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Celebrity And History Instruction: The Virtues And Vices Of Podcasting

January 31, 2007

According to today’s New York Times, a Stony Brook, NY, history teacher, Mr. Lars Brownworth, has become a podcast celebrity because of his lectures. His popular audio podcasts come from a series of lectures called “12 Byzantine Rulers.” I also recall a story from November or December 2006 about a German professor becoming a podcast celebrity due to an amazingly popular lecture on Immanuel Kant. It was an English-language podcast. This phenomenon amazes me. My guess is that instances of this trend will continue to increase.

What’s driving academic podcast celebrity? What are its consequences? In answering the first, several things are at work. One factor is laziness. Students will use any means necessary to either cut class or their reading load. Of course there is the other end of the spectrum: the competitive edge. A smaller percentage of students will use lectures like these to augment their studies. Podcasts, then, are attractive to the “achiever set.” The story also noted that non-students like podcasts for their adult education value. I can sympathize. A few weeks back I spoke with my wife about buying an iPod for just such a purpose. [Aside: You know you’re an academic at heart when your first, genuine inclination to own this technology has almost nothing to do with music.]

What of the instructor’s perspective? In the realm of the positive, I can assume that for the most part instructors genuinely want to help their students. We all know that students need repetition, and podcasts facilitate that. Other, nice instructors likely want help students who can’t be in class (for excused reasons, of course). But what of video podcasts? Couldn’t a vanity factor enter into such situations? I would think so, since the potential audience seems limitless. In producing a video podcast isn’t it possible that some instructors simply desire celebrity? Couldn’t it be the case that the old vices of pride and envy are at work? Even in the case of audio podcasts, as with Mr. Brownsworth, won’t the lecturer consciously (or even unconsciously) want to build what psychologists call an ‘affect’ or personality? I have little doubt that maintaining this affect would detract, at times, from the real task of teaching. Haven’t all students of history, as well as department colleagues, met at least one preening, strutting historian that valued the stage too much, that over-valued his or her image with students? They value the performance of lecturing more than the craft of teaching.

This last point leads me to the question about consequences of podcast use. Answers here involve a potentially complex set of factors. For those students and professors inclined to lecture methodology, the podcast phenomenon bodes well. Students will get what they expect (“infotainment”), and lecturers may become more popular. The latter might even occasionally get their “15 minutes of fame” provided – in the case of video podcasts – that they have nice hair, snappy shoes, stylish clothes, and a first-rate lecture. Immortality beckons! Since lecturing has traditionally been popular in the academy, and is often more respected than other methodologies (if not used or needed), an excellent video podcast lecture might even gain an historian a tenure-track job. Universities covet “star” academics, so I predict that a podcaster will eventually gain a job primarily from his productions – perhaps even at a high-profile institution.

I think podcast creation, especially the video variety, could portend bad things for the motivated, engaged, active learning-centered teacher. Active learning isn’t film or audio ready: it’s too messy. That methodology involves questions, bad answers, repeating the same question from another angle, group discussions, and student presentations. The instructor sometimes also has to let his or her guard down to meet a student at ground level. With these factors in mind, it seems to me that unscripted, active learning is an endeavor not suitable for audio or video podcasts. But logic must, of course, preclude active learning proponents from denying the proposition that celebrities can’t be good teachers. Common sense, however, dictates that celebrity, or even the insidious desire for fame, certainly must occasionally detract from putting one’s full energy into teaching. – TL

[Note: Updated at 1:50 pm, 1/31/07]


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  1. Anonymous permalink

    I'm hoping you might give a little clarification by what you mean in the last paragraph. Specifically, you refer to podcasting in the classroom…I am assuming, for now, that you simply mean filming class and not showing students pre-filmed lectures? You then go on to say that this portends dire things, because filming seminars (vs. lectures) doesn't really work.

    The part I am confused about most is how the last clause (filming seminars doesn't work well) leads to your conclusion (bad things will happen in the classroom).

    Do you mean that people will start making boring films of seminars? In this case, I think that would be unfortunate but not particularly harmful. Or do you mean that people will be pressured to change the way they teach to improve the class's “watchability?” This would indeed be bad, but I don't know that you have proved this as a likely scenario. The final reading I can come up with is that you might mean that podcasting creates grandstanding lecturers, as opposed to simply giving existing ones a new forum. In this case, I think you are treading on a pretty thin hypothetical ground.



  2. Alexis: Thanks for the questions. It occurred to me as I read your comment that I didn't specify which ~kind~ of podcasting I meant. As you know, in its original incarnation podcasting was like radio in dealing only with audio media – hence lectures and music. But now podcasting can also mean filming (hence the recently advertised ability to watch music videos). I went to Mr. Brownworth's site and discovered that, thus far, he only podcasts his voice. So, I should clarify that in the piece.

    As for the last paragraph, assuming we're talking about video podcasting, I say this ~may~ result in dire things when lecturers are producing video podcasts. Because of the ease of distribution, I do think that podcasting could result grandstanding lecturers.

    You're right in identifying my overall argument: filming lectures is not really good for teachers, especially those who utilize active learning. That methodology results in boring video (and audio) podcasts, and instructors who use that method will most likely never create popular podcasts. But also, teachers who focus on their “watchability” will likely not be good teachers. There's a difference between a good instructor and good lecturer.

    Again, thanks for the comment. I'll correct the piece accordingly. – TL


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