re pivoting to meet emergency remote teaching needs or building a new syllabus and want to include some interesting new assignments, you’ve come to the right place! Like any course materials, podcast episodes are most effective if you assign them with some purpose. You can just assign the content, but we like Podcasts + Something to deliver the most impact! Here are a few ideas to get you started:

+ Starting A Podcast

Do you and/or your students want to start a podcast of your own?

Aside from having a clear idea of what you want to podcast about, and what you as the host bring to that topic (qualifications, life experiences, comic relief, etc), podcasting is pretty simple, and revolves around three key considerations: storytelling, sound, and distribution. 

By storytelling we mean that they need to be thinking about the format, and how they will engage listeners. Are they just going to be a disembodied voice ramble for 40 minutes uninterrupted? That’s probably going to be boring. Writing for the ear is different from writing an essay. The Poytner Institute self directed course may be useful for thinking about this. Or, listen to examples of other great podcasts, both indie – like Dig, of course, but also Let’s Be Legendary, The Dollop, Philosophize This, You Must Remember This – and institutionally-backed, like BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects, The Memory Palace, or StoryCorps. What do they do that makes their storytelling compelling and interesting enough to listen to? Are they highly produced with sound effects, music, or other editing magic that brings the audio story to life? If the narrator is reading a script (this is usually obvious – our reading voices, tone, and speed are generally different than our candid voices), are there intentional pauses, is the pacing too fast or too slow, does the story have a hook to draw you in, and enough detail to keep you listening? Are there multiple voices speaking? At Dig we frame every episode as a conversational back-and-forth, even though only one of us every writes an entire episode script, because we want the switch to a new voice to jar you back into listening!

For sound, every podcaster needs good audio quality. An external mic like the Blue Yeti or pretty much any USB mic in the $20-$70 range will work fine for an amateur podcaster. You also need your audio quality to translate into the final product, either through high production value (think of NPR stories that include music, an overarching narrator, interviews with several people, maybe some sound effects or clips from different kinds of audio recordings) or a light-touch editing – using software like Audacity (free) or Hindenburg Journalist (free trial, $99 for a license). You want to cut out most of your mistakes and stumbles, but not your breathes or natural pauses. If you take these out, you’ll sound like someone put you on fast forward, and it is not very pleasant. You can find youtube tutorials for using Audacity, and if you get Hindenburg, they have tutorials on their website

For distribution, you need a host. For hosting and possibly even recording, I would recommend https://anchor.fm – it’s free, and super user friendly. Then you submit your podcast RSS feed to Apple and to the Google Play store. And then – ta-da! – you’re a podcaster 🙂 

+ Discussion

Assign 1-3 episodes (for one night of homework, or over the course of the week) and a guiding question, and then have students engage in structured online discussions. You can run these discussions using Slack, FlipGrid, or a similar tool. Require that students do a minimum of six posts: 2 “original” posts (comments, observations, or questions), 2 responses to classmates’ posts, and then at least 2 other posts of either kind.

Important note: Like reading a source critically, listening to a podcast is a skill that students can develop! Check out Abby Mullen’s fantastic guide for students on how to listen to a podcast for class.

Examples:

  • Episode assignments: “Syphilis: Origin Story” + “Walking Corpses
  • Discussion starter: How did ideas about disease and sex shape the way people understood and talked about leprosy and syphilis from the medieval period and early modern period?
  • Episode assignment: “Witches Brew
  • Discussion starter: What is ‘patriarchy,’ and how did it reshape beer-brewing in early modern England? Where else in our course have we seen the effects of ‘patriarchy’ in Europe/ the World?

+ Historical Methodology

Some of our episodes revolve around historiographical or methodological questions and debates. Use these episodes to introduce your students to the concept and to serve as an example for their own long term projects.

For example, have your students craft their own social biographies using “‘La lengua:’ Malintzin, the Spanish Conquest of Mesoamerica, and the Legacy of the Translator in Mexico” as an example. Then, guide students through conquistador and indigenous writings to find individuals who are barely mentioned, perhaps not even by name. Then have each student write a social biography on the individuals you mine from those sources. What is a social biography? According to Edmund Burke III, “Social Biographies explore the connections between the dense specificity of individual lives and the the larger contexts in which they are embedded. In this way social biographies cast new light on the standard world historical narratives, with their emphasis on large scale change. Social Biography encourages us see the connections between the profoundly local and individual on the one hand, and the global and world historical on the other hand. In the process it makes world historical processes visible.” Students can use this methodology – research the context (the cultural, social, economic, political, geographic, religious, gender, racial, etc history) of the time and place where that person lived, and write a plausible narrative about that person’s life. 

+ Art

After students listen to an episode, have them closely analyze art to extend and deepen their understanding of the people, events, and issues in the episode. Students can do this analysis in class or as an assignment.

For example, combine the episode “‘La lengua’: Malintzin, the Spanish Conquest of Mesoamerica, and the Legacy of the Translator in Mexico” with some of the following paintings of Malintzin from Mexican artists in the 1920s.

