An Online Course in Person

Al Filreis and ModPo students at The Center for the Book gathering.

Al Filreis and ModPo students at The Center for the Book gathering.

Something unusual was going on at The Center for Book in San Francisco yesterday. In a museum devoted to the fine art of print book making, a group of 60 people, who’d never met before, gathered over their common interest in an online course.

IMG_4561Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (better known as “ModPo”) is an introductory poetry course, taught online by Dr. Al Filreis. The winner of numerous teaching awards, Filreis is Director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and Faculty Director of the Kelly Writers House at University of Pennsylvania. In 2012 he introduced the ModPo course, through Coursera, and 42,000 students showed up. Since then, he and his graduate students have offered the course every year, refining and adjusting the ways they knit together that many students, spread all over the globe.

Meet-ups like yesterday offer a perfect peek into the tools and methods they leverage to create the feeling of an intimate and personal learning experience with 42,000 people.

[I took the course in 2012 and blogged about it here and here]

Invitations prior to the event went out via Twitter (@ModPotPenn), Facebook and email (once you’ve enrolled in the course, you are a member of the ModPo community). There were about 60 people in attendance, with Al and his crew who video-recorded our meet-up (for later use in the ModPo 2016 course).  Before they started taping, he invited each person there (all 60 of us) to share our name and connection to the course.

What a range – high schoolers, high school teachers, physicists, office workers, software engineers, and retirees. There were two mother-daughter pairs and one dapper, older gent who came with his daughter. The daughter, Kate, took the course last year and “brought her father along, as she knew he would be interested.” When she introduced her Dad and I nearly fell off my chair – it was David Perlman. David Perlman of science journalism fame! For those of you who don’t know him, Perlman is a lauded science reporter for the SF Chronicle.  He is now 94 years old and is still reporting.  Turns out, before he took on the science beat, he covered the obscenity trial over Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 1957.

ModPo students.

But back to the gathering. In advance of the event, Filreis had sent us all links to two poems – Joanne Kyger’s When I used to focus on the worries and Larry Eigner’s Bookshelf.  We proceeded to do a “close read” of them both.  This is a method that Filreis and his graduate students employ throughout the online course, delivered via video recorded sessions and, on occasion, live webcasts from the Kelly Writers House. He kicks it off with a little background on the poet and then reads the poem aloud. Then he assigns lines, words, or inflection points to particular people. Although I’ve watched this process many times, when taking the course myself, I was quite taken with the way it played out in this setting. Afterall, there were 60 of us and we aren’t graduate students!  Here’s how it goes… “Becky, I’m going to ask you to talk about the first two lines in just a minute and then, after that, Carolyn, I’d like to hear what you have to say about the use of the pronoun ‘he’ in the third line, then we’ll circle over to Jack and see what he thinks of the way that stanza holds together.  Ok, Becky – tell me what you think.”  By doing it this way, Filreis controls the way it plays out. He also gives each person invited to share a few minutes to prepare, to think about it.  

Here’s a snippet, recorded on my iPhone, to give you a feel for his approach.


Filreis clearly has a map to the poem, his own interpretation, in his head, and he nudges us through it. Line by line, word by word. When you are sharing your ideas, he’ll pull it out of you. “What about that phrase?  And who does that remind you of? What does that line “there’s a different slant” make you think of?” He’ll often say something like, “that’s a really interesting interpretation – tell me more about that.” Turns out, he confessed to us, he learned this method of teaching from therapy. And once he said that, it all fell into place for me – of course. These ModPo sessions do feel amazingly similar a therapy session.  

But it’s not as though there is just one interpretation he’s attempting to press us all into. There were competing ideas, not everyone agreed – discussion ensued, just as it should be.

It’s quite impressive to see how well this worked. Here we were, a big group of amateurs (some he knew, many he didn’t), and we moved our way through those two poems in the most satisfying manner. I had read them in advance, and liked them both, but I left the session with new insight and respect for both poets. Not one interpretation of them, but shades of meaning, insights into possibilities, and so much respect for the power of word choice, spacing, rhythm, and the nature of the poems.


