American Conversations podcasts aim to engage student voters across the country
Most college students write papers or complete exams as course assessments. At St. Olaf College, students are often allowed to get more creative — and the American Conversations program provides students with the opportunity to do just that.
In American Conversations, or AmCon, students join a community in which they learn together and discuss American culture, history, and politics throughout their first two years at St. Olaf. With the goal of encouraging Oles to be thoughtful citizens, each AmCon sequence includes at least one Academic Civic Engagement (ACE) component, in which students complete a project that develops civic engagement beyond the Hill. Past students have applied their knowledge by working with local communities as well as throughout the broader United States.
This past spring, sophomore AmCon participants had the opportunity to connect with students all over the U.S. Working in small groups, students produced podcast episodes intended to provide nonpartisan information on key voting issues in light of the upcoming presidential election. Professor of English Colin Wells and Visiting Associate Professor of History Eric Fure-Slocum allowed students much creative license throughout the project, with one main question to guide them: “What would a college student need to know about this issue to help them make an informed decision in the election?”
The students addressed presidential candidates’ stances on LGBTQIA+ rights, student debt, private prisons, agriculture and environmental policy, healthcare, income inequality, educational policy, voting rights for felons, and foreign policy, with each group choosing the topic that most interested them. In addition to giving an overview of each topic and its historical context, the groups conducted interviews with individuals from the Northfield community and beyond to share personal perspectives on the issues.
AmCon students have created podcasts in the past for ACE assignments, and Wells and Fure-Slocum thought they would work particularly well for this class. “Podcasts are a great project for a group to work on together, and students with different skill sets and interests can divide up the work as they choose. Some like the research and policy aspect, others are drawn to the public speaking and interviewing aspect; others still are interested in sound production,” Wells says. “They also combine research and storytelling, which are both skills we try to help students develop in AmCon.”
Podcasts are also an accessible way to reach out to large audiences, which made them the perfect medium to use for engaging with young voters throughout the country. St. Olaf Assistant Director of Academic Civic Engagement Alyssa Melby helped AmCon partner with Campus Compact, a coalition of colleges and universities that aims to foster civic engagement and community development, to produce and share the podcast episodes. Executive Director of Iowa and Minnesota Campus Compact Emily Shields met with the class in February to discuss Campus Compact’s mission. She also interviewed four students from the class for an episode of Campus Compact’s Compact Nation Podcast, which published each of the episodes that the AmCon students created. The podcasts can also be found on St. Olaf’s “Engage in the Democratic Process” web page.
One of the students that Shields interviewed was Greta Van Loon ’22, whose group created the podcast episode on agricultural and environmental policy. Having never worked with podcasts before, Van Loon was initially intimidated by the project’s learning curve. “Writing a podcast storyboard is different from writing an outline for a paper, because you have to be thinking about what sounds to use, how to make your script sound conversational, and making sure your listener will be engaged the whole time,” Van Loon says.
Van Loon’s group chose to focus specifically on agriculture within the larger issue of environmental policy due to her connection with her friend David Legvold, a local farmer. “Our tentative podcast storyboard originally had us exploring a wider range of environmental topics than just agriculture, but our interview with Dave ended up being so valuable that we knew focusing completely on agriculture would make a more cohesive podcast,” Van Loon says.
Having also included interviews with two other St. Olaf students in their episode, Van Loon and her group gained insight into how different individuals approach interviews and learned how to decide which quotes would be most effective in the episode. It also gave her an understanding of what to expect from her conversation with Shields on the Compact Nation Podcast, though she still gained new takeaways from being on the other side of an interview.
“I think that one of the biggest things I learned from that interview was the importance of being laid-back. Emily Shields’ tone while interviewing us was very casual, which made me feel no pressure while answering her questions,” Van Loon says. “When the tone isn’t as casual in an interview, I think that both the interviewer and interviewee can get really nervous, which can lead to speaking really fast and leaving out a lot of information that could have been useful.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students met another challenge in transitioning to remote learning, utilizing online resources from Rolvaag Memorial Library and the Information Technology Department. The class rallied quickly, completing production on their episodes so that they could be published on the Compact Nation Podcast website. “The students did a fantastic job of dealing with this new set of challenges. Soon after we returned with remote learning, they submitted the rough drafts of their podcasts, impressing us with the quality of their work,” Fure-Slocum says.
With the episodes now published, Van Loon hopes that the podcasts will help deepen students’ understanding of hot-button issues in preparation for the presidential election this fall.
Hopefully students listening to our podcasts can both learn more about issues they care about, and also find new issues to care about that they hadn’t thought much about before.Greta Van Loon ’22
“From my group’s podcast in particular, I hope that student audiences start to think about how much they really know about issues they care about. Our whole argument behind the podcast was that people care a lot about environmental policy, but they don’t necessarily know a lot of specific information about it. Becoming informed is one of the most important things young people, and anyone else, can do,” Van Loon says. “Hopefully students listening to our podcasts can both learn more about issues they care about, and also find new issues to care about that they hadn’t thought much about before.”