In history classrooms, there tends to be plenty of writing. Primary source anaylsis, historiography, thesis and interpretative arguments: each is a piece of disciplinary work that factors into most assignments we use. But given the constraints of chronology, whether it’s the sweep of the survey or the detail of an elective, devoting time to actually teaching about writing is a whole new level of challenging. Moreover, as Whitney noted in her post a few days ago, students struggle with reading loads as is and teachers don’t need to be Stephen King (as much as some might like to be) to know that reading and writing are entirely interconnected enterprises.
This year, I’ve been working as a writing fellow in the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program at Lehman College. The central tenant of WAC is that the development of writing skills is not the sole responsibility of English composition but rather that strategies can be applied to classes in the sciences, social sciences and broader humanities to improve written communication, regardless of disciplinary specifics. I’m partnered with faculty in the English program, which at first glance might sound redundant considered the perception that English classes are all about writing. But it’s clear that while the curriculum might be writing intensive, English professors bump up against the same time constraints as historians.
Being a writing fellow provides you with a unique opportunity to both observe a classroom and have guaranteed space to “talk shop” about writing education. I lucked out with my faculty partners in this sense: while not a literary scholar, I work in great detail on book history and find their courses fascinating! In one class, there is an assignment that we’ve been working on together that is particularly striking (and has me very excited to try it out in a history context)… podcasting. Admittedly, I’ve had only a little experience with the medium. I’ve listened and participated on terrific early American history shows like Ben Franklin’s World and the Juntocast, and who hasn’t heard of Serial and Ted Talks, but the idea of assigning a podcasts as a group project in an undergraduate is such a fresh idea to me.
I’m finding that podcasting, although an auditory medium, can be surprisingly writing intensive. What is so valuable about this assignment is that it is writing intensive in a highly productive way: no busy work and clearly defined in so that each facet is working towards a tangible end. The goal is that in groups of four, students will plan, script and produce a podcast on any aspect of the course they collectively find striking and important. Integrating primary sources, text analysis and clips from relevant speeches, music, interviews etc. allows students to play to their different strengths and improve weaknesses. Growing up with English as my primary language, an extraordinary aspect about Lehman is its community of English language learners, many of whom have unique insights on the role of writing in learning because their experience with the English language is very different than my own. This has pushed me to rethink exactly how I conceive of my assignments as learning tools. The combination of written planning and verbal recording not only enhances language understanding but also makes the tone and delivery of writing clearer. The same can be said for students who struggle with writing for a swath of other reasons.
There are a few potential glitches, if you’ll forgive the pun. Group projects are tricky in that one or two students can end up doing more of the work. But because this assignment is scaffolded, with each person taking his or her share of the workload, it can guard against imbalance. Similarly, there is an economic component here, too. There is certainly technology necessary – a computer for one – and the luxury, for many students, of quiet space to record. Fortunately, Lehman has a supportive IT department and most of the necessary programs, like audacity, are free. And lastly, it may prove that there is a little too much wiggle room in leaving the topic of the podcast open ended for a history class, something I may need to consider in the future.
Podcasts resonate with students. They listen to them and appreciate the idea of making one themselves. Likewise, if given the opportunity to talk about their historical insights, many students will take it and run with it. What also works here is that it makes writing less intimidating for those who struggle with and speaking less overwhelming given the writing preparation. With an across the curriculum model, students can draw on their individualized interests and find an element of the history that intrigues them. This provides both a teaching window for us and a self-teaching moment for them. Stay “tuned”…