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Audio Essays: A First Attempt

by Amie C. Wolf



As a program, the faculty in the Writing Workshop try to include a variety of “non-traditional” projects in the courses. For many of us, this includes experimenting with a variety of digital media projects. As our mission statement argues, we believe this inclusion helps "students to prepare for the demands of college and workplaces in the twenty-first century and to think critically about the effects of digital media on workplaces and communities." Although digital media studies was not a primary focus of my graduate research, my work with Dr. Kristine Blair of Bowling Green State University inspired me to include a variety of alternative media pieces in writing courses. Over the past several years, I have used a variety of digital media projects in my basic writing classes. These projects have included small pieces like slide shows and larger items like website construction of literacy narratives and even online magazines. I have used Audacity software to aid students in creating audio essays and I am looking forward to creating movies with my “Intensive Writing and Reading II” students in the future.


Course Description

In the winter quarter of the 2005-2006 academic year, I taught a service-learning version of “Intensive First-Year Composition." This course asked students to combine intensive reading and writing about literacy, language, community, and culture with service in a community setting, an urban elementary school. A few weeks into the quarter, students began meeting in a first-grade classroom. While at the elementary school, students worked as literacy partners or tutors with one or more first graders as they developed their reading and writing skills. Students brought their observations back to the classroom and used them to help them think, read, talk, and write critically about literacy. The two main texts for the class were Intervening for Literacy: The Joy of Reading to Young Children by Charles Temple and James MaKinster and Holler If you Hear Me by Gregory Michie. The class readings were supplemented with various research materials on literacies chosen by the students, as well as selections from the NPR series This I Believe, audio essays in which authors discuss the core principles that guide their lives.

There were three major projects in the course: a literacy audiobiography, researched essay, and audio essay. The literacy autobiography assignment asked students to describe and analyze the events or episodes in their lives that helped to create them as literate beings sitting in my classroom. The researched essay assignment asked the students to identify a community that they were a part of and argue that the community was a literacy group. Because I, along with all the other faculty members in the Writing Workshop, had the opportunity to work with Dr. Scott DeWitt, Dr. Cynthia Selfe, and Dr. Richard Selfe using the Audacity software and audio equipment during a workshop series the previous quarter, I attempted to incorporate an audio essay into my syllabus for the third project. In the spirit of the NPR pieces and the class' work with literacy partners, students created “I Believe” essays, in which they discussed what they believed about literacy and education after everything they had learned and experienced in the class. The initial prompt asked them to consider what they believed about literacy and education in consideration of the weeks we had spent studying literacy and literacy communities. The prompt asked for a final version of the project to be an audio file, but also asked for a print transcript which would include any necessary citations. When pressed, I included the length requirement of 500-750 words as a guideline for students to follow. Students were free to include music, recorded interviews, or anything else they needed to make their projects say and do what they wanted.

Students began the process by creating written drafts. We did some peer review and made a few revisions. During this same time period we experimented with the Audacity software in the classroom. A short time later we dove into recording the drafts. Most of the students came in to my office to record the first time. However, several students recorded straight into their computers, personal digital assistants, or digital recorders. After the projects were recorded, we spent time in class editing the pieces and doing peer review sessions. Some students recorded new pieces to include in the project. Students modified written drafts as they modified the audio drafts of the essays. The two audio files included here are intermediate drafts from two different students: first example [wav | mp3], second example [wav | mp3].


Process and Revision

The process of the project was the most interesting aspect of it. Although the final products were interesting to listen to and we enjoyed sharing them with the entire class, it was the drafting, recording, revising, and recording that were the most enlightening. I noticed more revision taking place. Students were required to submit three drafts of the project including the final version, but many of them completed seven or eight different revisions of the project. Each time they revised the audio essay, they revised the text version and vice versa. Beyond the sheer volume of revision that took place, I noticed that students were really revising. It was not simple surface-level revision. The difference in medium really seemed to help them re-see the piece and do more in-depth revisions. Peer-review took on a whole new life and was much more accepted by the students as a valuable use of class time. Students were eager to get feedback from their peers. They seemed to value it in a different way. They were producing more productive comments and considering the audience in a truer sense. The writers negotiated with the comments from peers, as well as comments from myself, they seemed to take their roles much more seriously and considered the impact of each and every change on a deeper level than they had in previous text-only projects that quarter.

Student one spent a lot of time making multiple drafts of the project. He made multiple print drafts and a couple audio drafts before the draft of the audio essay included here. He continued to make the expected lower order revisions to the draft. However, when he presented the audio essay here in a workshop setting, he had some real clear revelations on what he needed to do with development and organization. He was listening to the comments of his peers, but he was preoccupied because of his concern with the organization. He brought this up and the class listened to the piece again, focusing on the organization. Student one left the workshop with a plan to reorder and revise. He followed through with the plans and was quite pleased with his efforts.

During an initial peer review over a print version of the text, student two was told to take the parable at the beginning of the essay out because it was cliché. However, student two persisted and kept it in the initial audio version. During workshop reviews, several students debated because some felt it had much more impact in the audio version, while others continued to feel that the parable was cliché and did nothing to improve the essay. Student two considered all the opinions thoughtfully and ended up making two versions of the next draft; one draft included the parable and one did not. He recorded both versions of the piece. During the next workshop review, the majority of the students suggested that the parable was an essential part of the audio essay. Ultimately, student two decided to keep it.


Looking Back and Moving Ahead

Because this was the first time I used an audio project in any of my classes, I was unsure how to proceed with the assessment of the projects. After much debate, I decided to have the students help me to come up with some criteria for the grading the project. We decided to split the grading between teacher-assessment, peer-assessment, and self-assessment. The students tended to take the final products in consideration a bit more than I did. They looked at the final audio essay and considered organization and development of the essay, but also what they considered the overall audio quality. I looked more at the process. I looked at and listened to all of the drafts of the essay and the reflective journals the students composed with each draft. These journals detailed their process. All of these factors were considered when figuring final grades for the projects.

In future classes, I would like to use the project at the beginning rather than the end to see what differences it would make in the process, in revision of text-only projects, and peer-review in later projects. Additionally, I will be working to create a more formal rubric for my students and I to use in assessing these types of audio essays.


Jump to: Introduction | "Audio Ethnography: Listening to Cultures & Communities" | "The Emergence of a (Reluctant) Leader" | Closing Thoughts