A Listening Mind: Sound Learning in a Literature Classroom
“Listening is little short of a synonym for learning.”
–Julian Henriques, Sonic Bodies
This is the third post in Sounding Out!’s July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2013. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us. To read last week’s post by Maile Colbert click here and Regina Bradley’s discussion of listening, race, and Rachel Jeantel (and to read more about World Listening Day) click here.
How can listening, which I’ve come to understand as an essential way of knowing, enhance the learning experience? My pedagogical challenge over the past few years has been to develop a heightened awareness of the ways our ears are not necessarily, as Robert Frost asserts, “the only true reader and the only true writer,” but certainly an essential mode of reading and writing that is too often underdeveloped. As my high school students read works by Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Michael Ondaatje, Jonathan Safran Foer, James Baldwin, and Lucille Clifton, I want their ears to become increasingly attuned to the sounds, silences, vibrations, and other sonic significance embedded within printed words. I want them to experience how listening enhances their understanding of literature, that listening is learning.
I’ve taught A Listening Mind, a trimester course for high school juniors at Princeton Day School in New Jersey, for two years. Inspired by Toni Morrison’s 1996 National Book Award acceptance speech, “The Dancing Mind,” the course title signals my interest in challenging students to practice writing and reading in ways that are collaborative and cognitively (and otherwise) dissonant with their usual English classroom habits of mind. For my students, at least initially, writing is ruled solely by the mantra “Show. Don’t Tell.” This course, then, creates preconditions for a new kind of learning. It aims to heighten students’ aural attentiveness in general, and particularly in relation to the sonic life that inhabits the lower frequencies of the printed word. In many ways, the class resonates with Liana Silva’s discussion of sound as significant to writing and learning. In this course, we grapple with essential questions such as: How might we read and write with our ears? What happens when we take the risk to do so? As I design assessments and moderate the course, I keep in mind my own essential question as an educator: How can my scholarly interest in listening as a significant mode of cultural and social engagement translate into sound study learning opportunities for my students? The assignments students complete in A Listening Mind, a few of which I share next, are my response to these questions–a response that is in constant development.
CULTIVATING A LISTENING MIND
On the first day of class, I play Jason Moran’s “Cradle Song” from his most recent album, Artist in Residence. Moran plays the Carl Maria von Weber-composed lullaby on unaccompanied piano; the urgent scratching of a closely miked pencil on paper writes slightly ahead of the calming melody.
The song, a tribute to Moran’s mother who would stand over his shoulder taking notes as Moran practiced piano as a child, amplifies a sonic life that more often lingers within the printed word. Thus, it allows us to begin exploring the possibilities of listening as an approach to reading and writing.
In the first month of the course, students practice low stakes listening and writing: they go on short listening walks and record by hand what they hear in their sound journals. Rutger Zuydervelt’s Take a Closer Listen, an excerpt from the opening pages of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and the New York Times Magazine prose and audio essay, “Whisper in the Wind” are our inspirations for this assignment. They visit a space in which they feel most like themselves and tune into the space’s acoustics. They do the same in a space where they are less comfortable. Students also tune their attention to eco-listening – listening with intention to the natural or man-made environments in which we find ourselves. The idea is to notice the sounds our ears have become deaf to as we’ve become accustomed to a space. Their eco-listening results in their creating individual listening booklets that record the sounds we hear and our occasional reflections on them. By listening to various sounds and in various ways during the early weeks of the course, students exercise their ears and, along the way, some even realize that you need more than just ears to listen.
SONIC MATERIAL CULTURE
One of the assignments of the course involves work in what I call “sonic material culture.” According to the University of Delaware’s Center for Material Culture Studies, the study of material cultural objects “promotes the learning from and the teaching about all things people make and the ways people have acted upon the physical and visible world.” But, what about the ways in which material culture impacts the audible world? Sonic material culture looks at how material cultural objects help create cultural meaning through the sounds they make and the ways in which people use those sounds. Students explored an array of “sonic objects” that included, among others, a Tibetan singing bowl, steel drum, Shofar, typewriter, stethoscope, and a boom box. They then chose one of the items – an item that either makes sound (like a steel drum) or allows for access to sound (like a stethoscope), and began their research with a specific focus on how this item holds sonic cultural significance.