  • El sueño de la Malinche This painting, by a Mexican artist engaged with the international movement of Surrealism, represents a slumbering Malinche; her body serves as the ground supporting an unnamed Mexican community and church. This image evokes certain female earth deities known to the Aztecs, and it sustains the metaphor of the Mexican nation having been built upon the “ground” laid by Malinche’s actions. The lightning above Malinche’s head suggests her dream (as in the painting’s title) may not be pacific. Should she toss or turn—or even awaken—the consequences for the Mexican community resting upon her blanket would be disastrous. Source: Ruíz, Antonio. El sueño de la Malinche [“The Dream of Malinche”]. Oil on canvas, 11 7/8 x 15 3/4”. Galería de Arte Mexicano, Mexico City, 1939.
  • Cortes y La Malinche José Clemente Orozco, 1923-1926; Fresco (?) mural on the ceiling of el Antiguo Colegio de San Idelfonso depicts Hernán Cortés and his wife Doña Marina, “La Malinche”. “This is probably José Clemente Orozco’s most famous piece of public art. In this fresco Cortés and Malinche are starkly nude, carnal yet akin to Adam and Eve, sitting over the figure of a prostrate, perhaps degenerate, Mexico, the product of miscegenation, the mixing of races. With his arm across her, it is not clear whether Cortés is restraining her or protecting her. It is clear that Malinche is being portrayed here as the mother of modern Mexico. It is unclear if the artist believes this is good or bad. The contrast between the whiteness of Cortés and the brown skin of Malinche and the one they are sitting over is deliberate.” (Description source: AHA)

+ Primary Source Analysis

After students listen to an episode, have them closely analyze textual primary sources to extend and deepen their understanding of the people, events, and issues in the episode. Students can do this analysis in class or as an assignment.

For “‘La lengua’: Malintzin, the Spanish Conquest of Mesoamerica, and the Legacy of the Translator in Mexico,” try having students read excerpt’s from Ilena Paz’s novel, Doña Marina.

For Tituba: The “Black Witch” of Salem, have students read The Crucible or watch the 1996 film adaptation and/or read excerpts of MoiTituba, Sorcière…Noire de Salem by Maryse Condé.

+ Debate

For an assignment examining colonialism and the individuals–in this case, Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, and Henry Morton Stanley–who carried out the tasks of empire, try this structured debate!

  • Assign the students “Hearts of Darkness” + Table of Contents, Chapters 1 (p 21-37) and Chapter 2 (p 38-47) in Burton, The Lake Regions of Central Africa
  • Divide the class into six small groups: one dedicated to the position that “Casement was an imperialist” and one dedicated to the position that “Casement was an anti-imperialist”, and so on, so that the three men each have a team dedicated to arguing one side or the other
  • Give the students 15 minutes to revisit their notes from the podcast and reading, and to do whatever research they need to
  • Make sure each student has a role – a Leader to deliver opening statement, 1-2 Researchers to take notes on and provide counter arguments during the other teams’ opener and rebuttal, and a Closer to deliver the closing statement
  • Bring the groups up two at a time, run the debate
  • The point was to show that every one of these Europeans (who at least, unlike the Berlin conferencers, actually traveled to west Africa) were complicated individuals, whose sometimes casual tourist, often economically self-serving efforts led to immense suffering in the Congo

+ Presentations

To mix up content delivery, let the students take charge! On a unit examining three theories of the cause of European witch hunts, Averill has the students break into three groups and prepare short presentations using assigned materials, a mix of podcasts and excerpts from more traditional readings:

  • Read Wolfgang Behringer, “Weather, Hunger and Fear: Origins of the European Witch-hunts in Climate, Society and Mentality” and listen to “Little Ice Age
  • Read Brian Levack, “State-Building and Witch Hunting in Early Modern Europe” and listen to “It’s Treason, Then
  • Read Marianne Hester, “Patriarchal Reconstruction and Witch Hunting” and listen to “Witches Brew

Students work together to create engaging presentations (with a visual aid) that clearly outlines: the main theory their sources presented for the cause of the witch hunts, and a brief discussion of the evidence that supports their theory.

+ Source Assessment

Students should be assessing and critiquing podcast episodes like they do any other secondary source! Options:

  • Write a review! Students pick 8-10 most recent episodes of a podcast (Dig, or any of the shows at lyceum.fm) and write a public history review using the National Council of Public History review guidelines.
  • For any assigned episode, have students identify the argument/thesis of the episode and the sources used.

+ Timeline

For this assignment, have students listen to an episode, then use the audio and transcript to build a timeline of the events in the episode using KnightLab’s TimelineJS. Students will gain digital history skills and apply what they have learned through the podcast by creating a timeline. Ask students to do research to find primary sources, images, videos, and audio clips to add to their timeline.  Or, have your students use the podcast as a starting point, then have them go in to greater depth researching a person, issue or event in the episode, then show what they found in their research in a timeline. You could even have students make timelines covering issues from a playlist of episodes, focused on a single subject, such as the Civil War era, history of medicine, women’s rights, or slavery. 

For an example, check out this timeline on Reconstruction and the Election of 1876!

+ Maps

After listening to an episode with a heavy geographical component, like Lost!, where students can track Cabeza de Vaca’s travels throughout the Gulf of Mexico coast and into northern Mexico. Use My Maps in Google to create a custom map of Cabeza de Vaca’s unfortunate journey through “La Florida.” Students can include images, descriptions, and excerpts from the original text. Students can work collaboratively – in small groups, or together as one class.

+ Write An Episode

Have students listen to an episode with a FURTHER READING section, like “79 and Counting,” “Papa Can You Hear Me,” or “Devsirme,” read one of the articles from the Further Reading sections, and then write their own podcast episode! This gets students to think about how they would need to say something to be interesting to listeners, rather than just readers. Writing for a public audience, while engaging research (and appropriate citation) skills are important for all Humanities students!

Check out these episodes researched and written by Averill’s students for her fall 2020 Sex in Modern History class: