From the first time Phillip C. McGraw, Ph.D.—better known as “Dr. Phil”—appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1998, dropping lines like, “My dad used to say, boy, don’t let yer alligator mouth overload yer hummin’ bird ass,” I was hooked. That accent! That no-nonsense, Southern sauce! From what fount of otherworldly knowledge did Phil drink? An insecure teen, gnawing and thrashing my way through high school’s convoluted social milieu (not to mention the murky waters of multiraciality), Dr. Phil’s frank, accented approach to life’s difficulties appeared as a god-send. It didn’t matter much what Dr. Phil was actually saying or whether his words when strung together formed logical thoughts, it was more the way he said things that affected me so. His deep, sing-songy lilt—preachy and avuncular—brought to mind a grandpappy smoking a pipe, whose wisdom was drawn from a hard day’s farmin’, not a god-forsaken textbook.
With Oprah’s endorsement, the Cult of Phil grew fast and strong. Dr. Phil became a national figure–the corporate media’s version of a public intellectual and my own personal hero. His daytime talk show provided him with a regular platform from which to dispense more of that golden, “Texan-dipped” advice, as The New York Times put it. Selling over 2 million copies, his 2003 classic Self Matters began the onslaught of McGraw-family oeuvre, including several by his wife, Robin, and son, Jay–the face of Phil’s teen self-help brand. Not just a sage, Dr. Phil’s commitment to the McGraw family brand let us know he walked the walk. As evidenced by Dr. Phil’s opening credits, which feature behind-the-scenes glimpses of Mr. and Mrs. McGraw canoodling and his smiley next of kin, this family was for real. They loved and laughed together while cross-promoting each other’s book projects. Teenage Me wondered, did white people get better than this?
Today, Dr. Phil’s star, and my admiration for him, have faded significantly, but one thing remains the same. Ever since I can remember, my older sister and I have communicated almost exclusively via over-the-top, celebrity impersonations and Dr. Phil became a particular mainstay; even now, we religiously observe the maintenance of the Phil “voice.” Pre-Phil, I can recall my sister addressing me in a raspy, befuddled tone startlingly akin to the Keanu Reeves of yesteryear. Not soon after Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure became a permanent piece of our home VHS library, Reeves’ trademark method of delivering lines amidst staggered, nonsensical pauses became an obsessive, sisterly tick. “Dude, shut the door when you pee” she might say, staring blankly at me and cocking her head abruptly to the side.
The use of certain impersonations shifted with the ebb and flow of popular culture’s somewhat predictable tide, depending on whose video was “TRL’s” most requested or whose face most frequently graced the cover of TV Guide. I rehearsed George Herbert Walker Bush’s famous “thousand points of light” campaign ad in front of the stained glass mirror adjacent to the family room television; after that, it was all about Phil Hartman’s witty and endearing impersonation of Bill Clinton.
It went on that way until Dr. Phil’s shit blew up, and everything became solidified–as if, finally, my sister and I had found our one true voice. With age, I came to understand that Phil wasn’t the prophetic genius I’d hoped he was and that our compulsive Phil-talk was an oddity, to say the least. I began to wonder why, even as adults, we continued to embarrass ourselves in public and take such pains to text each other in mock-“Texan” (thank goodness for smart phones’ “add word” function).
It’s actually quite common for people to adopt alternate voices or speech patterns. Take, for example, child-directed speech (“babytalk”) or pet-directed speech. Both are customized forms of vocal communication or “prosodic modification,” which, while differing dramatically from normative adult speech in their intonation and grammatical structure, are considered customary forms of address. In fact, cross-linguistic studies show that babytalk and pet-directed speech are common across other European languages, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. As such, parents and pet owners can rest well knowing that prosodic modification of the child and dog varieties are nearly universal human ticks. Unfortunately, research into child- and pet-directed speech didn’t provide much insight into the unique phenomenon of “Phil-talk.” I had hoped to find other accounts in the literature, a history of similar episodes that might lift the shroud of tomfoolery, explain it away as all too common or evidence of psychological disorder x, y or z, something treatable with an esoteric name.
