Bashing Trash in Class: A Bad Book Podcast Project
To help counter the increased cognitive fatigue and isolation of my literature students during the pandemic, I wanted to create a collaborative project that would foster more casual interactions between my students. The result was a podcast project where my students had to read “bad” literature and criticize it with their co-hosts. In the end, they read garbage and had a good laugh, all while developing their critical thinking and reviewing literary theory.
What is a bad book podcast?
This project was inspired by I Don’t Even Own a Television(IDEOTV) and The Worst Bestsellers. Those 2 podcasts operate on the premise that the book discussed is “bad” in some manner. Thus, their main focus is not to review the book, but rather to shed light on their problematic aspects in an entertaining manner. The result is a healthy mix of serious conversation and silly tangents and riffs.
The pedagogy of ranting
Fully engaging with bad literature encourages students to understand their own thinking, to develop their critical thinking as they integrate complex literary concepts. The idea is to take them from “I want to throw this book across the room” to “the flat, stereotypical protagonist makes me want to throw this book across the room”.
No improvisation without preparation
Bad book podcasts usually have a semi-scripted, mostly improvisational and casual tone. For this to sound natural, the hosts need to be comfortable with the material. This involves a considerable amount of preparation.
Over a 4-week period, the teams of 3 or 4 students:
- selected what book they wanted to discuss
- read the material and researched any necessary additional information
- met weekly to share notes and check in on their teammates’ progress
- completed a Sparknotes-like web page
- filled in a customizable template
- recorded and edited a podcast
The purpose of the web page was to confirm that the students mastered the basic literary theory studied throughout the semester. It also guaranteed that they would do some basic research on the text studied. I had my students work with Weebly as it offers free web hosting and a simple and intuitive user interface.
The customizable template, based on a standard episode of IDEOTV, included obligatory segments, as well as mix-and-match optional segments. I did not ask for a full script, but rather that they use the template as they would cue cards.
The obligatory segments were:
- Introduction (presentation of the hosts and the book they are going to discuss)
- Plot summary (brief overview of the story, targeted duration is 60 seconds)
- High point and low points (elements of the book that they liked and disliked)
- Recommendations (what would they recommend that I read instead of their bad book?)
The most popular optional segment was “Dramatic Reading” where the hosts read selected excerpts from the book in a theatrical voice.
In the end, the customizable template offers a balance of structure and freedom. It guarantees a minimum degree of depth for the conversation, but also encourages students to choose what elements they want to discuss in more detail.
Customizable template for the podcast
No need to go dumpster-diving to find trash
To help students choose a bad book for their podcast, I made a short, descriptive list of texts that I had readily available. But, I also let my students suggest books or topics that they wanted to explore.
As for actual books and novels, there are various ways to obtain them cheaply and legally.
Many classic bad books have entered the public domain and are available for free online on Project Gutenberg.
For recent terrible bestsellers, second-hand bookstores are a goldmine; no matter where you go, you are almost guaranteed to find a copy of Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey or The Da Vinci Code for under 5 dollars.
For almost any other book, chances are that it is available on Audible. When you sign up for a free 1-month trial, you receive a credit for 1 audiobook, which can be spent on any book from Audible’s extensive library.
Recording and submitting the podcast
A common fear with any project that involves technology is that you will end up evaluating the students’ ease with technology rather than the targeted course competencies. For that reason, I tried to come up with the simplest method possible to record a podcast at a distance.
To begin, I had the students meet and record themselves using Zoom. I chose it over Teams because Zoom saves the files on your computer rather than on the cloud. Moreover, Zoom always creates 2 versions of any recording: a video, and an audio-only version.
The students then had to take the audio file and edit it in Audacity, a light, free, and open source audio software. Students were only required to remove any extended silences and major mistakes. Nevertheless, some of the more motivated and tech-savvy students managed to normalize audio levels, remove background noise, or even insert theme music for their segments, making for some fairly professional-sounding podcasts!
When everything was to their liking, they had to export their podcast as an MP3 rather than a WAV, Audacity’s default exportation format. While WAV files offer better audio quality, they are also much more voluminous. This can lead to issues with Weebly, Teams, or LÉA as all 3 have rather stingy file-size limitations for uploads.
Finally, I had the students submit their podcast by attaching it to their Weebly page both as audio content and as a downloadable file. Then, I could listen to the podcast online as I browsed through the students’ page. Or, alternatively, I could download the file on my mobile device and listen to it as I did chores around the house for a more authentic podcast-listening experience. It is a great way to get some marking done while keeping on top of the housework!
So, what did they think of it?
Most students’ reaction to the project was overwhelmingly positive. The comment that came back the most often was that they enjoyed the lighter format of the project. Being able to talk, rant, and joke with other students made them feel like they were interacting with friends rather than classmates.
Lastly, the project had some unexpected benefits. One student who had chosen to work on Fifty Shades of Grey told me she ended up reading the trilogy in under a month. Turns out, she loves reading, just not the texts that are usually assigned in school. In my book, anything that manages to get students to read more is a victory, even badly-written and terribly problematic novels.
If you have any questions about this project, are thinking about using podcasts in your classroom, or want to share your experience, you can contact me directly or share your questions and comments in the comments section below.