Getting a Sound Education (With Podcasting)

With the support of the DLA, Visiting Professor Erin Davis attended the conference Sound Education at the Harvard Divinity School. Sound Education was designed for producers of educational audio. It featured nearly 50 panelists from the educational audio community, including radio hosts, academics, and DIY podcasters. Here she reports back on her visit and asks for your participation in a survey of podcasting at Middlebury itself.

By Erin Davis

If were to write a podcast script about the trip to Sound Education, it might look something like this.



I haven’t been to church in years. But I chose a familiar seat… (rustling chatter of a large room…loose organ music)…In the back. In the corner. Where no one can see me and I can admire the stained-glass windows if I really start to zone out. (music post) But I don’t. (beat – “Hello everyone, welcome to Sound Education…”)  

A woman at the front, in a high turtleneck and sharp bob haircut, tells a parable of a young student walking through a forest…. The student is dutifully identifying birds—from a book—when they notice a rustle in the leaves at their feet. A baby bird! That had fallen from a nest!  The student dropped their book, scooped up the bird and brought it to their teacher.

(bring in music, plunking – references church somehow but not choral)

“Teacher!” (desperate) “IS THIS BIRD ALIVE? OR DEAD?” The teacher responded: [beat] “the bird… is in your hands.”

(bring up music – and fade under)

And out.


Of course, instead of shouting “Amen!” attendees were scribbling in their notebooks, paging through the program, and tapping subscribe, subscribe, subscribe in the podcast apps on their phones. This wasn’t a service, but the opening remarks for Sound Education, a conference for education audio producers and listeners.

Sound Education brought together over one hundred academics and others who are using podcasts in their professional work. Motivating the conference was the notion of a distinctive genre of podcasting: the “educational” podcast.

But what is an “educational” podcast exactly? A recorded lecture posted for the public? A podcast in which the hosts are trying to…’educate’ the listener? Is an educational podcast in danger of being pedantic, or worse yet a boring podcast?

I think one key quality connected the many different educational podcasts: they are being made by people who are obsessed with a topic and want others to at least know, and maybe even start to deeply care, about it. Production values may vary widely, but obsessive interest was at the heart of most educational podcasts.

The gold standard of the “educational podcast” might be WNYC’s RadioLab—a show that “investigates a strange world,” as its slogan claims. A standout panel at Sound Education focused on RadioLab. The show’s production team provided an editing demonstration. At a conference more focused on content than form, it was perhaps the only mention, over three days, of the importance of sound design, character, pacing, and story in the making of a great podcast.

For example, one of RadioLab‘s best episodes ever is about colors. In it, the show’s makers explore both the philosophical and the physical realities of color throughout history and across species. I listen and I, well, learn about how the world I see around me is different from that seen by, say, a dog. Or a mantis shrimp. The whole thing stems from the simple question, “why is the sky blue?” Interestingly, they also end up in a church. (listen here).

There are countless other well-produced podcasts that can be easily described as educational, though they aren’t originating from nor intended explicitly for a classroom—or even a university or college campus.

Recall how “The Giant Pool of Money” from This American Life explained the 2008 housing crisis in plain English for millions of Americans? UnCivil from Gimlet Media is a history podcast that goes “back to the time our divisions turned into a war, and brings you stories left out of the official history.”

Similarly, Seeing White explores and analyzes whiteness in America. What does it mean? What is it for?

I use the first episode of BODIES from KCRW, titled “Sex Hurts,” in my teaching of podcasting at Middlebury College. It leaves my students riveted each semester to hear host Allison Behringer reveal the deeper history lurking behind her effort to seek a cure for experiencing painful sex. Generations of social and medical sexism have shaped her sense of shame and her lack of options in addressing this medical problem. A radio station staff creates BODIES, and the podcast is meant for a general audience, but the power of the narrative is in its almost scholarly backstory.

Are these not educational podcasts?


Student: “Teacher! Is this bird alive or dead?

                                  Teacher: The bird… is in your hands.

The meaning of the bird allegory is simple. Our goal as educators is to develop the capacities of listeners to become learners-—to inspire, not indoctrinate. I see podcasts at Middlebury being used in two ways currently.

First, they give students a bird. Podcast assignments in my courses such as “make a podcast” allow students an opportunity to direct their own learning. And listening assignments that help them on the path to making a podcast of their own ask students to become more critical receivers of information. This, in turn, enlivens discussions around our readings.

Podcasts also let us become more aware of what it means to be holding the bird in your hands. Keynote speaker Dan Cohen thoughtfully articulated this in his opening remarks for Sound Education. He made the point that, “through the podcast one is able to re-present that curious voice—the cautious, thoughtful voice that is actually there when we are doing the research itself.” The intimate tone that podcasting makes available gives scholars a new way to engage with their own work and to share that engagement in the research process itself more effectively.

Whether in an educational setting or not, the best podcasts use voice and sound as mechanisms for meaning-making and connection building. Whether that connection is between student and ideas in a course, or the academic scholar and the public, or between a me and a you, the value of podcasting is that it establishes a bond.


Podcasts in an educational institution are a direct outcome of the turn toward “public scholarship” that began in the humanities and social sciences two decades ago. To engage with audiences outside the academy, we need to present scholarly material in accessible and bold formats. Podcasts can do exactly that.

Recording your lecture and putting it online meets the technical definiton of a podcast, but the form can be so much more than that. Character, story, tension, good questions, sound—these are the tools in the toolkit. They are just waiting to be applied to expand the impact of the scholarly work we are engaged in at Middlebury.


The Sound Education conference happened in a church at Harvard Divinity, a glorious place to listen and learn; but so are ordinary classrooms.

In the fall of 2019, we will be hosting a podcasting workshop for faculty at Middlebury. Are you incorporating podcasts into your class? As production or listening assignments? What are you struggling with and what is working? Have you considered making a podcast as an extension or expression of your own research? What support do you need? What questions do you have? I am currently working with the Office of the President to develop a podcast series and I am interested in working with colleagues on the Middlebury faculty to develop their scholarship into compelling audio work.

We hope to expand the capacity of podcast production at Middlebury so that the medium can reach its fullest potential. Let us know if you’d like to attend a workshop by filling out the following questionnaire.

Erin Davis is a documentary filmmaker and podcast producer. She currently teaches FMMC/AMST 0261 Podcasting the Past: Leisure at Middlebury College with support from the DLA. She has been leading podcast production courses at Middlebury since 2012. You can reach her at

Special thanks to Michael Kramer and the DLA for supporting my attendance the Sound Education conference at the Harvard Divinity School this fall.