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In Praise of Generosity

It’s been a hard eight weeks. There’s a lot to be angry or sad or anxious about. But I want to remember the joys and successes of this time as well. So here’s a few of those.

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This semester, I proposed a course that was a grand experiment on a number of levels. It was going to be a course in which our final product was a collaboratively produced podcast series. I was going to use contract grading as a way to emphasize the collaborative nature of the course. We would be learning how to be a whole podcast team, not just the writers but also the hosts, producers, editors, publicists, and all. (Not the musicians–more on that in a moment.) I purposely set myself up as less a professor and more an executive producer. I wanted this podcast to be my students’ vision, not mine.

Grand experiment turned out to be an understatement. But in the process of completing our podcast, the word “collaborative” took on a whole new meaning (listen here).

I made a podcast episode about how we made this work, which you can hear here. But I want to talk in this blog post about what this semester has meant to me personally.

Interior Collaborators

I planned two forms of collaboration for the class from the start. First of all, unlike many other classes the students had taken before (certainly in history, anyway), the goal for the class was one project that everyone contributed to. Everyone’s work was in collaboration with another student, for the whole semester. All of them were in an episode team, and I asked a few of them to volunteer to take on extra duties, like logo design, web design, and intro and credits reader.

I think this collaboration was working great before the break, when students could talk to each other during class. After the break, when we had to rely on online connections, it was a lot harder.

Our other primary collaborators were the composers of the New Sound Collective. My friend Andrew Cote is the director of this group of student composers, and he and I hatched up a plan whereby some of his students would write music for my students’ podcasts. Again, the move to online proved a little complicated, but the composers were incredibly generous and flexible. And I have to say that the music really makes these episodes shine.

One of the things I appreciated the most about both my students and the students in the NSC was their willingness to return to things and do them again or differently if needed. I asked them for a lot of changes and additions, and they not only did them, but they did them quickly and (as far as I could tell anyway) cheerfully. Rather than just doing the minimum, they were generous with their time and skills to make their work better (and to graciously take critique from me–not an easy task!).

Exterior Generosity

As we moved into online space after the break, it became clear that the students’ motivation level was very low. So I had to throw myself on the generosity of people outside our class and the university in order for us to finish our work.

The first external act of generosity happened because of a serendipitous Twitter interaction. On Twitter, Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, offered to virtually visit any class that wanted him to. I jumped at that chance, but I’ll admit that I was shocked when he actually said he’d do it! I can’t really overstate how much his visit meant to me and to the class. It provided a vital boost to our class that was, if I’m honest, pretty demoralized.

Not only was Peter’s act generous, but he also pointed us toward another very generous member of the NPR family: Steve Inskeep. Steve recently wrote a book about an American explorer, John Fremont (which you should read; it’s great), and when Peter asked if he’d be willing to come talk to us as well, he said yes immediately. He talked to us about exploration, and about telling stories via audio, and was generally a real pleasure to talk to. And then HE sent us to yet another generous member of the NPR family: the hosts of Throughline.

The next week, Rund Abdelfatah from Throughline joined us. In some ways, her experience was the most relevant to our work, coming from a history podcast with two hosts that don’t record in the same space. Rund had a lot of really practical advice for us about setting up our episodes and telling them well.

I honestly still can’t believe that we ended up with three NPR hosts in our virtual classroom. I’m probably a super-nerd, but those are the only kind of celebrity I ever want to meet, and the students have expressed many times how amazing it was to talk to them.

But the generosity of external people didn’t stop there. When it became clear that the students’ time and effort needed to be focused on the main content of their episodes, I turned to people outside our class to fill out the pieces that would help polish the episodes. I asked people on Twitter and my family and friends to do voice acting for the primary sources that would ground our episodes. And they came through. I LOVE the voice work that so many people did.

Our voice actors were Andrew Garland and Doug Garland (my brother and dad), Paul Matzko (a friend I grew up with), Kellen Funk (a friend from college), Nate Sleeter (a friend from GMU), and Rick Felty and Daniel Hutchinson (friends from Twitter, more or less).

I am so, so grateful for all the work that other people did in order to make our podcast happen. None of them were in any way obligated to do so. And though I know most of them did it because they had a connection to me, the students are so appreciative. I think it’s really important for students to see how generous people can be, and they saw that in spades this semester.

Special Shout-out

I mentioned him up at the top, but the person in this story whose generosity shines above all others is Andrew Cote. Not only was he willing and eager to do our collaborative project from the beginning, he was there to prod his students when needed, enhance their work when needed, and also commiserate through a flurry of text messages and emails about all the challenges and opportunities of this project. And then he went above and beyond by agreeing to write some extra music for me so I could make the “Making of” episode. I really could not have led this project without his encouragement and generosity.

So what’s the moral here?

I don’t know. I don’t know what the moral is. I ended up doing a TON of work for this class because I was committed to actually having a product at the end. I didn’t have a plan B. In retrospect, maybe I should have. I learned a lot this semester. The students told me they learned a lot, despite everything, about how an actual job using history might work. (I think they were inspired by both our work and by our conversations with the NPR hosts.) That was encouraging.

This post feels sort of rambly. But the key takeaway I got from this class is that, insofar as they’re able, students will rise to the occasion, particularly if their grades aren’t on the line, and that people can be extremely generous. I’m grateful for both of these things.

1 reply on “In Praise of Generosity”

Reading this made me smile. For all of the challenges and frustrations and exhaustion this time has brought, it was wonderful to read about an educational opportunity that was so successful and exciting. Thank you for writing this and sharing it with us. It was also a reminder to me that there are often opportunities that aren’t always obvious, if one is willing to look and to ask!

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