With a little coaching in sound engineering, weaker writers learn a trick to help them catch their own errors—and pump up their final draft with wicked audio.
Senior Lecturer of English and Literature in the Department of Liberal Studies, Texas A&M University at Galveston
PhD in Education in progress, MA in English Literature, BA in Humanities
Phillip Presswood had always managed to keep his dual lives as a musician and English professor separate—until he found a pedagogy that encouraged him to reconsider.
Presswood’s grounding in music is extensive. He is a classically trained pianist who started playing piano at age three and composing music and writing lyrics at age 12. To date, he has produced five albums, and he has a strong following in Asia and Europe (“I get fan mail every week!” he says).
Still, when he first started teaching English, he was not looking to rock the boat. He planned to assign standard writing assignments, with some humor and entertainment thrown in to keep his class engaged. All of that changed when a few of his students asked to include pictures in their essays.
Presswood’s initial reaction was, “You don’t put pictures in essays! You have an appendix and a section for citations—that’s it.” After deeper consideration, though, Presswood realized his students were actually on to something.
He reflected on their heavy use of social media and their native fluency in all the latest technologies. This is when the wheels began to turn in his head, and he decided to reconsider the divide he had placed between his two loves: music and English.
Today, his view of “composition” includes far more than the written word.
Challenge: A lack of basic and self-editing skills
Presswood faced all the usual challenges of teaching a gen-ed course (students’ lack of interest, focus, and attention span). He knew that sticking to traditional conventions in teaching composition was not sure to engage them as he hoped—and that those conventions would likely not serve his students in the future. “Their boss won’t come to them and say, ’Write a five-page essay in APA style,’” he says.
What they would need to be able to do was convey their ideas and opinions in writing in a clear, concise manner. However, Presswood discovered that many of them lacked the prerequisite writing skills and the ability to self-edit their initial drafts.
“When you’re writing something, it makes total sense to you because you’ve done the research, you know your train of thought, and the order of what you’re going to say,” he explains. “[However], you may not translate [that] into what you’re writing because you don’t have the skills built up yet.”
Presswood wanted to find a way to impart fundamental writing skills and provide students with an effective strategy for evaluating their own compositions, while keeping them engaged throughout the process.
Innovation: Upgrade essays with background music
The solution to Presswood’s challenges has allowed him to combine his two favorite worlds: audio and English. It is a technique known as multimodal composition, which he reveals to the students, bit by bit, over the course of the semester. Students learn that multimodal composition can help them develop solid writing skills while leveraging the latest in other modalities, such as pictures, videos, and (in the case of this course) audio technology. Specifically, in Presswood’s Composition and Rhetoric course, the semester culminates in an audio essay in which students record themselves reading their written work. Much like a TED Talk or NPR audio essay, this project also requires students to overlay sound effects and background music on top of their narrations.
“Typically, we think of writing as text,” he adds. “But multimodal composition broadens the view of what that can mean, [which includes] songwriting and audio production.”
The exercise, says Presswood, has had the desired effect. “When my students hear themselves for the first time, they’ll say things like, ‘Oh, I have this accent,’ or ‘Oh, I sound weird,’” says Presswood. “But once they get over that initial shock, they’ll start finding spots in their writing that they don’t like.”
This becomes the essence of students’ editing and revision strategy.
Frequency: One 90-minute class meeting per week, with additional coursework online, for one semester
Class size: 22
Course description: Focus on referential and persuasive researched essays through the development of analytical reading ability, critical thinking, and library research skills; for freshman and sophomore students only.
ENGL 104 Composition and RhetoricSee materials
Lesson: Use students’ voices to get them out of their heads
“The university [where] I teach is predominantly a marine science, marine biology, and maritime studies campus. I don’t [usually have] any English majors. What makes it interesting is that I’m getting this really diverse and science-focused [group of] students, and we get to do all of this exploration of literature and the writing process and sometimes bring in bits and pieces from all these other disciplines that I was never really exposed to because it wasn’t my focus. For me personally, that’s what makes it interesting: the diversity and the students—what they are studying and things they teach me about what they’re learning.”— Phillip Presswood, MA
Presswood uses these steps and strategies to build toward the class’s final assignment in multimodal composition:
Do not go multimodal all at once
In a sense, says Presswood, he “tricks” students by easing into teaching them about sound engineering without telling them outright what they are about to do. To prevent his students from feeling overwhelmed or daunted by the technology they will eventually use, Presswood introduces new concepts slowly. His class, after all, is not a digital writing or digital literacy course (those are separate classes altogether). So, he starts off the course traditionally, like any other English composition class.
An early assignment, for example, is an essay about a textbook photo they feel represents their educational journey. This is a use of multimodal composition, but students do not know that yet. They will learn it as part of the next essay assignment, which requires them to watch a YouTube clip about multimodal composition and write about that.
Investigate campus resources
For a teacher to implement this exercise, Presswood recommends a bare minimum of a microphone, computer, audio recording software, and a recording space. Most colleges (even poorly funded ones, Presswood argues) are very likely to have these resources. If not, he suggests asking about internal (departmental) budgeting for it—or applying for grant (as he did).
As a last resort, Presswood notes that students could use their cell phones to record their readings, but he is not sure if this could cause some liability issues. It is preferable, he reiterates, to use institutional property.