To research the stethoscope, for example, one student interviewed a cardiologist and a medical historian. She learned that sounds doctors hear through the stethoscope “comprise a language, spelling out diagnoses and prognoses” and provide “gateways to our understanding of the heart.” Another student chose the Steel Drum, an instrument developed in the 20th century in Trinidad and Tobago, and ended up discussing the innovation involved in reusing oil containers to produce a new cultural sound. Another student’s research on the Tibetan Singing Bowl led him back to a moment in Jonathan Stroud’s The Bartimaeus Trilogy: Book Three, Ptolemy’s Gate when the character Kitty Jones describes the ringing of a Singing Bowl that signals her transport into the world of magical spirits. Listening to the Singing Bowl made this student more attentive to this moment that he initially skimmed. And, one student’s love of all things vintage led her to her father’s manual typewriter and an essay combining family history and larger insights about education, workplaces, and mechanical writing. In each of these cases, the students realized that the sounds cannot be extricated from the material, social, and historical conditions that produce them.
The last time I taught the course, I designed a sound history mini-project. Students read excerpts from the work of Mark A. Smith and my work on historical listening in David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident, and considered these question: How might sound function as a way to narrate a specific historical moment? Students needed to choose a historical moment, locate a sound, and then create a museum card that, among others, answered the following key questions: What does this sound bring to our attention that we might not otherwise consider? What questions does this sound raise? What does it leave mute? Since students had watched Django Unchained recently, we discussed sounds of slavery in that film. If you write slavery through the crack of the whip, then your focus might be on violence and torture used during that peculiar past. If you tell slavery, though, from the code-laden singing enslaved persons used to send messages to flee, then you have a different frame, a different sonic way into the historical moment.
One student used the opening sounds from The Wizard of Oz to narrate the Dust Bowl. Another examined news reports and hip hop music to listen back to the Los Angeles Uprisings. One young woman interviewed her mother about her immigration experience from Guatemala; in her project, the sound of a train whistle signaled arrival to the United States and a new life. One of the most striking projects consisted in an inventive student engineering her own sound using a teakettle in order to recreate what she imagined as the sound inside a gas chamber in a concentration camp during World War II. As she explained during her presentation, the screeching teakettle captures for her both the sound of gas and the screaming of those persons trapped within a chamber. What an empathetic choice to make as a listening scholar: to imagine the voice of one in the midst of death.
Students worked on this assignment as part of their culminating assessment for the course. I assigned this work at the end of the course because it gave students an opportunity to delve into the work of a Sound Studies scholar: students drew on their skills as listeners developed over the term; returned to questions we asked regarding listening and interpretation of written and recorded texts; framed their own questions for inquiry; and used sound technologies such as Audacity and GarageBand to amplify their historical sound.
As I tune my ears excitedly towards another World Listening Day (this year on July 18, 2013), I find myself remembering my students’ portfolio reflections of their learning in this course. Students mentioned that their time in the course helped them pay more attention to sounds around them: “my ears have been retrofitted by my experience in this class.” Some students became more in tune with their own sound: “The world is too noisy. I need to focus in, to tune in to myself.” Yet others found themselves “slowly opening [them]selves up to others” and becoming “more engaged with others’ opinions even if they were different from” their own. Even though some students entered the class resistant to, uncertain about, or “unnerved” by the thought of a listening English course, they felt by the end that, in the words of one student, “Now I leave this class with a purpose and clearer understanding of the importance of listening to my own echo.” In short, the two groups of students who have taken this class grow more “in tune” to multiple frequencies of reading, writing, and learning.
Lastly, while I hoped students would grow as listeners, I did not anticipate that their perceptions of themselves as readers and writers would also shift. Students who previously described themselves as “just not an English student” or who began writing and reading assignments with self-defeating “I’m just not good at this” comments, delved more deeply into the writing process and produced strikingly confident, nuanced pieces by term end. They have grown in their sonic literacy. In this, my students remind me of the most essential of questions: How, to borrow Carol Dweck’s language, do we help students develop a growth, rather than a fixed, mindset where learning is concerned? In my view, listening—practiced as a dynamic, tinkering, beta-type approach to the study of literature and writing—provides interesting answers.
