Transcriptions and To Do Lists

For the past six weeks, my reports at Monday morning meetings in external have included the phrase “and I’m still working on the transcription of the Edmonton roundtable.” I usually laugh as I say it, but I’m not sure whether everyone realizes what the process involves or why I find it funny.

The purpose of transcription, of course, is to create a written representation of a particular event. This written representation is then used as a primary document for research purposes — it is “data” for analysis and comparison. As a folklorist, I have much experience with this. On countless occasions I have interviewed an individual, recording our discussion so that I can give the individual my full attention without having to write notes. After the interview, I usually write field notes, recalling as much about the discussion and the context in which it occurred as possible. Then, after avoiding transcription until I could avoid it no longer, I would finally sit down and create a verbatim transcription of the interview. I remember the first time I did this: 15 minutes of “tape” took 4 hours to transcribe.

Transcription, like most things, takes practice; the more you do, the better you get at it. And I’m the first to admit that my transcription muscles have not been flexed in years. In many projects, I’ve been fortunate to find willing undergraduate students to employ. “Excellent research experience!” I proclaim. In other projects, I’ve chosen to identify time codes of important information and transcribe only the “quotable quotes” from an extended interview.

Transcribing a roundtable discussion, of course, is a little more challenging with the diversity of voices. Accents, talking speed, and proximity to the recorder are all factors in how “easy” the process is or isn’t. But the length of a roundtable discussion makes it a daunting task as well. This most recent one was 4 hours, 1 minute, and 45 seconds long. Do the math on that time commitment. It’s not pretty.

Faced with such a commitment, I began thinking about alternatives. The first was to hire a student, but given funding deadlines, that wouldn’t provide an immediate solution. (I am happy to say that there will be a student working on verbatim transcriptions of interviews and roundtables this summer thanks to funding through an RP grant). The second was more feasible: gist transcriptions. A gist transcription does exactly what you think it does: it gets the “gist” across, but doesn’t worry about providing an exact representation of the dialogue that occurred. It would allow us to have a sense of the input received from the students who participated in our roundtables and permit identification of themes, but wouldn’t attribute particular comments to participants or capture the way in which something was said. Given that we intend to keep the comments confidential (instead using aggregated representations of data), this seemed like the way to go. And so for a few hours each week, I listened to 10-20 seconds of audio, paused the recording, captured the ideas, and listened to the next 10-20 seconds, replaying segments as necessary.

Transcription is tedious and time-consuming — there’s just no way around it.

So that’s the purpose and process, but why do I find it funny?

When I say that I’m still transcribing, the joke is an inside one and it dates back to early in my PhD. I remember that I had a term paper to write and was commenting to friends and family that my apartment had never been so clean. Everything was spotless and tidy, but not a word had been written. Some suggested that a cluttered workspace results in a cluttered mind, so cleaning made sense — it would focus my mind. Others simply stated that I was procrastinating. Being a researcher, I decided it was best to delve a little deeper and so I sat at my computer and googled procrastination (an act which could, in itself, be interpretted as procrastination). I found an interesting article on something referred to as “strategic procrastination.” There are many definitions out there for this, including one that states that if you read a prioritized “to do” list backwards, it’s a procrastination list. Some suggest that if you strategically procrastinate (avoid or put off work), some of your work will disappear or take care of itself (I’m not sure this type A buys that definition, but I think I have seen it at work). The particular article that I found focussed on the moveable segments of a “to do” list (whether written or mental) that actually facilitate getting things done. A task’s position on the “to do” list is never fixed, never set in stone. It is moveable and responds to forces around it. More than that, it exerts force on other tasks.

So, when I laugh about “still transcribing,” it’s because I know that without this task hanging over my head, I’d probably be a lot less productive. In fact, having a transcription to complete exerted the force necessary to write an annual report ahead of schedule and to stay current on blog entries — and one of these tasks is clearly more important than the other.

But I’m also chuckling to myself over the fact that I once googled procrastination after being accused of it…