Using short-form writing and audio to build critical skills

This semester, I’ve been testing out several new kinds of assignments. Reading themes, podcasts, blogs. All are to get the students thinking about how to be observant, critical thinkers and how to communicate their analyses. Each of the exercises builds into one big final project: a This American Life style podcast. (Yes, I know. High expectations). For this reason, our discussions and mini-assignments are largely focused on building skills that allow them to read difficult material and listen carefully, recall and recount what they read and listened to, and to find links among stories, events and processes that are not always obvious upon first glance. Ultimately, they should be able to carefully observe their social worlds and analyze what they see in new and exciting ways. Here’s an overview of two of the assignments:

Reading themes. Each week, the student submits a word or phrase that illuminates one of the following:

    • A keyword in a conceptual or theoretical framework used by the author. For example, we read Tim Burke’s Lifebuoy Men, which grapples with the utility of Marxist theory for historiography (use-value, exchange-value, false needs, commodity fetishism) and the ‘social life of things.’ Students would then post some of these keywords and be expected to discuss and define them in class.
    • A theme that reveals the kinds of ‘conversations’ the author is in. For example, in this same book, it was clear that Burke was also dealing with a social science literature that sought to follow a commodity and the cultural meanings associated with it: in short, the social biography of a commodity.
    • A keyword or phrase about which the authors are not explicit, but which raises new questions for you and the reading. This is that sophisticated layer of analysis that takes a bit more time, and often a larger reading repertoire, but something I hope will happen by the end of the course.

The reading themes are then put in a word cloud. Frequency of terms reflects the issues that students tackled as they read the text. These word clouds guide the lecture and discussion. As you can imagine, there are also lots of words that never make it into the cloud. It’s my job to figure out what got omitted and why, and to address these in the discussion. 

Week-in-review podcasts. I got the idea for this assignment from a communications and rhetoric professor. Each week, a group of students pair up to create a five-minute audio summary of what we discussed in class. It serves two purposes:

    • Students learn how to take a relatively large amount of information and condense it, making it digestible for an audience of their peers. In theory, they are also learning to make decisions about what is important and how to organize various insights into themes. (This has been the most difficult part so far, but I am working on shifting that a bit). 
    • Students have a lower stakes opportunity to experiment with developing audio content from writing to recording to editing.

So far, I am thinking about how to better integrate students’ week-in-review podcasts into the teaching and to ensure that the word clouds become more than just a pretty depiction of word frequency for the students. I hope to post more information as we get deeper into the semester.

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