Teaching Hub

Serial and Student Writing

Serial podcast iTunes logoby Sarah Pilcher, Department of English

In July, I heard the news that a Baltimore judge had overturned Adnan Syed’s 1999 murder conviction. I hadn’t listened to Sarah Koenig’s wildly popular podcast Serial in 2014, but I remembered Syed’s name from discussions between friends and colleagues. Because it was a lazy-hazy-crazy day of summer, I downloaded the first episode. Season One of Serial (“one story, told week by week”) follows Koenig as she delves into the 1999 murder of high school senior, Hae Min Lee, and the resulting conviction of her ex-boyfriend and classmate, Adnan Syed. At Serial’s center is the question of Adnan’s guilt or innocence.

Unlike Serial’s original audience, I had immediate access to all twelve episodes (I absolutely binge-listened), and I very quickly began to shape a research-based freshman writing course that used Serial as a main text. Serial lends itself to the writing classroom in a number of ways:

  • It presents a multi-genre approach to research journalism, nonfiction narrative, and rhetorical strategy.
  • It speaks to key themes such as truth and perception, social and criminal justice, race and religion, love and friendship, deceit and human motivation, and youth and maturity.
  • Most importantly, the story is “#relatable” (at least according to one student).

My English 102 students have now listened to the first ten episodes of Serial — I designed the course so that it replicated the week-by-week strategy that Koenig intended — and it has proved to both sustain class discussion and influence the ways that students write. (Although I do need to occasionally redirect discussion away from the collective impulse to say, “He did it!” or “He didn’t do it!”)

For their first essay assignment, I asked my students to write an objective report about a campus issue that they care about — some students chose athletics, financial strictures, or on-campus incidences of racism and sexual assault. In class, we discussed Koenig’s sense of objective journalism and whether or not she executed that objectivity effectively.

In their second assignment, students wrote a research essay using their original report topic, translating that objectivity into a specific argument backed by credible and scholarly research. In class, we evaluated Koenig’s research strategies, sources, and synthesis.

Most recently, I’ve asked my students to transform their chosen topic one last time by composing and recording their own podcast that delivers their argument to a larger, peer audience. In class, we are discussing Koenig’s narrative and compositional strategies, her ability to maintain listener interest, and her incorporation of other voices and sound. As we finish the podcast and the semester, I’ll ask my students to think about the entire season of Serial as a text worthy of narrative analysis, in order to prepare them for their future literature courses.

This week, I asked my students to reflect on how listening to Serial has made them better writers. Many claimed that they are more attuned to objectivity, subjectivity, unintentional bias, and author motivation. Others suggested that they have learned new compositional, narrative, and organizational strategies. Some pointed out that they pay closer attention to specific details and include more descriptive elements in their own writing. A few said that they are able to think more critically about themselves and the world around them — which is, of course, exactly what I’m looking for.

Sarah Pilcher is a PhD candidate and graduate teaching assistant in the Department of English.