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Build Empathy in Tech-Focused Students with a Podcast Project

Dr. Jessica Calarco uses podcasts to teach empathy and social justice to sociology students.

Educator

Jessica Calarco, PhD

Assistant Professor of Sociology, Indiana University Bloomington

PhD and MA in Sociology, BA in Sociology and Education

Necessity is often the mother of invention. For Dr. Jessica Calarco, it was motherhood itself that necessitated—or at least sparked—innovation.

Five years ago, Calarco was a new mother, often awake half the night with her infant daughter. As luck would have it, the Serial podcast was released that year. The groundbreaking, Peabody Award–winning true-crime program by public radio producer Sarah Koenig precipitated a podcasting renaissance. During one bleary-eyed night with the baby, Calarco reached for her headphones and pushed “play.” She quickly found podcasts to be both an auditory salve and a cerebral stimulant. “I burned through hundreds of hours of them over the next six months,” she says.

The timing could not have been better. Calarco had been looking for a way to create more engagement with tech-savvy students in the new Introduction to Sociology course she was designing as an assistant professor at Indiana University Bloomington. She wanted to encourage students to embrace human interaction—and build empathy around concepts of social justice—with the passion they seemed to reserve for the digital world.

Fueled by one part inspiration and one part sleep deprivation, Calarco had an idea that was killer.

Turning up the volume on empathy

Calarco decided to introduce students to her new love of podcasting—not for entertainment, but because it would engage them. Podcasts, she believed, would help them not only hear but deeply understand the social inequities and challenges facing communities today.

The idea felt so right to her that she built her entire Introduction to Sociology course around podcasting. “The theme of this class is ‘listen and learn,’” states her current course description. “Each week, we will use episodes of popular podcasts … to explore sociological theories and concepts.”

Since then, Calarco has shared an episode of This American Life to inspire discussion on the sociological imagination and “how thinking like a sociologist means stepping outside our own bubbles.” She has introduced the effect of stratified social networks on racial inequalities in hiring, using an episode of Start Up. And she has tackled the topic of culture and food with an episode of The Sporkful, weaving in themes of cultural hegemony, ethnocentrism, and cultural relativism.

To succeed in the project—and earn a good grade in the course—students must level up their interpersonal skills to build strong relationships with the members on their team. More importantly, they must also interact in meaningful ways with the people they interview from the college community. Some may even choose to venture into the off-campus community to speak with people directly affected by the social inequalities being discussed in class. This can be a stretch for students both in terms of their communication skills and their heartstrings, as they come face to face with people enduring real hardships.

“There is a real value in the human element for students who are willing to talk to people they don’t know,” says Calarco. “Conducting podcast interviews and assembling them into a cohesive story helps students understand societal problems from the inside out. They learn to communicate effectively with different groups of people around the same topics.” This may mean talking with people from “both sides”—or many sides—of a single issue.

For example, a recent group examined the impact of Greek life on the peer pressure students feel about drinking, interviewing members of fraternities and sororities as well as students who were not members. Another group recently created a podcast on the dangers of scooters on campus, interviewing students who used scooters, those who had been injured while riding, and also students for whom scooters’ prices were a barrier to use.

Finally, students learn how to take what they have heard and edit it into a cohesive, well-communicated, creative work that they can share with the world.

Context

“This course gives students a chance to understand what they unknowingly take for granted from the world around them. We live in these bubbles ... and understanding the factors that shape our lives helps students see beyond their own experience and into other people’s lives and opportunities [or lack thereof].”

— Jessica Calarco, PhD

Course: SOC-S100 Introduction to Sociology

Course description: The theme of this class is “listen and learn.” Each week, we will use episodes of popular podcasts like This American Life, Hidden Brain, and The Sporkful to explore sociological theories and concepts. We will also learn how sociologists observe, analyze, and improve the world around them and complete hands-on projects aimed at putting those skills into action. Specific topics will include culture and socialization, deviance and social norms, institutions (e.g., family, education, work, politics), power and inequality (by class, race, gender, and sexual orientation), social problems, social movements, and social change.

