Podcasting, Performance, and Pedagogy

Another great post from the wonderful Deborah Beck

“Imitation is innate to humans from childhood and they differ from other living creatures in this, that they are the most prone to imitation and their earliest learning comes about through imitation.”

τό τε γὰρ μιμεῖσθαι σύμφυτον τοῖς ἀνθρώποις ἐκ παίδων ἐστὶ καὶ τούτῳ διαφέρουσι τῶν ἄλλων ζῴων ὅτι μιμητικώτατόν ἐστι καὶ τὰς μαθήσεις ποιεῖται διὰ μιμήσεως τὰς πρώτας. Aristotle Poetics 1448b5

For the second year, my advanced Greek class at the University of Texas at Austin is creating a podcast series about our experiences reading and teaching ancient Greek. Last fall (2018), I piloted this idea in a course on Homer’s Iliad that satisfies university distributional requirements in writing and independent inquiry. I thought that a podcast would be a great way to work on both of these skills, while also giving all of us an opportunity to reach out to people beyond our own classroom who are interested in Greek literature.

Our series, “Musings from Greek 365,” was a great first effort – we all had a good time; the relatively small number of listeners who found our work enjoyed it (including Sententiae Antiquae); and I learned a lot, both about the Iliad and about how to create an effective podcast. So did the students. But it was clearly a first effort, and I ended the semester with a long list of what I wanted do differently next time. This fall, with the benefit of the experience and mistakes of last year, we’re off to a great start with our series Sophocles Antigone in 2019.

A podcast series uses a consistent structure for the series as a whole, within which every episode has a lot of leeway for individual creativity. Traditional storytelling in ancient Greece works the same way. In classical mythology, the broad parameters of a given myth are stable, but individual poets, artists, and writers can adjust the details as they see fit. So, each podcast episode in our series consists largely of close reading and interpretation of a particular section of the play that a given student has already taught to their colleagues during a regular class period, along with some reflection on their experience of teaching. But podcasting, like mythology, allows for and indeed thrives on individual choices.

I simply talked for all of my introductory episode, and some students have done that. Other students use music to enliven their episodes, while still others chose to discuss their material with fellow students. In Episode 5, Lyle discussed modern versions of ancient tragedy with a friend in the College of Business, with whom he had read the Antigone in high school. The various media, rhetorical styles, and modes of speaking that students use in their podcasts call to mind the range of meters, stylistic levels, and musical styles in Greek tragedy itself. But at the same time, our shared norms and interests as a class tie together the individual episodes, just as particular characters and themes crop up repeatedly in both the Antigone and students’ podcast episodes about the play.

Podcasting, in other words, reminds us that tragedy is a performance genre, something that can easily fall by the wayside as students struggle through the highly abstract and allusive Greek of a choral ode, or the compressed style of back-and-forth dialogue. Podcasting also makes a fruitful pairing with teaching, itself a kind of performance. In both teaching and podcasting, and for that matter in good writing, we have to decide what we really want to say about our material and how best to say that. If we try to say too many things, or we introduce details that we think are interesting but no one else cares about, we lose our audience.

Mosaic_of_the_theatrical_masks_-_Google_Art_Project_(crop_without_borders)

Furthermore, the manner in which we perform our material can play a huge role in how effectively it connects with an audience. In fact, I decided to go to graduate school to become a professor in part because I had been active in high school theater, and I thought (correctly) that I would enjoy the performance aspects of teaching. And the students enjoy it too. Although each of them has commented – either informally or in their podcasts, or both – that teaching is much more time consuming than they had expected, if you listen to our podcast, you will hear in their own words that they relish the experience and they learned a lot.

Different students, unsurprisingly, came away with different take-aways. In Episode 3, Cassie tells us that she enjoyed her experience as a taste of what having her own class might be like. Laura came to see Creon’s attitude in her passage not as humorous, as she had initially thought when she served as “Teacher of the Day,” but as a complex and even sympathetic character. Laura finished Episode 4 with this summing-up: “If I’ve learned anything from this assignment, it’s that the close reading and the thinking I had to do to teach this passage showed me both the complexity of the text, and the complexity of Creon’s character.”

What has the professor learned? Unfortunately, I failed to come up with a good name for our podcast. I am bad at catchy titles, and this podcast is no exception. I chose “Sophocles Antigone in 2019” to point to the enduring relevance of the Antigone for conversations about justice, law, and good government. This becomes a more cogent aspect of the play with every passing day, but it’s still a boring name.

I did, however, improve the assignment guidelines for how to create a podcast, which I am happy to share with anyone who would like to see them. These guidelines break down the process of producing a podcast episode into a series of concrete steps with specific due dates attached to each. As a result, students complete their podcasts in a timely fashion – a consistent problem last year – and our series releases new episodes on a regular basis throughout the fall semester. I wanted to make sure we had a regular release schedule in part to make the podcast more appealing to listeners.

Better publicity was, and is, at the top of my list of needed improvements. Last year, we had no publicity at all, except what was generated by traffic on Podomatic, our free podcasting platform. This did a real disservice to the terrific work of the students, and one of my main priorities for this year was to learn more about publicizing a podcast. So, we have a regular release schedule, we have some public domain artwork, and I am in the process of listing our podcast with iTunes and Google Play. So far, so good. When this course ends, I’ll doubtless have a fresh list of ways to do various things better next time.

Podcasting is a lot of work. It’s also really fun and everyone involved will learn a lot, often in unexpected ways. At the end of Episode 2, Dylan says, “I’m not just trying to translate the lines, but trying to understand their place in the text and how they serve the play as a whole. This came as a bit of a shock, because I think it’s easy for us to think at first that if one can translate the lines, they must already understand them. After this experience, I can certainly say that’s not true.”

If you listen to our series, drop us a note and tell us what you learned.

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