Appalachian communication professor helps students turn assignments into podcast fame

At Appalachian State University some of the best essays of communication students now circulate far beyond campus, providing content for the popular podcast Optimal Living Daily (OLD) and its website

The essays originated as assignments in which students were to draw on their experiences to illustrate key concepts in a course on interpersonal communication taught by Dr. Chris Patti, an assistant professor in Appalachian’s Department of Communication. The concepts, which Patti called equipment for a good life and good relationships, include mindfulness, compassionate listening, effective strategies for dealing with conflict and appropriate ways to express emotional vulnerability.

OLD features Justin Malik, the podcast’s California-based host and creator, reading content by bloggers and others each day on subjects such as personal development, minimalism and productivity. Malik reviews student essays at the end of each semester Patti teaches the course, generally two to three times a year. 

From classwork to podcast fame

Three essays by Patti’s students have aired on OLD so far, and each essay became a podcast episode, generating about 20,000 listens. One is “Waves of Acceptance,” in which Jessica “Jessie” Chaplain shares her story of anxiety and panic.

George Stonecipher’s “The Thirty-Year-Old College Student” recounts how he learned to cope with his experiences as an Army veteran following deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Summer Fischer’s “Love Needs No Words” is about her relationship with a young woman with autism.

“To be 20 years old and a published author is a great feeling,” Fischer said. “I never expected to have an opportunity to get published at such a young age.”

Stonecipher was equally enthusiastic about his contribution to OLD.

“It gave me confidence in my writing skills for future writings down the road,” he said.

How Patti and Malik make it happen

Malik began reading the essays of Patti’s students on his podcast last year, shortly after Oct. 6, 2016, when Malik, Patti’s friend since their childhood days in California, podcast Patti’s essay “On Suffering and Surfing.” Patti persuaded Malik to consider a similar opportunity for his students.

“This has been a win-win situation for Justin and me,” Patti said. “Justin is always looking for good material. The fact that one of my students’ essays might air on OLD helps make the assignment feel real to them.”

Fischer echoed Patti’s sentiments. “So often, assignments seem meaningless and like a waste of time,” she said. “Students dread the work because they know they are going to turn it in, get a grade and then never look at it again. In this case, it makes the work worth something greater.”

Fischer and Stonecipher’s essays came from a pool of 50 that Patti’s interpersonal communication students wrote during the 2016 fall semester. Chaplain’s essay came from a pool of essays written by students during the 2017 spring semester.

In each instance, Patti, describing a process that now applies to future essays under consideration for OLD, told his students that Malik might read one essay on his podcast after reviewing three top submissions, which Patti’s students would determine by a vote. The chosen essay would have to satisfy Malik that it met the criteria of OLD’s audience.

Patti had his students listen to OLD podcasts to get a feel for how to write for them. Malik offered tips on what he was looking for, urging the students, for example, to “be open and honest with your own experiences.”

“I have been so impressed with the students from Dr. Patti’s classes,” Malik said. “The depth and breadth of the essays far exceeded my expectations. From stories of true friendship to war and everything in between, the articles have encompassed so much…These students’ essays have brought a new level of storytelling to the podcast, and that open and honest voice is something listeners truly want to hear. It sounds like a friend is sharing an experience with them, instead of a narrator talking at them.”

About the student essayists

  • View larger image
    Photo by Laine Everly

    Jessie Chaplain, a senior from Black Mountain, expects to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in communication and English. She plans to earn a doctorate in communication; she is undecided about an area of specialization.

    Download her essay “Waves of Acceptance”

  • View larger image
    Photo by Amy Sarki

    Summer Fischer, a junior from Asheville, expects to graduate in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She wants to earn a doctorate in psychology and serve patients with mental illnesses in inpatient hospitals.

    Download her essay “Love Needs No Words”

  • View larger image
    Photo by Marie Freeman

    George Stonecipher, a student veteran from Deep Gap, enrolled at Appalachian in 2015 when he was 29. He expects to graduate in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in communication - electronic media/broadcasting, the first step in a hoped-for career as a college football reporter/commentator.

    Download his essay “The Thirty-Year-Old College Student”