While at this point in my life Phil-talk is more or less an asinine charade, it continues to function as a key component of our familiar vernacular. Interestingly, when re-visiting the many impersonations that have come to define our adolescent years (the Keanu years, the Bush Sr. years, the Phil years), one thing becomes clear: all the voices we’ve adopted have been those of white, male, cultural standard-bearers (Ironically, Keanu Reeves also happens to be Hapa, though I never knew as much. His breakout role as “Ted” helped to popularize the “California dude” archetype). Additionally, I should note, that at no time did any female impersonations enter my repertoire. If you’re going to gain a voice, better make it a male one, no? The racial and gender dissonance that Phil-talk begets drives the urge to perform it.
From an early age, my mother would tell me tales of her sacrifice—how hard she worked when she came to this country and how difficult life could be in 1960s post-war South Korea—all in a voice with barely a shred of mispronunciation or foreign intonation. My father, a second-generation Swiss-Italian American, scrupulously corrected her syntactical missteps and any other vocal nuances that sounded un-American. It was important to my mother to succeed as an American, and most importantly, that her children succeed too. The pressure I felt to make her content was borderline unbearable. When I started doing the voices, it made my mother happy. She sometimes tried joining in, attempting to mimic key Phil phrases like, “You have gawt to get reee-al,” but to no avail. “You do it better than me,” she’d say, “…my accent.”
When I was young, people looked at me and asked, “what are you?” OR “where are you from?” “America,” I would say. “I’m an American.” These questions were provoked by the racial ambiguity of my mixed-race heritage–the hint of Asianness that marked me as something else. I could not change the shape of my eyes, the contour of my cheeks or the fact that my mother was Korean. But, I could try my hardest to act and sound like an American. Phil-talk became a way to obscure the Asianness, to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I did, in fact, belong.
Rather than being merely a childhood performance of celebrity impersonations, I have come to think these various chapters were actually an attempt to perform sonic whiteness. Whether it was Keanu’s California dude cadence, George Bush Senior’s waspy nasality, or Phil’s prolonged Texan twang, I tried to perform in what Aja Martinez defines as “white voice” in her article “‘The American Way’: Resisting the Empire of Force and Color-Blind Racism” (593). She talks about Latino/a students using a “white voice” at school because they equate it with the voice of higher education, but I am really using it here as an explicit racial performance. As a a half Korean, half Euro-American teen girl (now woman) who decides to very literally adopt the voice of a White, 50-something, Texan, TV psychologist, “white voice” was the name of the game, and people loved it–especially my Korean immigrant mother.
For Asian Americans in particular, a people whose national belonging has been culturally questioned and legally denied, accents substantiate and make audible what the eye sees as un-American. In Shilpa Dave’s recently published Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film, she explores accents as they relate to cultural citizenship, national belonging and “the allocation of power.” Someone with an accent is “designated as an outsider to the dominant culture,” writes Dave. In contradistinction to “foreign” sounding accents, Southern accents are a classic symbol of American cultural belonging, like apple pie for the ears.
Would Phil’s wisdom sound as powerful or palatable without the accent? His appeal stems not only from his sometimes entertaining “Phil-isms” (e.g. “You can’t hide the sunrise from a rooster”), but from all that he and his voice signify. A white, male doctor giving advice on TV is hardly noteworthy, but Phil’s recognizably Southern accent separates him from the pack and softens the blow of his often severe advice.Phil’s accent (and his ringing endorsement from Oprah, long a trendsetter for the white middle class) have a way of diminishing racial and class barriers and cleverly marketing his advice as “good ol’ common sense” that everyone can get behind. Though Southern African American vernacular is often represented, negatively, as “improper” or evidence of inferior educational attainment, a White doctor using many of the same linguistic nuances is considered “charming” and “folksy.” One of the reasons people listen(ed) to Phil is because he’s a good, moustachioed Southern doctor that’s gunna tell it to ya straight, ya’ll. This kind of cultural capital is hard to manufacture. This, I figured wrongly, was what I stood to gain, not considering for a moment all that might be lost.
