What is so Sacred About Writing?
Mary Rahme
[Response, as published in College English, 37:7 (March 1976), 701-702, to "Technological Gift-Horse: Some Reflections on the Teeth of Cassette-Marking"]
I should like to defend the method of cassette-marking against Russell A. Hunt's attack in the January 1975 issue of CE, called "Technological Gift-Horse: Some Reflections on the Teeth of Cassette-Marking." Like Hunt and Enno Klammer (CE, November 1973), and no doubt many other teachers, I have been using this method for some time, but unlike Hunt, I have become so addicted to it that I feel helpless to mark a theme without my trusty cassette recorder at hand!

At the beginning of the semester I ask the students to buy blank cassettes along with their other supplies and to hand them in with each theme. Then I read each paper aloud onto the writer's cassette, after addressing the writer by name and asking him to follow along as I read and to make notes right on his theme for corrections or rewriting as he listens to my suggestions. I stop to comment on various points as I read – usually at the end of each paragraph. I talk about the ideas, organization, illustrations, syntax, or anything else I regard as important for that particular theme. I read with a colored pencil in my hand, underlining certain words or perhaps making brief marginal notes. I do not correct errors. Instead, I make suggestions for improvement. Students turn in their corrected papers with their next theme, and I check them. As the semester advances and papers get longer, I sometimes do not read the entire theme
aloud, but merely record my comments. I started by doing that with all themes, but the students demanded longer comments; consequently, I began reading their entire papers onto their cassettes.

I have discovered that it is most important to comment on good points in the students' papers – good ideas, felicitous comparisons, smooth transitions, and the like. Otherwise, the students feel that their themes are just tissues of error, and stop listening to the tapes.

Hunt's main objections to the method involve his antipathy towards technology itself. It is true that there are occasional moments of frustration when, after spending fifteen minutes recording a comment, you find that you forgot to press the "record" button, or when the cassette tape somehow breaks or gets fouled up. But these things don't happen more than once or twice a semester – and anyway, I refuse to let machines get the better of me: I intend to make what use I can of them. Cassette players – like cameras, projectors, typewriters, electric lights, telephones, washing machines, automobiles – are liberating, if used properly. The more one uses them, the easier they are to use, the more helpful they become, and the sooner they are improved upon by their manufacturers. Certainly our students experience no difficulty using them. 

Another of Hunt's objections is that he believes it is easier to display certain problems in writing than in speech. I have not found this to be true. In any case, in those rare instances when it might be true, what is to prevent one from writing a comment, as well as talking on the cassette? In B.C. days (Before Cassettes), I often noted that students paid no attention to my fairly long typewritten comments. In fact, I believe that the average freshman is actually unable to read or understand such comments – "What's comma splice to him or he to comma splice?"

The biggest disadvantage to this method, as both Hunt and Klammer observe, is the time it takes. However, ones does learn to work more efficiently; I don't waste nearly so much time fiddling with the machinery as I did at first. Moreover, the time is used to good advantage: the method virtually forces one to read every paper very carefully. Surprisingly, the cassette method actually saves time in another way, for it cuts down on the need for so many student conferences. Yet each student actually has an individual conference (via cassette) regarding every paper – and at his own convenience. In B.C. days, although I scheduled conferences with every student, they often failed to keep the appointments.

The main point is that with this method the students actually correct and rewrite their papers; consequently, their writing begins to show dramatic improvement. I believe that the reason for this is that they are given more specific directions on how to make revisions. In B.C. days, I am sure that many students took one look at their red-smeared papers and simply gave up. With the cassette method, they are not even told of errors without immediate suggestions for improvement. This is less devastating.

Indeed, building up the students' confidence in their writing is one of the most important functions of a teacher, and the cassette method helps do this. As Hunt says, the students know they have an audience for their work. But more than this, they have an interested, sympathetic, involved reader – someone who takes the time to go over their writing. Students love this! They respond to it and come back for more. This is truly "individualized" teaching.

I should like to conclude by answering Hunt's final argument against cassette marking – his coup de grace. He says that since the medium is at least part of the message, what we are saying when we use this medium is that we ourselves regard the written language as too difficult and would rather use the spoken word. This message, Hunt says, will cause students to refuse to take seriously the practice of writing, and, horror of horrors, they might even ask to submit their work on cassettes! 

My answer is that our students are only too painfully aware of the fact that the written language is an artificial construct abstracted from the spoken language. They know that a theme, or even a poem or novel, can be talked about in spoken language. One doesn't have to write a sentence in order to criticize a sentence any more than one must paint a picture to criticize a painting!

As for submitting compositions on cassettes, what's wrong with that? I have my students do it least once a semester – and they enjoy and learn from the experience. Moreover, my crystal ball indicates that in the not too far distant future, writing will be obsolete – along with English teachers, unless we learn to use tape recorders! Tape recorders, like books, simply transmit linguistic messages. Indeed, what is so sacred about writing? Isn't it after all, merely a technology for transmitting speech?

[my response]