Last fall, I was walking through Cabbagetown with Lou towards Riverdale Park West, a wide open space with four baseball diamonds where people not only play ball, but also cricket, do yoga, have picnics, and let their dogs run off-leash freely and quickly. I’d come there weekly for some time, walking the perimeter three or four times with Lou tagging behind me, stopping every so often to smell the grass or roll around in it and then run to catch up. It was an OK time to be with my thoughts, but it was also a little boring. One day in October would change my attitude toward these walks forever (and inspire a few ELT podcast dreams: one always has ‘teacher eyes/ears’ on after all. #nerd).
As I walked through the grassy park, I remembered something my friend and colleague–let’s call her “Meryl”– had mentioned she does when walking her dog: pop in the earbuds and listen to podcasts. I’d known about podcasts for a long time, but had never religiously listened (#nerdfail?). But where to start? There was so much out there, far more than I had expected, that without recommendation, was an overwhelming buffet of choice. And so I fell back on what we always do when all else fails, I googled… and up popped “Serial”.
Unless you’ve been completely devoid of podcast culture or media mention of it, you’ll have already heard of or been enthralled by Serial. It’s a journalist’s investigation to unravel a 15-year-old murder case, where the protagonist, Adnan, is serving a life sentence for killing his highschool (ex) girlfriend, Hae. Over the course of 12 episodes, the journalist, Sarah Koenig, presents facts and theories in a narrative that is hard not to become addicted to. Plus, the website offers extra materials to check out with each episode: a timeline of events mentioned in the episode, a map where events took place, affidavits used in the case. Then there’s the supplemental (yet equally captivating for #nerd types like me) media attention: the news devoted to the podcast (e.g. here and here), the legal blogs (e.g. this one) that break down the case, the follow-up interviews (e.g. this and that). It’s content, conversation, and controversy at their most captivating. Try Episode 1 here:
During the successive withdrawal from Serial, I resorted to Google again to draw me towards similar podcasts. At this time, I didn’t know anything I’d like except things like it, so I stuck with what I knew and looked for serialised narratives. One site titled something like “if you loved Serial, you’ll love these podcasts” suggested Startup.
It’s a show about starting a business. Not quite as titillating as a murder case, but I gave it a try. Similarly narrative, it’s a meta look at starting up a narrative podcast company, with storyteller and founder, Alex Blumberg (figure out how he’s connected to Sarah Koenig if you’re a #nerd). Throughout Season 1, Alex shares recorded conversations including his embarrassingly weak pitches to investors, shockingly red and delightfully positive bank balances, frank bedside discussions with his wife, and matter-of-fact information to applicants looking for work (this fly-on-the-wall approach to storytelling is appealing, right? #nerd). In Season 2, the story shifts from his own company to another fledgling venture, an online dating service, Dating Ring. I’d argue it’s a little less captivating, but still worth a listen. In either case, there’s something familial about Alex Blumberg and Season 2 co-host Lisa Chow, which combine a mixture of humour, clarity, and humanity to the narration. In this episode, Alex and his new cofounder, Matt Lieber (“is the band you discovered in highschool long before anyone else did”… #nerds will know), have the awkward conversation about who owns how much of a company that doesn’t yet exist:
Have you ever felt like there were key goings-on in politics that you, for whatever reason, should know more about but don’t? Many times I have been left in arcane political dust. Canadaland Commons, an off-shoot of a broader social focus in Canadaland, attempts to increase understanding of political policy, infrastructure, and process. The two hosts of Canadaland Commons, Desmond Cole and Andray Demise, are generally well-informed and if questionable in their understanding, bring special guests representing stakeholders that illuminate things like exactly what the PMO is, how Alberta went from right-wing Conserative supporters for decades to electing the NDP as a majority provincial government, how the Queen factors into us at all, the legalities of sex work in Canada, and whether the Senate is a redundant or not. Yes, it’s content is Canadian, but there’s likely a crossover between what goes on here and in other countries. (PS: I can proudly state that I understand the ramifications of political leaders ‘crossing the floor‘ during their term… #nerd). Here’s a recent episode that explores the ethicality of funding a political party during an election campaign:
I’ve always fancied myself on the early adopter side of the technology scale, but for some reason, the tagline of “a show about the internet” initially didn’t do it for me, so it was a pass on this. Then I started running out of podcasts and since I liked Startup, I gave the company’s other shows a try, this being one. Good decision! Reply All isn’t an exploration of web tools, but stories based on how bits and pieces of the internet have affected people’s lives. For example, one episode focused on how a Jewish man’s foray into the secular world of the Internet changed his beliefs and dramatically affected his relationships. Another episode catches up with the star of Jennicam, the first 24/7 reality show online. Another explores how one photo on Facebook devastatingly affected a woman’s reputation in the real world. There’s even a whole episode talking to the guy who inadvertently created the internet pop-up ad (haven’t you always wondered how this annoyance that ruined the internet came about? #nerd). It’s compelling. This favourite episode is about a small fake online personal ad about time travel and its resulting letters, like one from a woman in prison.
