Rather than have students write a final term paper, Ryan Murphy, Ph.D., professor and director of experiential learning at Chestnut Hill College, had his class, “Social Inequality 201,” create podcasts exploring social inequality in Philadelphia, with the objective being to not only inform listeners about the issues, but persuade them to care.
Over the course of the fall semester, the 16 students in Murphy’s class — primarily sophomores, juniors, and seniors — worked in teams of four to create the podcasts from the ground up. They conducted research, gathered data, practiced interviewing, and produced, edited, and mixed the audio. Then, on Dec. 9, the students held a listening session in which they played their podcasts for members of the College community.
To learn about the “Social Inequality Podcast” and the type of work his students carried out throughout the semester, we conducted an interview with Murphy.
CHC: What subjects and topics does your class, “Social Inequality 201 (SOCI 201),” focus on?
RM: In this course, we examine multiple issues of social inequality, with particular emphasis on structural inequalities in society related to race, social class, and gender. We also explore how other aspects of one’s identity — including sexuality, religion, and geographic location—can function to privilege some folks and disadvantage others. For example, we spent a considerable amount of time this semester exploring social determinants of health, and how one’s socioeconomic status, zip code, and education are correlated with differential health outcomes and disparate health inequalities. In addition to readings from our textbook and empirical research articles, each week we listened to a podcast that brought the course topics to life with examples from real people struggling with various forms of inequality in our society.
What is the “Social Inequality Podcast” all about?
This semester — in lieu of a final term paper — I asked the students to work in “news teams” of four, exploring issues of social inequality in Philadelphia to create an audio story that informs listeners about that social problem and, more importantly, convinces them to care. Each team member plays an assigned role — two reporters, one executive producer, and one engineer. The students have been working on this project all semester, and we had several in-class podcast creation workshops, where we did hands-on activities to learn how to create a compelling narrative for a podcast. The students practiced doing interviews, learning how to identify the issues and bring in data and audio clips to tell the story they wanted to tell. We are using two free audio software programs — GarageBand for Mac and Audacity for PC — to mix and edit the audio to produce a professional podcast.
How did you conceive the idea for the project? Why did you think it was an important one for your class to undertake?
I am fairly active on several academic Twitter groups, where scholars and teachers share the best pedagogical practices to bring innovative teaching ideas to their classrooms. Several faculty members around the country have had success with using podcasts both as teaching tools for listening and as creative outlets for students to dig deeper into course topics. This is my first time teaching social inequality, and it seemed like a perfect course to try this approach since we would be able to both listen to podcasts related to our course topics and create our own exploring inequalities in our city.
Why did you want students to carry out the project in this medium rather than through a paper, PowerPoint, etc.?
There is a great deal of data — both empirical and anecdotal — that high-impact, team-based projects in the classroom function as strong teaching tools resulting in students retaining more of the course material, and also as a key way for students to feel connected to their work, their teachers, and the institution. Projects like this prevent social isolation, get students deeply engaged in course topics, and are directly correlated to overall student persistence and retention. I think it’s crucially important that we remain on the cutting edge of teaching and learning at Chestnut Hill College, and our institution’s support for interdisciplinary work and our small class sizes make it ideal for high-impact projects like the “Social Inequality Podcast.” With this project, students are not only practicing sociological analysis, but also learning journalistic and technological skills that they can take with them to future courses and hopefully use in their careers. Students may not remember every paper they write, but they likely will remember interviewing someone facing a significant struggle, and having to reconcile that person’s story with what we’re reading in the classroom.
What sort of work did students do for the project?
The students had considerable freedom to design their podcasts, and we listened to at least one podcast each week to compliment that week’s course topics. My goal was to expose the students to a variety of methods of storytelling, and then combining that with sociological analysis, so that they could find the appropriate method to answer their question and tell the story they wanted to tell. Most students settled on a combination of interviews and voiceover narration, which they edited along with other music and audio through GarageBand or Audacity — to eventually produce a complete audio podcast, with a defined narrative arc and potential solutions for the form of inequality they explored.
How long is each podcast?
I asked the students to create podcasts that were between eight to 15 minutes long, with a goal of being in the 10- to 12-minute range.
How was the listening session? Did students enjoy it, and what did they learn from the experience?
The listening session went great: The students debuted their excellent work, and we had some special guests in the room as well — faculty, staff, and administrators — who came to hear their finished podcasts. The four groups explored the following topics: difficulties in re-entering society after incarceration; the opioid crisis in Kensington; gender inequalities in the music business; and social class and privilege.
The podcasts were thoughtful, well-produced, and provocative. Importantly, they began to look at the systemic and structural roots of inequality in society and how we might address them. I am so proud of the students’ work, and I will certainly use this teaching method in the future.
Is there anything you’d like to add that you feel readers should know about your class, the project, or the issues discussed therein?
The small class sizes and interdisciplinary nature of our work at Chestnut Hill College allow us to dig deeper into course topics. I believe classes and projects like this are directly in line with our mission. We are educating students to examine structural issues in society, and to use their voices to work for a more just and equal world.