I spent a year and a half commuting between New Haven and Providence a couple times a week, and over the course of that time I developed a serious addiction to podcasts and audiobooks. For some reason, listening to recordings hits home for me in a really pronounced way. I noticed this when I absorbed a book — John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener — in three different ways: in print, on tape, and in its movie adaptation. All were good, but for me, the most intense, engrossing experience by far was the audio version.
I thought of this because I had an interesting experience in the writing class I’m teaching.
I noticed that when my students wrote about their lives, the stories they told tended to follow a suspiciously saccharine arc. I wanted to convey to them that it’s okay to tell stories that are messy, complex, and unresolved. To make this point, I played them a clip from This American Life, the public radio show: act one of “Remember Me,” when David Wilcox tells the story of his mentally impaired sister. Their dying mother made Wilcox’s sister a videotape to remember her by, but the sister, captive to the present, rarely played it. I like the story because it’s both moving and complex.
The piece went over really well. To my amazement, it left one student in tears. It’s become one of those touchstone pieces that the class returns to periodically to illustrate a point. I’ve been thinking about why this is. One reason, I’d wager, is that some of my students, like me, absorb things most fully when they hear them. And I think a good recorded story exercises the same muscles that reading puts to work: visualization, prediction, curiosity. For students for whom the act of reading is uncomfortable or unpleasant, a recording can be a more accessible way of absorbing the same work.
I think, too, that the act of listening to something together was important. We physically sat together for the nine minutes of the story and watched each other taking it in. Even the slight awkwardness of the moment — the not-quite-knowing where to place our eyes, the embarrassment of feeling an emotion in front of classmates — served, in the end, to make the experience memorable.
[Edit, 07/29: We had our end-of-class post-mortem today and one of the students’ unanimous requests was “more NPR!” Who would’ve thunk?]