Here at Sounding Out! we like to celebrate World Listening Day (July 18) with a blog series that focuses on the importance of listening. This year, we bring your attention to the role of listening when it comes to the sounds of the K-12 classroom, and by extension, the school.
Any day in a K-12 school involves movement and sounds day in and day out: the shuffling of desks, the conversations among classmates, the fire drill alarm, the pencils on paper, the picking up of trays of food. However, in many conversations about schools, teaching, and learning, sound is absent.
This month’s series will have readers thinking about the sounds in classrooms in different ways. They will consider race, class, and gender, and how those aspects intersect how we listen to the classrooms of our past and our present. More importantly, the posts will all inspire assignments that educators at all stages can use in their classrooms. Our first post came from Shakira Holt, a playlist of her black girl students’ songs as philogynoir. Our second post was penned by Caroline Pinkston, and in it she questions common classroom management strategies for quieting a classroom instead of listening to students. Today’s post comes from the point of view of a student, teacher, and now researcher, who reflects upon how we listen to the sounds (and students!) in our classrooms.
Time’s up, pencils down, let’s take our notebooks outside to the playground and listen along with Cassie J. Brownell. –Liana Silva, Managing Editor
I have spent much of my life listening in schools. I essentially grew up in the public elementary school in Montana where my mother taught for over 40 years. The sounds of my childhood are those of feet squeaking on the tile floor of the hallways, the bounce of a kickball in the gym, and the slam of desks opening and closing throughout the day.
Across my elementary school years, I spent many early mornings attempting to write my name in cursive with a squeaky dry erase marker on the whiteboard in her classroom. Other mornings, I rapidly clicked the keyboard as I played Oregon Trail alongside two friends whose guardians also worked at the school. After school, I chased these same friends across the schoolyard, shot hoops with them in the gym, or discovered new worlds in the stacks of the library. The whipping Montana winds on the open playground later gave way to new sonic experiences, as I transitioned from elementary student to classroom teacher and, eventually, educational researcher.
When I later became a teacher at an elementary school in post-Katrina New Orleans, Louisiana, the chorus of sounds from my childhood reverberated around me. The delightful shrieks of children on the playground and the sounds of trays being stacked after lunch were familiar. So, too, was the daily stacking of chairs. The frequencies of childhood, both my own and that of my students, informed my entrée into teaching. The familiar rhythms of pencil sharpeners and stapled butcher paper were welcoming waves as I settled into not only my new role, but my new school community in the neighborhood of Algiers Point. Yet, with the opening bells of the school year at this New Orleans elementary school, I began to hear schooling in new registers.
On my first day of teaching, I was acutely attuned to the “noise” the second-grade children in my classroom made—sounds I had not been aware of as a student. I quickly tried to “correct” their behavior with promises of external rewards if they could only make better “choices,” including quieting themselves to listen to me. Yet, few of the classroom management “tricks” I had learned in my educational training seemed to work. After the last child walked away from the schoolyard, I crumbled in the classroom of my mentor teacher. Crying, I told her I was not cut out for such work. She laughed as she told me that to be a teacher I must (re)learn to listen to the sounds of my classroom.
In time, I learned to listen. The day-to-day sounds of teacher-directed schooling, or what I now know as the banking model of education, quickly gave way to my listening to children. I slowly learned the value of listening to the whispers of children as they read, the scuffle of their feet as they sought a different color crayon from a child at another table, and the wise words they shared with one another about how they used an alternative route to solve a given math problem. I listened to them too when they found my hand to hold during recess and the high-fives before they departed each day. Rather than hearing their sounds as unruly chatter, I opened my ears to the excitement and learning children were sharing with one another.
That semester Hurricane Gustav appeared in the Gulf Coast. The impending arrival of the storm coincided with the three-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. As the whole city of New Orleans was encouraged to evacuate, I felt the resonances from Katrina’s devastating impact in the stories and questions of my second-grade students. As Gustav approached, many of the children shared In the final days before we evacuated, we commemorated Katrina and shared hopes for protection during Gustav.
While I listened to their words, I also learned to listen to their bodies. I could hear their worries about the storm in their hugs, the intonation of their voices, and in their reactions to thunderstorms shaking our classroom windows. As a bodily experience, multimodal listening quite literally moves beyond just what our ears can hear to how sound moves across/through/with bodies, materials, and contexts. Through multimodal listening, listeners can develop their skills as both critical consumers and producers of sound. Listeners are thus better positioned to reflect on and identify how sound informs other sensations and feelings. Although I have only recently put words to what it means to engage in multimodal listening, my body was already experienced with it.
I returned to the city almost two weeks later, after the Gulf Coast suffered the one-two-punch of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Whispers of wind rustled art supplies by sneaking through fresh cracks in the windows. As my colleagues and I hurriedly re-vamped our classrooms, the traditional staccato sounds of schooling slowly echoed in my ears. In the quiet clean-up of the storm, new frequencies of the school soundscape could be heard. This soundscape was not new in and of itself, but rather it was the absence of the consistent beat that harmonized the everyday sounds to which I had become attuned. Without the slap of a jump rope on the ground or the cheers of children playing kickball to punctuate the silence, waves of emotion—despair, hope, and uncertainty—underlying the soundscape of schooling I thought I knew became apparent to me for the first time.