See resources shared by Jessica Calarco, PhD

See materials

Lesson: Scripting a new approach

There is more to creating a podcast—and much more to Calarco’s group podcast project—than simply hitting “record.” In fact, when Calarco conceived of the idea, she had no experience editing or writing podcasts. So, excited to play the role of student in a new subject area, she enlisted the help of a media scholar and former radio journalist to workshop the assignment rubric. She also relied heavily on YouTube videos to bring her podcasting knowledge up to date. “Most technologies—GarageBand or Adobe Audition—are easy to learn,” she says.

Calarco’s Top Picks for Podcast Editing Tutorials

As long as her students submit their final project as an mp3 or mp4 file, Calarco allows them to use whatever editing tool they prefer. “But because IU offers Adobe Creative Suite products free for students, I focus on teaching them how to use Adobe Audition,” she says. “The Adobe website has great tutorial videos that I used to teach myself the basics of audio editing.” Other favorites are “Technology Guru,” Dusty Porter’s “Getting Started in Adobe Audition CC” on YouTube, and a pdf of her own class lecture “Crash Course in Podcasting,” which she has shared on her Course Hero profile.

Calarco admits she was initially concerned that students might not be able to create a podcast. Ultimately, the project was—and has continued to be—a success, thanks to the following strategies:

Open their eyes to the why

Before students dig in to the project, Calarco has them dig deeper into the dimensions of inequality: race, class, gender, and sexuality. She uses class discussions to help students see that social problems are not about individuals making bad choices. With this background, students are “better able to understand the larger structural and social forces that factor into creating these social problems and are able to talk about them in powerful ways,” she says.

As a result, students are motivated to learn more about the real reasons these injustices manifest in society, and they often choose to study a social problem that they would not have otherwise considered.

Let them choose what moves them

While Calarco allows students to select the focus of their podcast, she does require that the topic affect someone in the campus community. These have included students’ lack of sleep, juuling as a gateway to cigarettes, lack of diversity in faculty, and the dangers of scooters on campus.

Students who want to go above and beyond interview people in the surrounding off-campus neighborhoods. This may involve speaking with the people who are directly affected by social inequalities, as well as representatives from the institutions that have impacted them. A recent group interviewed leaders of local nonprofit organizations that support those experiencing homelessness in Bloomington, as well as IU faculty members who do research on homeless individuals and the challenges they face.

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Design and assign specific roles

Dynamics of group interaction play a huge role in society, so Calarco fosters positive group work in her classroom. For example, to ensure the podcasting groups are well balanced, Calarco asks students what roles they would like to play; the clearly defined choices are reporter, editor/executive producer, and sound engineer. Then she divides the class into groups accordingly.

“Clear, structured expectations can help alleviate stresses in group projects,” she says. “Everyone has a very specific task, which creates more of an accountability structure and ensures they can get [the podcast] done effectively.”

Provide students with time and resources

Marginalized populations in society often face a wide variety of constraints, including limitations related to time and resources. These also affect students in group projects, though at much different levels.

Calarco addresses scheduling issues by carving out class time for groups to work on their podcasts. She also informs students of the campus resources available, offering these tips to other educators:

  • Remind students of your office hours and readiness to provide guidance and answer questions.
  • Provide students with links to websites they can use to create podcasts, as well as good-quality YouTube videos that provide podcasting instructions.
  • Find out what campus resources are available, then tell students how to avail themselves of them. For example, many campuses allow students to borrow computer equipment and digital voice recorders from the library or a computer lab.

Calarco says it’s important to recognize that not all students have the same access to quality technology. By articulating this, teachers model the foresight and awareness needed to look at society through a different lens, with an eye toward kindness, not judgment.

Encourage them to share their feedback—and their work

Calarco has received mostly positive feedback from students. Some are so excited that they finish their podcasts early, she says. “The ones who see the opportunity in the project get a whole lot out of it,” she adds. Many students say they feel a special pride in sharing their finished work with others. She shares this example of a student-created podcast about first-generation college students. A few students have even been inspired to continue their audio work at their student-run college radio station.

“We live in these bubbles,” says Calarco. “This course gives students a chance to understand what they unknowingly take for granted. Understanding the factors that shape our lives helps students see beyond their own experience.”

Once these powerful stories are heard, they cannot be unheard. But their endings, perhaps, can be redirected. By using technology to introduce students to other people’s live and opportunities—or lack thereof—Calarco is giving students agency to share what they have learned. And all their listeners need to do is press “play.”

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