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Deejaying her Listening: Learning through Life Stories of Human Rights Violations

Sound and Pedagogy 3**Co-authored by Emmanuelle Sonntag and Bronwen Low

Are you listening?

Because sound specialist Julian Treasure argues, “We are losing our listening” due to the invention of multiple methods of recording and with the world being “so noisy . . . with this cacophony going on visually and auditorily, it’s just hard to listen, it’s tiring to listen.”  In response, Treasure claims that we need to improve our conscious listening skills; he suggests teaching the skill of listening in school.

As co-directors of the “Education and Life Stories” working group of a large oral history project, we have been thinking a good deal about listening and pedagogy. The project is entitled  “Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide, and other Human Rights Violations,” shortened here as “Montreal Life Stories project.” From 2007 to 2012, a team of university and community-based researchers in the frame of the Canadian Community-University Research Alliances (CURA) Program recorded life story interviews with approximately 500 Montrealers who experienced mass violence and displacement. Members of the survivor communities (Tutsi, Haitian, Cambodian, and Holocaust) were key partners in both the research and the diffusion of the project, fundamentally shaping the project’s philosophy, activities and outcomes.

One of the Education Working Group’s principle accomplishments was developing an educational package called We Are Here, containing five Learning and Evaluation Situations (LES), the curricular units in the Quebec Education Program. The units are designed for “cycle two” secondary school, where the students are generally 14 to 16 years old. As of yet, these have not yet been piloted, but we plan to do so.

we are hereOur goal while designing “We Are Here” was to have teachers and students engage with the life stories of human rights violations, in order to foster a more inclusive cultural memory that would develop “le vivre-ensemble,” our capacity to live well together.  Featuring the stories of immigrants and refugees to the province, the curriculum offers students a more complex understanding of human rights violations. First-person accounts bring world history and politics to life, helping us to understand the processes and human costs of violence and war, and expand our awareness of our fellow residents and citizens. At the same time, we recognized that the difficult stories of human rights violations make particular demands upon their listeners. We needed to consider how to ethically support students and teachers in engaging with the stories of people who have survived traumatic experience—while, importantly, respecting the interviewees themselves.

We sensed from the beginning that these goals and commitments would require us to develop our own “pedagogy of listening” to support teaching and learning from the life stories, and we foregrounded listening in all of the materials. For instance, each unit begins with the students listening to one or more project interviews, in the form of digital stories edited collaboratively by the interviewees and the editor. These digital stories tend to be under 10 minutes and bring together video, images, sound, and text (see for example, Bracha Rosenblum’s digital story). They are much more accessible than the original video interviews, which can be many hours long.

There is an irony in building a case for listening in schools. Students are commanded daily to “be quiet and listen to the teacher.” Despite the long history in educational theory of critiquing this model, the student-who-listens-in-silence versus the teacher-who-speaks-loudly is still regularly invoked in practice as an ideal relation. The demand for silence is in part a pragmatic response to the inherent noisiness of schools filled with people. At the same time, the listening imperative is also a key tool in the establishment of teacher authority and power.

Image by Flickr User I Am Rudy

Image by Flickr User I Am Rudy

We wanted to rethink the process of listening in our curricular design beyond these traditional power dynamics. Our pedagogy of listening draws on concepts of testimony, communities of memory, dialogue, and the principle of shared authority in oral history, which we describe in detail elsewhere (forthcoming in the Journal of Curriculum Studies). In this blog post, we explore our pedagogy’s indebtedness to philosopher and musicologist Peter Szendy’s work on listening and its potential in the public school classroom.

Listening begins with the desire to be signed and addressed

The address is a central notion in Peter Szendy’s Listen: A History of Our Ears. The early 2000s, as Szendy explains, saw the birth of the peer-to-peer file sharing service Napster (created by Shawn Fanning in 1999), where listeners exchanged and circulated music. Through the lens of file sharing, Szendy began reflecting on the rights of listeners and the nature of musical listening more generally. He argues that sharing shapes the listening act: while listening can be passive–I am listening to you, receiving what you are saying–we also offer up what we are listening to. Rather than envisioning listening as a two-way engagement, Szendy triangulates it, structuring listening around a listening subject, the sonorous object the subject is listening to, and the addressee (le destinataire) of the subject’s listening. In Szendy’s theory of address, as we listen to somebody or something, we also address our listening to an “other” (who might be another beside me, or in myself).

That students would address and engage with “an other” through their listening appeased, in part, our concerns about having students listen to difficult stories of mass violence. If listening is akin to a peer-to-peer sharing system, students were somehow not “alone” anymore in the experience; listening is a building of relation.

Closely related to the concept of listening as address is Szendy’s idea of signature, especially through the digitalization of sound where “listeners become authors” (136) naming, tagging, and classifying the files that they share with others.  Szendy describes this process in terms of the singularity of listening:

It is more simply as a listener that I want to sign my listening: I would like to point out, to identify, and to share such-and-such sonorous event that no one besides me, I am certain of it, has ever heard as I have (3).

