Luckily, because the entire full-time faculty in the English department at RRCC had participated in the discussion of the Comstock and Hocks article, I did not need to do much defending of my decision to assign audio essays to them. In fact, as the support of Amy Braziller and Paul Gallagher demonstrates, my department was quite enthusiastic about the project. Responses from my colleagues in the English department were positive, but a common comment was, “I don’t have time for the technology in my class.” How much time did it actually take? For each section, recording and editing each audio essay took five to thirty-five minutes for each student, with twenty minutes being plenty of time for the vast majority of students. Loading all the sound files to my blog took an hour. For a class of twenty students, if all students chose to record with me, I would have spent a little over seven hours. This is very doable for a full time faculty member with her own office and computer. An adjunct instructor without her own office and computer would not be able to use the same system I did, so admittedly, recording and editing students’ audio essays would be more challenging.
Faculty colleagues from other departments were less enthusiastic than my English colleagues. Word of the assignment leaked out to faculty outside of English and I did have several uncomfortable conversations in the hallway in which a faculty member from business, history, political science, music, or another department asked me—in very polite terms—how I could justify “taking time away from teaching students how to write” to play with iPods. I assured them that I was not taking any time at all away from “teaching students how to write,” that I was, in fact, “spending as much time as always on teaching students how to write.”2
Student response was overwhelmingly positive. Many students mentioned the audio essay unit as the unit in which they learned the most on their end of semester evaluations. After completing the audio essay unit, students in both sections had a much better understanding of audience, voice, and pacing. Their understanding of audience and voice was so much clearer that when I planned my Spring 2007 section of Composition I, I considered beginning with the audio essay unit. I ultimately decided not to begin with the audio essay because of my students’ technophobia, but I did move the unit up to weeks six and seven, making the audio essay the first unit in the second of three major phases I design my class around. 3
When I began teaching at Metro State in Fall 2008, my decision to assign audio essays was questioned by colleagues in the English department. A common theme in the questions and comments from colleagues was, “How can you justify taking time away from writing to have students compose audio essays?” The Metro State English department has a fairly strict view of what constitutes “writing,” and I was able to allay some of my colleagues’ concerns by explaining that students wrote, revised, and edited scripts for their audio essays, and wrote self-analyses of their audio essays. While some colleagues have remained skeptical, others have begun to assign audio essays to their own students after learning about my students’ positive experiences.
Although Audacity is free, very easy to use, and I can easily envision teaching students how to use it on their own, I plan to continue meeting with students individually to record and edit their audio essays. The experience of editing the audio essay together is, I think, an important one and makes for a student conference that is significantly different from the type of conference I have had with students over a piece of writing. Sitting with a student in front of the computer editing the audio essay in Audacity is a very different kind of teamwork between instructor and student. The nature of a sound file makes it much harder for the instructor to direct the revision or editing of an audio text, resulting in an increased sense of ownership for student writers. Because there is no written draft being discussed, students and I found it much easier to focus on abstract concepts such as tone and building rapport with an audience than we have when focusing on written drafts. With a sound file, punctuation doesn’t matter but phrasing does. These types of subtleties can be engaged with students more readily when discussing an audio essay draft. Concepts like “voice” suddenly have concrete meaning and can be discussed much more easily. Even in situations where an institution offers technology support that would enable each student to record and edit her own essay, I urge instructors to consider having students meet with them or a peer to edit their essays.
Another aspect of the assignment that I was very pleased with was the fact that the audio essays were exposed to a real audience by virtue of being posted on my blog. I found Dangler, McCorkle, and Barrow’s (2007) claim that
student-produced podcasting assignments that rely on peer feedback or that are made available to a broader general public can help dramatically illustrate the rhetorical context surrounding sound-based digital production and serve as a vivid reminder that their communication, whatever the mode or medium, is received by an audience
to be accurate. Although my students’ audio essays received fairly limited attention from the outside world, some students reported to me that their parents, friends, and co-workers did go to my blog to download and listen to their audio essays; often, parents, friends, and co-workers also listened to the audio essays of other students as well. In addition, one academic blogger listened to some of the audio essays and posted a public comment to my blog complimenting the quality of the essays; my students saw this comment and were thrilled that another composition instructor at another college would listen to what they posted and take the time to comment.