By the end of the session, we’d all offered our thoughts, shared ideas, and there was this frisson of enthusiasm, excitement, zest for the poems (and the poets) we’d just read.  Something that could have never been achieved solo (at least for me).

These close reading sessions work very well in the online course but I definitely had a richer appreciation for the process after seeing it in action  face-to-face. When I enroll in ModPo ’16, I’ll have a much deeper understanding and connection to this pedagogical approach.

It’s also clear that the course development team have really learned to leverage the platform and an array of tools to provide a well functioning sandbox for community.  Community and connection feel alive and well in ModPo.  And the rich tapestry of the ModPo membership only serves to deepen that feeling of connection. In attendance at the meet-up was a young woman from China who happened to be on vacation in San Francisco, got the word about the event, and showed up. Could that same strength of connection arise from a course in biochemistry or law?  I hope so, but there’s no denying that poetry offers a unique doorway to the exploration of the individual, relationships, values, and the connections between us.

Taking a moment here to recognize and revel in the myriad methods this course presses into service. Print and digital, synchronous and asynchronous, in person and virtual, listening and speaking, contemplating and sharing. That’s a key lesson we’re learning in this world of online education isn’t it? Hybrid works. The best of each approach, use the right tool for the job, no one right answer, blend your methods and make a custom concoction to fit the unique challenges and concepts of your material.

And only connect.

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Our MOOC Toolbox

tools_croppedThis post is about tools. As we planned, produced, and then delivered our online course, Making Science and Engineering Pictures, we put an impressive collection of tools through their paces. A MOOC, afterall, is a hurly burly place and you need a robust arsenal to keep track, keep up, and stay sane. Here’s a peek into our toolbox:


VoiceThread: This one heads the list. It’s our online tool of choice for students to share their work. Thanks to a generous commitment from VT, all students enrolled in this course have a premium VT account with unlimited uploads and the ability to download their VTs as videos. The VoiceThread environment sits outside of the edX platform but communicates directly with it through a series of carefully-crafted LTI links. When students are ready to post their work, they click on the specially created links in the course and they are taken directly to their VT account in a new window. Slick, smooth, and seamless. The good folks at VT partnered with us on the design of this hand off. They developed simple VT tutorials, they problem-solved on the best way to design our assignments, they worked with us to customize a grouping system that automatically sorts students into small VT groups (we started with 30 per group, but later upped it to 60 in order to insure adequate peer review), and they’ve helped troubleshoot the inevitable problems that crop up. I’ve long been a VoiceThread fan but I’ve really come to appreciate the richness of the tool after hours and hours spent listening/watching our student-produced VTs. The ability to narrate your work in a variety of formats (text, audio, video) is a huge boon in a course populated by citizens of the world. Not only that, but our students regularly make use of the video cam narration to demonstrate their photographic set up, adding another layer of information to their posts. The drawing tool (multi colors) helps students point out specifics in their images (the direction of light, outlines of shadows, problematic glitches on which they need advice). Students can archive their work, via video export, and thus capture their best thinking. It’s not perfect, of course. Tops on my list for future VT features – the ability to listen to comments at 2x speed, automatic import of file names when images are uploaded, and better course/group management tools (to identify students, to cross reference, and re-arrange).

edX screen shot.

edX screen shot.

edX: No tools list would be complete without an examination of the platform on which the course is delivered. I confess to a love-hate relationship with edX. On the plus side, edX’s Studio environment was very easy to work with when we built the course (changes/updates are easily made, rudimentary HTML knowledge required); it enrolls, authenticates, and manages the flow of over 8,000 students with ease (narry a problem), and it’s got a clean, uncluttered look. On the negative side, the Discussion Forum is seriously clunky; the aggregated user statistics do not render the student-by-student perspective promised by computer-assisted course management; and the one-size fits all platform structure means that each course must fit into the same box – one that rarely (if ever) suits the course’s design or visual requirements. Think step-sisters cramming their large feet into the too-small Cinderella slippers.

