Recently, I visited a second-year writing class (Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric 2), where students were in a class on “A Rebel with a Cause” and, on this day, reading and analyzing Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in a case related to 4th Amendment rights. The students were quick to note (and praise) Sotomayor’s writing: “Wow, I can actually understand what she is saying,” and “She is speaking directly and clearly to me, not just to legal experts,” and “I am so impressed with how she uses everyday analogies to help us understand her points,” and “At first I sided with the majority, but she was so clear and compelling that I changed my mind.” They noted, too, how skillfully Sotomayor built her credibility and ethos, through careful and consistent citations and through reminding the audience, subtly, that she has long personal experience in the area under consideration.
This discussion led to further analysis of how clearly Sotomayor introduces her dissent, how she captures and holds attention and states her major points. Then the students were challenged to brainstorm the first 30 seconds of an orally presented research proposal (the research project will be the main work of the term, which is now in its second week). They had about eight minutes to do this task and went to work with a will, keyboarding and talking and jotting down notes seemingly all at once. When they were through, I expected the instructor to ask them to share with the rest of the class.
Instead, she first pulled up a video of a graduate student’s introduction to a research proposal. The student clearly had a plan for research, but the delivery was rapid fire and hard to follow, so the class stopped to analyze this effort. After looking at what went not-so-well in the videoe presentation, the instructor sent students out of the classroom with their smart phones, asking each of them to record the draft 30-second introductions they had written. Nervous laughter. And then a lot of action.
When they had their recordings, the instructor introduced them to the idea of an “earprompter,” something you may already be familiar with, but the students were not. Asking them to hook an earpiece up to their phones, she then directed them to present their introductions: they hear their own voices through the earpiece and repeat what they are hearing, with a couple of seconds delay.
If you watch this YouTube video on how to “build” an earprompter, you’ll see that the person presents use of the earprompter as a way to avoid having to memorize or learn a presentation by heart. But that’s not how the instructor in this class used it. Rather, as the students experimented with their presentations aided by earprompters, they discovered that they were speaking much too quickly (or in one case much too slowly), that they were stumbling over words, cutting off phrases, and skimming over words that should be lingered over or emphasized. Their assignment: keep experimenting with their homemade earprompters, listening to themselves, practicing with one another, and working on their pace, modulation, and tone.
The students seemed delighted with this new tool for improving presentations, and I’m invited back to see how it will work for them in a week or so. In the meantime, I’m doing some investigating of commercial earprompters—and I’d love to hear from anyone who is using these in their own classrooms.