Constantly searching for ways to be seen, heard, and accepted within an American system of racial binarism that privileges whiteness, denigrates blackness, and locates yellowness somewhere in a No Man’s Land of racial categorization, sound’s flexibility has always seemed to me like a means to belonging. Furthermore, as a multiracial, Korean/White woman, even no man’s land can seem out of reach. As Michael Omi notes in the Introduction to The Sum of Our Parts: Mixed-Heritage Asian Americans, within the historical and political context of the United States, (the “one-drop rule,” eugenic fears of racial intermixing, anti-miscegenation laws, etc.) multiracial identities have consistently been “contained, disregarded, [and] denied.” Multiraciality disorients and confuses insofar as it can discredit entrenched signifiers which make race perceptible to the eye and ear.
Previously on Sounding Out!, I discussed my identification with Nas and the rap world as both a move towards color and the formation of an authentic, multiracial self. A move in the opposite direction, experimenting with “white voice,” functions as another attempt to navigate America’s system of racial identification, albeit in a much more problematic vein. After years of Phil-talk and vocal impersonations of the white male variety, I am finally putting a stop to the charade. However earnest (or subconscious) an attempt to belong, the loss of time spent mimicking Phil represents an era of racial silencing that is somewhat difficult to stomach. Despite the amusement it has brought to friends and family, I am putting the voice to rest in service of getting real.
Featured image: “Dr. Phil” by Flickr user House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Christie Zwahlen is the Assistant Director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, where she has worked for four years to develop, expand and promote community engagement opportunities for students, faculty and staff. Previously, Christie worked for two years as an AmeriCorps VISTA, designing Service-Learning courses in conjunction with faculty at Thiel College and as the Coordinator of the Bridging the Digital Divide Program at Binghamton University. Christie earned her Master’s Degree in English and a Graduate Certificate in Asian & Asian American Studies from Binghamton University in 2009. She is currently enrolled in the English PhD program at Binghamton University.
I want to enable my students to mobilize sound studies not just as an analytic filter to help them understand the world, but as a method enabling more meaningful engagement with it. This post, an abbreviated version of the paper I recently gave at the Invisible Places, Sounding Cities Conference in Viseu, Portugal on July 18, 2014, explores my pedagogical efforts to move my sound studies work from theory to methodology to praxis in the classroom and in my larger community. In particular, I am working to intervene in the production of social difference via listening and the process by which differential listening practices create fractured and/or parallel experiences of allegedly shared urban spaces.
Inspired by ongoing efforts such as ReBold Binghamton–the visual arts group alluded to by my assignment’s title– Blueprint Binghamton, and the Binghamton Neighborhood Project, I wanted to articulate sound studies methods with long-term community engagement interventions. I decided to task the upper-level undergraduate students in my Spring 2014 “How We Listen” course with designing community engagement projects that identified and addressed an issue in Binghamton, the de-industrialized town in upstate New York housing our university. My students’ proposals ranged from rain-activated sound art, to historical sound walks that layered archival sounds with current perceptions, and a “noise month” sound-collection and remix project designed to challenge entrenched attitudes. They then presented the projects via a public poster session open to faculty members, administrators, community representatives, and peers.
Working with local residents and using asset-based theories of civic engagement, the students’ projects sought to re-sound Binghamton, enhancing existing forms of communication, amplifying hidden sounds and histories, and creating new sounds to resound throughout Binghamton’s future. While the students initially set out to “fix” Binghamton—bringing year-round residents into the world as their largely 18-21 selves heard it—the majority opened their ears to alternative understandings that left them questioning the exclusivity of their own listening practices. Students realized that while they may have been inhabiting Binghamton for the past few years, they hadn’t been perceptually living in the same town as year-round residents, and, conversely, that the locals’ tendencies to hear students as privileged nuisances had historical and structural roots.
