Teaching Serial as Public History

Photo credit: Kate Preissler
I took a risk this semester and dedicated a fairly large chunk of class time to teaching Serial in Intro to Public History.  It was placed in the syllabus as a bridge between a unit on memory, identity and different publics and a unit on settings and tools for public history practice.  I was inspired to do this by my own engagement with the podcast (errrr, obsessive binge listening) and by some great email conversations with Kate Preissler, Digital Projects Manager at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA, who wrote a fabulous blog post on Serial and public history for the NCPH blog.

In case you've been under a rock, Serial was a hugely popular podcast that ran for twelve episodes last autumn.  It examined the murder of high school student Hae Min Lee in 1999 in Baltimore and pulled apart the evidence used to successfully convict Lee's ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed -- who pleaded not guilty and maintains his innocence to this day, from his cell in a maximum security prison in Maryland.

I wanted to share my rudimentary class outlines and assignments for others who might be interested in exploring Serial with college students.
 I introduced Serial by talking about some general points about storytelling and narrative, the challenges of memory, the implications of crowd-sourcing criminal investigations (even "dead" ones,) and the dangers and ethical questions of blending history and entertainment.

We listened to Episode One together.  They got hooked.  Then they listened to the next three episodes on their own. 

When we met again, we talked a lot about the anticipated audience. To whom was Serial targeted?  We discussed how assumptions about the audience likely shaped the style of the podcast.  We did a "sketchy-behavior" quiz and rated behaviors (calling ex at 12:30am, parents coming to a school prom showing up unannounced to girls' night, etc.) This class was boisterous.  Really boisterous. We spent a lot of time discussing the appeal of the podcast, the nature of radio vs. other kinds of media and the importance of storytelling.

The first reading response question was this:  Identify one piece of evidence that troubles you and examine why it is problematic.  Next, explore how that evidence has been represented.  To what extent does the podcast heighten or downplay the difficulties with this piece of the puzzle.

During our next class meeting, we unpacked the cultural divide between then and now on two fronts --- the availability of technology now as opposed to 1999 and the  the  pre-9/11 vs post 9/11 divide.   We also talked about representations of Adnan, Hae and Jay both within and the podcast (content) and through the podcast (tone, implication, connotation, sequencing, etc.)  In this class, people got a little confrontational.  People had strong opinions.  Virtually no one was quiet.  It was intense.

The second reading response question was this:  True or False: Serial pushes the boundaries of passive entertainment and engages listeners in the construction of historical narrative, in the ways memory works to bolster social and individual identities and in a conversation about repercussions of how, when and where a story is told.  Choose one position or, if you like, choose the middle road and argue why this is both true and false based on what you have listened to so far. Use specific examples from the podcasts to make your point. Things to consider as you construct a position on this --- evidence, context, sociological profiles of various characters, audience, race and gender.

We spent another class meeting talking about supplementary materials, including that which was submitted into evidence and the plethora of stuff - articles, interviews, reddit threads, etc.  that emerged as ancillary strands in the Serial story.  
The formal assignment looks like this:

Six months ago, Adnan Syed was just another inmate doing time in a Baltimore prison. Today, he's fueling debate and speculation and getting renewed attention on a long-forgotten case. 

In a 4-6 page essay, examine the perils and promises of doing history in public by using Serial as a model of real-time, public research and interpretation.

Your essay must address at least four of the following issues and must explicitly name the four in your opening paragraph.

  •  The nature of evidence vs. the way evidence was presented: conflicts and areas of coherence
  • Portrayals of race and gender
  • Portrayals of Muslim males, Muslim families and Islam
  • The uses of nostalgia to entertain audiences
  • The difference between technology use then vs. now
  • The effects of the podcast on new evidence and treatment of old evidence
  • The effects of the podcast on players and stakeholders
  • The use of experts in legitimizing the narrative in Serial
  • The draw of an unknowable truth
  • The draw of archetypal themes
  • The portrayal of victims vs. perpetrators
  • Ethical considerations of putting the justice system “on trial” by rectifying a “finished” case
  • Aspects of the US culture that made this a popular podcast vs.  ways that Serial’s popularity came as a surprise (i.e. desensitization to  murder?)
  • Techniques and tools that draw in and sustain audience engagement (be specific)
  • Things about the podcast that turn audiences away
  • What public historians can learn from Serial about engagement with audiences
  • What scholars of memory can learn by engagement with Serial
  • Freestyle – whatever you want (name it, though)

Your essay should cite at least four episodes of Serial directly.  It should cite at least 2 primary sources and at least three articles, reddit threads, other podcasts, interviews, etc. about the case.

I, for one, am very curious about what they come up with.  But I really think it helped us talk about memory, identity, different publics and the effects of public engagement in the construction of knowledge in novel ways that they really grasped and owned.  I only have one person in the class who keeps talking about faulty or inconsistent memory being "wrong."  Win.


  1. How did the formal assignment turn out? Would love to hear results!


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