Episode 20 – “Musical Cryptography” by Audrey Scudder

In this episode of VandyVox, we feature a stellar piece of audio, produced by Audrey Scudder for the History of Cryptography in the department of mathematics, taught by Professor Derek Bruff. Professor Bruff is the creator of VandyVox and hosted seasons 1 and 2 of the podcast. Three years ago, he replaced a paper assignment in his first-year writing seminar with an audio assignment and has been refining the art of assigning podcasts ever since. Professor Bruff asked students to take a code or cipher from history and describe its origin, use, influence, and mechanics. Audrey fully delivered with a captivating piece the bridges the worlds of mathematics and music.

Audrey told us at VandyVox that she’s always had a passion for music theory, and in particular, how music intersects with math, science, and linguistics, and I think that passion shines through in this audio. While providing historical context and explaining cryptography nuances, Audrey used music itself to augment and support the content of the podcast.

Breaking down the intricacies of musical encryption, she provides numerous examples between enciphering vs deciphering, different enciphering techniques, and how sheet music can heighten security and complexity compared to just auditory musical encryption. While explaining the portion about Stegibiza, which discusses how tempo changes can be used as a signal, Audrey actually modulates the tempo of her background music as a fun Easter egg for the listeners.

Finally, Audrey’s research culminates in an epic example, Edward Elgar’s Dorabella movement. She’s entirely successful at blending the storytelling and technical components that were required for this project, drawing the audience into an age-old mystery.  This is such strong, high-quality student-audio because of Audrey’s research and passion for the subject matter Professor Bruff’s thoughtfulness and intentionality behind the assignment. For the past three years he’s been assigning a podcast, each year produces another iteration project goals, rubric, and expectations. Professor Bruff said he noticed that as he built more scaffolding into the assignment, the quality of the student podcasts became stronger.

Each year, he updates a blog he writes titled “Building a Better Podcast Assignment”, where he breaks down the expectations, timeline, and process of building a podcast assignment. A link to this blog and a detailed summary of his iterative process can be found below.

Building a Better Podcast Assignment: https://derekbruff.org/?p=3558

Fall 2017

  • Assignment Duration: Two weeks.
  • Students listen to a professional podcast in class and identify successful aspects and techniques.
  • Students collectively contribute to a draft rubric. (Works well for novel assignment types.)
  • Had the Center for Teaching’s educational technologist, Rhett McDaniel, visit the class to provide an audio collecting and editing crash course using Audacity.
  • Pointed students to a collection of resources built over years of research to select a relevant topic for their podcast and submit for approval.
  • Students are given time in class to plan podcast episodes and workshopping podcast outlines, then have another week to produce and edit the audio for the episodes.
  • Submit 10 – 15-minute episodes via Brightspace along with show notes and producer’s statements.
  • Graded podcasts and gave critical feedback
  • Posted podcasts to Soundcloud


Fall 2018

  • Assignment Duration: Three weeks.
  • The additional week gave students more time and added another in-class session to workshop episodes.
  • Students now submit a full script in addition to an outline per the suggestion of Gilbert Gonzales.
      • This increases the scaffolding of the assignment and allows for preemptive editing to fix major problems and address gaps in understanding.
  • There are three in-class sessions total: 1) to discuss sample podcasts, 2) to workshop student outlines, and 3) to workshop student scripts, with 3.5) half of a class devoted to the audio editing crash course.
  • On the instructor side, Professor Bruff recommends using the Podlove Podcast Publisher plugin for WordPress. It’s free, has many options, and useful analytics, and mitigates the issue of running out of storage space on a free SoundCloud account.


Fall 2019

  • Assignment Duration: Three weeks.
  • Now students are also required to submit annotated bibliographies containing at least four credible sources, per the suggestion of Sophie Bjork-James.
  • Students create their show notes directly into WordPress so they don’t need reformatting.
      • However, Professor Bruff notes that they are already familiar with the layout of WordPress because they are consistently blogging throughout the course.
  • Students are now responsible for finding images to use for the podcast episodes with appropriate copyright considerations, i.e. public-domain images, Wikimedia Commons
  • Student scripts are run through Turnitin to assure that all work is original.
      • Ran into a problem of student mostly reading off a magazine article rather than creating original dialogue, using Turnitin should mitigate this.
  • Adjusted rubric criteria to include “enduring understandings” that asks students to include something enduring about the field of cryptography, tying their individual episode to the greater field.
  • Adjusted rubric criteria to include “working with sources” to emphasize the importance of copyright infringement and originality.

When it comes to grading, initially Professor Bruff had the students workshop a draft rubric to collectively set the student expectations as well as build a strong foundation for the type of work that goes into creating a podcast. Then, he created a rubric and updated it every year. The current rubric has three main criteria, “content”, “communication”, and “production”, each containing subcategories that can be placed in one of four assessment categories, “poor”, “acceptable”, “good”, and “excellent”. Here, each of the four assessment categories is valued from 1 to 4 points, respectively, and contain a brief description of the quality of work that would earn placement into that category. Below are links to Professor Bruff’s Fall 2019 rubric as well as the handout describing the assignment for students.

Fall 2019 History of Cryptography Podcast Assignment Rubric: https://derekbruff.org/blogs/fywscrypto/files/2019/10/Podcast-Rubric-1.pdf

Fall 2019 History of Cryptography Podcast Assignment Description: https://derekbruff.org/blogs/fywscrypto/files/2019/10/Podcast-Assignment-1.pdf