google_docs_logo_and_iconGoogle Docs: Yup, I’m a complete google docs lover. Our course development team has an online, shared filing system with nearly 100 documents. Diagrams, spreadsheets, and simple docs are shared, commented upon, and always at your fingertips. The course TAs use spreadsheets to track our responsibilities, the trends we observe, and the problems we need to solve. We used a simple cumulative document during beta testing, giving differential access to various beta testers. Our weekly meeting notes are logged in a google doc. And my personal favorite, which I keep open at all times, is a master doc with key links, passwords, and access codes – one stop shopping. My wishlist here? Finding things is not always easy (not all of us on the team are fans) and I worry about loosing important bits and pieces or what happens when google servers are down (which did happen once, briefly, during the course).

skypeSkype: Our meetings are all conducted on Skype. There are usually five of us online together (the instructor plus four TAs). We typically don’t use the video cam but we regularly share our screens. Most recently, we talked through a number of student VT submissions together. I played the student’s work on my screen, sharing with the others, while Felice explained her observations and guided us as to the most appropriate feedback to provide. Problems here? Bet you can guess. Dropped connections, poor sound quality, and the occasional complete bork.

emailEmail: Between the five of us on the course team, our partners at VoiceThread, and our compatriots at MITx, we keep up a steady patter of email. A typical day for me means sending upwards of 50 course-related emails. Often it’s a real-time conversation with emails flying back and forth. I also archive emails that serve as summaries on major course decisions or a “paper trail” on progress. Old school, but pretty darned reliable. Everyone in the class also received updates from VoiceThread, via email, when new comments or posts had been made.


DropBox: We use this tool for exchanging (large) video files and archiving key course documents.

Pages: Felice Frankel, the course instructor, used Pages to create storyboards for the tutorial videos.

After Effects: Natasha Collette, our videographer, used this editing software to create the course’s video tutorials. Motion graphics with still images, transitions, titling, special effects, illustration insertion – the results are stunning, very high production value.

Camera Software: We each have a different story here, depending on the camera in use but what a difference it makes to be able to view your photos, as you take them, on your laptop screen and instantly upload for analysis and tweaking.

Photo Editing Software: I don’t have Photoshop, the tool of choice for serious photographers, but have made good use of the free, online photo editor Pixlr.

Padlet: We’ve come to identify various students by the object or device they are photographing – thus we have “strawberry guy” and “the fruit fly gal”. With so many VoiceThreads to keep track of, I take cover screen shots of those VTs I want to remember or bring to the attention of others. I organize all the screen shots on Padlet and twiddle around with them to make various groupings – my week 3 favorites, the community TAs comments, or VTs to discuss with Felice.

A typical collection displayed in Padlet.

A typical collection displayed in Padlet.

WordPress: You’re here. Say no more.

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“The world’s best science should have the world’s best science images.”

Felice Frankel with Kelly Krause

Felice Frankel with Kelly Krause

That’s what motivates Kelly Krause, Creative Director at the international science journal, Nature.

During week 5 of our course, Making Science and Engineering Pictures, we staged a live event on the MIT campus. Felice Frankel arranged to interview Kelly and bring her perspective to our students.

In an online course like ours, where everyone participates independently, on their own time, you look for opportunities to bring everyone together synchronously, to foster a spirit of community. In our initial course plans, we hoped to host one such live, synchronous event per week but quickly realized it would be better to do one, with just the right person, and do it well.

Kelly Krause was a welcome addition to the course content. As Creative Director at Nature, she is intimately involved in the development and selection of graphics for the weekly journal (online and print). Her design background and her comfort with science and engineering uniquely qualify her to shed new light on the questions and challenges our students tackle in MIT 0.111x.

For the event, we set ourselves up in a special studio on campus (Building 9) and worked with the talented folks in the Office of Digital Learning to live-stream the event online. So, in addition to the 60 people in attendance, roughly 800 people tuned into the broadcast from over 30 countries.

Students, teachers, and researchers assembling for the live event at MIT.

Students, teachers, and researchers assembling for the live event at MIT.

It was a terrific event and we all learned so much from Kelly. She explained her career trajectory and gave us insight into the way graphic decisions are made at Nature. We learned that Nature has a Tumblr blog, Nature Graphics, featuring a collection of images from Nature, curated and explained by the art team.

