Plot-casting: Using Student-Generated Audiobooks for Learning and Teaching

E-Learning, Victorian literature

Author

Matthew Rubery
University of Leeds

Summaryplotcasting

This case study reports on a recent pedagogical initiative making use of podcasting technology in the classroom. The project involved getting students to create their own ‘talking book’ or audiobook recording of a Victorian novel. During Semester One of the academic year 2007-2008, members of the third-year undergraduate module ‘Sensation Novels of the 1860s’ in the School of English at the University of Leeds were invited to create a recording of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. Each week 4 students (out of 40 in total) from their respective seminar groups recorded designated chapters, which were preserved as MP3 files using the free digital recording software Audacity. These podcast recordings were then made available to other members of the seminar through a module blog created in the Leeds Elgg weblog community. The blog’s RSS feeds automatically notified students each time new podcasts were posted for peer assessment. At the end of term, individual recordings were combined to form a complete recording stored on the Library’s MIDESS Digital Repository, where it will be available for free distribution to members of the university in the form of a digital audiobook.

Background

The University of Leeds places great emphasis on research-led teaching, and this project emerged from an interest in devising an effective way of integrating into undergraduate teaching my research on the evolution of reading practices. While reading today is often thought of as a silent, solitary act, this was not the case for readers in previous centuries who often participated in communal readings. For example, one of Dickens’ fans was an illiterate charwoman who attended monthly readings of Dombey and Son hosted at a local snuff shop. She was just one among many readers in the nineteenth century who would have heard rather than read such narratives. For obvious reasons, it is difficult to dislodge in student minds the modern conception of fiction as a predominantly solitary recreation as opposed to a communal pastime. My previous efforts to draw attention to this difference had been ineffective due to the time constraints involved in seminar teaching. Usually we settled for reading aloud a short passage at one of our weekly meetings followed by discussion of the ways in which reading aloud differs from silent reading. This did not allow students to experience the difference for themselves, however, and motivated me to develop a method by which students could experience firsthand the difference between reading aloud and silent reading. As I discovered, there is no better way to demonstrate how reading practices commonly used in the nineteenth century differ from today’s methods than through active student participation in reading aloud—a skill for which students are increasingly unprepared.

Practice

My teaching initiative, ‘Plot-casting: Using Student-Generated Podcasts for Learning and Teaching Literature’, encouraged students to create their own audiobook recordings of Victorian novels. This is not as difficult as it sounds. The technology is already available at most universities; the only expense for my project was the purchase of 8 headsets to enable students to make recordings on their home computers. Here are the steps taken by my project:

First, students were assigned chapters for individual recordings during the first week of our eleven-week term. The novel was divided into 40 sections, approximately one segment for each student enrolled in the module. The recordings were made through the use of Audacity, free recording software available by download to the student’s own computer. Free DIY recording software such as Audacity makes it simpler than ever before for individuals to record their own audiobooks. Now anyone can record an audiobook with a voice, a computer, and recording software. This is particularly easy to do through the use of the podcast (a portmanteau word combining the name of Apple’s ‘iPod’ and the term ‘broadcast’), a digital audio file distributed over the internet to one’s computer. Instructions on how to use the Audacity software were made available through the module website located in the university’s Virtual Learning Environment. Additional instructions were provided to get students to think about various practical aspects of reading aloud:

  • Am I reading slowly enough?
  • Will the audience be able to hear me?
  • Should I do the characters in different voices?

Students were encouraged to annotate scripts beforehand in order to adapt the printed text for oral delivery. The script was then read aloud into the computer’s microphone in as engaging a voice as possible. Afterward, the recording was saved as an MP3 file. This format had the benefit of being compatible with various media such as email, mobile phones, and ipods. More importantly, the MP3 file could be uploaded to the module blog for peer review by other students.