While all listening necessarily involves an appropriation of what has been listened to, we wanted to amplify the process of students “signing” or marking their listening, and so making it their own. We would deepen students’ engagement with the video interview and the “other” by having them actively edit, rework, even remix, and so adapt the original. We gave students the right to enter into the difficult stories from the survivors interviewed in the Montreal Life Stories project, responding as individuals and as members of a classroom community.  While the dynamic of students listening to and making something in response to the life stories takes many forms in our curricular units (including timelines, maps, and audio-tours), we here share the unit which most explicitly embodies the remixing in Szendy’s notion of listening.

What a Story!

What a story!: Life stories and digital storytelling, is designed for senior students in the  English Language Arts, and asks students to work in groups to create their own digital story version of a segment from one of the life story interviews.

In the preparation phase, the students listen to a 5 minute digital story of a Holocaust survivor living in Montreal that enables them to discover the multimedia elements and narrative structure of a digital story.


In the production phase, students approach their main task: producing a 5 minute digital story from a 34 minute life story interview with another Holocaust survivor. The phase begins with “deep listening” exercises where students work in groups to summarize the story and decide which parts of the larger interview they would like to keep in their edited versions. In doing this, they reflect on their experience as “listener“ vs. ”reader” and their responsibilities as listeners of difficult stories.

While the expression “deep listening” recalls the work of the composer Pauline Oliveros, in the Montreal Life Stories project the concept stems more directly from the notion of  “shared authority,” a phrase coined by oral historian Michael Frisch (1990) to describe the process of co-creating an interview. The community-university model was collaborative at all levels, and researchers and the researched were partners in dialogue. In turn, we frequently used “deep listening” (as in the profound listening between interviewers and interviewees) as an expression during our working sessions. The concept also draws on the work of oral historian Martha Norkunas on interview techniques and deep listening exercices; her visit to the project shaped our curriculum design process, and students are encouraged to engage in dialogue and sharing, and to “Listen with close attention and deeply, in an empathetic and respectful manner.“(13). These appeared, to our eyes, to be consistent with Szendy’s notion of listening as address and signature.


The production phase continues with the creation of the digital story, the editing and the montage. Students then reflect on the ethics of the process of cutting and reworking another’s story, exploring the way narratives can be modified, the meaning built into the digital story vs. the meaning of the interview, and the question of narrative form.

Peter Szendy chooses the deejay, or of the musical arranger, as a figure for the contemporary listener. Indeed, we imagined the students in groups, headphones on, in front of computers, slowing down the cadence, augmenting the sound, rewinding or fast-forwarding, cutting, pasting, annotating. We thought of them as highly skilled listeners, intervening in what they were listening to and interpreting their listening for the “other” (  in the manner of composition theory in which students are asked to write for real audiences for real purposes). As deejays of their listening!

Having students edit the life stories of others, especially stories of violence and war, brings with it risks of misinterpretation and manipulation. However, the unit asks students to think carefully about these risks, and unlike projects which use testimonies in the service of someone else’s argument, this editing assignment has students select from the larger interview in order to craft a narrative that respects the original. As Norkunas says, “When Michael Frisch coined his now famous phrase, “a shared authority,” he wrote of the shared responsibility of listener and narrator for creating the interview document, for interpreting it and for sharing the knowledge created.”(2) If editing and interpreting are critical to the process, adds Norkunas, “the first moment of creation takes place in the interview, in the act of listening.” Hence, the ethical issues raised by the editing assignment–and more generally by having students and teachers engage with personal stories of human rights violation–are addressed by considerable attention to the act of listening (13), and by the cultivation of trust, dialogue and sharing. In short, an attention to the “other.”

Rather than deciding that this content is too challenging for students or reproducing a passive listening dynamic in which students listen to the interviews in reverential silence, we work to support student engagement — as both an attention and response — with these stories as part of a community of listeners. And while listening to these stories can be difficult work, we hope that through our pedagogy of listening, students will gain a greater awareness of the lives of those Quebecois who are not often part of the national narrative, and grapple with some of the difficult knowledge of human pain and survival.

Bronwen Low is an Associate Professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University. She researches the implications of popular culture for education, curriculum theory, and adolescent (multi)literacy practices. Areas of interest include hip-hop and spoken word culture; informal, arts-based and participatory education with youth; and community media and participatory video programs.

