The Assignment

As a longtime listener and fan of National Public Radio, I have been interested in the genre of radio essay for years. When I began teaching composition in 1993, I wondered to myself and to colleagues about incorporating radio essays into my classes. Many semesters, I had students listen to radio essays on their own and write responses to them. As I became more Internet savvy, I played radio essays in class by streaming audio from NPR’s Website. I continued to try to figure out how to have my students not only listen to radio essays, but actually compose and record their own. I was convinced that composing for listeners rather than readers would help my students better understand concepts like voice and building rapport with an audience.  Because of the technology-poor context in which I teach, I had a vague feeling that the technology necessary to have my students record their own radio essays would not be available at my institution for years to come.

Fortuitously, in September 2006, a colleague at RRCC, Amy Braziller, suggested that the English department read and discuss an article on teaching the audio essay, “Voice in the Cultural Soundscape: Sonic Literacy in Composition Studies” by Michelle Comstock and Mary Hocks (2006), at a monthly departmental discussion of composition scholarship. In their article, Comstock and Hocks discuss how and why they integrate sound and sound technology into their composition classes. They explain that audio seems more physical than writing because “as periodic waves, sounds dissolve into nothing in a way that images and writing do not. This ongoing dissolution can make sound seem more active, more present and alive, because it is so temporary.” They also discuss the tools necessary for recording audio, highlighting some of the ways in which new technologies make it possible for even novices to practice “extensive framing, editing, and sculpting of voice and other sounds, including music.”
After reading and discussing Comstock and Hocks, I felt a new urgency to have my students compose and record audio essays. Although we were a month into the Fall 2006 semester when the department read and discussed Comstock and Hocks, I decided to revamp my Composition I schedule to accommodate a unit that would involve students composing and recording their own audio essays.

While I was originally inspired by radio essays, my students did not create radio essays, as their essays were not broadcast on the radio. I use the term “audio essay” to describe what my students created. My students’ essays were not technically podcasts because, as Stephen Krause (2006) explains, a podcast includes a syndication feature, while my students’ essays did not. Doug Dangler, Ben McCorkle, and Time Barrow (2007) would probably label what my students created “audio files,” which they define as “one-shot releases that must be ‘pulled’ down by listeners.” I prefer the term “audio essay” because it emphasizes the connection between written essays and what my students created. 1

I knew the main challenge would be obtaining and figuring out how to effectively and efficiently use the technology for recording the audio essays. Paul Gallagher, another colleague in the English department, was able to convince the Audio Visual department to purchase an iPod and Micromemo microphone for me to use in figuring out the logistics of recording, editing, and posting sound files to the Internet.  

Drawing heavily on Comstock and Hocks (2006) and the This I Believe Project, described on its website as “a national media project engaging people in writing, sharing, and discussing the core values and beliefs that guide their daily lives,” I created an assignment that asks students to consider the same rhetorical concerns a written essay would have them consider, including audience, tone, focus, framing, and voice. For Fall 2006, I planned a two week unit for my two sections of Composition I in which students listened to and discussed some audio essays, composed their own script drafts, workshopped their scripts, practiced reading their scripts and added audio cues, and then recorded their essays. Finally, students wrote critical reflections of their own recorded essays. Because I created the unit well into the semester, I scheduled the unit to run during weeks eleven and twelve of a fifteen week semester, which gave me a solid five weeks to create the assignment and figure out the technology.

As I designed the assignment, I wanted to accomplish several goals. First, and most important in my mind, I wanted students to experience an audience in a different way. Although my students regularly receive feedback from readers to their written essays, they often have difficulty understanding why readers make or don’t make connections, why readers feel connected to or disconnected from them, and why readers (something about tone). I hoped that the immediacy and physicality of the audio essays would help students understand how readers/listeners make sense of a text. Second, I wanted students to be able to understand how they could use their authorial voices more consciously and deliberately. Third, I wanted to develop students’ aural literacy. Fourth, I wanted students to understand that any message or idea can be conveyed in many different ways and that the choices a writer makes about how to convey a message or idea have consequences. And finally, as I work toward making my composition classes more compatible with the concept of universal design in composition as described by Patricia Dunn and Kathleen Dunn De Mers (2002), I wanted to be able to allow students who may be more socially oriented than visually oriented an opportunity to work in a mode they might be more comfortable with.

Next: The Two Week Audio Essay Unit