Forrest Spence felt something was missing.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced all Notre Dame courses to be held online, he was still able to teach his microeconomics students, lead group discussions, and review their work. But there were smaller interactions between him and his students that couldn’t happen virtually — brief conversations before or after class, or a visit to office hours to ask a question or explore a thesis idea.
“When the pandemic started, we felt very disengaged from students,” said Spence, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Economics. “So we came back to campus and started thinking about how we could try to replicate, in this new environment, some of the experiences that we were used to having with students.”
His solution — developed with Jason Reed, director of undergraduate studies in the Mendoza College of Business Department of Finance — was to launch a podcast where business and economics faculty answer topical questions submitted by students. The goal of All Else Equal, as stated during their inaugural episode in August, is to “bridge the gap between the cutting-edge research taking place at Notre Dame and student inquiry.”
“We’re trying to leverage the fact that we have great faculty here that are super interesting to talk with, and we’re trying to make that accessible and digestible to students,” Spence said. “You don’t want to just send students the journal articles that faculty write. We want to try to have some sort of interesting conversation.”
Spence and Reed’s show is the latest example of programs in the College of Arts & Letters — and across Notre Dame’s campus — launching podcasts to share engaging conversations with audiences everywhere. From the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture’s Ethics and Culture Cast to the Department of Theology’s Minding Scripture show to the Notre Dame International Security Center’s speaker series podcast, many faculty and staff have found the form to be an effective way of inviting the world into Notre Dame’s vibrant intellectual community.
“We have all these awesome people that we’re bringing to campus to speak that are able to engage in fascinating conversations,” said Ken Hallenius, host of the Ethics and Culture Cast. “Often they come to campus and give a one-hour talk, then they’re gone. The podcast is a way to highlight and extend the value of their visit here.”
“I feel really committed to delivering content to a broad audience, especially to people who wouldn’t get it otherwise. It’s a gift to teach Notre Dame students, so I’m really grateful for the opportunity and I don’t take that for granted, but there are many people who will never have access to institutions like Notre Dame.”
— Gabriel Reynolds, moderator, Minding Scripture
Three religions, one dialogue
In Minding Scripture, which launched in fall 2019, scholars from the World Religions World Church program specializing in the study of three different religions come together to explore questions about the Bible and the Qur'an.
In each episode, moderator Gabriel Said Reynolds engages three of his Department of Theology colleagues — Francesca Murphy (Christianity), Tzvi Novick (Judaism) and Mun'im Sirry (Islam) in conversation on the relationship between scripture and scholarship and faith and reason.
“I feel that there are some presuppositions about the Catholic Church and its relationship to other religions that I’d like to debunk,” said Reynolds, the Jerome J. Crowley and Rosaleen G. Crowley Professor of Theology. “The Catholic Church has a long history of conversation with other religions. There are documents that highlight the Church’s appreciation for truth which state that any truth is God’s truth wherever it’s found. The podcast shows people that the Church’s thinking on other religions is really interesting and surprisingly open and engaging.”
This aim is closely aligned with the mission of the World Religions World Church program, which trains graduate students for academic careers in the study of world religions and conducts various outward-facing projects such as hosting webinars and international conferences.
The four co-hosts often develop a theme for each episode together and identify key scriptural quotes or ideas from the Quran and Bible they want to debate.
“I introduce the theme and then it’s a free-for-all — so it’s a really dynamic, friendly but intense conversation between people of different faiths,” Reynolds said.
For Reynolds, the podcast is a natural continuation of an idea espoused by the late Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., the longtime Notre Dame president who said that the University is the “place where the Church does its thinking.” Reynolds hopes Minding Scripture offers an opportunity for that type of thinking to extend far beyond campus, to people from all walks of life.
“I feel really committed to delivering content to a broad audience, especially to people who wouldn’t get it otherwise,” he said. “It’s a gift to teach Notre Dame students, so I’m really grateful for the opportunity and I don’t take that for granted, but there are many people who will never have access to institutions like Notre Dame.”
