As part of our teaching philosophy, we believe in the value of exploring contentious issues with our students to encourage civic engagement and effective leadership. When we introduce contentious issues in the classroom, we define a contentious topic as one that is (1) debatable and inconclusive among experts and (2) deeply important to the general public (Zimmerman & Robertson, 2017). In the process of introducing contentious topics, however, we learned that we run the risk of confronting comments from students such as the following:
“That’s just your opinion!”
“I’m entitled to my opinion!”
“You’re just pushing an agenda.”
“That’s just your experience.”
We found that when students encountered perspectives that were unfamiliar and disagreeable to them, they would often voice conjectures as self-evident truths, respond with aggression or reticence, and reject their peers’ perspectives and lived experiences. This anti-intellectual attitude was also reflected in their assignments. To give you a better idea, our students would dismiss the findings of credible experts or knowledgeable persons with “Well, that’s just their opinion” statements and cherry-pick evidence that confirmed their biases. Ultimately, our students failed to build credibility as writers and researchers.
Upon reflection, it dawned on us that we had unfairly assumed that students had the social skills to navigate discussions about contentious topics. By social skills, we mean specific interpersonal behaviors, such as the following:
These social skills are crucial to engaging in civil and productive discussions. By performing these social skills, learners actively inhabit and embody an intellectual attitude that centers open-mindedness, intellectual humility, and integrity, which then prepares them to craft logical and credible arguments.
To teach social skills, we designed a podcasting assignment as a prewriting activity. For our podcasting assignment, students record a group discussion about a contentious issue, including topics such as housing insecurity, prison reform, and immigration policies. In the recording, students assess the validity of two published articles that offer divergent perspectives on the topic, defend their own points of view, and contend with their peers’ perspectives.
So why podcasting of all things? How does this medium help our students to become open-minded, intellectually humble communicators? We gravitated toward podcasting because it is a unique medium that allows speakers to record themselves and listen back. This means that students are forced to reflect on how they sound when they engage with others. We propose that the podcast medium is absolutely critical to helping our students improve their social skills in a self-reflective and self-conscious way—a benefit that other verbal activities cannot offer. This all comes down to the aurality and technology involved in podcasting.
In her paper “Podcasting and Performativity: Multimodal Invention in an Advanced Writing Class,” Leigh A. Jones (2010) argues that podcasting is essentially an aural performance that deepens students’ awareness of audience and therefore the importance of connecting with that audience. We take Jones’s claim a step further. In addition to this deep awareness of audience, we argue that the technology of the podcast allows students to listen to their own voices, reflect on their blind spots, and assess and improve their social skills by rerecording. This is what makes podcasting unique; we can teach the same social skills for in-class discussions, presentations, and debates, but these in-class opportunities privilege students who are vocal and able to think quickly on their feet. The podcast medium, on the other hand, is unique because it affords students the semi-privacy to aurally perform for a listening audience. In other words, students can thoughtfully deliberate and rehearse what they want to say and how they want to sound. Students also have the safe space to record and rerecord their voices after reflecting on how their ideas and the delivery of their ideas affect others. Through podcasting, then, students can improve their social and, in turn, writing and research skills. Overall, we found that after podcasting, students were better equipped to build their credibility, make reasoned conclusions, and engage with a range of diverse perspectives in a civil and productive way.
To scaffold the development of specific social skills necessary for civil and productive discussion, we recommend the four following pre-podcasting activities.
To help our students develop their social skills, we modeled for our students what social skills sound like in an academic conversation. We created our own podcast, Discourse, with the tagline: “a podcast that explores multiple perspectives to think deeply and connect honestly with each other.” In each episode, we discuss a text that our students are reading and analyzing in class. Just as our students would, we analyze the validity and the rhetorical strategies of the piece, and we share our own reasoned judgments about the piece and the topic. The teacher podcast episodes, which are readily available for our students to download and listen to on the go, is an excellent supplementary resource for the students. Furthermore, it models for our students what a respectful exchange of ideas can sound like.
In addition to our teacher podcast episodes, we provided students with sentence stems that frame what the social skills might sound like (Figure 1). For example, to show students how to disagree agreeably, we provided stems such as “Yui, I respect and understand why you say that, but I can’t agree with your reasoning because ____.” As the course progressed, we then encouraged students to “own” these social skills by reflecting on and identifying the expressions and language they naturally used in their conversations. For example, one student stated that they would express civil disagreement by saying, “I hear you, and I think that’s a fair point, but ____.”
We also encourage assigning podcast episodes for your students to listen to. Episodes from podcasts such as This American Life, Hear to Slay, Ear Hustle, and 99% Invisible can be excellent texts for students to not only familiarize themselves with podcasts but also practice listening for and identifying social skills—or the lack thereof. Students can use an adapted version of the “Social Skills for a Civil & Productive Discussion” handout (Figure 1) to identify where and how the speakers on the podcast episode demonstrate
or fail to demonstrate these social skills as well as the impact they have on the audience.
As a classroom activity, we also recommend incorporating the discourse skills placemat (Figure 2). The placemat is divided into four sections: elaboration/clarification, synthesis, creative thinking, and critical thinking. Our students know that to engage in academic conversations with other people or with the texts we read, we prompt and respond with these discourse skills. But to do this successfully, we remind students that they must also work their social skills into their prompts and responses. The placemat allows students to share how they might demonstrate discourse skills and articulate them using social skills.
These pre-podcasting activities prompt students to not only recognize the importance of social skills but also reflect on how they can improve their own social skills so that they can have more civil and productive discussions about contentious issues. Once students completed these pre-podcasting activities and the podcasting assignment, they became demonstrably more open-minded and intellectually humble communicators. For example, students approached subsequent assignments with an awareness of and willingness to make reasoned conclusions based on a careful investigation of diverse perspectives and evidence. As a result, students produced intellectually rigorous work that was persuasive, logical, and credible. We have found that podcasting, because of the aurality and technology involved, has radically transformed the way students can master social skills and prepare for professional leadership and civic engagement.
Gay, R., & McMillan Cottom, T. (Hosts). (2019). Hear to slay. Retrieved from https://luminarypodcasts.com/listen/roxane-gay-and-dr-tressie-mcmillan-cottom/hear-to-slay/b52dbaee-2243-4230-ac20-8dc36ca6a453
Glass, I. (Host). (1995). This American life. Retrieved from https://www.thisamericanlife.org
Jones, L. A. (2010). Podcasting and performativity: Multimodal invention in an advanced writing class. Composition Studies, 38(2), 75–91. Retrieved from https://compositionstudiesjournal.files.wordpress.com/2019/02/38n2.pdf
Mars, R. (Creator and host). (2010). 99% invisible. Retrieved from https://99percentinvisible.org
Poor, N., Woods, E., & Thomas, R. (Co-producers and hosts). (2017). Ear hustle. Retrieved from https://www.earhustlesq.com
Song, A., & Narinesingh, S. (Creators and hosts). (2017). Discourse. Retrieved from https://anchor.fm/discourse
Zimmerman, J., & Robertson, E. (2017). The case for contention: Teaching controversial issues in American schools. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Sarika Narinesingh, MA, and Anne Song, MA, teach in the Department of English and Communication at George Brown College.
A version of this article appeared in the Best of the 2019 Teaching Professor Conference report. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.