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Creating Bottle Episodes

I treat each semester as a fresh start, a new year, an opportunity to try new strategies and make my class the best it can be. I use this fresh energy and optimism to drum up excitement for how engaging, interesting, and rewarding our time together will be if we all contribute and collaborate. Then the work begins. Committee work, policies, our world in peril, reality... Students feel it too, the juggling, pressure, uncertainty, reality... All of this can suck the joy out of learning. When I start to sense the lag, I find that is the perfect moment to shake things up a bit. In a recent OLT session on recalibrating and gaining momentum in our online courses, one strategy I shared for breaking up the monotony and re-energizing the classroom is using a bottle episode.

A bottle episode is a concept from the world of television. It is an episode of a series that exists outside of the main story arc and is a fully self-contained story in one episode. Translating this idea into our courses, we would take one class meeting and use it to cover something new. I use this time as a major departure from our routine, to cover something unique, unusual, and interesting. I do try to connect the topic to our subject matter, but it will definitely provide a fresh perspective and we will use new lenses to examine the material.

In October, I will be using a bottle episode in my public speaking course as a way to transition from one major subject (informative communication) to another (persuasive communication). It will also provide us with a much-needed breather and a chance to discuss something that is unexpected, out of the norm, and interesting in its own right.

Here is my process for creating a bottle episode...


As always is the first step in my process, I start with reflection. For me, reflection often takes the form of daydreaming. I think about where we are as a class, our successes, our opportunities for growth, what I think my students would enjoy, what I would enjoy, and I let my mind wander toward interesting stories I've heard, videos I've watched, podcasts I've listened to, and so forth. I daydream about the potential for this conversation, I imagine what I would share with students, what they might get excited about, parallels that can be drawn between this new content and what we've previously discussed in class. What would make a fun or interesting departure from our routine? I record this in a list!

Gather Materials

Now that I have a list to work with, the next step is to gather materials. I need to find what materials are available for use, I need to assess how accessible they are, and I need to determine if they're good for our purpose.

Here are the subjects I am considering to use as my bottle episode between informative and persuasive communication:

Hot Coffee

Hot Coffee is a very interesting documentary that was first available on HBO and then on Netflix.

Here is a summary of the story: Hot Coffee is a 2011 documentary film that analyzes and discusses the impact of tort reform on the United States judicial system. The title is derived from the Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants lawsuit, in which the plaintiff Liebeck was severely burned after spilling into her lap hot coffee purchased from a McDonald's.

While doing my materials research, I discover that this is no longer available on Netflix. Even better, it is now available on a free streaming service called Tubi.

Unfortunately, it does not appear to have Closed Captions available (unless I just cannot figure out how to turn them on). For that reason, and because current students may not be as familiar with this case, I will be looking at other options.

Voices for Justice podcast

This year, I was introduced to the missing persons case of Alissa Turney. Alissa went missing in 2001. Her father, Michael Turney, was a prime suspect but there was never enough evidence to charge him with her disappearance or murder (there is no body in this case). Her sister, Sarah, dedicated her life to getting justice for her sister. She used social media to spread her story and this year she joined TikTok and started a podcast called Voices for Justice to tell Alissa's story and present all of the existing evidence to see if anyone, anywhere, had more information about Alissa's disappearance. Through Sarah's work, Michael Turney was arrested and charged with murder on September 21, 2020.

There is so much to be explored in this story, especially Sarah's use of social media to reinvigorate her sister's cold case and ultimately achieve her goal of having Michael Turney arrested. My thought for the bottle episode, however, is to listen to a recent episode of the Voices for Justice podcast called No Body Homicide.

Here is the episode description: In this episode of Voices for Justice, I speak with Tad DiBiase, Tad was an Assistant United States Attorney in the District of Columbia for over 12 years. In January of 2006 he prosecuted the second no body homicide case ever tried in D.C. and he has been passionate about no body homicide cases ever since. In the episode, DiBiase addresses the importance of persuasion in trying murder cases. Because of the pressure to have rock-solid evidence and an extremely persuasive and compelling narrative, DiBiase shares that the conviction rate of no body homicides is significantly higher than regular homicides.

Though I think this story is tremendous, there are two primary reasons why I am deciding this isn't the right fit for my class. First, there is no transcript available for the podcast. Second, I think this subject and the frank nature of the discussion is too intense for our purposes. It is potentially triggering any day of the week, but right now, with our heightened anxieties and current social and political climate, it is just not a good fit.

War of the Worlds episode of This American Life

This is an episode of the WNYC Studios NPR radio program of This American Life called War of the Worlds.

Here is a summary of the episode: It's been 80 years to the day since Orson Welles' infamous radio drama "The War of the Worlds" echoed far and wide over the airwaves. So we want to bring you back to our very first live hour, where we take a deep dive into what was one of the most controversial moments in broadcasting history. "The War of the Worlds," a radio play about Martians invading New Jersey, caused panic when it originally aired, and it's continued to fool people since--from Santiago, Chile to Buffalo, New York to a particularly disastrous evening in Quito, Ecuador.

While doing my materials research, I discover that we can listen for free, I can embed the audio of the episode in my course, and there is a transcript! I can also embed the full original Orson Welles' broadcast and additional educational materials on this topic. I also really like that this is a very familiar story, but most of us are not aware of the fact that this is a play and story that continues to fool people and create panic.

There is a lot I feel I can do with this episode. We could engage in fact-checking (many texts claim that the fallout from the original broadcast was way overblown and has grown to myth). Great opportunity for some information literacy discussion. I also think this is a terrific opportunity to begin discussing persuasion and the nature of persuasion. I love the timing with Halloween too. We have a winner!

Develop my Lesson Plan

Next, I will think about how I plan to introduce the bottle episode (this will be an asynchronous module) and how we will process the material (I am going to use group discussion with discussion prompts and large group report out).

Tip: This strategy can work in any modality but if you are in a three hour + synchronous class, I recommend using the bottle episode as the latter half of the class and not the beginning. Better to end on a high note I think!

Implement and Assess

I will include three survey questions in my module: what was their primary takeaway from our conversation, what went well, what could be done differently? Later, when we are knee-deep into persuasion, I will refer back to this module to see if we can make additional connections to the content.

If you try this technique, let me know how it goes! I can't wait to hear about your experiences experimenting with this strategy.

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