In-person audience members were invited to submit questions on index cards (collected by our course Teaching Assistants) and online audience members submitted questions and comments via Twitter. Our students did not disappoint, with questions like: “My thesis advisor favors graphs, do you have any advice for convincing him of the importance of images?”; “What do you think of the images coming in from of the dwarf planet, Pluto?”; and “What advice do you have for images to represent math or other abstract disciplines that do not have objects to photograph?”

It was an interesting and thought-provoking afternoon. Many thanks to Kelly Krause, to our technical crew from the Office of Digital Learning, and to the people who joined us from all over the world. For those of you unable to attend, the video is archived here.

Archived livecast of the interview with Twitter transcript (#makepix).

Archived livecast of the interview with Twitter transcript (#makepix).

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Weeks 2 and 3: Making Science & Engineering Pictures

Week 2:  Camera Basics

Week 2: Camera Basics

The second and third weeks of our course, Making Science and Engineering Pictures (MITx0.111), are the most challenging. It’s here where the students dig into the inner workings of their cameras and grapple with the relationships between aperture, exposure, lighting, and depth of field.

Video tutorials for weeks 2 and 3 show and tell the basics while interactive tools give learners the opportunity to twiddle and work through what-if scenarios.

Zoom in on the same object taken at four different aperture settings.

Zoom in on the same object taken at four different aperture settings.

Course interactive to show changes in depth of field with changes in f stop.

Course interactive to show changes in depth of field with changes in f stop.

With the basic concepts in hand, the next step is to try it yourself. In the week 2 assignment you put your camera on a tripod and photograph your chosen object or device at a series of f stops while keeping all other parameters constant. This means setting your camera in aperture-priority mode and “stopping down” your lens from (for example) f/4, to f/8/, to f/11, to f/22 – and even down to f/32 if your camera includes that option. By fixing the camera in place (with the tripod), and keeping all other variables constant, you can easily see the differences in your images. At the larger apertures (smaller f-stop numbers) the nearer elements of your object appear in sharp focus while those at a distance from the camera remain fuzzy. But as you tighten the camera’s aperture (larger f-stop number), more and more of your image comes into focus. As photographers put it, you have a greater depth of field. As a topper to the assignment, we asked the students to remove their camera from the tripod and take one last picture, at their smallest aperture, with the camera in hand.

Students submitted their week 2 image collections on VoiceThread and then narrated their production. It was wonderful watching and listening to them as the penny dropped. “Now I get the relationship between the aperture and the exposure.” “I like this picture, taken at f/22, because I can see all the details of the circuit board at the front and at the back.” “Wow, I can’t believe how out of focus that is – I guess I really do need to use a tripod.”

Wonderfully creative, many of our students played with the assignment and experimented beyond the boundaries. One student set up his VoiceThread as a mystery by setting his object in front of a backdrop and challenging his peers to figure out the backdrop as it slowly came into focus over the course of the image series. Others submitted multiple aperture-priority series with different lighting options. Still others decided to expand their chosen objects to challenge themselves further and figure out the best way to capture odd shapes or dimensional irregularities.

The week 3 assignment asked students to photograph their object or device with a number of different lighting scenarios. Daylight, augmented with a secondary light source, and to experiment with unusual source of light. As with the week 2 assignment, we asked students to hold the other imaging variables steady in order to fully grasp the impact of altering light.

Students experimented with flashlights, LED key chains, desk lamps, candles, light boxes, headlamps, and – my personal favorite – the light radiating from a computer screen. For the students who’ve stayed with the same object or device they selected in week 1, it’s a pleasure to see how different the same object can look, depending on how the image is taken. Photographing the same device also allows us to witness the students development over time as we see the quality of their images improve.

I am quite taken with the playful and experimental nature of their approaches. A Drosophila geneticist marvels over the different appearance of her fruit flies in a blue light. A materials scientist figures out a way to change the background color by projecting colored light onto a white paper background. Many students attempt bouncing light with foam core or white poster board. One students marvels over the subtle changes in daylight over the span of the hour she spent shooting her images near a sun-filled window.