Emmanuelle Sonntag defines herself as a “knowledge organizer.” She offers consultancy services in communication, education, curriculum design, information management and knowledge mobilization while pursuing her PhD in Sociology on… Listening at Université du Québec à Montréal. She tweets on listening, sounds, stories and other noises @lvrdg.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Audio Culture Studies: Scaffolding a Sequence of Assignments–Jentery Sayers


The Sounds of Writing and Learning— Liana Silva

Listening to #Occupy in the Classroom– Travers Scott


Audio Culture Studies: Scaffolding a Sequence of Assignments

Developed to explore the relationship between sound and learning, our fall forum on “Sound and Pedagogy” blends the thinking of our editors (Liana Silva), recruited guests (D. Travers Scott), and one of the winners of our recent Call For Posts (Jentery Sayers) to explore how listening impacts the writing process, the teachable moment, and the syllabus (and vice versa). If you need a make-up assignment for the first post by D. Travers Scott, click here, or for last week’s post by Liana Silva, click here. Otherwise, get ready to take some furious notes, because today’s post from Jentery Sayers offers a generously revealing—and unprecedented—glimpse inside the development of his audio culture course over several years. Chock full of suggestions, prompts, unique assignments, and troubleshooting tips, Sayers’s offering is refreshingly frank about the unique challenges facing sound studies scholars in the classroom. As in most classes, information this deep may need some time to settle in and effect some change, so we’ll check back with you in spring with a Sound and Pedagogy “refresher course.” It’s already on our syllabus.–JSA, Editor in Chief 

This semester, I am teaching my fourth course in audio culture studies. Since students and faculty in the humanities rarely have the opportunity to intensively examine sound in the context of higher education, thus far I have learned that—even for teachers who are well-versed in sound studies—planning and structuring work in an audio culture course is more difficult than it may at first appear. For instance, to what degree should an audio culture course intersect with visual culture studies? What cultural assumptions about sound inform how students learn about it, not to mention how instructors teach it? When engaging histories of sound reproduction, how might students combine knowing and doing, or composing about and with sound? And how should work in an audio culture course be assessed? Through what sorts of learning outcomes? With what forms of student preparation and self-reflexivity in mind?

In the following paragraphs, I engage these questions by unpacking a portfolio-based assignment sequence from an undergraduate course I taught at the University of Washington-Bothell in 2010: “Technologies of Expression: Sound Reproduction Studies.”

Screen Grab of Technologies of Expression

As I prepare for my “Audio Culture Studies” undergraduate course at the University of Victoria this semester, the above questions are guiding my lesson plans as well as my revisions of previous teaching materials. Yet more importantly, I imagine they—or variants of them—resonate with other instructors invested in sound studies, and I hope this post will spark a conversation about how to continue developing sound studies curricula in higher education. In one sense, such curricula should be and are distinct from work anchored in visual culture, print, film, and e-text studies. Nevertheless, there are a variety of suggestive intersections across these fields, and my approach to audio culture courses often builds upon them, especially since my training is in literary and cultural studies.

To begin “Sound Reproduction Studies” (heretoafter “205”) at the University of Washington-Bothell, I told students to let me know (in writing) how they were going to record sound during the course. After all, I did not know what technologies they could access, and I wanted to make sure that—with help from the University’s library and digital media services—recording equipment was available to them. I also informed them that, throughout the course, we would be focusing on basic recording and editing but not high fidelity techniques or post-production. In other words, I was not expecting them to gain competencies common in sound art and audio engineering, and my humanities-oriented assessment of their audio work would privilege content and composition over the aesthetics of recording and playback. For a course anchored primarily in cultural studies, they were welcome to use everyday audio equipment intended for consumers and amateurs, and fortunately that equipment was available on loan through the University.

After that request, I asked them to “crowdsource” a brief history of sound reproduction using SIMILE’s Exhibit 2 framework. While I have my reservations about crowdsourcing, for the purposes of the class—especially at the beginning of the quarter—it was appropriate. As the prompt suggests, I wanted to survey what students already knew about audio, together with where their interests in sound tended to constellate.

Screen Grab of the Crowdsourcing Prompt

From the start of the course, I also wanted to situate visual and audio cultures in the same space, encouraging students to think about the tensions and intersections between them as well as the epistemologies and affects they enable. Here’s a screen grab of what students produced in a week (between two class meetings):

Screen Grab of Exhibit

I used this crowdsourced exhibit as the basis for an introductory lecture on the vexed legacies of sound reproduction. It helped me identify gaps in student knowledge while also underscoring what was familiar to them (e.g., Edison’s phonograph, the turntable, and auto-tune). The exhibit became a handy vehicle for posing questions to explore for the balance of the course: How is noise defined differently over time, by whom, and for whom? How is sound naturalized, and to what effects on critical inquiry? How is sound embodied, and why is it so often associated with emotion, affect, and immersion? When studying the history of sound reproduction, what roles do old technologies and media play in our research? How has the composition and playback of audio changed from decade to decade?

