My friend Virginia introduced me to the New Hampshire Public Radio-produced podcast Civics 101 earlier this year. She was on the board of NHPR and rightly-proud of their new venture. I’ve enjoyed listening to host Virginia Prescott (a different Virginia) interview a different guest each week – including many professors – on topics like “Party Whips,” “Emoluments,” and “The IRS.” In some cases, I’ve listened more than once in order to take notes. Yes, I’m talking about you, “Federal Courts.”
As soon as I started listening, I started thinking about how to integrate the podcast into my classes, and I’ll be doing so this fall. This isn’t wholly a response to the political turmoil, though. Even though many of my students – certainly those from Connecticut – took a civics class within the last five years, they often struggle to understand the contemporary structure of the U.S. government and the ideas behind it. This makes it hard to teach the history and evolution of those structures and ideas, not least because students sometimes can’t see just how different things are.
I’ve gone through and selected episodes that pair up well with different days on the syllabi of both my US I and US II classes, and I’m offering students the chance for some extra credit if they listen to the podcast and give a short presentation on it on the relevant day. They then have to write a brief thinkpiece on how the contents of their podcast help us understand what we’re talking about in class, and how the content of the class might counter or reshape the podcast’s interpretation of the issue. For now, I decided to keep this as an extra credit assignment, partially because the longer-term project in US I is also podcast-based, so stay tuned for a description of that here or over at TUSH.
I’ll admit that it was harder to pair up episodes of the podcast in US I, mainly because the podcast is aimed at contemporary concerns and takes its inspiration from listener questions. It’s remarkably responsive in that sense, which makes it such great listening, but I couldn’t really slot in any episodes for the first six weeks of US I. In US II I had the opposite problem: not only is every episode relevant, but there are several episodes relevant for certain clusters of the semester, notably the dawn of the nuclear age and the Watergate controversy. In this case, I had to make some sacrifices.
Some episodes appear in both classes. Episode 27, “How a Case Gets to the Supreme Court,” is paired with the lesson on Indian removal in US I and with the lesson featuring the Warren Court decisions in US II. Episode 42, “U.S. Territories,” which focuses on Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, is paired with the lesson featuring Hawaiian annexation, the Spanish-American War, and the Philippine-American War in US II, and with a lesson discussing Manifest Destiny and the political and social ramifications of creating territories and states between the 1820s and 1850s in US I.
This last pairing speaks to one of the things I hope my students will do with these episodes: critique them. The guest on the U.S. territories episode repeatedly speaks of the Spanish-American War as the “beginning” of U.S. imperialism. Given the way I’ve paired the episode in both classes, the students who end up listening and presenting should be able to think and talk about why that framework is problematic and why it’s also unsurprising to hear it in the episode, even in 2017.
The episodes are short, fifteen minutes or so, and the host speaks with one guest, so the podcast isn’t complete, nor is it perfect. There are episodes, like the U.S. territories episode, that have moments or even entire interpretive frameworks I find frustrating. And this isn’t just because not all of the guests are historians; nothing Ed Ayers and Brian Balogh say in the “Church and State” episode is wrong, per se, but their choices about what to talk about and how to talk about them aren’t precisely the ones I would have made. But I think that’s good. The exercise would be a waste of time if it replicated my own teaching, and my hope is that my students will see the differences between my interpretations and those in some of the episodes, which might lead to some productive conversations on interpretation itself.
I’m also hoping the podcast, in attending primarily to the structure and mechanics of the government, might leave space for and lead students to be more confident in talking about ideas. That’s the stuff that I struggle with the most in my teaching, and my hope is that by seeing differences in how the government has worked over time, my students will be able to consider why those changes took place and what the different ideas behind a given body or policy or interpretation of the Constitution meant to the people who held them.
Even though I’ve left this as an extra-credit option, I have no doubt most of my students will take me up on the offer. If it works well, I’ll think about rolling it into both courses as a permanent assignment. Who knows, maybe some students will want to listen to the podcast all on their own, and will bring up things that they learned whether there are points attached to it or not. Mostly, though, I hope the exercise helps my students understand how meaningful the past is to our present experience and gives them a little more confidence in engaging with that present experience.
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