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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.

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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.

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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.

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SO! Reads: Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format

The promiscuity of the mp3. Borrowed from NYCArthur on Flickr.

SO! Reads3The point that had lingered with me after first reading Jonathan Sterne’s essay “The mp3 as Cultural Artifact,” was the idea that the mp3 was a promiscuous technology. “In a media-saturated environment,” Sterne writes, “portability and ease of acquisition trumps monomaniacle attention . . . at the psychoacoustic level as well as the industrial level, the mp3 is designed for promiscuity. This has been a long-term goal in the design of sound reproduction technologies” (836).  A technology, promiscuous? I did not have to look far to find support. Like germs, I could find copies of mp3s that I had downloaded from Napster in 2000 scattered across generations of my old hard drives. Often they were redundant, too – iTunes having archived a copy separate from my original download.

But, for Sterne, mp3s are also socially promiscuous. They accumulate in the hard drives of the working class and are shared, almost anywhere, through the branching left/right wires of iPod earbuds. Since the popularization of the mp3, there have been new opportunities to share how we listen with others. This is promise of the mp3, and the reason it forms such a key point of scholarly meditation.

MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke University Press, 2012) finds Sterne revisiting many of these key themes, with a larger focus on the genealogical beginnings of the mp3 technology. While many of the book’s chapters are extrapolations of prior work Sterne has done regarding the genealogy of listening practices, this work concerns itself less with the 19th century, and more with the 20th century. Perhaps this is related to some of the methodological decisions Sterne has made in planning the book – in seeking out the genealogical origins of the mp3, Sterne worked from archives and manuals described in interviews by engineers who were fundamental to the technology’s production. As such it finds much in common with Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco’s Analog Days and Dave Tompkins’ How to Wreck a Nice Beach but incorporates the genealogical methods regarding sonic technology present in Sterne’s earlier work The Audible Past and Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity. In MP3 Sterne positions himself as a critical cultural studies scholar working between the humanities and sciences, focusing specifically on the mp3 due to its social and technological relevance today. The critical is key here as MP3 is truly a work devised to underscore the economic connections between the construction of our selves as “hearing subjects” and the media industries.

Certainly, the mp3 can still be considered a promiscuous technology, but it is corporate capitalism that had failed to recognize the extent to which it relies on technological promiscuity to support its infrastructure. This focus, ironically, displaces the mp3 as the main object of Sterne’s analysis. It highlights instead the pathological logic of corporate capitalism, and the ways that this rationality has mutated, now, in the wake of mass replicable, malleable, and iterative digital culture. In other words, the mp3 is endemic to a much larger plot, wherein the culture industries adapt to their own deus ex-machina. The naive development of the mp3 by the motion picture industry is a large part of the story here, but it is only a small bit of a much larger whole. The real story involves understanding how a handful of vested corporate interests have shaped the ways that we interpret and understand what listening is. In MP3 Sterne addresses one of the great questions of sound studies: What are the politics of listening? Or, which individuals and institutions have a vested economic interest in questions of how we hear?

Sterne recalls this drama in three parts, each unfolding in a somewhat autonomous fashion, but unified in so far as they explore the economic interests behind the scientific construction of “hearing subjects.” In the first part, Sterne is at his best exploring AT&T’s (and the affiliated Bell Laboratories’) role in funding psychological, physiological, and cybernetic research on hearing. In the second, Sterne explains how this early research has been applied to the visual and technical abstraction of sound in the 1970s. And, in the third part of this genealogy, he explains how these analogs were made digital, specifically the corporate politics which went into the construction of the mp3 standard. Throughout this surprising and detailed trajectory, Sterne makes the invisibility of corporate interests apparent and explicit.

AT&T and Infrastructure. Borrowed from djbones on Flickr.