In other words, the exhibit was a low-stakes launching pad into the course material. I found it instilled a bit of confidence in students by giving them some sense of authority over the material. And it gave them a concrete sense of what I meant by “audio culture” (as opposed to, say, “music history”). Early in the course, I also appreciated the opportunity to highlight the deep and rich history of sound reproduction, a history which no doubt informs contemporary obsessions with all things digital. Where I failed as an instructor was by not returning to the exhibit later in the quarter. In future courses, I’ll give them an opportunity to add, revise, and even remove content where appropriate. Such a gesture would add a layer of self-reflexivity and iterative knowledge-making to the learning process, premised on questions like: “Now that you’ve studied audio for seven weeks, how would you revise your contributions to the crowdsourced exhibit you helped compose earlier in the course? How has your perception of audio’s history changed and why?”

After the crowdsourced exhibit of sound reproduction, the students in 205 shifted toward composing with audio, exploring ways to combine knowing and doing sound studies. For this shift, I relied on another low-stakes assignment: the “audiography.”

Screen Grab of the Prompt

Here, students had the opportunity to share “playlists” of sounds typical to their everyday lives. However, the ultimate motivation of the exercise was twofold: (1) for them to closely attend to those common soundscapes, organize them (around a theme of some sort), and record them; and (2) for them to develop some basic competencies in the free audio editor and recorder, Audacity (based on a workshop conducted during class). Although the very notion of a “soundscape” was likely new to them, and even though most of them had never recorded audio, the concept of a playlist was personal and familiar enough to make the assignment approachable. It also stressed the fact that, like images and texts, people design and structure arguments through sound. A playlist of everyday sounds involves rhetorical strategies not entirely distinct from, say, an academic essay or television broadcast.

For the audiography (as well as every other audio composition in 205), the students were given constraints (e.g., “no narration,” “no effects,” and “eight to fifteen recordings only”) similar to guidelines for academic essays. And once the audio files were composed, the students uploaded them to our class audio blog (using a WordPress theme that unfortunately is no longer supported or maintained). The benefit of the blog was that everyone in the course could hear everyone else’s audio work. Additionally, I could play student audio during class meetings, treating it as an object of inquiry for discussion. In so doing, I made sure that—during the quarter—we discussed every student’s audio work at least once.

Audiographies are great for getting at cultural assumptions about sound, especially when students are able to respond to them through repurposing, voice-over, or a similar strategy. For the “re: audiography” prompt, I asked students to do just this.

Screen Grab of Prompt

They downloaded a peer’s audiography (from the class audio blog), edited it, produced a story through it (including voice-over tracks), and circulated the final product. While, quite obviously, this exercise became a gateway into studying montage, cut-up, turntable, DJ, and laptop practices, it also gave students an opportunity to assess how an audience member might interpret their audio work, the soundscapes with which they are familiar, and the rhetorical strategies motivating their compositions. “Re: audiography” relies on re-situating audio in a new context, as it demands thinking about how setting, history, and ideologies all affect interpretation. In so doing, it also requires significant consideration of the risks, play, warrants, and claims involved in an audio composition relying heavily on existing work. As an instructor, I was sure to remind students that such play is not innocent; it is quite serious, and—in the context of 205—it was not intended to offend or mock another student’s work, interests, or background. Consequently, adding this line to the prompt was key: “Don’t be rude to them and recognize that they worked hard to make their audiographies. What’s more, the sounds involved mean something to them.”

As I plan for my audio culture studies course at the University of Victoria, I am revising the “re: audiography” prompt to make it more concrete, with clear parameters. In particular, Step 5 in the instructions is too vague; it lacks sufficient focus, without being anchored in a particular genre or example to which students can refer. As such, during 205 I ultimately worried that the flexibility in the prompt induced student anxiety. Without a genre in mind, they had too many avenues to explore, even if all of those avenues afforded ways of engaging cultural assumptions about sound.

After the audiography prompts in 205, I assigned students two “found sound” exercises, which furthered the combination of knowing and doing through a line of research. Both exercises were scaffolded toward the production of an audio documentary that was academic in character.

The first “found sound” prompt asked them to gather a series of historical audio clips related to a particular medium and begin formulating a research question about them.

Screen Grab of Prompt

The audio piece that resulted included not only the audio clips but also the student’s initial thoughts, questions, and concerns about the research. One significant benefit of this exercise was that it acted in conversation with other strategies for academic argumentation, namely how arguments involving actual audio differ from and intersect with arguments devoid of audio. In other words, it introduced students to the very notion of multimodal argumentation, including the ways in which audio functions in scholarly communications. Students also had to consider what it means for an argument to be heard, not read.

As an instructor, I find that I still tend to map norms for text- and image-based argumentation onto audio work. For instance, the language of the “found sound” prompt resonates with a prompt I would write for a text-based “thought piece.” It is a translation of modes, without much consideration for how audio-based arguments might actually serve distinct and perhaps divergent aims—aims premised on, say, affect or non-sequential arrangement. For future iterations of this prompt, I plan to highlight such possibilities, brushing against my own proclivities for validating audio-based arguments through text- and image-based conventions.

Comparable to the “re: audiography” prompt, the students in 205 responded to each other’s “found sound” exercises, this time through “re: found sound.”

