“Professors Are People Too” Podcast Bridges Gap Between Students and Faculty

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English major Ali Oshinshie ’17 (CLAS). (Photo by Sydney Lauro)

At the start of her sophomore year, Ali Oshinskie ’17 (CLAS) found herself in her first large lecture class amid a sea of students. Sitting in Laurel Hall, she felt far removed from her professor at the front of the room, like just another face among hundreds. She wondered: “do these professors even care?”

The experience made Oshinskie reconsider her professors’ invitations to come to office hours.

“It was the first time that stood out to me as something I could take up the offer on,” Oshinskie says. “Then I started going and figuring out that these people were really cool with stories to tell.”

Oshinskie then made it her mission to change the stigma surrounding office hours and the seemingly unapproachable professor at the front of a lecture hall. To do so, Oshinskie decided to make a series of podcasts, titled “Professors are People Too,” in order to show students the person behind some of their favorite professors. The first episodes aired on WHUS in the fall of 2016, and featured English professors Gina Barreca, Cathy-Schlund Vials, and Sean Forbes.

“This is ‘Professors Are People Too,’ a show about the friends you didn’t know you could have, the advice you didn’t know you could ask for, and the professors you didn’t know were, like, people,” Oshinskie said to introduce her first podcast.

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“Professors Are People Too” podcast feature image. (Photo courtesy of WHUS)

The Podcast

Like many people, Oshinskie’s introduction to podcasts was through “Serial,” the true-crime investigative audio series that first aired in 2014. In particular, she was drawn to the format’s unique storytelling style that caters to auditory learners like herself.

“At that time, I was diagnosed with ADD. But I still wanted to learn and to read, even though reading isn’t exactly my strength—says the English major! So podcasts opened up this place for me to learn and listen,” she says.

In the spring of 2016, Oshinskie decided to get involved with WHUS to learn more about radio and podcasting. Around that time, she also approached the Director of UConn’s Writing Internship Program, Ruth Fairbanks, about creating an internship where she could put together podcasts about faculty in the Department of English.

Right away, Assistant Professor in Residence and Creative Writing Director Sean Forbes signed on to be the faculty advisor for Oshinskie’s project.

“I recently asked him why he agreed to do this project, and he said he wanted to know how podcasts worked. He said when he started that he didn’t realize how much storytelling is involved,” Oshinskie says.

Taking advantage of WHUS’s extensive radio production technology, Oshinskie learned audio editing software and how to capture, somewhat organically, her favorite stories about her professors.

“We thought it was going to be much more on the fly, but it’s actually a very methodical, planned process,” she says.

“This is ‘Professors Are People Too,’ a show about the friends you didn’t know you could have, the advice you didn’t know you could ask for, and the professors you didn’t know were, like, people.”

The People

Interviewing Professor of English Gina Barreca was the obvious choice for the first episode, says Oshinskie, and not only because she had taken a class with Barreca before.

Oshinskie picked Barreca because she is the English department’s most tenured faculty member, has been on “Oprah” four times, and really cares about and challenges her students. Additionally, Oshinskie says that Barreca is a great storyteller, and she brings out the storyteller in her students by pushing them in class.

“Within the boundaries that are set, there’s an enormous amount of freedom,” Barreca said in her podcast episode. “I’m about making sure that the classes are very structured, that I think the students know what my expectations are, and, again, I think that most people rise to them.”

Oshinskie says that she also wanted to feature another “celebrity” of the department: Cathy Schlund-Vials, professor of English and director of Asian and Asian American Studies.

The episode featuring Schlund-Vials begins with a personal story that she shared on the first day of class: Born in Thailand to a Cambodian mother and an American father, Schlund-Vials and her brother were adopted by a couple who couldn’t have children. Her adoptive mother grew up 20 miles outside of Nagasaki, and was 11 years old when the United States bombed the city in 1945.

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Professor of English Gina Barreca and Ali Oshinskie ’17 (CLAS) on the day of the interview. (Photo courtesy of WHUS)

“After hearing that story, I realized that I didn’t know anything nearly that personal about my other professors,” Oshinskie says. “But for Professor Schlund-Vials, [storytelling] is an inroad to teaching. It’s how she contextualizes it. It’s a personal history, but it’s also an academic history.”

In February, Oshinskie will also air an episode featuring Sean Forbes, the podcast’s faculty advisor.

“I think something that’s key to Sean as a professor is that he’s so approachable,” Oshinskie explains. “Office hours are the way that I got to know him, but I went to his class once and it was basically a big office hours session. He sits alongside his students.”

Oshinskie plans to produce three final episodes during the spring of 2017 that feature more professors from the English department, as well as an episode about what English majors do with their degrees after they graduate.

The skills and experiences that Oshinskie has gained from producing the podcast have helped inform her own post-graduation plans. She hopes to intern for NPR’s program “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” in Chicago this summer and to ultimately have a career with NPR or another podcast.

“My experiences have really connected me with not being afraid to ask questions, and have taught me that connections don’t just show up, you have to seek them,” Oshinskie says. “Anybody of any age or demographic group will have a cool story if you look for it. I think that is definitely fundamental to my desire to do this.”

By: Sydney Lauro ’17 (CLAS)

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