My Podcast, My Students’ Interviews, and Public Scholarship

You may already know that I produce a podcast called We Teach Languages. For more than two years now, I have been putting out weekly 20-minute (or so) episodes that feature interviews with language teachers and researchers. I conduct many of the interviews and do all the editing and much of the behind-the-scenes work, but lots of other people have contributed interviews as well including three really dedicated volunteers. (If you are interested in learning more about how YOU can contribute, check out this page.)

A fair number of the contributors to the podcast are listeners who have interviewed colleagues on mutual topics of expertise and interest. However, several of my own students have contributed, and that’s to be expected since I require students to conduct interviews in almost every class I teach. In this post, I am going to share a bit about 1) the kinds of interviews I build into my syllabus and why I am such a fan of that particular type of assignment, 2) how my podcast grew out of my teaching, and 3) how my teaching has grown as a result of the podcast.

1) Interviews are a great assignment

The first time I asked students to conduct interviews as a requirement in a course I teach was, if I’m not mistaken, in 2015. At that point, I had been teaching a course on language teaching methods for about a decade, and while the course content and overall course design had evolved a lot over those ten+ years, the assessments of student learning had pretty much stayed the same. Students wrote reflections, designed their own lesson plans, and engaged in discussion both orally and in writing with their peers. Don’t get me wrong, those are great assignments and provide me with a lot of information about how everyone is progressing. I still do all of them! But I wanted to see how students in those methods courses could really connect with their experience as language learners and with the professional community of language teachers. I wanted them to read and talk to me and talk to each other, sure, but I also wanted them to get first-hand accounts from actual, experienced language teachers.

So, I asked my methods students to interview teachers. Some interviewed a language teacher who had been important to them as a learner. You know, that high school or college teacher that meant so much and sparked a lifelong journey. Others interviewed friends, colleagues, and professors they admired. (In later iterations of the assignment, students have also interviewed teachers and scholars whom they had not met, but knew from blogs or scholarly work.) The only question I require in the interview is “What does excellent language teaching look like?” Students can go on from there to ask any additional questions they prefer. I must say, I have been sincerely impressed with the interviews in the many iterations I have done in the last three years.

The assignment is generally due the third week of class in a 14 week semester. Logistically for me as the teacher, this is a simple assignment, but a difficult assignment to use effectively in class.

Simple assignment and simple grading: I give no specifics about how long the interview should be or what questions the student should ask beyond the first one, “What does excellent language teaching look like?” I encourage students to avoid anything they have to spend money on and instead use the recorders built into their phone or computer or use a free app like CallNote to record an internet call. If students turn in their audio recorded interviews and the quality is high enough that we can understand the playback, I give them all full credit. I absolutely do not want to micromanage the audio quality or the interview process. That is not the point of the assignment. For my methods students, the point of the assignment is for students to have a real text that they can use to compare and contrast the readings, theories, and research we are studying. By week three of the course, I have twenty-some recordings of capable, experienced teachers discussing what makes language teaching effective. It’s a gold-mine of texts to use in class.

Challenging to use well: The first thing I do is listen to every interview and pick out a clip about a minute or three (or five) long from each one that aligns well with one of the topics in the course. Generally, we get into the nitty gritty of classroom practice in about week 5 of the course. So, ideally, from weeks 5-14, I will have one or two clips from actual interviews with teachers that I can play in class and then ask students to think about how the clip compares to the readings and lecture for that day. A think-pair-share or some group discussion is usually just the thing to dig into the interview. In practice, because there is always some overlap with the interviews and time constraints, I usually only play clips from maybe six to eight of the 20 interviews I receive. At the end of the semester I am always convinced that analyzing the interviews was one of the more productive activities we did in class. I am ALSO always convinced that I could have done a better job of picking out clips and incorporating them into class time. These interviews are SO RICH, I really do not do them justice most of the time.