Featured image photo credit: “Listen, Understand, Act” by Flickr user Steven Shorrock, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0
Nicole Brittingham Furlonge earned her PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation, “On the Lower Frequencies: Listening and African American Expressive Culture,” marks the beginnings of her investment in sound studies as the field resonates with issues of race, class, gender and education. Her work has been published in the academic journals Callaloo and Interference, and in the publication St. Andrew’s Today. She also has published a cookbook for young children, Kitchen Passports: Trinidad and Tobago. She has taught in independent high schools and colleges for 16 years, including University of Michigan, UPenn, The Lawrenceville School, Holderness School and St. Andrew’s School in Delaware. She has extensive experience in the classroom and in administrative roles dealing with curriculum development, diversity issues, faculty development and issues regarding education, equity and access.Currently, Nicole chairs the English Department at the Princeton Day School in New Jersey and blogs at the Huffington Post. She lives in the green part of New Jersey with her spouse and their three young children.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“The Sounds of Anti-Anti-Essentialism: Listening to Black Consciousness in the Classroom“–Carter Mathes
“Deejaying her Listening: Learning through Life Stories of Human Rights Violations“–Bronwen Low and Emmanuelle Sonntag
“Audio Culture Studies: Scaffolding a Sequence of Assignments“–-Jentery Sayers
Listening to Robots Sing: GarageBand on the iPad
I recently had the opportunity to fool around with the iPad2’s new GarageBand suite. Enticed by the intuitive touch interface I soon found myself lost within the device’s labyrinthine architecture. Every poke, prod and press brought me to a new screen with a bevy of exciting options. A touch to create a drum loop, a tickle to evoke some reverb, and a brush to strum a guitar. I was one with the machine; it was a truly cybernetic, kinesthetic moment. This may sound naïve, but I had never realized how many tools were available to electronic musicians, or how intuitive using these tools could be. As digital tools to create music become more accessible and more intuitive, what is the role of the human in understanding their use? Further, what strategies can we adopt when listening to these creations?
This question may seem a bit outdated to those who have been researching post-humanist phenomena since the digital boom in the mid-nineties. Often conflicting perspectives regarding the negotiation of the human and the digital have been considered in the last decade or so. Some like Donna Haraway, Pierre Lévy, and even Ray Kurzweil offer particularly optimistic readings of the post-human (although for radically different reasons). While scholars like Nancy Baym and Jaron Lanier have offered decisively more sober readings of the problematic. They argue that splits between the human and post-human, or analog and digital are false dichotomies. Truth be told, none of the theorists above adequately address my feelings on this topic. Producing music with a digital audio suite makes me defensive of my humanism and it is by its very nature a project of preservation.
The algorithmic tools packaged within digital audio suites encourage a sense of aesthetic preservation. Tools like GarageBand’s Smart Guitar, Smart Drums, Smart Bass, various arpeggiators and Appleloops encourage the user to program music on a high level where the nuance of serendipity and improvisation play second fiddle to the overall sonic contours of a piece. Although the user is provided the tools to intervene and program music in a very specific way, it is by default a distinctly different experience than that of playing a guitar or piano. The ghost of the algorithm haunts such performances; reminding the user that these acts of spontaneous creation are no longer the default but deliberate…. This sense of deliberate improvisation forces me into a reflexive space where I am acutely aware of the mediations occurring within my performance. Succinctly, I must defend a sense of self within my creation. If I yield to the algorithms that seek to help me compose, I destroy all sense of the human within my work. Simply turning on robots and watching them sing.
For this reason, I propose an aesthetic of preservation as a way to understand the ways in which we listen to works created by digital audio suites. As algorithmic aids become more advanced and commonplace in music, the human becomes a less essential aspect of the form. Understanding what has been deliberately included in spite the seductive algorithmic environment is ultimately a project that seeks to recover the human in the machine; perhaps even, a project doomed from the start, as we grow ever closer to the means of our artistic production.
Magnasanti – Check out the results of my collaboration with Colin Germain on GarageBand!