Improving Student Writing through Transcription?

I have been thinking about Mark Bauerlein’s article, “The Summer Assignment” (link above), since I first read it about a month ago. As though he could read my mind, Bauerlein poses the question that undoubtedly most of us face on a regular basis: “How often … do comp teachers explain the rules of grammar and norms of style only to find them broken repeatedly in the next paper assignment?” The explanation for what can at times feel like a lack of success in teaching writing, Bauerlein suggests, is that “writing isn’t a knowledge. It’s a behavior, an ingrained set of habits and symptoms.” “Teaching,” he continues, “becomes a matter not of supplying knowledge but of altering behavior. To improve student writing, in other words, we must inculcate better habits and dispositions.  Needless to say, a typical semester of freshman composition (or remedial English) isn’t enough.” Although this isn’t exactly an inspiring conclusion that Bauerlein reaches, I do believe it to be true, at least in many cases.

Bauerlein offers a few long-term solutions to teaching writing but details a more short-term assignment he plans to initiate this summer: assigning students particular “great works of clarity and expression” (Thoreau, Wolfe, Baldwin, for example) to transcribe for 30 minutes every day for 100 days. There’s no telling how committed his students might be over the course of the summer; however, he is relatively certain that through such a transcription exercise, students “will advance a deep understanding of written communication, an unconscious sense of where commas go, a feel for sentence length and rhythm, a larger vocabulary, and other usage habits.” That is, the behaviors that during the course of a busy semester might be too ingrained within our students’ writing practices to substantially change or improve, may have a chance of more organically and meaningfully changing when students regularly do nothing more than copy the writing of some of our most gifted prose writers.

I have to admit, I’m intrigued by this idea–but I’m thinking about it with two slight modifications. First, I’m considering implementing some kind of transcription notebook/journal assignment into my regular semester classes (not over the summer voluntarily). I am envisioning this notebook as a place where alongside the original written responses I ask students to write, they are also asked to transcribe instructor-chosen course texts that may, as Bauerlein suggests, slowly but surely affect how the original responses (and essay drafts) are written. The second difference I have in mind is choosing pieces for transcription that may come from our course text; that is, Bauerlein suggests great prose works to help our students improve their writing style and clarity; I’m curious if transcribing intellectual prose essays (like the ones we ask our students to read and write in 100 and 105) may help them learn what, say, a well-structured essay and paragraph looks like, or what a clear and consistent argument looks like, etc.(In other words, this second point shifts the focus slightly through the materials being transcribed from clarity and style to argument and structure/organization.)

I guess what I’m thinking is about the possibility of using some version of Bauerlein’s transcription assignment over the course of a semester to help supplement the work I do in the classroom. Any thoughts? Has anyone used a transcription-like activity or assignment before? Any pros or cons you can report? I’d love to hear from others as I ponder this over the summer!

12 thoughts on “Improving Student Writing through Transcription?

  1. What, exactly, is a “transcription exercise?” I have known wonderful writers who painstakingly transcribed the work of great writers, and learned a lot. Now, with computers, it is only too easy to copy. What are the guidelines for doing this exercise?

  2. How interesting, Tatum. I have to say that transcription is part of my own process as a writer. First I read and annotate the text in the margins, etc, and then I go through my annotations and transcribe the most crucial passages by hand into my notebook. For some reason, through that process, I start to figure out what I think and start, also, to make connections between the questions I’m puzzling over and what any one author might have to contribute. For me it’s an extension of the reading and writing process. You have to let me know if you experiment! Thanks for the post.

  3. I used to transcribe whole novels when I was in college. The practice became a way to inhabit the mind of the author. I wonder whether students’ own writing — their grammatical structures and syntax — will be changed by transcribing “great works of clarity and expression.” I am curious about the outcome too.

  4. This is fascinating to me. Part of what I suspect the value of these kinds of exercise might be is that they force really close readings. Certainly I find I spend time teaching my freshmen students to read. I think of something Francine Prose said in a conference a few years back, that when she teaches writing, she often takes the class through such close readings of great texts that they might spend an entire hour on just a few sentences, asking them to note word choice, grammar, even the graphics of the language (the way the words look on the page), etc. I can imagine real value for students in transcribing, but I’d want to make sure it was done in a focused, useful way. Would you consider allowing them time in class to do some transcription, and then possibly discussing the value as a class?