The historical, theoretical, and methodological groundwork that scholars of sound have laid in recent decades toward heightened social and political understandings of sound—fantastic in volume, quality, AND reach—have equipped sound studies scholars with powerful critical tools with which to build a more directly, civically engaged sound studies, one as much interested in intervention and prevention as continued reclamation and recovery. Scholar-artists such as Linda O’Keeffe have begun to fuse audio artistic praxis with the more social science-oriented field of urban studies. O’Keeffe’s community project, highlighted in “(Sound)Walking Through Smithfield Square in Dublin,” set out to solve an audio- spatial problem at the very heart of the city: why did the city’s efforts to “rehabilitate” the landmark Smithfield Square—which had been a public market for hundreds of years—bring about its demise as a thriving public space rather than its rejuvenation? Equipping local students with recorders, O’Keeffe documented the students’ understanding of the space as “silent,” even though it was far from absent of sound. She noted local teenagers felt repelled by the newly wide-open square; the reverberation of their sounds as they grouped together to chat made them feel uncomfortable and surveilled—so it remained an isolating space of egress rather than a gathering place.
Importantly, O’Keeffe’s conclusion moved beyond self-awareness to political praxis; she presented her students’ self-documentation to Dublin city planners, intervening in Smithfield’s projected future and attempting to prevent similar destruction of other thriving city soundscapes unaligned with middle-class sensory orientations. O’Keeffe’s work sparked me to think of listening’s potential as advocacy and agency, as well as the increasing importance of reaching beyond the identification of diverse listening habits toward teaching people to understand the partiality and specificity of their sonic experience in combination with the impact listening—and the power dynamics it is enmeshed in—has on the lives, moods, and experiences of themselves and others. Listening habits, assumptions, and interpretations do not just shape individual thoughts and feelings, but also one’s spatial experience and sense of belonging to (or exclusion from) larger communities, both actual and imagined. Learning to understand one’s auditory experience and communicate it in relation to other people enables new forms of civic engagement that challenge oppression at the micro-level of the senses and seeks equitable experiences of shared space to counter the isolating exclusion compelled by many urban soundscapes.
O’Keeffe’s project also made me rethink how space-sound is shaped through social issues such as class inequity, particularly in my community of Binghamton, a small town of approximately 54,000 currently facing profound economic challenges. The end of the Cold War devastated Binghamton’s economy—then primarily based in defense—and the economic downturn of the early-1990s provided a knock-out punch, severely impacting the region in ways it has yet to recover from: the behemoth local IBM relocated to North Carolina, manufacturing jobs permanently decreased by 64%, and the population shrank almost by half. Recent climate-change induced disasters have also left their mark; massive floods in 2005 and 2011—on a geographic footprint historically flooding only 200-500 years—displaced thousands of low-income residents, destroyed many businesses, and collectively caused close to 2 billion dollars in damage. The global recession of 2008 left over 30% of Binghamton’s residents below the poverty line, including 40% of all children under 18.
The campus, 12,000 undergraduate students strong, often seems remote from the city I just described. Only 6% of BU students are drawn from its surrouding Broome County. The vast majority (60%) of BU’s students hail from the New York City metro area, a site of racialized economic tension with the rest of the state, evidenced by campaigns such as “Unshackle Upstate.” Indeed, Binghamton’s student body is more racially diverse than Binghamton the city (Vestal, where the university is located, is 88% white), and even though the relatively low-cost public university–approximately eight thousand dollars a year for in-state tuition– serves many first-generation college students, students with generous financial aid packages, and students employed while matriculating, the city’s poverty amplifies even slight class privilege.
These long-term structural fissures have led to tensions between the university students—whom some Binghamtonians problematically peg as wealthy outsiders and/or racially target—and full-time residents, dubbed “Townies” by many students and dehumanized as the backdrop to their college experience. While students and year-round residents inhabit the same physical spaces in Binghamton, they are not in fact living the same place and they often experience, interpret, and act on the same auditory information in drastically different ways. Binghamton sounds differently to each group, in terms of the impressions and interpretations of various auditory phenomena as well as the order of importance an individual gives to simultaneous sounds at any given moment.
