Russell A. Hunt
St. Thomas University

Technological Gift-Horse:
Some Reflections on the Teeth of Cassette-Marking

[As published in College English 36:5 (January 1975), 581-585]

Responded to by Mary Rahme in "What Is So Sacred About Writing?," in turn responded to by me, both in College English  37:7 (March 1976), 701-703] 

IN TEACHING as in so many other things, old father technology usually takes away with one hand what he gives with the other. Whenever we discover some new, ingenious way of lightening the teacher's burden by ringing in a new audiovisual aid, we usually discover later that the teacher's now carrying the machine too. As someone (it has the ring of Samuel Johnson, but it couldn't be) once practically said of the invention of the bicycle: "It's a question whether you want to take all that machinery with you too."

One technological device which has recently been discovered independently by a number of teachers is the use of cassette tape-recorders for marking papers, thus avoiding the time wasted in writing lengthy explanations in longhand around the margins of student papers. I suspect most teachers who have conceived the idea instituted it, as I did, with the hope that here for once we'd escape the iron grip of the law of conservation of pedagogical energy. Certainly the only printed report of such experimentation I've seen, that of Enno Klammer in College English (November 1973, pp. 179-189), reports that the experiment was begun in such hopes.

Most of the mechanical advantages and disadvantages of such a technique are fairly obvious, and Klammer has outlined them thoroughly. The disadvantages include such problems as the availability and portability of cassette machines and the cumbersome process of collecting and distributing cassettes along with papers; the mechanical advantages are even more apparent, and have to do primarily with the advantages of speech as opposed to longhand writing in communication. There are a number of less obvious implications of the situation produced by this device, however, and they ought to be considered by anyone thinking of introducing it into his own teaching.

One of these implications is that the mechanical difficulties are more than simply peripheral considerations; they are central to the process. There is no real way around problems such as the necessity for students either to have their own machine or to have to listen in surroundings which may not be particularly appropriate for absorbing the kinds of explanation likely to be found on such tapes. The taped comments themselves are unavoidably temporary -- that is, once the tape has been reused, the comments on the paper are gone forever, not only for the student but for the teacher. For most teachers, devices such as an accumulating file of the student's work, passed in with each paper, are very useful in isolating what are repeated and characteristic problems: they are virtually impossible with cassettes. Even if a new cassette were used for each new assignment -- a financially impractical arrangement -- we are confronted with the relative inaccessibility of information stored on tape. This is a practical matter, and as such is better understood if a specific situation is visualized. Imagine yourself confronted with a paper in which a particular problem, an inconsistency of audience convention, for instance, is presented and you want to know whether your suspicion, that this student has had this problem before and that the matter has been explained at some length, is correct. With conventionally marked papers the problem is simply solved; with a heap of papers and cassettes, however, it is overwhelming. One could either listen to all the tapes, or look for examples of the problem in individual papers and then try to locate the moment on the tape when you explained the matter (if indeed you did).

I am perhaps particularly aware of this problem because of the way in which I came to cassette marking of papers. As the possessor of (1) a good-quality cassette machine, purchased for research purposes, (2) a reasonable facility at typing, and (3) a handwriting that degenerates into unintelligibility at the slightest hint of inconvenience -- such as having to write vertically up and down a margin -- I began dictating my comments onto tape, keying them to numbers written in the margins of papers, and then transcribing them onto typed sheets which could be stapled to the papers. My institution of individual cassettes was merely an attempt to bypass the drudgery of transcription (unlimited secretarial help would be another, and perhaps preferable way). This process enabled me to compare the effect of taped comments with comments made the same way, but transcribed: and by and large the transcribed comments were far preferable, being almost instantly accessible, as well as permanent.

This problem has wide implications for those who think of tape as a substitute for print, incidentally. Anyone who has ever edited tapes for broadcast understands how difficult the retrieval of information from tape can be, compared with the printed or written page, which you can skim, and which can be flipped through rapidly. Even with devices like double-time players for quick scanning, finding specific items on tape is a time-consuming process.

Another equally important mechanical consideration is the possibility of breakdown of the system at some point. We tend to dismiss such possibilities (our technological upbringing has taught us to deny the evidence of our senses, and to think of breakdown as an unusual and anomalous situation) but surely by now we can anticipate that the more complex the process, the more likely it is that it will be unworkable at any given moment, and therefore consider it not a possibility but a certainty. The results of such a consideration are not heartening. Accidental erasure of tapes, unavailability of working equipment on either end of the process, and so forth, can destroy the entire system in a way that running out of red ink never could.

We must remember, as well, that a fairly obvious characteristic of most academics is a low level of mechanical competence -- and, again, this is not at all an incidental consideration, as I think most teachers who have relied heavily on movies have discovered. Technology requires resources which, if we do not have them, convert its alluring advantages into positive disadvantages. Power brakes are impossible for the average motorist to repair himself.

Some of these problems can be solved by the use of good, convenient equipment -- most of which is produced for the use of radio reporters and journalists, and is normally not purchased by educational institutions, who are in thrall to hardware merchants who generally not only oversell their wares, but rip us off in the bargain. "Educational models" of cassette recorders are almost universally inconvenient, temperamental, non-portable and boast of a level of fidelity about equivalent to the sound track of an aging sixteen-millimeter film. And again, as everyone who's used movies or records in class will testify, such considerations are not peripheral. Bad equipment the kind most institutions are likely to be lumbered with is far more a hindrance than a convenience.