Our edX platform statistics tell us how many students view each of our course videos everyday, but it’s far more revealing to hear the language of the video tutorials pop up in the students’ narration of their own work (diffuse, bounce, negative spaces, horizon…) and to notice Felice’s suggested strategies appear in their work (a curved paper background, pairing objects, attention paid to the camera’s angle). Evidence of their learning appearing like footprints on a beach.

Assessment in this course happens all along the way. It’s a continual part of the learning. And our students are acquiring knowledge in multiple venues – from the course’s video tutorials, from the sample assignments, from the work of their peers, from the comments of their peers, and – most importantly – from their own experiments.

We Teaching Assistants (TAs) divide up the VT groups between us and attempt to provide timely feedback, while the images they’ve taken are fresh in their minds. Most students get VT comments from at least one TA and two or three peers. The quality of the comments vary, but the ones I’m the most grateful to hear are those that ask an informed question, make an intriguing observation, or refer the student to another VoiceThread that might shed some light on a problematic issue.

I can tell that our students are transferring their knowledge from one week to the next, building on what they’ve learned and applying what they see in the work of others. They are engaged in complex work, they have flexibility with regard to when and how they do the work, they engage with each other, and there is a real sense of mastery coming through.

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Student Voices in MITx0.111x

0.111x VoiceThread environment

0.111x VoiceThread environment

Flatbed scanner

Flatbed scanner

Our online course, Making Science and Engineering Pictures, has just wrapped up week 1 and we are rolling into week 2 (of 6 weeks total). Week 1 marks the first photographic assignment: choose a small object (3-10 cm) and create an image of your object using a flatbed scanner. It’s a great way to begin a course like this, designed to encourage creative thinking about visual representations, because most people don’t think of a scanner as a photographic device. We encouraged the students to experiment with different backgrounds, different resolutions, or with the scanner cover on/off.

And the students did not disappoint. Examples of their creativity start with the amazingly eclectic range of objects selected – clothespins, currency, dismembered iPods and chargers, moss, flowers, agate, shells, soil samples, watch parts, cut fruit, beads, pine cones, fishing lures, flashing headlamps – you name it!  Since many of our students are scientists or engineers, they are photographing the devices used in their research – microfluidic devices, electrode holders, circuit boards, magnets, silica gel, and experimental set ups. Their backgrounds were also quite clever – cleaning cloths, woven mats, paper, felt, lab tape, box tops, marble, and even chem wipes. The images are terrific – as rich and varied as the students enrolled in the course.

We opted to use VoiceThread as our image-sharing environment. Students link out to VT from the edX platform and are automatically and randomly sorted into small groups of 30. There they create a VT by uploading their images and commenting on them (in text, voice, or using their videocam). VoiceThread includes a drawing tools feature that allows you to sketch on the image, while commenting, to point out particularly interesting features.

Here’s a short video showcasing our students’ creativity:

The assignment includes the charge to comment on the VTs of others in your group, guided by a rubric provided in the assignment.  When it works well, each student receives a few comments that might include questions or requests for clarifications (“what’s the resolution?”, ” how did you get that shadow effect?”). On the whole, the students’ comments have exceeded our expectations, going well beyond simple praise to asking questions (“was it worth scanning at such a high DPI?”), making suggestions (“what if you tried taking the image with two of them, side by side?”), and pointing out opportunities for further exploration.

I really enjoy listening to the students’ narration of their work. The many accents (our course includes students from 133 countries around the world) and the technical language they use, revealing their professional and academic backgrounds. I’m struck by the clever ways they use the technology to amplify their posts. For example, one student recorded his narration using his videocam, holding the photographed device in his hand, and demonstrated for us (in a macro sense) how he oriented the device on the scanner bed.

Of course there are technical issues (aren’t there always?) – students sorted into multiple groups, not remembering to comment, failing to name their VT in a way to make it easy to find. But, on the whole, it’s really working remarkably well. To date we have over 100 VTs in our class group – each one a rich and meaningful exploration of their images.


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Making Pictures Together

Images by Felice Frankel

Images by Felice Frankel

We are launched. Making Science and Engineering Pictures, an MITx MOOC, is now officially underway. What a contrast to consider the differences between memories of “first day of class” versus what we’re experiencing with this online course. Trudging my way to school with new Pee Chee folders and three ring binders, sharpened pencils, and a pristine lunchbox versus our course team, hunched over our laptops, connected via Skype at 9:00 AM EDT, watching as the first “introduce yourself” posts streamed in.

