Talking a Draft

For those people or institutions that can afford it, voice-to-text "writing" is here. With the newest voice-recognition-loaded word processors, writers, if they wish, can speak their ideas - or a draft of them - to their computers, and text will appear on the screen. Charles Lowe has written about the significance of this technology for Composition and argued that it is a development to which the field should pay much more attention. (See his "Speech Recognition: Sci-Fi or Composition?".)

Lacking voice-to-text computers in our department but wanting to experiment a bit with them anyway, we decided to simulate as best we could the experience of talking a draft. Therefore, in a recent professional development forum, graduate teaching instructors (who teach first-year composition) were asked to get into pairs and to do the following:

One person in the pair is the "composer." The other is the voice-to-text computer. The composer speaks for five minutes non-stop on the following topic (or one of your own choosing): "My most _____________ teaching or learning experience." Don't stop to think. Don't stop talking. The "computer" is simply to write down what the composer says - no questioning, no prompting. After five minutes, the "composer" and the "computer" switch places, with the other person now composing orally for five minutes.

Even after only five minutes, people's hands were sore. It was not a great simulation because most people hand-write slowly, compared to a talked-text using a computer. However, we wanted the graduate students to experiment with a different kind of composing, possibly a different kind of thinking process. We talked for a long time after this experiment about possible implications of orally-composed drafts in our classes, even if we do not yet have speech recognition technology in them. Several people said that keyboard writing was so much easier and faster for them. The point, though, is that our students are not us. Just because we may feel comfortable in the mode of composing we're used to, does not mean that all of our students will find the conventional "writing process" to be either comfortable or productive. As Lowe points out, younger people coming to college in the next decade may have grown up using voice-to-text technology, so their teachers should begin now to investigate it further. As we only began to discuss in the graduate forum in which we did this exercise, this technology can contribute much to universally-designed writing pedagogies. Let's look at it more closely. If we don't yet have it, let's play with low-tech dictation (such as tape recorders and human note-takers) and see what we can find out about multiple literacies.

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