Professors Gopalan Balachandran and Davide Rodogno have incorporated podcasts into the curriculum for several International History and MINT courses. The podcasts are created and recorded by students as a means to convey their research. This interview describes the motivation for using this innovative tool and the prospective outlook for continuing this initiative.
What led you to choose the podcast format for your class?
Professor Balachandran: The challenges and expectations our graduates confront, and what they expect from us, have evolved over the years. Our students don't necessarily want to pursue academic research, yet may still be interested in research for other purposes. Scholarship also increasingly overspills academia. It is expressed through diverse media, so podcasts can be an accessible complement to purely written assignments.
Professor Rodogno: I thought it was important for our students (and for me) to be exposed to other ways of communicating and reaching out. At the Graduate Institute and in our department students are required to write papers and reviews, historiographical essays, critical bibliographies or primary sources’ assessments (exegesis). Since my colleagues use a variety of ways to improve our students’ oral and writing skills, I thought using the podcast added a meaningful tool and further skills, which are specific though they confront students with all the fundamental problems related to research.
Podcasts are versatile communication tools; they might be addressed to expert and broader audiences, to kids or high-school students, to undergrads or the general public. The way information is dealt with by the authors of a podcast is crucial. An eight-minute podcast requires an inordinate amount of work, of editorial choices, of struggles for clarity. Podcasts, especially short ones, force authors to face very difficult decisions about what to include and exclude from them. Good research is about being critical as well as making choices concerning what to include and exclude; how to be intelligible and clear. Podcasts enhance students’ creativity and give them an opportunity to use it.
Is this a format that is particularly useful for international history?
Professor Balachandran: Undoubtedly, if you consider that we are living history all the time. These histories are too fluid and shifting for the purely written word and will become more so as voices proliferate. For me, therefore, the talk show/discussion format is as important as the podcast medium: I can more easily envisage a talk show/discussion that is not a podcast than the other way round.
Professor Rodogno: I think so. It is useful for all disciplines taught at the Graduate Institute and all programmes at the Institute. For historians they are a perfect tool. They enhance the oral skills of the authors; and scripts enhance specific writing skills. In the particular case of the Applied Research Seminar in International History - the class I have the privilege to teach - there are other dimensions that combined with the Podcast make it a unique experience for our students and a particularly challenging class for me to teach.
First, students are assigned a topic by a sponsor: last year we collaborated with the UNOG, the ICRC - forensic department, the Jean Monnet Archives, a new hybrid NGO called the GARDP (Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership) and the International Parliamentary Union, the oldest international organisation in Geneva. Civil servants, archives, centres' directors ask the department if the students can work on a project they have in their drawers; then I generally negotiate on behalf of the students so they have a certain latitude to interpret the brief. The second characteristic of this class is that students are required to work in small groups. Working in groups teaches how to dialogue and compromise, defend one’s ideas, admit others might have better ideas. Last but not least, the outcome, the podcast in this case, goes back to the sponsor. The latter decides whether or not to use it publicly.
How was the experience for you and for the students?
Professor Balachandran: I hope you have a chance to ask the students and they will be frank in sharing their experience. As for me, I found it challenging, exciting and immensely rewarding. Our students are amazingly creative and it will be gratifying to know if the podcasts proved to be a good outlet for their talents and energies. However, podcasts and other such less conventional methods probably work best as part of a menu of choices which should continue to include papers and so on.
Professor Rodogno: Students’ evaluations and conversations with them show they are very interested in continuing this experience. I think it is important for the Graduate Institute to support these experiences. I was lucky enough to get all the necessary support from the Graduate Institute and my department. The students received training and guidance from Dr. Kujtese Bejtullahu (incoming executive director of InZone, University of Geneva), Dr. Rahel Kunz (senior lecturer, Université de Lausanne) and/or Dr. Ruxandra Stoicescu (independent podcast producer and researcher), who are passionate about developing innovative pedagogy on international topics and who collaborate to introduce podcasting in higher education institutions. Their contribution and that of our teaching assistant Joshua Threw were crucial since I have no previous expertise in this field and I wanted to offer our students the best possible instructors. I am delighted to confirm that the Institute will support this experience during this academic year (i.e. for the applied research seminar I will teach starting February 2020).
What are you planning next?
Professor Balachandran: Other collaborative papers, definitely. In the semi-obligatory MDEV course that Shaila and I offer this semester, students can elect to undertake group case-studies. Creative fiction can be a nice way to restore history and the humanities to one another. Several colleagues use 'fictional' materials in their teaching. In one of my classes last spring, some students elected to write a short piece of fiction instead of a conventional paper. I should perhaps refrain from saying anything more here for fear of appearing to suggest invidious preferences!
Professor Rodogno: I am thinking about ways in which historians can use video and social network platforms in engaging ways. I would love to continue the podcast experience, but it does not depend on me since I need the support of the Institute to continue this innovative pedagogical project. I would like to train students for oral history, in collaboration with other departments, ANSO in particular. I would like to collaborate with colleagues in various departments on researching big data with the purpose of showing methods and methodologies, the immense possibilities and the risks of these kind of sources. A critical approach to big data, the opportunities and occlusions of digitisation of primary sources signal how fast our discipline is changing. Right now I am in contact with various Geneva public institutions and museums and I am reflecting on possible ways to do 'public history'. I am thinking about the possibility of turning pod-casts into video-casts.
Image: Applied Research Seminar in International History, Spring 2019