Speaking Truth to Papers

Brian Taylor

October 13, 2009

A year or two before I took my first faculty job on the tenure track, I had the opportunity to spend a day observing my older brother in his first position as a faculty member. At the time, he was teaching international relations at the American University in Cairo, and while we spent most of my visit sightseeing around the city, I did also come to the campus with him one day and tailed him as he taught classes and attended meetings.

The next morning, he had office hours and told me that I could come with him and hang out while he worked. Sounded idyllic to me: We would sit together in his office, have some tea and chat, and then settle in and read or do some writing before we headed out to the pyramids later that day.

It took me by surprise to observe what actually happened. He spent most of his office hours talking on the phone, meeting with students, or running down the hall to the secretary's office.

Ten years later, I still remember that afternoon clearly, since it provided my first glimpse of the parts of academic life that you don't see until you get your first faculty job. It also gave me my awareness of the multiple demands on our time, most of which have nothing to do with teaching or research—or at least it can sometimes seem that way.

I still find myself struggling through the middle of a semester, trying to balance all of the students, colleagues, and events that need my support. The worst weeks of all, for an English professor, are the ones in which—on top of everything else—I have a massive stack of essays to grade over a weekend.

So like everyone else in the profession, I am always in search of ways to manage my time more effectively without compromising the quality of my teaching. I stumbled onto just such a strategy this past summer in a conversation with a professor here on my campus. He mentioned in passing how much time he has saved since he began using voice-recognition software in his work a few years ago. At first I assumed he was referring to increased productivity in his research, but he clarified for me that the software had actually enabled him to save time on his teaching as well, since he had begun using it to "type" his responses to student papers.

That caught my attention, since for years now I have been typing up my remarks on students' work. I began doing that because my handwriting is so illegible, but quickly found it had two unforeseen benefits. First, because I can type faster than I can write, I can give more substantial comments on each paper without adding additional grading time. But second, and more important, instead of my students flipping right to the back page of their paper to see the grade and comments together, my students now almost always sit and read my typed comments first (they are stapled to the front of the paper) and only then flip to the end and check the grade. It may be a small change in how they process the graded work, but to me it sends the right message that the written feedback matters more than the grade.

So when my colleague, Geoffrey Vaughan, mentioned that voice-recognition software had halved the amount of time he spends grading papers, I had to find out more. A few weeks later I sat down on a Friday morning with Vaughan, an associate professor of political science and director of the Western-civilization program at my college. Just in his second year on my campus, Vaughan came to us from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, where he first began using voice-recognition software in his writing and teaching.

The program he uses is called Dragon NaturallySpeaking, and currently comes in Version 10. Clued into the existence of such a strange animal by a friend who worked at the company, he tried out the very first version of the software several years back and was unimpressed. "It was pretty terrible," he said. "It couldn't handle any kind of complicated text."

But that has changed, as he was able to demonstrate in his office. The program comes with a headset microphone, which he donned as he opened up a new Word document (the program will work in any format—you can use it for documents, e-mail, Web pages, and so on). Then he began speaking, purposely using terminology and names from his discipline that might throw off a standard voice-recognition program. He spoke deliberately but not slowly, and named punctuation marks as he went (i.e., in this sentence, he would have said the word "period" at the end).

I asked him to show me exactly what the computer had transcribed after he spoke, and this is what I saw: "I can write about Thomas Hobbes in the most abstruse forms and use whatever jargon that I think might see my purposes. Of course, I do tend to avoid jargon as one ought but it does slip through. I remember the first time I used this program I mentioned the dedicatory epistle to Sidney Godolphin in Hobbes great work Leviathan. It will even get my own Geoffrey Vaughan with the G. because it has worked out that that is more likely than Geoffrey with J."

Just about perfect, except for the missing apostrophe at the end of "Hobbes."

I asked him to explain how he used the program to respond to student work, and he showed me what a response looked like: a full page of text, single spaced, in numbered paragraphs. Each paragraph corresponded to a number he had placed in the margins of the student paper. A short paragraph at the end provides the standard final comment.

"I used to put some scribbling in the margins of each paper," he said, "and I would draw lines from the margin to the bottom or write 'See over' and then write two or three sentences of a final comment at the end of the paper. Now I simply put a number in the margin, and I speak my response to each of those numbered points.

"The students are shocked," he added, "at how much I have to say about their papers."

His paragraphs are conversational, as you might expect, and not perfectly formulated. Vaughn explains to his students that he uses the software, and that they can always come to him to clarify confusing elements in his comments. He gave me permission to quote from one of his responses, which included these paragraphs: "I am not really sure what you are doing in this paragraph. Are you saying that there is a consensus or are you saying that there should be a consensus? Or are you saying that we have to assume that there is a consensus in order to proceed with your argument? I see that you are sort of turning around the question and not answering if there can be a Christian political philosophy but whether liberalism is compatible with Christianity. I will go along with this for now but I would have appreciated a better setup."

As we talked, and I read through the samples he had, it became apparent to me that Vaughan's real commitment to this mode of responding to papers relates more to the conversational tone of his responses than to the time-saving element of it. As he explained it to me, the software has inspired him to think about responding to students' work as more of a dialogue than a summary judgment—a model he learned during the year he spent as a graduate student and tutor at the University of Oxford.

"When I was leading tutorials at Oxford," he explained, "the students would come to you and read their papers aloud, and you would stop them and have a conversation about their ideas as they read. Responding to student work with this software reminds me of that process and makes me feel like I'm having a conversation with the student as I'm responding. It combines the usual American-style, paper-grading process with the model of the Oxford tutorial."

His comments reminded me of what I always see as the main challenge of evaluating student work. The grading process really has two separate functions: to explain to the students the reasons for the grade they received (i.e., you did these things well, and these things poorly) and to help them understand how to improve their performance. Often we become so caught up in explaining and defending the grade that we neglect to provide students with the explanation that really matters—how they can learn from their performance and improve for the next time.

To turn our response to a student's work into a dialogue in which we are not simply passing judgment but engaging in a conversation about how the student can improve seems like a pedagogical change worth adopting, whether or not it saves time.

Vaughan believes that it saves him substantial time and—no small benefit here, either—that it has made the grading process much more enjoyable.

I walked out of Vaughan's office a convert. I have ordered a voice-recognition program and am looking forward to giving it a test run this semester and beginning a whole new set of conversations with my students.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching" (Harvard University Press, 2008). He writes about teaching in higher education, and his Web site is He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at