What I learned from my first transcription job

I took a work-study job at Berkeley last year transcribing for a project in the Institute of Human development. I received recordings of classroom interaction with kids in the 10-12 range and transcribed everything into a readable format for a couple of PhDs and wanna be PhDs.

It wasn’t a difficult job. It was usually interesting and different every time, and I liked that. It paid better than I’ve ever been paid before, and the expectations were kind and reasonable, and I liked that, too. I found that transcription is something that I’m quite good at and could do again in the future, if I wished. All good things.

The best thing about this job, however, has been what I’ve learned about the way people talk. I suppose I can’t say all people; this is rigidly controlled and scheduled interaction between teachers and students in Oakland talking about a limited number of subjects. However, I noticed a few things about these interactions that made me notice the same things happening in nearly everyone’s speech.

Here’s what I spotted:

1. Many times, when someone starts a sentence they have no plan on where they’re going and no idea how it’s going to end.

2. Similarly, people stop mid-sentence to interrupt themselves with parenthetical utterances that often have nothing to do with the eventual aim of the speaker. I’ll give you an example.

“Today we’re going to (and you guys have never done this before) try a game based on a debating technique (and I know we’ve had debates, but this kind is different) that involves two teams on either side of the room facing each other (well, not facing each other, more like a sort of a V shape against this wall) and then taking turns.

Granted, a lot of this can be chalked up to the way teachers struggle to convey complex steps and instructions to a room full of half-listening hellions. But I’ve seen people do it constantly since my appointment started. See if this sounds familiar:

“Well, I went to the post office on Tuesday (or maybe it was Wednesday? No, it was Tuesday because I had just been to yoga.) to mail some packages to my sister. (Not the sister in Alaska, the one in L.A.) So I walked in the door and I saw the post machine…”

We interrupt ourselves with details and qualifications and exceptions and corrections that aren’t relevant to the tale we tell, that make us seem scatter-brained and unsure, that keep us from getting to the point.

If we took a few seconds to think, to plan what we’re going to say, to say it as cleanly as possible, how different would that be?

2 thoughts on “What I learned from my first transcription job

  1. It’s interesting to think about language and how the technology of a language results in an imposition of its structure (or whatever) on that stuff we call our thoughts/feelings.

    You write that folks might wonder how different it would be if they made more of an effort to conform what’s inside them to the structure of the language they’re using. It’s interesting to wonder how different it would be if some language existed that didn’t ooch us toward planning and saying things cleanly but rather more accurately reflected what was actually happening inside us.

    Neal Postman wrote often about how technology shapes us much more than we recognize…I’ve become vaguely aware of how shaping (and often limiting) language is (English, anyway) because it often requires us to express something that is deeply complex and that contains a number of simultaneously occurring things in a linear fashion with words that result in a simplifying of and a structuring of stuff that really isn’t that way at all.

    Julia Penelope once wrote a nifty little book titled: “Speaking Freely: Unlearning the Lies of Our Father’s Tongues” and as I struggle with trying to achieve a better understanding of how oppression operates…I’m often reminded of how limiting and hard thinking/talking about oppression and notions like intersectionality are, in part, because of how English requires certain things for it to be coherent and…struggling to fit some ideas (intersectionality, for instance) into coherence in English might itself be a way of upholding oppression. I dunno…but…I do know that English is very much dominated by (and created by) white men (and I’m a white man so I’m including myself) and white men usually aren’t great friends of phenomena that might effectively interfere with their power.

    It’s interesting to think about whether English itself is a technology of oppression…yeah, using it in various ways can serve to subvert oppression but maybe its default is to uphold oppression rather than to make easy the understanding/resisting of it. I dunno.

    1. I fully agree with the idea that language both shapes and limits our thought patterns. I did a lot of research on Sapir-Whorf in college on that phenomenon, and considered the oppressive nature of language throughout my studies. It’s fascinating stuff.

      Also: holy necromancy, Batman! I haven’t thought about this blog post in a long time.

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