Second, four of these recordings would be delivered to the blog each week, when RSS feeds would automatically notify other members of the class of new content. This not only staggered the amount of listening required by each student (Victorian novels are very long, after all) but also it recreated the experience of serialisation appropriate to nineteenth-century novels often read in weekly instalments rather than a single volume. All students on the module became members of the blog located in the LeedsBlogs weblog community. The blog was a crucial component in making the project genuinely interactive by providing a forum for the discussion of both pedagogical and technical issues. First, students were given the opportunity to introduce their recordings with prefatory comments, and fellow students were given the chance to respond with their own reactions. These replies ranged from admiration of certain narrative techniques to queries about the best way to handle difficult aspects of the narrative. Second, students who had completed recordings were able to offer advice to students who had not yet completed their chapters. I was able to resolve technical difficulties throughout the term as well by providing occasional updates to the blog.

Readers of this case study will by this point be curious to hear an actual recording from the ‘Plot-casting’ project. The following recording was posted to the blog on November 14th, 2007. This recording of ‘The Story Continued in Several Narratives’ is prefaced with the warning: ‘here’s the next installment, please excuse the atrocious accents, I couldn’t help myself!’ It shows an ambitious attempt to dramatize the reading through the use of cockney dialect for the voice of Hester Pinhorn, the cook in an aristocratic household.

Finally, the individual recordings made throughout the semester were compiled into a completed audiobook at the end of term. This digital audiobook was stored on the Library’s MIDESS Digital Repository, where it will be available for free download by members of the community. Subsequent trials may vary the set text for recording until a substantial catalogue of recordings is accumulated for public use. Students will be able to point toward this achievement at the end of the semester or, better yet, play it for friends and family who show an interest in their studies. This project thereby instils greater awareness of the ways in which media influence our understanding of literature while at the same time providing the community with a free audiobook.

Conclusions

The hands-on use of digital audio in the classroom is a useful way to enhance student awareness of how various ways of reading influence the reception of literature. After the project’s completion, the majority of questionnaires cited the experience of reading aloud as an enjoyable and instructive activity that encouraged students to reflect on its differences with silent reading. One student remarked that the project helped her to think about Victorian novels as ‘oral traditions’, and another student suggested that the project had revived Wilkie Collins’ novel for the ‘blog generation’.

The majority of students participating in the project indicated that making audio recordings had influenced the way they think about literature. The most common response was heightened awareness of the difference made by reading aloud to aural aspects of the narrative such as voice and dialect. As one student observed, ‘Giving a voice and expression to the characters made me view them in more interesting ways’. A number of students found the oral readings to be more dramatic than silent readings, or in the words of this student: ‘it made me think about the performative quality of the texts – the different ‘sensations’ that hearing it read aloud produces’. Or as another student described her reaction to the novel when read aloud: ‘it made me see it as something more vibrant’. This often resulted in a better understanding of individual characters. One student described this altered relationship in the following words: ‘I found it enjoyable to get into the nuances of character through interpreting their speech verbally’. An additional benefit of reading aloud was closer attention the actual text: ‘Made me realise how much detail I skip over when reading in my head—you notice a lot more about the writing when reading aloud’. Finally, the experience succeeded in making at least one student reflect on how reading practices have changed over the past century: ‘It made me realise how much we have lost by not reading aloud any more’.

The ‘Plot-casting’ project was not without technical difficulties during its initial run, but I intend to repeat the project next year in order to formulate a model of good practice for other instructors who may be interested in getting their students to read aloud for whatever reason. As this project has demonstrated, ‘talking books’ can be one of the most effective ways to get students talking about books.

Bibliography

Introductions to the pedagogical uses of podcast technology:

  • Will Richardson, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2006)
  • Bard Williams,Educator’s Podcast Guide (Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education, 2007)
  • Kathleen P. King and Mark Gura, Podcasting for Teachers: Using a New Technology to Revolutionize Teaching and Learning(Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2007)
  • Resources for the use of podcasting technology in Higher Education are available at the University of Leeds’ Staff and Departmental Developmental Unit’s Podcasting website: http://www.sddu.leeds.ac.uk/online_resources/podcasting/.