Screen Grab of Prompt

Rather than repurposing or sampling a student’s work, in this case students recorded verbal feedback, which essentially acted as a form of peer review. Perhaps above all else, this exercise allowed students to articulate an understanding of how to structure and evaluate audio compositions, preparing them for the audio documentary. Yet one of the most effective components of the prompt is this request: “Identify at least one thing (but preferably more) that you think your peer is overlooking or not considering. This thing can be a concept (e.g., ‘speaking with’), an example work (e.g., film, audio recording, or text), or a perspective (e.g., conflicting opinions on the topic). When you make this gesture, explain why it’s relevant to not only his or her audio documentary, but also the history of sound reproduction.” From my perspective as an instructor, this intervention in a peer’s work is difficult yet rewarding. It is a response that demands its own research, as it asks the reviewer to more or less deconstruct what is being heard.

“Re: found sound” also requires students to meticulously consider how they are saying what they are saying when critiquing someone else’s work. For instance, tone, inflection, and dialogic gestures are foregrounded. To be sure, students make similar decisions when responding through text. Nonetheless, the shift in modality affords a learning experience arguably rare in higher education humanities.

For future iterations of “re: found sound,” I will ask students to submit written feedback in tandem with the audio, not only for accessibility purposes but also to stress correspondences between the media. Again, one of my ongoing concerns in audio culture courses is that I will—in a reactionary fashion—privilege speaking and listening over seeing, reading, and watching. Such reactionary approaches risk dividing critical approaches when they can instead be suggestively blended through interdisciplinary research.

The two “found sound” prompts guided students in 205 toward an audio documentary, which was steeped in a specific historical issue and informed largely by cultural studies approaches to audio technologies and media.

Screen Grab of Prompt

To prepare students for this genre, I provided example documentaries, and we also conducted several workshops on how to make and critique those documentaries. In the end, these documentaries were a real pleasure to hear, and one of the biggest difficulties is listening and re-listening to them closely. After all, the evaluation of audio operates through a different temporality than text, and often times it lends itself to focusing too much on production and post-production (rather than, in this case, the actual content of the audio documentary). Requesting transcripts, and even the original AUP files (or a similar format), can facilitate fair and thorough evaluation. I also try to listen to each documentary at least twice, with and without headphones. Finally, as an instructor I have learned that audio documentaries will always take students twice as long as I assume they will. Despite popular assumptions about the speediness and ease of digital production, the genre is labor-intensive and layered with samples, effects, voice-over, and transitions. It is also often new to students in higher education.

Even though the documentary was the most involved piece of the students’ audio portfolios in 205, it was not the final submission. In a self-reflexive fashion, the students were asked to submit a final remix of their work (PDF).

Screen Grab of Prompt

At its core, the final remix intersected audio theory, practice, and history. Intended for educated, non-expert audiences beyond the course, it asked students to provide specific examples of how they fulfilled particular outcomes in the course. Among other things, the samples in the remix were intended to demonstrate an awareness of: (1) audience, (2) the technocultural history of sound, (3) a theory of listening, (4) audio composition and post-production, (5) constructive, audio-based peer review, and (6) persuasive media strategies for audio-based argumentation.

Perhaps quite obviously, this reflective remix borrows from a long history in writing studies. And I have found it quite effective for identifying what and how students learned from the course. That said, what I enjoy most about it is how it requires thinking about sound as matter: its arrangement and manipulation, its existence in various iterations and formats, its function as tangible, audible evidence. For, when returning briefly to those questions in the first paragraph of this piece, I tend to think the greatest challenge facing sound studies curricula and pedagogy is the challenge of sound’s materiality. As sound studies scholars, how do we foster spaces and opportunities where people can learn about the history of sound as an object with its own fluctuations, politics, aesthetics, and material particulars? How do we teach audio culture as that which can be simultaneously inhabited and examined from a distance? As a thing, a mode of composition, and a way of thinking, feeling, and acting?

Featured Image “Burn Station @ inSIRACJE festival” by Flickr User Paula Rey

Jentery Sayers is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Victoria, where he teaches cultural studies, digital humanities, and 20th-century U.S. fiction. His writing has appeared in Kairos: Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy; The New Work of Composing; Computational Culture; The New Everyday; Writing and the Digital Generation; Off Paper; Collaborative Approaches to the Digital in English Studies; and ProfHacker. Among his other work involving audio, his current book project is a cultural history of magnetic recording. He’s grateful to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman at Sounding Out! for feedback on drafts of this piece. 

