Ellen Meiser

In August 2017, I sat with a group of classmates and faculty from University of Hawaii in a dimly lit hotel restaurant in Montreal. Plates and silverware clinked. A low hum of conversation filled the room. We were in Montreal for the annual American Sociological Association conference, and the meal was a brief interlude from panel sessions and evening explorations of the old town’s cobblestone streets.

“Wouldn’t it be fun to do a sociology podcast?” Penn Pantumsinchai, a classmate, asked offhandedly—a throwaway “what if?” drummed up constantly in the mind. My eyes lit up and I put my fork down, “Yes!” “I’m in,” said our tablemate, Omar Bird, slapping both hands down on the table. We spent the rest of the meal, heads huddled together, fantasizing between bites of food about a show that explained complex jargon-y concepts, like “anomie,” “orientalism,” and “cultural capital,” to students and listeners new to the field of sociology, in an entertaining and unpretentious way. Accompanying the podcast would be a website full of links to the sources cited in each episode alongside other relevant materials for listeners to dig into.

By September, microphones had been purchased, a logo and theme song had been created, the website was live, and we had recorded the first episode of “The Social Breakdown.”

When Penn, Omar, and I created “The Social Breakdown,” we did so in an academic setting where informal online resources utilized in primary and secondary schools—such as podcasts, YouTube videos, online quiz games (e.g., Kahoot), and other items—largely sat offstage in higher education. Instead, traditional pedagogical methods—lectures, class discussion, activities, documentaries, and academic readings—were at the forefront, as they were, and still are, considered more appropriate in the formal college setting. This attitude in academia, along with the pressure to publish-or-perish, dissuaded academics from creating and using scholarly audiovisual content. For example, when our premiere episode released in September 2017, we counted a total of three sociology or sociology-adjacent shows listed on Apple Podcasts, the primary podcast repository, one of which was “The Annex Sociology Podcast,” created by CUNY’s own Dr. Joseph Cohen.

Fortunately, over the past four years, the academic podcasting landscape, as well as higher education’s perceptions of their usefulness and appropriateness, has significantly advanced. As of the writing of this post, there are over 40 English-language sociology-focused podcasts listed on Apple Podcasts, a number I hope will continue to grow.

With this expansion of audiovisual resources, instructors should reassess their allegiance to traditional teaching tools and consider integrating materials like podcasts into their syllabi. This is especially true as we continue to scramble and convert in-person courses online during the pandemic—a reality that appears will extend for most of us to the end of the 2021 calendar year.

How podcasts are incorporated into course content varies. Some instructors place them at the center of class activities and discussions as required listening, while others use them in a supplemental manner. I have done both in my own undergraduate course—an online asynchronous 300-level survey of social psychology. For example, when I teach a section on discrimination, one class assignment explores how four forms of discrimination (i.e., racial, pregnancy, weight and size, and housing discrimination) looks, sounds, and feels via podcasts, streaming videos, and popular writing articles. (For those interested in this activity, see Meiser (2020) for the free teaching resource.)

I also share resources supplementarily with students through a weekly newsletter, which contains a short list of podcasts, videos, and popular articles related to the topic of the week. This list is not required material, but for those who want to learn more. For instance, when the class reaches a section on emotions, I recommend NPR’s “Invisibilia,” and its two-part examination of emotions replete with a rich soundscape and interview with leading emotions scholar Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett. When the class moves to a section on loving, liking, and dyads, I suggest NPR’s social psychology show “Hidden Brain,” and its episode on dating and mating, a show that pedagogically harmonizes with the assigned reading of theorist Georg Simmel.

An added benefit to using podcasts in courses is the pragmatic issue of cost: podcasts are free. They are available to anyone with internet access and a device. In an academic environment that is becoming increasingly aware of the burdens—financial and otherwise—on students, instructors are being rightly pushed to seek out cheaper or ideally cost-free educational materials. The accessibility of podcasts is one way to ease students’ economic stress.

By and large my students have responded positively to my use of podcasts and other non-traditional resources. They spark active discussions, and push students to critically analyze the stories told as well as the methodologies by which interviews are conducted.

I have found that recorded audio content is especially useful for students whose preferred learning style is auditory, as well. Listening to a host describe or a subject recount a concept over a carefully crafted audio bed can be as (or sometimes more) effective than a well-written academic article or lecture. Employing a podcast to explain a concept via a different perspective may be the key to unlocking a concept in a student’s mind. Podcasts also break up the monotony of the sounds and teaching style of an instructor.

However, it is important to note that not all recorded audio content is pedagogically effective. Due to the absence of barriers to production and participation in the industry, there are podcasts that may do more harm than good in the educational setting. Issues include:

Instructors therefore must be conscious of these obstacles and carefully curate the content recommended to students. However, curation of material is a regular process in course creation, and is not outside the norms of teaching obligations.

Instructors everywhere have encountered major challenges inside and outside of the ivory tower since the outset of COVID-19. However, podcasts may be one way to overcome some pedagogical barriers. Free, accessible, and asynchronously available to all, podcasts provide variation in teaching style, and help paint a sensory picture of concepts and phenomena that traditional teaching methods cannot. And for those whose pedagogical and professional mission includes building empathy in students (O’Grady 2020), recorded audio content can lay the foundations of an emotional link between student and concept, and show not only what our world sounds like, but also how it feels.

The evolution and expansion of podcasts into academic subjects is a windfall for teachers, students, and inquisitive listeners everywhere. This new audiodigital landscape is one that Penn, Omar, and I only could dream of when we sat huddled together in Montreal four years ago. As instructors, we should take advantage of this new form of educational material and recognize its potential as an effective teaching tool.


Hidden Brain. 2016. “Why You’ll Never Buy the Perfect Ring (and Other Valentine’s Day Stories).” National Public Radio. Retrieved on January 10, 2021. (https://www.npr.org/2016/02/09...).

Invisibilia. 2017. “Emotions.” National Public Radio. Retrieved on January 10, 2021. (https://www.npr.org/programs/i...).

Mayer, Richard. 2005. “Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning” in The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning, e.d. Richard Mayer. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Meiser, Ellen. 2020. “Understanding Discrimination Through Multimedia.” ASA TRAILS. Access it here: http://trails.asanet.org/Pages...

O’Grady, Alison. 2020. “Towards a Pedagogy of Empathy” in Pedagogy, Empathy and Praxis. London, UK: Palgrave Pivot.

The Annex Sociology Podcast. 2021. “Annex Sociology Podcast.” Queens Podcast Lab. Retrieved on February 7, 2021. (https://queenspodcastlab.org/a...

The Social Breakdown. 2021. “Home.” The Social Breakdown. Retrieved on February 7, 2021. (https://www.thesocialbreakdown...).


Ellen Meiser looks into the camera with a smile, standing in front of a bookshelf.

Ellen Meiser

Ellen T. Meiser is a PhD candidate at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and holds an MA in Asian Studies from the same institution. She is co-creator and co-host of “The Social Breakdown,” a free and accessible sociology podcast and learning resour...