This past spring, I taught a course called Second Language Acquisition: Theory and Research. I hadn’t previously included interviews as an assignment in that course. Students in that particular course have to write a publication-ready article as the final project, and so we spend all of our time reading, preparing, and writing that article. It’s an ambitious final project, and the whole course leads up to it.

But this year, I realized that my PhD students in that SLA course were missing out on a great opportunity. I realized that if they were to conduct interviews early on in the semester with someone who was already an established expert in their chosen topic, that could be an invaluable experience for two reasons. 1) They could get a big-picture view of the topic from someone who is already an expert. 2) They could meet and get to know a scholar who might turn out to be a valuable professional contact in their future job search and/or academic career. So, I jumped into a week three interview project in that course as well.

The results were just as wonderful in the SLA course as they have been in my various Methods courses. Students knocked the interviews out of the park, gained valuable insight into the profession and into their topic, and networked with established scholars in a way that benefited both parties. I will 100% do this assignment again next time I teach the SLA course. I am officially a fan of the interview assignment.

 

2) …and that’s how the podcast was born.

Even before I started the podcast as a form of public scholarship with and for the language teaching community, I asked my students to make some of their work public on a course blog. I give students a great deal of freedom to choose what work to post. I want everyone involved to feel proud of their public work and have control over how it’s shared. There are some great resources on the blog including annotated bibliography entries, video presentations on SLA topics such as gender inclusivity and games in the language classroom, and practical advice for teachers working with English language learners. I’m super proud of the work students have made public on our L2 Studies site.

Then, in May of 2016, as part of my work at the Center for Teaching (my homebase at Vanderbilt), I helped facilitate a three-day event we call the Course Design Institute. The focus is on building courses that center students as producers of academic knowledge rather than just consumers. As I worked alongside and supported various faculty members thinking about including some form of podcasting in their own teaching, I couldn’t help but think of the cache of excellent interviews I had collected from students that only had a purpose in my own classroom and would never be available to others. I had the first spark of the podcast idea then. It took me another 10 months or so build up enough momentum, knowledge, and courage to go for it.

My concept was to feature diverse voices from all kinds of language teaching contexts. I imagined that I would conduct about half of the interviews and that others, including my students, would contribute the other half. If you listen to episode 0 of the podcast, you can hear my optimistic and brief vision statement — one that I feel we have lived up to! We are now more than two years into the project and the podcast is still completely free of charge, ad-free, and volunteer-run. We have released 110 episodes (new episodes come out on Fridays) and more than 175 individuals have contributed as interviewers, guests, panelists, newsletter contributors, and blog post authors. We have listeners all over the world and tens of thousands of website hits. Every month our listenership grows. Last year we launched a weekly newsletter which has around 500 subscribers so far. Last year we also partnered with the PEARLL language resource center to provide transcripts for all the episodes. Honestly, it’s gotten bigger than I ever expected, and takes up more of my time than I imagined.

The podcast is closely connected to both my teaching and my research, but most of the time and effort I spend on the project falls into a category best described as public scholarship. We are taking great discussions about language teaching out of classrooms and academic journals and moving those conversations to a public space where researchers, practitioners, and students alike can all participate as consumers and as producers of academic knowledge.

Is it the best project I’ve ever been a part of? Yes, I think that’s fair to say.

Is it the most time- and resource-consuming project I have ever been a part of? Also, yes. I daydream about what could be possible if we got a little funding. It would be amazing. Of course, it’s pretty amazing now and we do it cheap and with a little help from our friends.

Students in all of my graduate courses have to conduct interviews for class, but they do NOT have to submit those interviews to the podcast. If they want to submit an interview to the podcast, I need consent from both the interviewer and interviewee, the audio quality has to be above average or at least fixable, and the topic has to be something that an audience of language teachers would benefit from. Every semester, a few students meet all of those conditions, submit their work, and have their interviews turned into episodes. The interviewer gets a line on their CV and some experience doing public scholarship, and the interviewee gets a platform to talk to peers. For some authors and materials writers, this is a huge benefit. Our platform can help them reach a new audience. For other teachers who would rather keep a low profile, going public may seem daunting. I’m glad to report that our audience has been very kind and welcoming. So far, so good.

