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What my obsession with Serial taught me about Interpretation

by Callie Hawkins, President Lincoln's Cottage on

Like hundreds of thousands of others across the globe, I became obsessed with Serial, a smart, whodunit, episodic podcast. Like, sit in my parked car for 30 minutes after arriving to work to finish listening (I usually get to work super early), obsessed. For several months, it was the topic of conversation with friends on gchat, over drinks, and even at a few weddings. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Serial is a sort of spin-off from the popular radio show, This American Life. It is a weekly podcast that reopened the real-life investigation into the 1999 death of a Baltimore, Maryland high school student and her former teenage boyfriend, who is currently serving a life sentence for her murder.

I was immediately sucked in by this case and wondered if, in the end, this network of amateur detectives—listening intently in their cars on the way to work, or through their earbuds at the gym—would discover something brand new that might blow this 15 year-old case wide open. I’m not quite sure what it says about me—or all the other followers—but the podcast became the thing I most looked forward to all week.

It’s been several weeks since the final episode aired, and with some distance I’ve come to realize that while I was caught up in the “whodunit” aspects of the whole thing, it wasn’t the details of the case that had mesmerized me, but the expert way in which Sarah Koenig, the podcast’s narrator, told this story.

It was how she made the people come alive. Koenig spent considerable time describing—sometimes in painstaking detail—those involved in this drama. She described the way they walked, how they spoke, what their hobbies and habits were, and how they interacted with each other. At one point, she describes the convicted man as having “giant brown eyes, like a dairy cow.” These vivid descriptions enabled listeners to imagine them moving about their high school and homes. It gave them life. It made them human.

It was how she made me care about something from which I was removed by time and physical distance. The real life events covered in this podcast occurred 15 years ago in Baltimore, Maryland. I was in college several states away in 1999, yet I could swear I was in the courtroom the day the young man was sentenced, or standing beside the pay phone at Best Buy when he may (or may not) have made a critical phone call. Koenig created immense tension—and I felt every single bit of it. She succeeded in making a 15 year old case relevant, attracting hundreds of thousands of listeners.

It was how even though I knew the ending, I kept coming back for more. From the outset, I knew the way this story ended, and that was okay. I didn’t really expect things to turn out differently, but I appreciated the different lens through which Koenig viewed old evidence. I realized how much has changed in the last 15 years, but I was shocked by how much remains the same.

It was how each episode, at the core, was about discovery. I think, as many others have more eloquently written, Koenig’s brilliance as a storyteller shows through in her questions—the questions she asked herself, the questions she asked those she interviewed, and the open ended questions she posed to listeners. It felt like we were discovering this information with her, not learning about it from her. She filled in the blanks, but she didn’t wrap everything up in a nice, neat bow, and I appreciated the opportunity to take those discoveries and form my own opinions.

What does any of this have to do with education and interpretation? The stories of our sites are no less riveting, no less critical than Koenig’s story. Yet the way we tell them is often dull and void of any sort of social imperative. She breathed new life into a 15-year old case that until 3 months ago had all but faded from public memory. And, she got people—hundreds of thousands of people—to care about it again.

Sarah Koenig is to this case what we need to be to our sites. We need to make the people come alive again for visitors. We need to remove the barriers of time and physical distance, and apply new perspectives to old or familiar stories in ways that are exciting and reflective. Above all, we need to foster individual discovery, even if those discovers lead to conclusions different from our own. If we try, perhaps we can get people—hundreds of thousands of people—to care about them again.

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