As PhD students we spent a lot of time talking/thinking about the process of doing research. However these narratives, whilst often connecting to the emotional self are often disconnected to the physical self. The embodied nature of research. Here, I focus on just one aspect of research – transcription – using descriptive writing to re-position the process of research with(in) the body.
Transcription, for me, involved typing up into individual Microsoft Word documents 34 semi-structured interviews that ranged from 30 – 80 minutes long. This was a process that was ongoing throughout my data collection “phase” and for several subsequent months. I did not use voice recognition software; I’d transcribed interviews manually (as opposed to verbally) for previous projects and had heard one too many horror stories about the software misunderstanding instructions and deleting chunks of the data to take that option.
So I started out fairly confident, already proficient at touch typing, viewing transcription as a tedious, but useful, stage of my research.
The Early Months
Another interview done. Another interview to transcribe. Another transcription completed. Another document to send out to the participant.
I’m doing it! People are actually volunteering to talk to me. This is easy. My fingers are slowly remembering how to type. The foot pedal I bought while doing my undergraduate dissertation is continuing to prove itself as one of the most valuable things I’ve ever bought related to my studies. I may not be fully up to my previous transcription speed but I’m getting there. Shortcuts have been set up to save me from typing commonly used words (i.e. “interviewer”) and I’m slowly remembering what those shortcuts are.
I’ve got a long way still to go, but I’ve got this. I’ve learnt from previous experience not to meet participants in coffee shops – where you can hear nothing but the sound of clinking mugs, and shhhh-ing coffee machines. This feels good.
Several Months In
I have no time. Running from observation sessions, to interviews, to my laptop to upload the encrypted data. Weighed down by my “interview bag”, which contains all the elements needed for the interview: paper, coloured pens/pencils, instruction sheets, information sheets and consent forms, dictaphone, and the all important back up batteries. Just grab this and go.
Transcription has become something I should do. Something I used to feel on top of. Instead of typing I’ve started to test my eyes reading articles about the usefulness of transcription, the different approaches to transcribing, the role of the transcriber. Interrogating the task that before I had assumed was a simple one. In moments where I do sit down and transcribe my hands hover above the keyboard while I consider how to do this. Fingers resting expectantly on the keys, awaiting instruction – Was that a long enough pause for “…” or was is just “..”? Do you want us to put in the “ums”?
My foot twitches away impatiently, it’s movement mocking my sedentary fingers. “Make a decision” it yells as it rests on the top of the pedal. I slow the playback speed. Closing my eyes to concentrate on the words being said, separating out interviewer from interviewee. Pausing the recording I mouth the words I’ve just heard spoken as my fingers move across the keys. Glancing from the keyboard to screen, waiting for the words on the screen to catch up with the words I know are still waiting to be written. Frustrated that my fingers appear to be happy to work in a different time zone to the one I find the rest of my body inhabiting.
The Final Months
As the rate of data gathering declines, and my interview bag lies abandoned in a corner, I move transcription to center stage. I have to get this done. It has to be now. There are no shortcuts. Physically I carve out time, initially starting with every morning (or as long as it takes) completing an interview, keeping my moral up. Soon this becomes too slow. Full days become devoted to typing these words out. Onto the page. It’s no longer me and the computer and it’s various outstretched materialities, we are now one.
The corner of my laptop begins to embed itself into the skin of my forearms. I barely notice. The characteristic redness hidden from my blinkered view fixed on the screen and the slowly increasing lines of text on the screen in front of me.
Time becomes divided not by task completion but by an abstract measured time dictated by the numbers on the audio tape.
Get up. Stretch. My back moans in gratitude – or delayed rebellion – enjoying the momentary release from the prison confines of the chair.
Desperate to keep up the progress I begin to drift from place to place. Laptop, pedal, and headphones all that I need. I stare out at new views, audio paused, while my fingers complete their task of writing the latest sentence spoken. While my mind wanders freely – considering the importance of what was said, the formatting of the document, how the various other people in my life are doing, when to eat lunch – my body remains fixed. The laptop dictates the angle at which I can position my hands. The pedal forces me to have at least one foot at 90 degrees to the floor. While writing I like to shift position constantly, however transcription has forced my body to submit.
My fingers start to ache. My calf muscles protest at the ongoing stopping, rewinding, playing of the audio file. My eyes glaze over. I don’t need them after all. Checking of the transcript comes after. Then I can shift my legs, and engage my eyes to skim over the words. Trusting that Word will bring to my attention mis-spelling. Filtering those squiggly red lines that have to be ignored and those which need to be listened to and the text changed.
While my legs get a break there is no let up for my fingers and hands. They are still needed for me to physically plug myself into the computer. Scrolling, re-typing, clicking. An occasional flick of a finger indicating they do still have a mind of their own.
Let up is not an option. As I near the end the muscles in my neck start to scream out, but seeing the glint of the finish line I push on. Stretching periodically I know that simply moving occasionally is not solving the problem, just allowing me to keep going.
[End of recording]
As I typed those words for the final time I was struck by the previously ignored physical embodied experiences of doing research. It took the days/months of typing for my body to find it’s voice and for me to listen to it’s story. A narrative that is not one of an easy “journey”, nor one simply battling external daemons, but one of fighting against yourself. Negotiating the assemblage of physicalities that comprise the process of “transcribing”.
Transcription connected me physically to the computer in a way I’d never previously experienced. The computer was no longer a tool to be used for my research. Instead I became a tool that needed to be used to complete the process of transcription. I became locked in. We (me, the computer and pedal) were the machine. My own thoughts becoming a spanner disrupting the running of this newly created machine.
While researching we are all constructing many different ideas about what “doing research” is about. When discussing these experiences of research it is important that we do not forget to talk about, and share, our embodied experiences of doing research. Not for the means of looking after our well being, but because research is embodied. And that embodied-ness can tell us other interesting things about the process and experience of doing research.
What is your own experience of transcription? What are your experiences of the physicality of your own research? Comment below with any thoughts as I’d love to hear them!