 

3) My work will never be the same.

I want to end this post with a few notes about how much value this project has added to my teaching, research, and administrative work.

In my admin/staff role, I often help faculty effectively use technology in their teaching. Without a doubt, I am better at this part of my job now than I was 3 years ago. I have seen for myself, not just observed in others or in the research, how powerful technology can be when it is employed to democratize knowledge and cultivate an audience for our work and our students’ work. I’ve also learned that I am a bit of an audio editing nerd, something I never would have guessed about myself because I had never ever tried it before. I LOVE editing the episodes, getting them as close to perfect as possible, making everyone involved sound their best, and then sharing the episodes with the world.

In my role as a scholar/researcher, I have access to a wealth of knowledge that I previously did not. I find myself citing podcast episodes in my traditional scholarly writing. People often say things on the podcast that I have never read in any book or journal, which in part reflects on my own limitations as a reader, but also in part because we don’t always write about the same things we talk about. It has made my writing better and has inspired me to include more practical application in my scholarly work. In fact, it’s made me sort of obsessed with finding and learning from as many teachers as possible, and then sharing what I am learning with others.

And finally, in my role as a teacher, I see two big changes.

First, the authors of the articles and books we read in class have become more three-dimensional through the podcast. I have quite a few times reached out to the author of a piece we were reading for class, and asked that person to chat with me for the podcast. As a result, now I can not only assign the original scholarly work, but also assign the podcast episode in which the author and I discuss their work in a more conversational way. The juxtaposition of the two formats has been wonderful. Seeing the author of a scholarly article or blog as a person who enters into discussion and answers questions really opens up the class discussion as well. Hearing an author respond to the questions that we had in class is a huge benefit to all of us.

Here are a few episodes where I or another interviewer specifically sought out interviews with an author to complement what we were reading in class:

Episode 88: Google Translate in the Language Classroom with Errol O’Neill, Part I

Episode 83: Resources and Research on Teaching Heritage Learners with Maria Carreira

Episode 73: Intercultural Communicative Competence with Michael Byram

Episode 69: Engaging all Learners with Leslie Grahn

Episode 58: Principles of Outstanding Language Teaching with Steve Smith

Episode 56: How to Write Comprehensible Texts with Martina Bex

Episode 28: Teaching Vocabulary for Acquisition with Joe Barcroft, Part I

 

Second, my classes have become places where graduate students are learning practical technological and academic skills along with the theory and research. They are networking with well-known academics and sharing their favorite teachers’ wisdom with the world. At least one student from every course I have taught since 2017 has participated in the podcast as an interviewer, and gotten a line on their CV in the process. The momentum towards public scholarship that I have felt in my own work has also affected grad students in my courses who generally report feeling more comfortable with academic work and networking in academic circles after taking my courses.

For me, podcasting in a way that involves my students and colleagues has been a revolution, and I am so excited to see where it takes us next.

If you are interested in listening to a few episodes featuring my students as interviewers, might I recommend:

Episode 109: Multilitercies and Digital Social Reading with Carl Blyth

Episode 96: Language Learning through Digital Games with Jonathon Reinhardt

Episode 91: Teaching Private Language Classes with Diane Neubauer, Vivek Tripathi, and Meg Saunders

Episode 78: Motivation, Authentic Input, and Learning a New Way of Thinking with Wilbur Wong

Episode 54: Keeping Pace with How Students and Methods are Changing with Mei Zhou

Episode 30: Fear of Failure, Twitter, and Virtual Reality with Patrick Murphy

Episode 7: Evolving as a Teacher and Helping Students Become Lifelong Learners with Qinqin Zan

Episode 4: Focus on Process, Not Product and Thinking Maps with Dana Yang

 

If you are using podcasting in your own academic work in ways that are similar or different from mine, I would love to hear about it! Please reach out by leaving a comment below or use the contact form on this site!

 

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