On day one (June 15, 2015), the course enrollment stood at 6,441 students. Naturally, we know that number will dwindle – it’s a low bar to register for an edX course, all you need is an email address. If the final number of actively participating students dwindles to 500, I’ll be happy. That’s 450 more than we could have reasonably managed in a face-to-face course. 450 more people who will, if we’ve done it right, learn how to make more effective and compelling images of their work.

0.111x is an online digital photography course, conceived of and taught by Felice Frankel. Felice is talented science photographer who, over the years, has carved out an intriguing niche – working closely with scientists and engineers to help them see their work in a new way. Felice examines the products and objects of a scientists’ work and asks thoughtful, yet naïve, questions (Is that element really necessary? What’s the most important point that you need to convey? Why is this gray? I am confused by this, can you tell me what’s going on here?) and then assembles their petri dishes, batteries, sensors, microreactors, and fuel cells in innovative, clever ways. The results are often novel, wholly original, and always interesting.

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 9.03.26 PM


In this course, Felice has attempted to capture the way she works; the themes and truths behind her approach to visualizing science. She imparts her acquired wisdom in a series of conceptual videos, spanning six week of topics (flatbed scanners, camera basics, lighting, mobile devices/video, presenting your work, and a final week of case study examination). Weekly assignments, designed so that the student photographers discover the week’s principles for themselves, complement the instructional videos.

Starting in week 1, students will upload their photographs to an online visual collaboration platform called VoiceThread (VT). As students log into VT, from the edX course environment, they will be automatically sorted into groups of 30 (I can’t help but think of the sorting hat in Harry Potter). There, in these small online groups, our students will post, share, discuss, and critique their images. This course is a purpose-driven, as opposed to a content-driven, learning environment. What they learn will come as a side effect of their actions, the images they create and discuss with each other and with us. Our instructional material [here’s a sample instructional video from the course on how to use a flatbed scanner to create images of 3D objects] is all designed to support the students’ efforts to master the photographer’s tools (light, aperture, shutter speed, background, and pattern), to create their best possible images to explain what they do.

The students come from 130 countries.

The students come from 130 countries.

And what do they do? Who are these 6, 441 students? Judging by those who’ve so far logged into the discussion forum they are physicists, filmmakers, graduate students, park rangers, molecular biologists, amateur photographers, science communicators, shutterbugs, high and middle school teachers, artists, and neuroscientists. They are from Spain, Brazil, India, Uruguay, Ireland, Canada, Ecuador, Austria, Norway, Italy, China, Scotland, Germany, Puerto Rico, Pakistan, and all over the U.S. Among their reasons for taking the course…. They want to improve the photos they take for their students, for their research group, for themselves, or for the general public. One thing that’s interesting about reading the intended learning goals of a group of MOOC students is that everyone is here because they want to be here. This is not a requirement for anyone – they are pursuing something that interests them, something that they want to learn. Students in this course will document what they’ve learned with the images they create and the VoiceThread conversations they conduct around those images. By sharing and critiquing the images they produce (shared objects of reflection), we will all learn as much from our failures as we do from successes. We’ve provided sample VTs and rubrics to guide their work, but ultimately, the students will devise their own quality standards for evaluating their work and the work of their peers. Part of our mission is to encourage the creation and adoption of critical standards.

We all know that the best, most effective learning comes when students pursue something that interests them, create their own objects of learning, and are supported by peers who are engaged along with them. We like to think that’s what we’ve created with 0.111x. Let’s find out.

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“This is a…global tel-link, prepaid call from…Adnan Syed…an inmate at… a Maryland correctional facility.  This call will be monitored and recorded…”  

That’s the opener for the new NPR podcast program, Serial.  One story, told week by week. The series follows a single story, a murder and its aftermath, over an entire season, spooling out the details, piece by piece, in hour-long audio segments.

Adnan Syed, taken in his high school years.

Adnan Syed, taken in his high school years.