Sterne also hints toward several powerful economic rationalities that have guided the construction of the mp3. Key among these insights is the monetization of cybernetic discourse, or the incorporation of the human body within a scientific understanding of technical systems. In order to engineer an efficient technical system, the capacities and limits of how we interact with (or serve as parts of) these systems must be taken into account. Sterne refers to this mode of engineering as “perceptual technics,” and he goes to great lengths to explain it.

Basically, at the turn of the 20th century, AT&T had taken a keen interest in the science of how people listen because they wanted to maximize the amount of simultaneous conversations broadcast through a single telephone wire. More conversations meant the purchase of fewer wires, and therefore greater profits. Eventually, drawing on the research of the oft-cited Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver (within SO!: What Mixtapes Can Teach Us About Nois and Pushing Record; and soundBox: Mapping Noise), AT&T recognized an economic problem of technical efficiency within their wires – there was too much ambient noise. Because of this, AT&T sought to limit the audible signal transmitted from one phone to another. This would allow for more signals (and therefore conversations) to be transmitted through the same wire. Physiological research provided clues that some frequencies were more audible than others, so engineers worked to compress audio signals to reflect this scientific abstraction of hearing.

The scientific capture of listening. Borrowed from img.informer.com .

The reduction of listening–as an embodied practice–to the quantification and control of the audible spectrum, is, in other words, the history of compression. Which, according to Sterne, should be understood as the true meaning of the mp3. While the mp3 format, like the CD or cassette, may become obsolete, technologies of compression will not. Sterne argues convincingly that most advances in compression technologies have been guided by the invisible logic of corporate capitalism. It is this exact tendency of compression–to make things smaller and more efficient–that threatened to undo the entire project of corporate and branded music distribution in the year 2000, via platforms like Napster.  Sterne is well aware of this irony throughout MP3, and uses the final chapter to discuss, briefly, the moment of cultural transformation that is defined by file-sharing and mass distribution.

Bringing things full circle with a somewhat stoic conclusion about the democratic potentials of this moment, he remarks: “The end of the artificial scarcity of recording is a moment of great potential. Its political outcome is still very much in question, but its political meaning should not be” (224). Sterne points to the globalization and ubiquity of mediated listening as a sign that things may not have changed much even though mass networked society at one point promised freedom from a commodity form which privileged things like “liberal notions of property, alienated labor, and ownership” (224). He argues that even the music industries shall persevere, mostly because people have a sublime attraction to listening and music. In other words: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. There are few moments of liberation to be found within MP3; it is instead a drama of the status quo where the conspirators of corporate capitalism succeed in spite of themselves.

The ubiquity of listening. Borrowed from κεηι on Flickr.

The disparity in Sterne’s tone, when juxtaposing the nefarious and efficient dispositifs of capitalism with an untroubled and authentic construction of music is striking to say the least. And although Sterne is clear to explain that he locates his scholarship as work on a container technology (the mp3) and not its content (the music), this is a somewhat unsatisfying distinction as an embodied practice, such as listening, must take both into account. And while I agree that the mp3 reflects the promiscuity of corporate capitalism, is this challenged by the plethora of ideological nuance coded into song lyrics and arrangements? Do the corporate ideologies of the music industries flow beyond the container of the mp3 into the music itself? Is there any crosstalk, or overlap between these historical constructions? In other words, what are the limits to theorizing a container technology, and how much does the discursive path of the mp3 sculpt the content of what we listen to?

Despite, or perhaps, because of the rather dystopic scene that Sterne alludes to at the end of MP3, it falls nicely in the space between Sound Studies and Critical Information Studies. It bridges humanistic scholarship on embodied listening practices with a critique of the economic interests that have funded much of the scientific research relating to the phenomenology of sound. To that end, MP3 reveals much about the social construction of hearing and the ways that the familiar mythology of audio fidelity has been produced, discussed and exploited by several communication industries. Even though the mp3 may have been eclipsed by industry as the main object of inquiry in the eponomously titled MP3, Sterne succeeds admirably in detailing the promiscuity of corporate capitalism in the listening practices of our everyday lives.

Aaron Trammell is co-founder and Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University.

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