Student questions, expert answers
While the unusual circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic inspired All Else Equal, Spence and Reed have no plans of slowing down production.
“I was trying to think of what’s the threshold of listeners to where we think this project’s worth it, and I think it’s maybe five,” Spence said. “If we get both of our moms and three students to listen to this, that’s probably enough for us to want to keep doing it, because we really enjoy it.”
In discussing student-suggested topics ranging from the ethics of college football to the most recent Nobel Prize in Economics winner, Spence and Reed have enjoyed the intellectual engagement and investigation inherent to the creation of a podcast.
“It’s fun for us — we get to talk to people we really respect and learn from them,” Spence said. “We’re letting these faculty members teach us and Notre Dame students, which is really cool.”
Listening back to episodes, he finds himself thinking through ways to better teach and convey the information being discussed. That opportunity for self-reflection and constructive criticism, Spence said, is an exercise that has made him a better educator.
Students seem to be enjoying the podcast so far, he said, and he hopes they’re both finding value in it and feeling more connected to their faculty, departments, and College.
“A big part of the reason students are here is the faculty members — and we want the students to be actually engaged with them,” he said.
Conversations serving mission
Hallenius, who did volunteer work in radio prior to coming to Notre Dame, enjoys the personal feel inherent to the podcast format, which allows for the natural flow of conversation.
“In voice, you can hear what people find interesting based on what they emphasize and based on their passion when they deliver it, so I think it’s very intimate,” he said. “You have much more meaningful conversations than you may have with a traditional Q&A.”
Ethics and Culture Cast is a conversation between Hallenius, communications specialist for the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, and faculty affiliated with the dCEC as well as guest speakers brought to campus by the center.
The semi-monthly podcast started in 2017 now has more than 50 episodes covering a diverse range of topics, from undergraduate Sorin Fellows’ experiences on an Israel pilgrimage to chats with authors about their newly published books.
“The Center is located within Arts and Letters, but we have student fellows and faculty in literally every one of the schools and colleges, so we’re all over the intellectual spectrum that way,” Hallenius said. “We’ll bring in people who are historians, philosophers, theologians, scientists, political scientists, everybody.”
Hallenius recounts his conversation with Katherine Smith, a Sorin Fellow who studied abroad in Rome for a semester, as particularly illustrative of this concept. Hallenius was in Rome for a conference and met with Smith to record an episode about her experience in the Sorin Fellows program. Searching for a quiet place, they walked into a nearby church.
“We just popped into a church and we sat on the kneelers as our seats and put the microphones on the pews,” Hallenius said. “It’s really fun because you get that sense of the location serving the conversation and serving our mission all the way around, and it all happened organically.”
The podcast has connected with listeners around the world, increasing awareness of the center itself as well as the richness of the Catholic moral and intellectual tradition, Hallenius said.
“We don’t only do Catholic things or only have Catholic guests — that moral and intellectual tradition celebrates the wonder of creation, among other things,” he said. “The broad scope of our guests across the spectrum of the disciplines shows this truly catholic, universal approach.”
“We don’t only do Catholic things or only have Catholic guests — that moral and intellectual tradition celebrates the wonder of creation, among other things. The broad scope of our guests across the spectrum of the disciplines shows this truly catholic, universal approach.”
— Ken Hallenius, host, Ethics and Culture Cast
Other Notre Dame-affiliated podcasts
- With a Side of Knowledge, from the Office of the Provost, hosted by Ted Fox ’02 — brunchtime conversations with Notre Dame faculty and guest speakers
- The Signs of the Times, from the Center for Social Concerns
- Church Life Today, from the McGrath Institute for Church Life
- Establishing Shot, from the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts
- Notre Dame Stories, from the Office of Public Affairs & Communications
- The Endless Conversation, from Notre Dame Magazine
- Kellogg Institute for International Studies podcast
- The Global Pathways Podcast, from the Pulte Institute for Global Development
- The Kroc Cast, from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies
- Notre Dame International Security Center podcast