So for the word #nerd in all of us, this podcast satisfies that itch. It spans the spectrum of language delicacies including etymological, cultural, political, and social implications. There have been episodes talking about the legal implications of a tomato being a fruit or vegetable, what the ‘gay voice’ actually is, and this recent episode, which takes a look at why Seinfeld is only funny in English. Ask your students.
If ever there was a podcast worthy of the #nerd hashtag, it’s Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist. Chris–a stand-up comedian himself–hosts fan-focussed TV shows The Talking Dead (a weekly discussion about The Walking Dead episode with different panelists including its stars… remember, the prequel, Fear the Walking Dead premieres on August 24… #nerd) and @Midnight (a ‘game show’ involving only comedians ad libbing about pop culture references… #nerd). In the Nerdist podcast, Chris has semi-structured, but predominantly informal chats with a wide variety of comics, books, movies, TV, and journalist celebrities (maybe they’re not celebrities to everyone… #nerd) about pretty much anything that comes up. I mention they’re informal in that it’s been obvious that the guests sometimes don’t realise the podcast recording has started (cue uncensored personality and language…yay for authenticity!). This attracts me to this podcast: the way Chris makes everyone feel at ease to be themselves, not some read-from-the-cue-cards version of who their sponsors what them to be. One of my recent faves includes Will Forte from SNL and The Last Man on Earth (TV show about a below-average Schmo trying to navigate being the last guy around… or is he?): Listen here (apologies, but it doesn’t seem like this one is embeddable… #nerdfail).
How could I do a podcast showcase without mention of one with an ELT-related title, especially when helmed by Lindsay Clandfield, Shaun Wilden, and James Taylor? It’s interesting timing, actually, as they launched this a bit after I’d finished Serial, during a time when I’d felt particularly inspired to create an ELT podcast myself. Fortunately (for me), their take on the relationship to our profession diverges immediately from my own thoughts insofar as the content of this podcast is not about TEFL per se, but “inevitably it might crop up.” They do a good job of integrating common narrative podcast genre elements (yes, I already know them when I hear them… #nerd), while separating themselves into a category of 20-minute teacher-interest topics, like stationery, to be enjoyed during a commute to/from school (or in my case, while walking Lou). Listen closely, as you may hear familiar voices from the blogosphere here and there. Unlike the others, it’s made with teachers and students in mind as suggested listening tasks and linked resources accompany each episode online. 6 episodes in so far, check out how well Dead Poet’s Society has held up in the mind of some teachers:
While I know there are other language and ELT-related podcasts out there, I haven’t yet dipped my toes into them, but look forward to when I run out of my favourites’ back-episode catalogues.
So…this begs the question…
How do these recommendations relate to ELT? Short answer: they don’t, with a ‘but’…; long answer: they do, with an ‘if’ (Pop quiz: which Simpsons character have I just paraphrased? #nerd). The real question is: when has a little thing like ‘not made for ELT’ brought experimental practice to a halt?
Each is authentic listening maximised–very challenging authentic listening maximised, given the topic areas and in some cases, the banter between hosts and invited speakers. I’d argue that Serial and Startup are have the most immediate potential, as the narrative avoids too much “messiness”, includes a story to become wrapped up in, and is supplemented by media coverage, which always helps. So much so, that one dream of mine is to develop an ESP course around the former (I’ve collected almost every related web resource I can find on the topic…#nerd). We’ll see who beats me to the punch (or volunteers to co-author).
As for my other #nerd podcast dream? I’d like to bring together language teachers/authors/administrators/students (not all at once…), to have a Nerdist-style chat, where we are all just ourselves, chatting about ELT-related issues, without correctness, without guard, without censoring, welcoming interested listeners into our in-person conversations. Is the online ELT world ready for that? I think so.