Monday, January 18, 2010

Sounds Like...

Bloopers in history essays abound. They have been collected by teachers and have found their way on to the Internet. Once upon a time I collected some myself, but several years ago my attitude changed ... without my noticing, as attitudes will sometimes. I can't pinpoint a date but I can pinpoint the change in perception and its cause: it was when I switched decidedly from teaching live to teaching online. This may appear at first to have nothing to do with laughing at student bloopers but bear with me.

One of the striking differences between teaching live and teaching online is the chalkboard. Okay, whiteboard. Whatever you wish to call it, they all serve the same purpose: to put words up for students to see, read and record.

In a live lecture I speak names and terms that often are quite literally foreign to my students--Greek, Latin, German, French, and so on. So, like every teacher for generations, I wrote those hard-to-spell words on the chalkboard. Some teachers even make handouts. Nowadays, maybe they even make web pages. Whatever the format, the purpose was the same: students could say the words, but they could not write them.

In a virtual class, though, I never speak the words, and the problem my students face is just the opposite. They can spell the words, but they have no idea how to pronounce them. As a consequence, I have audio files embedded in my essays pronouncing various words.

Which brings me back to student bloopers in essays. First off, I just admit, some people simply have trouble spelling. Let's leave that aside. Consider that for most student essays they are required to write on a topic about which they've had no advance notice, and must write for a fixed length of time without notes (aside: this is something professional historians never have to do, so one must wonder what skill is being tested here), so there is pressure on the student, which doesn't lead to meticulous thinking.

So now look at a typical student blooper:
"In the Olympic games they ran around and tossed the java.  The victors won a coral wreath."

It's funny, no doubt, but look closer. They tossed the java. Here, the student means "javelin" but has very likely encountered that word only rarely in his or her life. In the pressure of the moment, s/he grabs for the first word that comes close in sound. The second example is even clearer. The student has rarely heard of a laurel wreath, but s/he has heard of a coral reef.

In both cases, the auditory and the written are being muddled. I don't see this as a blooper so much as I see it as a commentary on the teaching medium. Students are told history but then are asked to write history. There are bound to be gaps in the translation. I have no doubt at all that if my students, taught exclusively via the written word, were asked to take an oral examination, they would come out with similar verbal mistakes. I can picture professors editing sound files to produce compilations of muddled pronunciations.

I'm not being dour. I still smile at a line like "Jesus was punished with thirty-nine lasses". But when I'm done smiling, I see the thing for what it is: a mistake in transcription from audio to text.

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