The Sounds of Writing and Learning

“I Rise,” image by Flickr User Lua Ahmed

Welcome back to Sounding Out!‘s fall forum on “Sound and Pedagogy.”  Developed to explore the relationship between sound and learning, this forum blends the thinking of our editors (Liana Silva), recruited guests (D. Travers Scott), and one of the winners of our recent Call For Posts (Jentery Sayers) to explore how listening impacts the writing process, the teachable moment, and the syllabus (and vice versa).  Sharpen your pencils and/or give your typing fingers a good stretch, because today’s offering from Liana Silva asks you to exercise unexpected writing muscles—your tongue, mouth, and vocal chords! If you need a make-up assignment for last week’s post by D. Travers Scott, “Listening to #Occupy in the Classroom,” click here.  And don’t forget–same class time next week!–JSA, Editor in Chief 

When I started this draft, I sat in an office that is not mine, next to an old, whirring Westclox Dialite electric clock. When I write, I usually pop my headphones on and blast my “Writing” playlist on my iPhone. But that day, I was soothed by the sounds of a whirring clock and the air blasting through a wall vent. On another day I worked on my draft while I listened to sports talk radio, a big part of my morning routine; toward the end of the drafting process I shared this blog post with a writing consultant at the writing center where I work.

For me, writing is always connected to sound. Sound inhabits the spaces where I write, either in the shape of music, typing, or voices. These sounds are never far from my writing process. In fact, something so small as the typing of the keys as I write this can be construed as the soundtrack to my writing. Sounding Out! guest blogger and author Bridget Hoida made a case for how sound is part of the texts she reads and how she weaves sound into her own writing; in my case,  I can’t think of writing without sound. It is my soundtrack/sound track, in the sense that sound is the track on which I lay my writing process, like the lines of a ruled notebook.

“Writing” by Flickr user Sara Bjork through Creative Commons License 2.0

However, many writers and educators tend to think of writing as a solitary, lonely, quiet endeavor. Last month, at an orientation where I was speaking, I heard someone refer to the “quiet activity of writing and learning.” As I looked around me, stunned, I seemed to be the only one surprised at this assertion. Although it is a common perception, as a writer, ex-writing instructor, and writing center staff member, this did not make sense to me. Both writing and learning, for me, are connected to sound, whether it was listening to music while editing or talking through my ideas during class discussion. If, to paraphrase Brandon Labelle in Acoustic Territories, places configure what sounds are deemed acceptable and unacceptable, do schools configure what are the appropriate sounds of learning?

I approach this question about the sounds of learning from the angle of my work at the writing center. For years I taught first-year composition, and later on in my academic career I started working at a writing center (where I currently work). At the Writing Center we are surrounded by the sounds of writing and learning. A student will walk up to one of our locations and meet with a writing consultant. They will discuss the writer’s text, in the case that the writer brings a draft. After this discussion, the consultant will read the writer’s text aloud, a practice that all of our writing consultants must adhere to. The text comes alive in the voice of the consultant; the good, the bad, and the ugly are made audible, concrete in the voice of the consultant. This enables both parties to hear the paper, but also to listen to the paper and, ideally, understand it better. The consultant and the writer then talk about what works, what doesn’t, what could be improved and how. Learning takes place through a conversation. It is at the writing center where writing and learning processes are no longer silent, but actually audible. The value for a writer of hearing their text aloud is not new; in 1967, Anthony Tovatt and Ebert L. Miller did a three-year study on how listening to their writing helped high-school writers improve their writing skills (see their article “The Sound of Writing”). My concern is how learning is coded as silent, despite evidence to the contrary.

I wonder about the implications of describing learning and writing as “silent” processes. Silence already has a domesticating quality: it is portrayed as the gift of the restrainted, of the eloquent, of the elite, and these ideas about silence and noise emerge from 19th Century ideas about respectability and middle-class values. As an example, American Studies scholar Daniel Cavicchi states in Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum,

“In fact, both in the North and the South, genteel people came to value the quietude of silent reading and listening as a form of ‘productive leisure’ that was explicitly opposed to the louder, more boisterous pastimes of slaves, immigrants, and workers.  As in the days when European colonists and Native Americans struggled to understand each other’s sound worlds, aural difference now became a wedge that allowed those in power to place certain groups figuratively and literally outside the bounds of civilization” (52).

Ideas of learning as silent are coded in broader discourse about silence (or, to use Cavicchi’s more accurate terminology, quietude) and noise, about what is respectable and what is not. How do these common connotations of quietude as dignified and sound/noise as unpleasant carry over to descriptions of of learning? It is possible that society has normalized these types of learning (the “silent” types) as of a higher caliber, and schools have a major part in that: reading to one’s self in silence, filling out exam questions and not talking to anyone, typing in a quiet library at a computer station fit for only one. Even a lecture dignifies silence, in a way: students sit down and listen to what the teacher/professor has to say while they digest, quietly, what is being taught. In opposition, the sounds of learning can be associated to the sounds of collaboration, as it were: tutorials, consultations, advising sessions, discussion sections, movie viewings. Although talking is not the only way to collaborate in order to learn, I posit that these learning activities that are usually non-silent fall prey to hierarchies of sound and silence.