Embodied aural perceptions shaped by class, race, age, and differing regional experience may in fact drive many of the “town and gown” conflicts—noise complaints most obviously—and exacerbate others, particularly mutually distorted perceptions that students bring Binghamton down and that residents are, as one student cruelly stated in the campus newspaper, “creatures” from “an endless horror movie.” So how to address this divide? And how to use sound studies to do it? I knew I did not want to impose a community project on my students that did not have their buy in and creative energy behind it. I decided on a group-sourcing project that asked students to work together to design a sound-studies based community project. I envisioned the assignment as the first phase of a longer-term project, with the most workable idea serving as the basis for a full-blown service learning experience in future courses. However, the assignment proved to be pedagogically valuable in its own right, not just as a prelude to future work.
I arranged my course around the proposal assignment, providing students with the critical thinking skills to imagine a project of this type. We began with theoretical and methodological materials that would introduce them to sound studies—none of my students were familiar with the field and its assumptions—and ground their thinking in the idea that listening is a complex sociocultural, political, and critical practice. While we read and discussed multitude of pieces on listening, the students reported four scholars as especially inspirational to the project: Yvon Bonenfant’s theorization of “queer listening” as a listening out (rather than the more normative taking in), Regina Bradley’s work on race and listening in American courtrooms that focused on how white lawyers discredit witnesses speaking patois and African American Vernacular English, Maile Costa Colbert’s artistic imagining of a “wayback sound machine,” and Emily Thompson’s work on noise and time/space/place, particularly in her new interactive “Roaring Twenties” project. Student Daniel Santos reported in a survey following the project,
The relationship between sound and time was very useful to our project; we understood the concept that no city ever sounds the same after a long period of time, and we sought to take advantage of this fact. Through our residents’ stories, we learned that Binghamton was once booming with sound from numerous, lucrative industries. Walking into a factory brought an industrial cacophony: card punchers thudded as steel was pounded against steel. However, today, a walk into these factories results in an eerie silence. We wanted our soundwalk participants to realize and become affected by this lack of and difference in sound, and raise pertinent questions: what happened to these sounds? Why is there such a large difference in sound levels? Where do I place myself within this soundscape?
I worked with Binghamton’s Center for Civic Engagement—a model program founded in 2010—and in particular with Assistant Director Christie Zwahlen, to equip students with basic-but-solid knowledge that would enable a new understanding of community work. Zwahlen brought home two major principles to students: 1) service learning has a pedagogical component; it is important to a project’s success that students learn something through their work rather than merely donating time or skills, 2) Community engagement works best when based on identifying and mobilizing a community’s assets rather than implementing an external project addressing perceived deficits. These two concepts meshed especially well with the students’ evolving understanding of listening as multifaceted, political, and deeply impacted by temporal and spatial contexts, because it required the students to engage directly with community members and learn how to listen to their voices, histories, and needs.
For both civic engagement and sound studies, Zwahlen and I introduced students to the various methods used to solve problems and answer our most important questions. For civic engagement, Christie focused on the asset map, which forced students to think of the surrounding community in terms of its strengths rather than the weaknesses they could already readily list. This exercise not only flipped their perspective but also helped them imagine and hone their project by identifying community stakeholders who would be receptive to their inquiries.
In terms of sound studies, I introduced them to a multiplicity of methods through readings, experiential activities, and process writing, in particular sound provocations and sound walks. According to student Hannah Lundeen’s post-project survey, the sound walks she performed proved especially fruitful:
Initially, solving a community issue through sound seemed next to impossible. It wasn’t until sitting down and thinking about the sound studies methods of soundwalks that it became clear. I liked soundwalks because they are a way to engage anyone in sound studies. They are an easy concept to explain to people who may not have thought much about their soundscape previously. They are an active and fun way to engage all community members in listening well.
As Lundeen relates, interweaving these methods formed the foundation of their community projects, enabling their inquiries regarding understanding differences in listening, how to enable people to recognize and discuss aspects of their listening, and to provoke some kind of impactful social change.