Model the tech techniques
While some students are adept at using recording technology and “fly away with it,” others may need a lot of hand-holding, says Presswood. So he always makes sure to model the sound engineering techniques for students. “I’m a big believer in not expecting the student to produce something that I’ve not shown them how to produce,” he says. “I don’t really come at it with any level of expectation of prior knowledge in this area.”
Fortunately, at Texas A&M, students will be doing this work with Presswood and additional tutors who are on hand to assist them as they learn “advanced computer literacy skills.” Given the ubiquity of technology in our everyday lives, multimodal resources and learning do not present a very steep learning curve to most students, he says.
Explain the reasons for reading aloud
When you hear yourself read your work out loud, it is an out-of-body experience. You become one with the audience, and your quirks or errors become immediately evident. This is true, too, for Presswood’s students.
“Reading the text to themselves, [that’s] the most important thing that we do,” he says. “They are hearing what they’ve actually written, and [they can tell when] it’s not matching up with what’s in their mind.”
This awareness sets in motion the gears for the revision process. His instructions note, “You may find mistakes in your text as you begin to record your voice! If so, stop recording and revise your errors, then begin again.”
It is at this point in the semester that Presswood says things start to click for his students. They begin to see how their essays will get translated from something they are familiar with, i.e., text on a paper, to something entirely new and exciting.
Get them comfortable with the mic
When the time comes for each student to write an essay and record themselves reading it, they have been in “writing mode” for a couple of weeks, so making the shift to audio may come as a shock at first. So may hearing themselves speak.
“[They’re] holding a piece of paper and here’s this mic in their face,” says Presswood. “[If they’ve] never done anything like that [before], some daunting emotions can get involved. I remind them that we can record as many times as necessary, and it’s to be expected that two to three recordings will be required before it’s totally nailed down. We make the experience inviting and exciting, but casual enough to help ward off any nerves. They are also reminded that their grade is dependent on their participation in the project as much as the content itself, which helps further motivate them to action!”
Presswood adds that if more structural work is necessary to revise the written work, he stops recording and returns to a more traditional, one-on-one tutoring-style session so the student can start the writing process over again.
Help them hit the right note
After students are happy with their voice recording, they will add sound effects or music. An important part of this is matching the tone of the audio to the dynamics and feeling of the written message. For example, an essay could be written as an argument, a comparison-contrast piece, or a more personal (and emotional) reflection paper. The music that layers well with one may not work at all with another.
Music also helps to establish setting and context, he explains. For example, he says, if a student writes about “protecting a coral reef or [an] eroding coastline, [she or he] may record the sound of seagulls, birds, or wildlife, [which will then] be overlaid with the speech,” says Presswood. “It takes you there.”
Get the word out
“After students create their wonderful artifacts, they share and publish them,” says Presswood. “It really benefits them psychologically. When they get responses from listeners in their audience, they’re shocked that [people actually] care about what they have to say.”
Presswood’s approach teaches his students ingenuity and resourcefulness: namely how to avail themselves of every campus resource available to them—computers, tablets, microphones, synthesizers, wikis, blogs, even their own cell phones. This ultimately will benefit them for the rest of their college career and beyond.
By the last quarter of the semester, says Presswood, students will not only be more skilled as editors, but they will also have become amateur sound engineers who have a new understanding of how audio can be used to enhance their written message. He lets them choose whether they want to share their projects on SoundCloud, a service Presswood has used for years to host his own music, and which is available through the university server. “Services like SoundCloud allow members of the public to post comments at specific points in the recording/song, which I find really fascinating—it further blurs the concept of linear text and hypertext.”
Presswood is the first to say that bringing multimodal literacy to his English classes required a bit of grit and a lot of perseverance. His current university has been receptive, but administrators at a previous community college regarded his approach with skepticism and uncertainty.
“There was dismissiveness of me being young, which turned into dismissiveness of the students—[that] they were incapable of [adopting the new technology]. That infuriated me, and it made me want to do it more!” he says.
Presswood strongly believed his students to be capable of learning anything, as long as they were given the proper guidance. His chance to prove the naysayers wrong came when he applied for a grant from the state of Texas, which was awarded to professors who taught struggling English learners in nontraditional ways. “I thought this was perfect!” he says.
Here Presswood had one more hurdle to overcome: He had not learned about the grant until the day before the application period ended. So he stayed up all day and all night writing his first-ever grant proposal. “I hardly knew what I was doing,” he recalls.
When Presswood learned the results, he was astonished: He had been awarded the full grant of $320,000. Armed with new funding, Presswood and his colleagues were able to build a new multiliteracy center, complete with a sound room, and hire additional teaching assistants.
To top it off, third-party evaluators gave Presswood and his team rave reviews and remarks at the end of the grant period, as the pass rate for the developmental English class jumped from 43% to 89%.
Students’ remarks, long after they complete Presswood’s class, speak to strong results.
“[My students] tell me that they’re so glad they learned recording and public speaking skills [in ENGL 104],” he says. “The course helps them a lot with their fear of speaking, of how they sound, of utilizing technology in future courses. They get a huge grasp of PowerPoint and other technologies early in their college career. And when they get to upper-level courses, they just fly through [them]. They say how they were so scared in the beginning, but now are so happy they took the course.”
This response has only made Presswood’s approach more dynamic. “I love learning,” he says. “The academy, classrooms, the smell of the library; I’m a complete nerd. I’ve been a student my whole life. I never want to be away from it.”