By Erica Quinones
The Transparency Trap podcast, released on Radio Free George on Jan. 8, takes listeners through an exploration of communication and lack thereof at Washington College, and asks how its breakdowns affect the relationship between the College administration and its community.
Freshman Grace Apostol, junior Megan Loock, an Elm Staff Writer, and seniors Leah Duff, Evan Gaines, Nicole Hatfield, and Victoria Gill-Gomez, an Elm News Editor, created the podcast for their final project in the Narrative Journalism course, taught by Visiting Assistant Professor of English Sufiya Abdur-Rahman.
The podcast began as multiple smaller projects. Some students wanted to explore Title IX on campus, others the cancellation of the play “The Foreigner,” and others were interested in examining Washington College’s response to COVID-19. However, as they began the preliminary work on their separate podcasts, the groups realized the core issue of each topic was a lack of transparency, according to Gaines and Apostle.
“We all felt like we were either being overwhelmed with emails and so much information, but there still was no clear answer,” Hatfield said. “WC has always prided itself on the small, close-knit community, but we felt that it wasn’t really happening, that COVID-19 is showing there are holes and there needs to be more communications around these topics of honesty.”
Uniting their projects into one podcast, the group decided to explore transparency in communication between the College and its community, including students, parents, alumni, faculty, staff, and Chestertown residents.
“We thought this is a community problem, so we wanted diverse voices that encapsulate all of our community, be it the people who work there, students [of different years], teachers, administrators…and alumni,” Gaines said.
Transparency Trap begins in the spring 2020 semester with the Town Hall held to address student concerns regarding bias incidents on campus. Moving to the COVID-19 pandemic and the confusion around sending students home after spring break, it continues through a litany of topics including Title IX and students’ utilization of social media to speak out about their experiences; laying off staff; registration delays and challenges; faculty cuts and the faculty unionization effort; parental, student, and Chestertown concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19; and the prospects of an in-person spring 2021 semester.
With such a large number of topics, the group found that putting them together in a coherent manner while also giving each idea the weight it needed was a major challenge, according to Gaines.
“[When addressing so many topics,] you also worry about clarity…I didn’t want it to come off as, ‘Oh, they’re using this umbrella term, transparency, to throw the whole entire school under the bus.’ We tried to have variety in the negatives and the positives,” Hatfield said. “I hope people expand upon it in the future, because I think there’s a lot more to say.”
The podcast itself had more to say. Duff estimated the team could have created a 12-part series with all their recordings, making the process of “killing darlings” — cutting good ideas — painful for them.
Because they worked with such a multitude of topics, the team found that keeping each other informed on where the individual students were in their interviews and what was said in each conversation was vital to the process, according to Hatfield.
That communication was rather overwhelming at times — the group had 23 separate shared documents; however, that clear communication helped them shape and reshape the podcast throughout the process.
They also found support in each other, saying that their regular group meetings helped them prepare for interviews mentally and emotionally.
While they pitched to each other sources and questions, they also found emotional support in knowing their fellow students faced similar challenges throughout the reporting process.
“Being able to relate to each other really did help. I left those meetings feeling better knowing that I wasn’t the only one feeling like this, we are all in this together, this is a group effort. That is what a podcast is,” Apostle said.
The initial process of reporting and scriptwriting was not the only time-consuming aspect of their project.
Gaines, both the co-host and editor of the podcast, spent about 11 hours on editing the final project. The version of the project submitted for class took five hours of editing but was “skeletal” with no sound effects or music, according to Gaines.
However, another six hours of work created the final edit which is now published by Radio Free George.
The work did not stop there. The group continued with their project, hosting a debrief event for members of the WC community.
Hosted on Jan. 29, the debrief gave students a space to discuss their experiences surrounding transparency and the College.
While many topics were discussed during the meeting, conversation on Title IX, especially a lack of knowledge around who was the coordinator or what the proper processes were, was prominent throughout the session.
Despite around 30 students attending, Duff said it was “ironic” that no members of the administration were able to attend the debrief.
The lack of administrative response to the podcast itself was “disheartening,” according to Gaines. However, the group has some optimism when examining the College’s current communications regarding COVID-19.
Gaines said that the COVID Dashboard infrastructure is helpful because it delivers information in one place.
However, communication struggles still occur over what Duff called “little things,” like usage of the Emocha app.
Duff and Apostle both expressed troubles with the Emocha app. Duff, a chronically ill student, initially struggled with knowing what to report on the app, because she lives with some of the noted symptoms.
While the podcast ended with a call to action for the College to reform its communication models in the future, for Transparency Trap, their remaining future likely includes the editing and releasing of the student debrief, according to Gaines. Any other project would need to be a legacy project, as most of the group consists of seniors.
“Community and communications, that’s what our school, our country, and our society depends on,” Gaines said in the podcast. “WC has the potential to pull through and become even stronger after this [pandemic]. To quote President [of the College Dr. Wayne] Powell, to start dealing with our problems, we have to admit they are there.”
Featured Photo caption: The Transparency Trap podcast, which was released by Radio Free George on Jan. 8, 2021, featured student reports as they explored communication and transparency, or lack thereof, at Washington College and its consequences. Photo Courtesy of Leah Duff.