The final third of the semester was devoted to working on the final project [Click these links for the Rubric for Final Poster Presentation we used to assess the projects as well as the assignment sheet with Tips for Successfully Completing this Project both of which I handed out on day one! ]. Following an initial period of research and discussion, students narrowed down their project ideas, identified and met in person with potential community partners–ReBold Binghamton, Binghamton’s Center for Technology & Innovation, the Parks Department and several City Council members were especially helpful– and put together their proposals, emphasizing their new understandings of listening and its relationship to space and place via community mobilization. Students prepared a 7-minute gloss of their projects for public presentation that
- identified an issue (supported by research)
- described how project addressed the issue
- presented community asset map as a foundation
- shared list of potential community partners
- discussed sound studies methodologies supporting the project
- estimated benchmarks for the project’s completion
- projected the project’s long-term outcomes
- prepared personal reflections on the process.
Here is a sampling from the rich palette of student project pitches:
- Restoring the Pride: A public art initiative building rain-activated sound sculptures.
- BUCS: Binghamton Unites Community with Sound: A public group karaoke project.
- Safe and Sound: A “kiosk walk” of 10-interactive electronic sound art pieces that increase downtown destination traffic by day and operate as a “blue light” safety system by night.
- Blues on the Bridge Junior: A children’s music stage at one of Binghamton’s most popular yearly events.
- Happy Hour: A weekly campus radio show designed to combat seasonal depression.
- Listen Up!: Sound Month Binghamton: An annual themed digital “sound collection month” in March with accompanying “sounds of Binghamton” remix project. This project fosters community habituation to “Others’” sounds while also tracking long-term changes in the soundcape and in residents’ ideas of noise.
- A Sound Walk Through Binghamton: Historical soundwalks through several areas in Binghamton, where archival sounds of the past (some compiled from recordings, some performed) are placed in continuity and contrast with contemporary soundscapes.
Zwahlen and I understand that this iteration of the project does not constitute civic engagement as of yet. Certainly, the students raised more questions than solutions: how to work with—and equitably solicit contributions from—community members rather than organize classroom-first? How to increase community involvement on a campus that is a foreboding maze at best—and how to increase student traffic in the many sites not reached by Binghamton’s limited public transportation? Most importantly, How to share sound studies epistemology beyond the classroom, creating listening experiences that not only take differences into account but potentially re-script them?
As we move forward with long-term development, we will undoubtedly encounter more questions. However, even at its earliest stages, I believe guiding my students to integrate sound studies methodologies with asset-based service learning provided them with a transformative experience concerning the powerful resonance of applied knowledge and sparked the kind of self-realization that leads to civically engaged citizens. It created meaningful connections between them and a local community suddenly made significantly larger. For my students, listening became more than a metaphor or an individualized act of attention, rather they began to understand its role as a material conduit of location, outreach, and connection. As an anonymous student shared in my teaching evaluations: “This class was different, but in a very good way. It has been so involved with the human experience, more so than with other classes.” In the middle of the so-called “humanities crisis,” this response points to the potential power of a civically engaged sound studies, a branch of the field combining research with praxis to reveal the role of listening in the building, maintenance, and daily experiences of diverse communities in the city spaces they mutually inhabit but often do not fully and equitably share.
Featured Image by Shea Brodsky, (L to R) Binghamton University Students Robert Lieng, Daniel Santos, and Susan Sherwood, Director of Binghamton’s Center for Technology & Innovation (CT&I)
Jennifer Stoever is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sounding Out! She is also Associate Professor of English at Binghamton University and a recipient of the 2014 SUNY Chancellor’s Award in Teaching.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Sounding Out! Podcast #13: Sounding Shakespeare in S(e)oul– Brooke Carlson
Deejaying her Listening: Learning through Life Stories of Human Rights Violations– Emmanuelle Sonntag and Bronwen Low
Audio Culture Studies: Scaffolding a Sequence of Assignments– Jentery Sayers