ASU student uses digital storytelling to take 'big ideas' from ivory tower to everyday life
Podcasts have exploded in popularity. The digital broadcasts are known for specialized subject matter and hosts who communicate complex ideas to a diverse audiences — something the similarly popular TED talks are beloved for (and there’s a podcast for that now, too).
ASU English doctoral student Steven Hopkins — who describes himself as “obsessed” with the digital audio files — hopes to capitalize on the craze with his podcast "Writing Questions," which explores the role of writing in our everyday lives and cultures.
“I was a big fan of 'Radiolab' and 'This American Life,' and so I wanted to tell stories the way they tell stories,” Hopkins said. “So I thought, ‘What’s my niche? What do I have to offer this world where lots of people are telling lots of different kinds of stories?’ … Then I thought, ‘Well, I’m interested in writing and studying it.’ So those are the kinds of stories I want to tell; I want to tell stories about writing.”
A military brat (episode six of "Writing Questions" explores the role of writing in the U.S. Army), Hopkins moved around a lot as a child, at varying times calling Idaho, Virginia, California and South Carolina home. The experience tuned him in to a natural ability.
“I remember when I was a little kid, we spent a lot of time in Idaho,” he recalled. “And I remember being 6 or 7 and being able to distinguish that in Idaho they say ‘pop,’ and (elsewhere) they don’t. Or that everyone ends their sentences with ‘huh?’ That’s just something I picked up on. I’ve always kind of had an ear for how people talk, and always cared about it.”
Something else he cared about was “making stuff.” The need to create led him to an interest in photography, then filming (some of his work can be seen on YouTube). Getting into podcasts, he says, was just the next logical step.
So with a topic in mind, he began reaching out to friends and acquaintances with unique and varying interests related to writing and asking to interview them.
It’s been a year and a half since Hopkins started out on this venture, and in that time he’s interviewed an Army captain, a thrift shopping professor and a tattoo-seeking friend (among others) — all the while, tying each of their personal stories to writing.
In between dialogue, he sometimes takes a moment to unpack what he calls “these really cool thoughts and ideas” that might otherwise be confined to discussions among a small group of people in a classroom.
In episode four (“Tattoos”), he talks about the concept of “asynchronicity”:
“When a person writes a poem, or paints a painting, or designs a website, their audience will experience it away from the creator. This is what scholars call ‘asynchronicity’ — not being in the same place at the same time. With a lot of creation, we don’t get much control over the ways that people interpret it because we can’t be there next to them to clarify for them what our intentions were. But with tattoos, that’s a little different. The creation goes with us.”
Hopkins loves the fact that his podcast allows him to delve into more sophisticated subject matters in a way that’s easily understood.
“I feel that the scholarship that I read — the academic scholarship — seems like it stays in these books, right? There’s really interesting stuff, but it kind of gets siloed in our own community,” he said, “and I want people in a bigger audience than just my scholarly community to have those ideas and be able to talk about them and share them.
“So, if I can translate these really big ideas that we have in my scholarly community into words that are more open and accessible to a lot more people, then that’s something that I’d like to do.”
He also hopes with his podcast to bring greater visibility to the accomplishments and excellence of ASU’s writing program. In the tattoo episode, he sat down with ASU English professor Gregory Castle, who has been experimenting with a new approach to literature in his English 200 course that focuses on body and body art.
Right now, Hopkins is teaching a business writing course in which he assigned students extra credit for listening to a podcast about entrepreneurship, then recording their own to reflect on what they’d learned. Eventually, he’d like to incorporate digital storytelling into a course in a more concrete way, teaching it as a form of composition.
You can listen to Hopkins’ podcast, "Writing Questions," on SoundCloud at: www.soundcloud.com/writingquestions. You can also check out his work and that of his fellow scholars on their Facebook group, Podcasts in Rhetoric and Composition, @rhetcompcast.
Read on to learn more about Hopkins’ DIY approach to creating a podcast and some of the challenges associated with it.