Ben Spanbock, University of California, Berkeley
Online audio publication can be used to strengthen the writing and speaking skills of students transitioning from high school to college, while also instilling in them a sense of ownership and belonging within the sphere of academic discourse.
In the field of college composition, instructors often place a great deal of emphasis on the relationship between writing and how that writing sounds when read aloud. This is particularly true for teaching less practiced writers, who naturally have less experience negotiating the differences between their spoken voice and their written voice. For this assignment, students wrote and then recorded a personal story as an audio file and made the recording available to a wider audience through publication on a shared website. In essence, the pedagogical foundation of the assignment rests in exercising and synthesizing the writing and speaking skills of early undergraduates through the rehearsal process, allowing them to see and hear their own writing simultaneously as they revise, striving for a seamless recording to share in a public setting.
This assignment was created for a writing course offered through the UC Berkeley Summer Bridge Program, a program designed to help diverse student populations successfully transition from high school to college. According to the UC Berkeley Summer Bridge Website, in 2015, these students “spoke 35 languages, came from 29 counties in California, represented 12 states, and hailed from 16 countries,” and additionally, “71% were the first in their families to attend college.” Given the program’s mission to help these students transition into university life, another critical goal of the assignment was to empower them to claim their stories and recognize the value of their positionality in an academic framework, while also providing essential training in digital literacy.
Assignment Details and Rationale
Figure 1. Assignment Details (Link to Google Doc)
The project began with readings to both model and begin conversations on sharing impactful personal stories, including the memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by author Bich Nguyen and the essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” by Audre Lorde. Students were then directed to “write, rehearse, and revise” their personal narrative in preparation for recording. After a group practice and testing session to ensure basic familiarity and comfort with recording audio on their chosen devices, students recorded their stories as MP3s, using either software on their computers or any of a variety of free apps available on their cell phones. They then uploaded the files to a shared Google Drive folder. Those lacking the necessary equipment were provided temporary access to laptops.
The second component of this assignment was an in-class “listening party.” Students spent their final class session listening to one another’s finished recordings and discussing them in groups of three that rotated after a listening period and discussion. Students were provided two ten-minute periods to listen to their group member’s recordings (each recording was between four and seven minutes long) and to take notes while doing so, using a directed note-taking handout (see figure 2). The handout was provided to encourage students to practice taking notes while listening, and to help keep discussions focused after the listening period ended. At the end of the listening period, each group was given fifteen minutes to discuss their stories together before rotating into new groups. The listening session provided the opportunity for students to share their work and discuss it with a live audience of their peers, and to have a meaningful shared experience in the classroom at the close of the program. Many of the stories were deeply emotional, and many concerned struggles that were commonly shared between students. In future iterations of this project, it might be beneficial to include time for students to re-record their story after the listening session to maximize the potential of peer review on a finished product.
Figure 2. Directed Note-taking Handout (Link to Google Doc)
Finally, students were asked to submit a copy of their audio file for publication on a public website created by the instructor using Weebly (the files were later published on the Internet Archive as well). The creation of this website to house and present student work for public consumption was crucial to the pedagogical rationale of the project. Knowing that the recordings would be generally available on the internet and therefore easily shareable with friends and family, relations of other students, and any other students or faculty members prompted by the instructor to visit the site, encouraged students to regard their voices and stories as having purpose and reach beyond the classroom. It encouraged them to put extra care into their rehearsals and revisions, and it allowed them to visualize themselves as part of a world of academic production and discourse in a way that an assignment submitted exclusively to an instructor for review could not.
This assignment yielded three notable outcomes that speak to the original goals outlined above.
Building essential literacy skills
The desire to produce a polished recording that would be available to a public audience made it necessary for students to record their stories multiple times, tackling awkward sounding sentences during the rehearsal process and continuously revising their script as they read aloud and listened back. Through repeated rehearsal, students practiced noticing when writing was unsatisfactory to their own ear, which emphasized the recursive quality of revision, and the positive impact that reading aloud and reviewing one’s work can have on a final product. Given the linguistic diversity of the group, reading aloud and listening to the recordings also allowed students to practice oral language skills like pronunciation and diction, as well as pace, which are all essential to speaking and presentation across academic disciplines. Students participating in this assignment were also given the opportunity to practice with recording technology that they may not have been familiar with before, thereby exposing them to the ever-increasing expectations of digital literacy across the university prior to the start of formal classes.
Encouraging students to embrace their stories
Listening to the stories, common themes began to appear. The theme of struggle and perseverance against difficult circumstances was particularly noteworthy, and common among many of them. Whether a story about a family member’s journey to the U.S. from a farming village in the Philippines (track #1), about coming to terms with one’s own sexuality in a conservative household (track #7), or about coping with the death of a loved one (tracks #4 and #8), these stories collectively provide rich examples of resolution and determination to overcome difficulty, as well as testaments to moments of joy, sadness, and love. This assignment allowed students to embrace these qualities, and the value of the stories themselves, through rehearsal and publication. It is also significant that these stories are preserved as academic work, especially because they are the stories of students who, because of their backgrounds, may arrive to campus feeling like they don’t belong in academia, or like their stories are not important or socially valuable. Given the intensely emotional quality of many of the stories, the listening sessions also provided an opportunity for shared catharsis and the kind of community building between students that the Bridge Program aimed to establish.
Creating a public product
By publishing these recordings online, students were able to work together to complete an academic project that demonstrates both their composition skills and their overall claim to space and belonging in the university. It also allowed them to share that accomplishment publicly. As part of the debriefing after this assignment, students discussed the goals of academic production generally, and how academic work at its best is often aimed at influencing society beyond the university. Indeed, many felt strongly that they had arrived at the university so that they could tell their communities’ stories, speak back to their communities, and also better represent their communities. This assignment helped students find their voices within the university, and it showed them their potential to create intelligent and impactful content for a public audience outside of the university’s gates.
In this spirit, you can listen to each recording by clicking on the title and track number of the file listed below.
You can access full-text transcripts of the audio files by clicking here.
“About Bridge.” Berkeley Student Learning Center. Accessed February 14, 2018.
About the Author
Ben Spanbock teaches writing, reading, and research with the College Writing Programs at the University of California, Berkeley. He received his Ph.D. in Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz. His interests include intersections of self-expression and new technologies, writing pedagogy, social justice, and cultural theory