  5. Thanks, everyone, for your responses–it’s great to hear about your own experiences (and those of other writers) with transcribing. I agree with West that for this process to be valuable, there should be class time devoted to it–to actual writing (transcribing) and then discussion about the process, etc. Devoting some regular class time (even if small chunks) to this work could help contextualize and make more meaningful the transcription that I’d assign students to do on their own outside of the classroom. Perhaps we could even read about established writers’ own experiences with transcription. (Anyone know of any such accounts?) Also, like Bauerlein suggests, were I to assign transcription as part of a homework/journal assignment throughout the semester (as I think I would), I would require that this be handwritten instead of typed (Bauerlein even recommends transcribing in cursive rather than in print).

    If anyone has any further thoughts on this, please continue to share, and I’ll keep you posted on my experiments with this in the upcoming semester!

  6. I’m coming late to this party, but what an interesting idea! I bet a lot of students would hate it, or see it as pointless “busy work,” but it sounds like it could have real potential for improving their writing over time. I agree that it would be necessary to spend some time in class explaining the rationale for transcribing whatever works you choose. I also wonder how you would assess a transcription assignment. Would you just check to see that students had completed the assignment? Would you read for accuracy? I often find that when students write by hand, their writing contains far more spelling errors and punctuation errors and instances of missing words than when they type. Obviously the benefit of transcribing lies partially in insisting that students pay strict attention to the texts they are copying. Would you go through their transcriptions and mark any spots where the copied versions deviate from the original text?

    • These are all good and important questions for me to think about! I agree that accuracy is a key element of helping to achieve the goals of transcription, but the task of reading closely each student’s transcriptions also seems quite daunting on top of a writing course’s regular workload. At this early planning stage, I’m thinking that I might grade students’ transcription journals relatively informally. That is, I’ll probably collect and read closely the first couple of transcribed pieces to check for accuracy, and then I’ll periodically collect and read the journals–unannounced so that I can get an honest picture of who’s keeping up with the work and how accurately it’s being done.

      In general, I think I’ll approach the grading of transcription work in one of two ways: the first option is similar to how I approach participation grades: I fairly loosely keep track of each student’s participation and make very clear from the start of the semester that the reason participation is built into the course grade is because it’s through the various modes of participation (attendance, preparedness, engagement in discussions, group work, peer reviews, keeping up with HWs, etc.) that students can best learn (if you’re not in class or don’t do the readings or keep up with revisions, how do you expect to meet the course goals?!). This would be how I’d frame the transcription assessment as well–I’d somewhat loosely “grade” their work by periodically collecting and checking it. Because I’ll be building in class time to the transcription work (spending the first five or so minutes of each or every other class to transcribing together, discussing the process and looking at our work as a class, and looking at other writers’ accounts of the process and its impact on their reading, writing, and language skills–such as Malcolm X’s “Coming to an Awareness of Language”), my grading of their transcription should be a tool just for motivation and for helping to keep them on track.

      The other assessment option I’m considering, though, is actually to provide a regular transcription assignment as extra credit. As we are all aware, the workload for first-year writing courses is pretty intense as is, and I can’t deny that while I’m exciting to try this out, I’m also worried about how I’ll be able to fit it in given the already full schedule of reading, writing, and revising assignments. Maybe I’ll devise a plan that combines these two approaches–somewhat modestly adding transcription to the required coursework (earlier in the semester) then going beyond that by turning it into an extra-credit option for those students who really are interested in the process and can devote the time without sacrificing their other work for the class.

      Only time will tell how all of this works out!

  7. Here’s another take on transcription that I just came across in a new book called Daily Rituals: How Artist Work, written and edited by Mason Currey. It turns out that Morton Feldman (an American composer, 20th century) approached his work. He gave a lecture in 1984 and said that after he writes a little bit, he stops and then copies what he wrote (music, I assume). “Because while you’re copying it, you’re thinking about it, and it’s giving you other ideas. And that’s the way I work. And it’s marvelous, just wonderful, the relationship between working and copying.”

  8. I love this quotation, West, and I completely identify with it! I wonder if many students would, too…or is this just a particularity (i.e., for some of us it just happens to be “the thing”…?)….hmmmm! I feel an experiment is in order. Thanks to all!

  9. Just thinking about this myself, googled transcription in the classroom and came upon your post. How did it go? What texts did you use ?

    I’m teaching an AP Lit class and was thinking students should transcribe the high scoring essays the College Board releases? Ideas?

  10. Pingback: Why Copywork Is The Best Way To Become A Great Writer: The Benefits of Copywork |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s