“Student Writing 2002,” Image by Flickr user Cybrarian

These hierarchies of sound and silence tell listeners that the learning activities that are portrayed as silent are more legitimate than those that are portrayed as boisterous, loud, animated—in other words, activities producing sound. In fact, it doesn’t have to be either/or. The fact that they are set in opposition to themselves is in itself problematic. Isolating sound from the learning process acts as a way of emphasizing writing as the main component of learning. Jody Shipka in “Sound Engineering: Toward a Theory of Multimodal Soundness” describes how writing is thought of as “the communication of scholarly, rigorous arguments or ideas, something more often associated with the production of linear, print-based texts” (356, emphasis in original). This dichotomy of rigor versus play can be portrayed also as visuality (as embodied in the written text) versus aurality. The writing center can be the place where these ideas are tested, in the sense that it is a location of collaborative learning where some learn by writing and others benefit from talk while others benefit from listening. By privileging quietude and solitude as the ideal modes for learning, we miss out on other important vehicles for learning, such as sound.


If I started this post with the whirring of the Westclox clock, how did I end this post? I ended it on a busy Sunday evening, while my daughter slept and my boyfriend talked on the phone. I finished it with the chatter of the air conditioner, the clack of baseballs against bats coming from the living room, and the click click click of the keyboard keeping me company.

Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!

Listening to #Occupy in the Classroom

Yes, it’s that time again, readers. You are going to have to stop pretending the “Back to School” aisles haven’t been appearing in stores for the past few weeks.  We at SO! are here to ease your transition from summer work schedules to the business of teaching and student-ing with our fall forum on “Sound and Pedagogy.”  Developed to explore the relationship between sound and learning, this forum blends the thinking of our editors (Liana Silva), recruited guests (D. Travers Scott), and one of the winners of our recent Call For Posts (Jentery Sayers) to explore how listening impacts the writing process, the teachable moment, and the syllabus (and vice versa).  We hope to inspire your fall planning–whether or not you teach a course on “sound studies”–and encourage teachers and students of any subjects to reconsider the classroom as a sensory space. We also encourage you to share your feedback, tips, and experiences in comments to these posts and on our Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit sites.  As I said in the Call for Posts for this Forum: “because teaching is so crucial—yet so frequently ignored at conferences and on campus—Sounding Out! wants to wants to provide a virtual space for this vital discussion.”  This conversation will be ongoing: we will also bring you a “Spring Break Brush-Up” edition in 2013 featuring several more excellent posts by writers selected from our open call. Right now, the bell’s about to ring–so take a seat, open those ears, and enjoy this shiny auditory apple of an offering from D. Travers Scott in which he discusses how the sounds of #Occupy invigorated his classroom.  And, yes, it will be on the test. —JSA, Editor-in-Chief

In the late fall of 2011, I was teaching a class on cultural studies of advertising. I presented the Occupy Student Debt campaign, a subcategory or spinoff of the larger Occupy movement, while we were examining ways people challenged consumer culture. We discussed education as a commodity and students as consumers. Unsurprisingly, my seniors were dissatisfied consumers. They expressed that what had been advertised to them was a product that guaranteed or at least would strongly increase their chances for quality employment (of course, it was also a product they had worked for years in creating, and one they couldn’t return.) If higher education really did land you the lucrative job it had been advertised as guaranteeing, in theory, then, you would be able to more easily pay off student loan debt. To address this dissatisfaction, I showed them two artifacts: a video from the launch in New York City on November 12, 2011,  and the OSD debtors’ pledge*.

In the video, OSD founder Pamela Brown reads the pledge one line at a time, with each line chanted back by others.  I played the video in a dark classroom. I also projected it on the room’s main screen, but I didn’t use the room’s amplification system because it sounds too much like an authoritarian public address and disperses the audio in a dominating way. External speakers connected to my laptop made the sound feel, to me, more localized and objectified, something we could focus on rather than an institutional part of the room. The students’ first reaction was, not to the words, but the sound: the verbal relay used at the public demonstration. Brows furrowed and heads cocked quizzically, they asked, “Why are they all repeating the speaker like that?” I explained how this provides additional amplification, but the students’ listening experience was instructive to me. Their unfamiliarity with a sonic practice of vocalization indicated their unfamiliarity with larger practices of collective, public social action.

Listening to OSD, and paying attention to how my students listened to it, informed me of larger contexts they needed to understand and discuss it, in ways that the object of the text did not suggest to me. It made me think about the experience and process of my students’ encountering OSD. I immediately noticed its ambient sounds of city life, which I no longer hear. These sounds of traffic, the acoustics of being surrounded by buildings, etc. gave several urban dimensions to the movement the pledge text did not. From the perspective of Upstate South Carolina, “urban” is not a simple thing, an identity or geography category, but intersectional:  our largest city, Greenville, has a population under 60,000. City noises feel not merely urban, but un-Southern, and thereby alien. (I say un-Southern rather than Northern or Yankee because another thing I’ve learned here is the inadequacy of that binary: Los Angeles, for example, is not a Northern city but most certainly is as un-Southern as New York. Cities also carry a class dimension.) Even though my school is one of the elite institutions in this area, this region is still worse off economically than the rest of the country and has a generally lower cost of living. Cities require money to live in. In spatial, class, and urban dimensions, OSD felt alien.