Here’s the basic plot.  In 1999, the body of a young woman named Hae Min Lee was found strangled and buried in a shallow Baltimore grave.  Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the murder, convicted, and sentenced to life plus 30 years for the crime.  He has currently served 14 years of his sentence, claiming, as he has from the start, that he is innocent of the crime.

If you haven’t yet listened to Serial.  Do.  This is good stuff.  Excellent, thoughtful, long-form journalism and a fascinating glimpse at what well crafted audio programming can accomplish. First off, Sarah Koenig (an ex-Baltimore Sun reporter and am experienced producer from This American Life), at the helm of this podcast series, is incredibly gifted. She is a solid journalist, a really good interviewer, and a wonderful storyteller. I’ve grown quite fond of her Terri-Gross type interviewing style – compassionate, well spoken, and ever curious about each detail.

Sarah Koenig, Serial's producer.

Sarah Koenig, Serial’s producer.

Under Koenig’s leadership, the show’s creators do so many things right here – the use of music to build tension and weave connective tissue between episodes, Koenig’s conspiratorial (just you an’ me) voice, the story pace, and the well-placed use of actual recordings (phone conversations, tapes from the two trials, sound effects).

I really like the way that Koenig figures out the story along with you. Nothing is sewn up and tidy, she hands out the evidence, the discoveries, the phone logs, the interviews as she makes her way through them.  It’s like you’re on a slow drip, experiencing the story right along with her.  Often, as I’m listening, I find myself shouting to my iPhone, “But why didn’t Adnan’s lawyer show that evidence in the trial?!”  And sure enough, like she heard me, Koenig will chase that question down.  She’s relentless, pouring through evidence, teasing out the truth, talking with everyone remotely connected with the case (which, remember, happened 14 years ago), and expressing her skepticism, her confusion, her fears as she goes.  You ride along with her.

The obvious main draw of the serialized story is the ultimate question – is Adnan guilty?  Did he do it?  Is this guy wrongly convicted and sitting in prison, unjustly, for 13 years?  And what of Jay (the prosecution’s chief witness) – is he a liar? Who do we believe?  While the whodunnit nature of the show keeps you hooked, it’s also a fascinating procedural vantage point into journalism.  How exactly does it work?  What do journalists do, what do detectives do when they investigate a crime?  And if all of that isn’t interesting enough for you, consider the intriguing challenge of telling this story in an audio-only format (with no visuals).  Pretty tall order when you have to track timelines, maps, calendars.

But it’s not just the characters in this true life story that have me gripped, it’s the human elements, put on display so effectively.  The people in the story are oh so painfully flawed. They have unreliable memories. They rationalize and tell lies at every turn. They are completely unreliable narrators. How could so many aspects of the story be so confused? What Koenig teases out, time and time again, is that we don’t remember much that would be useful in a criminal trial from an average day. The day that Hae’s life was taken was, in fact, for most of the people in this story, just an incredibly average, oh-so normal day. Because of that, they really can’t remember – did you leave school at 2:15 or 2:30?  Did you go to the Best Buy before or after track practice?  What time did you place that phone call?

The podcast is extremely successful (1.5 million listeners, and counting). It has its own website (complete with original documents, photos, links), there’s a Reddit thread to follow, reviews in many major papers, and Slate magazine has spawned a podcast (a spoiler special) about the podcast itself (how meta). Recognizing how many people were listening to Serial, hashing it over, debating it, and questioning it Slate decided to bring those follow-on conversations to the air. They post their own interpretive podcast after each Serial episode.  It’s a perfect combination to first listen to an episode of Serial, then follow it with the companion Slate spoiler special.  It’s like seeing a controversial movie and then sitting down with Siskel and Ebert to hash it over.

I’m up to Episode 6 of Serial now.  Four more to go.  And they’ve announced they will do a second season – a new story presumably.  I can’t wait.

Additional stuff found online since:

Photos of the kids, the high school, maps of the area from the Huffington Post

Stephen Colbert’s interview with producer, Sarah Koenig.

Sarah Koenig interviewed on Fresh Air by Teri Gross.

Funny or Die parody of the last episode.

SNL’s paraody of Serial.


Filed under Reflections