Incorporating an Audio Assignment into your Classroom: The PSA

by Ryan Trauman

pile of microphonesSo let’s say you don’t have a ton of experience incorporating audio-visual elements into your writing classroom assignments. Let’s also say that maybe you are a little intimidated by the prospect not only because it is something new to you and your students, but also because you yourself are not sure what an audio-visual assignment might look like. How do you design an audio assignment where the adoption of new technologies and new practices doesn’t obfuscate the point of the assignment altogether? How do you design an assignment that still seems like a “writing assignment” in line with the traditional expectations that most students bring to a writing classroom, while simultaneously challenging those notions by incorporating alternative modes of composition and distribution?

My advice? Start simple. Consider what sorts of writing practices students are already familiar with. Consider what sorts of texts students might already encounter in their day-to-day lives or at least often enough so that they have a sense for the genre.

One of the more popular choices for this type of assignment (and one we often use at DMAC) is the audio public service announcement. (I should note here that the assignment I’m going to describe is not the one we use at DMAC. That audio public service announcement assignment is designed for a much different context and much different purpose.) If I were assigning an audio public service announcement text to my first-year writing students, here is a basic plan for how I would structure it:

I would make the audio text and extension of some other traditional writing practices we are learning in the rest of the class.

I would have the students work in groups of 3 or 4, with each student exploring a topic of his/her own choosing. Each student would research their own topic and identify (at least) the following information: what are some of the things at stake within conversations associated with this topic; what sorts of action are people on various sides of a discussion advocating; what audiences are best able to respond to those calls to action; and what’s at stake, personally, for the particular student who chose this topic in the first place.

I would have students listen to a few audio public service announcements whose structure will in some way inform the type of text I’m asking them to produce. After listening to several PSA’s I would ask the class to identify and articulate what they recognize as essential or common generic structures and rhetorical moves that make an audio text into a public service announcement. (i.e. call-to-action, emotional appeal, facts-as-warrants, who-is-affected, etc.) (examples of PSA’s)

Then I would ask them to write their own draft of a PSA, making sure to include all the necessary generic elements and rhetorical moves as identified by the class.

I would then have them record each other reading their scripts, making sure they had ample time for rehearsing their readings, revising their scripts, and listening to their recordings. (I would recommend using some sort of portable digital audio recorder, or at least some sort of external computer microphone.)

Then I would have the students record interviews with each other according to a specific set of questions related to the research they had done on the topic. I would then have them repeat the interviews, so that they have recordings of a “draft interview,” as well as a “re-interview.”

It is at this point that I would introduce the audio editing technologies I had chosen for the class. (Most likely Audacity.) Each student would now have a variety of materials to work with. If you would like to introduce a music component to this assignment, you might consider a half-dozen or so 5-10 second clips that might work well as intro/outro music. (maybe check out Jamendo) You will also want to consider how long the texts should be, per prior class discussions.

Once the students had composed and exported their files, in the case of my courses, students would be required to upload those files to their own personal SoundCloud account. How you wanted to handle discussions about textual distribution would depend heavily on how you have addressed some of those issues in other parts of your course. For instance, in the courses I teach, students submit their work almost exclusively via their own personal blogs set up for the course. In this sort of situation, I would show the students how to embed a SoundCloud player into one of their posts. However, in lieu of personal student sites, students could simply send the SoundCloud URL via e-mail. If your content management system uses some sort of dropbox functionality, you could have the students upload their audio files directly.

Of course this example is just one simple way of thinking through how to structure an audio text assignment. It certainly won’t work for everyone. It might not fit your style of teaching, your teaching persona, the resources you have available to you, the resources to which your students have access, or the skills/practices/technologies that you prioritize in your classes.

Personally, when it comes to new media assignments, I’ve struggled quite a bit to find what I think is a fair and functional balance between structuring/restricting certain aspects of what students are allowed or encouraged to produce, and providing enough freedom or flexibility to allow students to take ownership of their texts and to discover things the assignment never intended in the 1st place. On some level I have myself convinced that student creativity can benefit from a healthy dose of restriction. (I suppose this position is closely related to critical thinking skills and problem solving approaches.)

But here’s another thing: I don’t know how well this assignment is going to work. (I should also add that I have yet to incorporate this particular assignment into my first-year writing classes. But it is definitely going to have a place in the next first-year composition course I teach.)If I’m lucky, most of what we attempt will go relatively smoothly. However, I can guarantee that no matter how familiar and experienced and skillful I become at incorporating this assignment into my classes, there will always be a variety of things which will go wrong, delay, or fail. I can accept this. When I myself am making texts of this sort, I inevitably run into my own unpredictable set of hiccups. It’s an essential part of this assignment to engage students in conversations about bugs, mistakes, failure, patience , and follow-through.

So that’s how I would incorporate an audio PSA into my first-year writing classroom. Of course I’ve left out lots of details about audio equipment, assignment deadline timelines, and software training. Mostly because those elements of this type of assignment will be unique to you as an instructor and the material conditions of your home institution. Regardless, I want to encourage you to give this sort of an assignment a try. I would love to hear how it turns out for you.

(image: “Microphones” by Rusty Sheriff, via Flickr)

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