Most of these are primarily mechanical problems, however, and can be solved mechanically (though part of the nature of the problem is .that they are not likely to be). Others are considerations which cannot really be called "problems," since they are part of the system rather than anomalous flaws in it.

One of the most important has to do with the nature of spatial rather than temporal display as a method of organization. Words on a page are all immediately available to an audience, and thus the organization of utterance can be markedly more complex in written than oral form. Everyone who has written lectures or worked with radio scripts is aware of this problem and has compensated for it by repetition, simplicity of organization, and the making of organizational phrases more obvious. Any complex statement you wish to make on tape will be subject to the same constraints -- in other words, there are things that it is impossible or difficult to explain on tape that would be fairly simple in writing. An explanation of a series of alternative methods of organizing a paragraph, for instance, can be displayed on a page far more adequately than dictated into a tape recorder.

Similarly, because patterns are often, perhaps always, more. perceptible spatially than temporally the teacher is less likely to be aware of repeated and characteristic kinds of grammatical or syntactical errors within a paper.

Equally, there are advantages in the method -- advantages which have nothing to do with saving time. Saving time, in fact, is one of the obvious mechanical advantages of this method which never panned out for me at all. Nor did it, apparently, for Professor Klammer, who, like me, apparently began his experiment as a time-saving device but wound up spending more time marking than he had before, because his comments became so much more extensive.

This, indeed, is in itself one of the primary advantages -- perhaps the only unqualified advantage -- of the scheme. It is possible to say much more, to explain your point far more extensively, in spoken than in written language in a given amount of time. This is important in two ways -- first, because many suggestions for improvement of student papers are very complicated and never get fully expressed simply because of that complexity. It can take 300 words or more even to begin to explain, for instance, conventions of audience that a writer may have violated, or the reasoning behind one form of organization as opposed to another in a specific situation. Dictated, this kind of comment may take a minute or a minute and a half. Written, it simply doesn't get made at all; if it were written out, it would take at least five minutes and all of the back of a page of the paper. Multiply this by six or eight such comments per paper and it becomes obvious why few teachers find such commentary possible.

Related to this (both are functions of the level of communication that can be reached between student and teacher) is the virtual elimination of the necessity for all those cryptic hieroglyphics in the margin, which students (1) don't understand or ( 2 ) find it easy to ignore or ( 3 ) consider as a kind of notation peculiar to English classes, without any relevance to the act of communication represented by a paper. A student simply does not respond in the same way to a "K" in the margin as he does to a human voice saying, "Why in God's name do you want to turn this sentence around this way? Is it because it sounds more like prose with a capital P? Why not try it this way . . ."

The final aspect of this general advantage is, I think, far more important than either of these, which are concerned primarily with the conveying of information. It is the generation of a real audience for the student's paper. Every composition teacher knows that a large proportion of student writing problems stems from the perfunctoriness of the papers, the student's knowledge that there's no real "audience," no one out there who's going to be interested in what he says; that his particular "audience" is a machine that stamps the margins (conceivably at random) with "k. rep." and "cl?" and "agr." (pronounced, I believe, "Aargh!"). The possibility that the ideas or the style could be exciting -- or boring -- to such a mechanism never becomes real, and the whole process remains a mechanical exercise. Jacques Barzun made the point a long time ago (in Teacher in America) that one of the teacher's main tasks is the creation of a reason for writing, of a real relationship between the author and reader of the student's papers. When the student believes what he's said is being taken seriously, when he believes that it's possible that he's actually boring another human being with his maundering, when, in other words, the writing becomes real, then it usually improves out of recognition. And one of the main effects of using cassettes has been, for me, that it allows me to become even more a real audience. I can, for instance, moan, or shout, or yawn. I can debate a point that really hasn't much to do with the quality of the writing; I can suggest avenues that hadn't occurred to the writer; I can digress. I can, in other words, suggest in a much fuller way than by any other method (including individual conferences, incidentally, which rarely stick as close to the text as a recording does) the actual effect on a real reader of the student's writing. As a student, I found it pretty easy to overlook a "?" in the margin; I would, I'm convinced, have found it much harder to repeat the same mistake if what I had encountered was a human voice saying, "Oh, Lord. Not the same mistake again. You can't go on distracting me from your argument like this; every time you make some dumb mechanical mistake I forget what you're talking about."

It is, I think, clear that the major advantage of the plan lies in a change of the atmosphere of the situation as a whole, in the new relationship between writer and reader that is produced. Interestingly, it seems to me that this is precisely where the main disadvantage of the scheme also lies. It is a disadvantage which I think it is very easy to overlook and for this reason perhaps I overemphasize it. It is a subtle point, but the relationships involved in the act of teaching are so subtle that such things are often of apparently disproportionate importance.

What concerns me can perhaps best be expressed by suggesting that here, as in so many other aspects of communication, the medium is at least part of the message and may in fact be all of it. And the message contained in this particular medium is distinctly this one: "Written language is cumbersome, difficult, mechanically time-consuming and hopelessly limited. Given a choice between writing and dictating, I, a teacher of writing, choose to employ the resources of the spoken word as opposed to the written one."

It seems to me the only reasonable response to such a message is to refuse to take seriously the practice of the written word, which is clearly on the way out. Whatever I can say about the advantages of writing and about its importance as the central form of expression of complex ideas, will be undercut by the method I choose to say it.

I am, in fact, waiting to hear what I will have to say when a student asks to submit his papers on cassette in the first place.

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