Opening of the Occupy Student Debt Campaign, Image by Flickr User JohannaClear

The experience of listening to the ODS rally illustrates how a sound studies perspective foregrounds experiential processes over exclusive categories of things and ideas. For example, when I read the OSD Debtors’ Pledge aloud to my students—vocalizing the text and sounds and listening to them— it brought the text into my body, making it an action. It also made students uncomfortable. Even just a round-robin reading of theory seems to make then anxious and fidgety. While I try to understand and accommodate anxieties around public speaking, I think the way sound makes a text enter the body can be a powerful affective experience. And no one ever said the classroom always had to be comfortable.  For me, reading the text aloud personalized the OSD pledge. It evoked sensory memories:  “Pledge of” evoked saying the pledge of allegiance in public school; saying “We believe” took me to attending Lutheran church services with my husband at the time where they collectively recite the Apostles’ Creed.  These associations evoked emotional disidentifications from organized religion and mandatory collective professions of patriotism. It also temporalized and spatialized OSD for me, positioning it in relations to Dallas, Texas in the 1970s and Greenville, SC today.

Overall, the reading aloud of the pledge staged a tension or dialectic of identification and disidentifications. Although I agreed and identified with the sentiments of the movement, several alienating and unsettling aspects of the pledge came through as I read aloud: the blithe collapsings of “we” and “as members of the most indebted generations” made me wary (collectives always do, but so do easy historical assertions. Really? Are we more indebted than indentured servants who came to America, or people born into slavery?), and the sudden shift to first person singular at the very end seemed jarring: (After saying “we” six times, suddenly it’s ‘I’ now – what happened?). Lastly, the numerous alliterations also had an alienating effect, making the text seem sophistic and manipulative, artificial, composed.

The auditory experience of OSD can also provide insight into how we create texts. A video of Andrew Ross shows him presenting the first, “very rough draft” weeks earlier at an OWS event. Listening to him read this different, earlier version underscores the text as process. The pledge is something that developed. While his flat tone and straight male voice do not appeal to me, they do complexify and dimensionalize Brown’s reading, giving it depth. They also show that some things that bothered me in the final version – the collectivity and alliterations – were not there. This intertextual, diachronic listening does not erase troublesome aspects of the ‘final’ text, but it mediates them. I am moved closer to it by listening to its different origin.

Arguably, any of these points could have been arrived at by good ole’ textual analysis. My point is not that listening always should supplant visual modes; sound studies tries to break that false dichotomy by not denigrating or replacing the visual but by elevating the sonic to complementary – not superseding – status. I argue that reading aloud should be a fundamental, basic component of sound studies methodology, as it allows anyone to hear, voice, embody, and experience a text. I not only noticed these aspects sooner through listening – my first time speaking it aloud, despite having read it at least a dozen times before. Moreover, I didn’t just notice them: I felt them on a personal, emotional, level, which spurs thinking and analysis that is, if not completely new and unique, definitely qualitatively different in its potency and urgency.

Listening to OWS, and the OSD in particular, brings insights affective and personal. Yes, I can read a statistic from a survey stating that a certain percentage of participants in OWS feel angry or betrayed. That doesn’t mean anything to me in a specific, personal, and empathetic way – and empathy is crucial for a social movement to garner support. Listening to both Ross and Brown, I am reflective and conflicted over my professional role – no longer a grad student, but certainly not an established scholar like Ross. I feel connected to OSD in ways beyond the literal facts of my debt. Listening draws me into a contemplative, reflexive space beyond a sticky note on my office desk saying “OWS: teachable moment.” I can see a map with big, red OWS circles over Washington D.C. and New York, but I don’t feel the distance from myself and my students in the same way—and this is crucial for my teaching and engaging them in dialogue about what could be the most significant social movements of their lifetimes.

*Even though OSD punctuates it “debtors’ pledge,” I believe it should be debtor’s pledge  because it is a pledge an individual, not group, makes. However, here I defer to the original.
Featured image by Flickr User  Sasha Y. Kimel
D. Travers Scott is Director of Graduate Studies and Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Clemson University in South Carolina. He researches cultural and historic studies of new media, communication technologies, gender, and sexuality, often drawing on feminist and sound studies perspectives. Recent publications include a chapter in The First Time I Heard Joy Division/New Order and “Intimacy Threats and Intersubjective Users: Telephone Training Films, 1927–1962,” in the sound studies issue of American Quarterly(book version forthcoming). Current projects include co-editing with Devon Powers a special issue of the International Journal of Communication on critical historiography and revising his book manuscript, Sick: Constructing Users in Pathological Technoculture, under review with NYU Press. His former lives include advertising executive, novelist, and performance artist. You can find him at
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