A critique, part 2

Sean Zdenek
Texas Tech University
Computers & Composition Online (Fall 2009)


  1. Introduction
  2. Limiting access in the Podcasting Bible
  3. A critique of “on the fly” podcasting (Part 1, 2)
  4. Podcasting 2.0: Towards an accessible Web (Part 1, 2)
  5. References
  6. About the author

The roadblock to this broader understanding of the “unique challenges” facing our students in the new media classroom is a set of normative constructions in the text that pass as common sense. The “you” in Krause’s text is an ableist and audist fiction that classifies all users as seeing, hearing, and in full possession of the fine motor skills required to manipulate mouse, keyboard, touch screen, key pad, etc [1]. In Krause’s text, non-standard users are invisible. The hegemony of ableism erases differences and replaces them with a universal, hearing “you”:

Sound files are like other kinds of files you can upload to a server and then access – either directly or through a link. So, for example, when you link to an HTML page, your browser will open another web page. When you link to a JPEG, your browser will show the graphic in the main viewing window. When you link to a .doc file, usually your browser will launch a word processing application to view the file. And when you link to an mp3 file, your browser will either open it directly and play it, or, in the case of some older browsers, it will save the sound file to your computer so it can be played later on.

In this excerpt, the process of accessing Web content is presented as simple and straightforward. But this simplicity is achieved at the exclusion of other means of browsing the Web (i.e. via screen readers, screen magnifiers, text-only or keyboard-only navigation, etc). The imagined reader (“you”) is a monolithic and unchanging mass of ableist assumptions. Difference and multiplicity are not associated with users, since every “you” is presumably the same as every other.

It is within the context of normative podcasting that “on the fly” recording and uploading seem commonplace. If “you” and your listeners are presumed to be hearing and able-bodied, then obviously there is no need to hassle with written texts or other accommodations. According to this view, excessive writing is to be avoided as either extraneous to the main purpose of podcasting or too time-consuming. Krause is sympathetic with both reasons. He wisely rejects transcribing his face-to-face lectures for his online students, because he “didn’t see the point in creating a complex and detailed text that students might find challenging to read simply to explain other texts that students already found complex and challenging to read.” But Krause seems more concerned with how much time transcription is likely to take – i.e. “it would be too time-consuming to translate” the lectures, and “recording and posting these audio files would take less time than actually writing out my lectures.” He also “take[s] comfort in the fact that [he] did not have to spend a tremendous amount of time and resources to create teaching materials that were used only by a few students.” He directly links podcasting to his goal of avoiding writing (and thus saving time): while “it helps to have some good notes” when recording audio, “one of the reasons why [he] became interested in recording audio for online instruction was to avoid having to write a lot of text in the first place.” Writing is not only time-consuming; it threatens the informal character that Krause associates with the podcasting medium itself. “[T]he technology . . . lends itself to a brief and ‘on the fly’ format.” Krause describes his podcasts as “more open-ended and similar to the comments I might give to a face-to-face class after passing back a writing assignment or as a way of updating them about future due dates and projects.” The pinnacle of “on the fly” podcasting is provided by the image of Krause recording a podcast from his cell phone “on the street while walking [his] dog.” Because podcasts generated over a telephone (made possible through services such as gabcast.com and hipcast.com) can not be edited or transcribed, they reflect a troubling “phone it in” mentality towards people with disabilities. If podcasting is inherently well-suited to “on the fly” uses that require little time, planning, or writing, then we need to ask whether podcasting tools and approaches can be re-tooled to serve the needs of students with disabilities, and whether instructors are willing to put in the extra time to make podcasts accessible.

While the value Krause attaches to podcasting is at least partly dependent on how much time podcasting “on the fly” saves him, he also recognizes the importance of advanced planning and script writing. Even though he has “not done any script-writing yet,” he admits in hindsight that his “original recordings could have benefited from some better planning and with some more practice.” But practice and planning continue to take a back seat to the goal of saving time. In the trade-off between “better quality audio files” and “the ‘time saving’ value of recording audio files,” the latter wins out. He writes that while better planning and more practice “would have resulted in better quality audio files, it also brings into question the ‘time saving’ value of recording audio files in the first place.” An approach to podcasting that values saving time over producing high quality and carefully planned recordings is more likely to result in inaccessible podcasts. A similar tension between time and quality plays out on the audio file that serves as the conclusion to Krause’s essay. Entitled “The Future,” this enhanced podcast gives listeners a chance to hear Krause reflect on what he has learned. While the podcast is not transcribed (and thus remains inaccessible to some people), Krause does provide an outline of his talk in the essay itself, and the enhanced audio file is populated with a series of key points on slides. On the audio file, Krause calls attention to the limitations of Audioblogger (a now defunct service for recording podcasts over the telephone), and, by extension, the limitations of the “on the fly variety of podcasting.” He also acknowledges that “[q]uality matters and quality takes time and practice,” more time than he had anticipated. But ultimately, however, he rejects the solution his critique supplies: “I suppose I could record more elaborate and formal classroom notes this way [i.e. by avoiding telephone services such as Audioblogger and taking much more time to plan, script, and edit], but it doesn’t seem quite right to me, or at least it doesn’t seem right with the way that I imagine audio files for my class.” What seems right to Krause is that instructor-generated podcasts should be informal (no elaborate scripts) and involve little advanced planning. For students with disabilities, the question is whether an approach to instructor-generated podcasts predicated on saving time and avoiding writing can be reconciled with the time, care, writing, and planning required to making podcasts accessible to students with disabilities.

Next: Podcasting 2.0: Towards an accessible Web (Part 1)

[1] Ableism is defined as “discrimination in favor of the able-bodied” (Reader’s Digest Oxford Wordfinder as cited in Linton 2006: 161). Audism is defined as “discrimination against individuals based on hearing ability” (Bauman 2004). Discrimination can take many forms. It may be invisible, subtle, and seemingly anti-discriminatory.