Tool of the day: dictation software

2011 January 18
by Shane Landrum

After years of holding out, I recently invested in dictation software that transcribes my words into data. I did this partially because when I’m thinking clearly, my thoughts run faster than I can type, and also because typing at the huge volumes necessary for my dissertation takes a toll on my hands.

If you’re reading this and you’ve ever had hand trouble, even twinges of pain, from typing, do the obvious workstation adjustments first, read up on repetitive strain injuries, and be aware that what seems like a small annoyance can turn into a disabling condition very quickly.

When I initially invested in MacSpeech Dictate, I wasn’t very impressed, but the recent purchase of MacSpeech/Dragon by Nuance Communications has led to a much more solid product, now called Dragon Dictate for Mac. Initially, I purchased the wired microphone headset because it was cheaper, but after seeing Marta use a Bluetooth wireless headset with it, I decided to switch to wireless. This wasn’t a cheap investment: several hundred dollars worth of software, plus about another hundred dollars for the Bluetooth wireless headset. However, at a certain point, whatever breaks my writer’s block is worth the money. (It’s like going to a café to get grading done.)

As you can see, the equipment is quite portable. I use an old hardshell glasses case to carry around the headset, the special USB adapter, and the charging cable. The wired version is much bulkier, which limited my interest in using it. Since I like to walk around while talking through my ideas, the extra money was worth it.
headset view 1.JPG
If you look around on eBay, it’s possible to find the Calisto Pro headsets as spares; the 69519-01 charging cable; and the BUA-100 Bluetooth adapter for marginally less than you’d pay if you bought the hardware bundled from Nuance.
headset view 2.JPG

Plenty of other websites can explain the details of the software and what it does, so I’ll pass briefly over that in favor of detailing the specific ways that dictation software has helped me as an early-career historian.

For the history researcher

I’ve been particularly surprised by how useful dictation software is for transcribing old documents. Many of the letters I use as sources are in ordinary enough words Dragon doesn’t need to be trained with special vocabulary to understand them. For me, it’s substantially easier to read large segments of a source aloud than it is to type a verbatim quote, plus the act of reading aloud helps my comprehension. A bit of proofreading is required, to be sure, but I still find that reading handwritten primary sources out loud is much faster than typing them.

And a note on teaching

I’ve also been surprised at how useful dictation software is for preparing my lecture notes for teaching. It’s easy enough for me to dictate into my microphone whenever I feel like preparing a lecture, and then to rearrange my free-associated thoughts into an orderly structure of notes later (when I can look up specific numbers and such). I think that over time, this will make it a lot easier for me to produce good notes, and anything that gets me writing down more of my thoughts helps me to produce a more detailed, fact-filled lecture.

I’s been pointed out to me that history lectures at their best tend to be unusually filled with facts and details. (In contrast to, say, a first-year writing course, where detailed lectures are generally beside the point.) This may not work as well for people in other disciplines, but it works for me.

2 Responses
  1. January 25, 2011

    I invested in Dictate about a month ago to make writing easier and I’ve had decent success using the built-in mic on my laptop. However, it had not occurred to me to use dictation software to digitize historical texts. Thanks for the tip!

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