As an educational researcher in an urban, elementary classroom in the Midwest, I now find myself hearing other frequencies of schooling that remained unheard even in my early teaching. In my new role, my job is to engage in multimodal listening at all times as I participate in elementary classrooms. As a teacher in New Orleans, I was only just beginning to engage in the task of multimodal listening that Ceraso describes. Still today, I am often still attempting to hear and feel all the vibrations happening around me. Yet, as a researcher, I can attend more fully to the task of listening.
Unlike when I was teaching, I do not need to adhere to strict policies regarding the learning of a group of students, but I can instead take an exploratory approach to learning alongside children. Specifically, in collaboration with a culturally and linguistically diverse group of 3rd-grade children in Mr. Holiday’s classroom this past year, I started to earwitness the ambient soundscapes of children’s life spaces. Although I first began listening with the children at Community School J three years earlier, I entered in to Mr. Holiday’s class this year interested in considering the ways children were engaging with and drawing upon various cultural, linguistic, and modal experiences to communicate. I did so aware that, for many historically marginalized children, such communicative practices are often overlooked or unheard in standardized curricular materials.
Mr. Holiday challenged his students to think—and hear—beyond the standardized curriculum by considering how sound can be a tool to write with and through.
“You’re writing, but you can use words, pictures, you can sketch…anything you want to,” Mr. Holiday shared with his class of diverse 3rd graders one day. “Just remember to listen. When we come back inside, we will all share what we heard and then we will talk about how we could use this in our stories about our school.”
Outdoors, a low-flying plane could be heard. With little bodies quietly kicking them back-and-forth, swings creaked. On the playground, we listened to the whipping wind and felt the cool fall weather on our skin. From the slide, one child sounded out for his peers the word chilly, stretching the ls as long as he could. The mulch of the dry ground was kicked by one child as another, with her stomach on the seat of a swing, pushed the ground under her feet to glide back-and-forth.
Some children imagined the empty playground to be filled with the familiar sounds of their daily recesses. Others began to set strict boundaries for how they and their peers might begin to listen. In an attempt to control the bodies of her peers, one girl sent away her friend, suggesting that they could not hear together. Almost simultaneously, another child silently waved from the highest playground tower to the three boys from her class seated closely next to each other on a bench.
As Mr. Holiday called for all children to make a line outside his classroom door, a cacophony of cheers and groans lurched from the children as they sprinted from their observation sites.
“Look at how much I noticed!” one little boy shouted as he handed his notebook to me with a list of sounds. He included sounds heard in the moments we were outdoors like the airplane, but he also included imagined shrieks of children at play.
The sounds of elementary schooling have shown me that much of classroom teaching and learning needs to be grounded in listening. From the structured directions—like those presented by Mr. Holiday—to the daily screams of children racing across the school grounds. In other words, we must listen to children, to their experiences, and to their emotions in order to critically consider how schooling, as a space, informs and is informed by children’s bodies and sounds.
I sometimes wonder what frequencies and rhythms are unheard. With each passing observation in a school, I question whether Western schooled notions of listening contaminate the uniquely trained ears of children. As I observed in the listening exercise with Mr. Holiday’s class, children were capable of engaging in multimodal listening: they not only heard, but felt the wind; they created and felt the vibrations of the swings. They imagined the movement of bodies across the playground and cacophony of sounds and emotions that accompanied them. All of these were embodied sounds I missed as an adult and classroom teacher.
At the same time, I remain hopeful. I am hopeful because the children I came to know in Mr. Holiday’s classroom took the task of listening seriously. They understood hearing as more than simply about the cars passing by or the birds in the nearby trees, but instead engaged in listening with their bodies. Throughout the year, I noticed they were acutely aware of the sniffles or the slow shuffle of feet of a peer who was having a rough day. Their eyes grew large as they danced along with their friends on brain breaks and they often cheered with the whir of a fidget spinner balanced on their teacher’s thumb.
This hope is also based in my various sonic experiences, across spaces and places that visually appear quite different. Teachers interested in learning to listen with their students might consider how they, like Mr. Holiday, might foreground sound as a mode of primacy within the perceived constraints of the mandated curriculum. Engaging in a multi-sensory experience may be as simple as Mr. Holiday’s listening task on the familiar grounds of the schoolyard. Or, perhaps, it is starting your curriculum with the children’s stories of their lived experiences as I did in New Orleans. As others have discussed, when it comes to listening, there is not a clearly defined beginning or end as there does not exist a “blink of an ear.” I am slowly becoming more attuned to the sonic possibilities of how children’s stories and experiences of schooling may be amplified if we, as Mr. Holiday shared, “Just remember to listen.”
Featured image: “listen” by Flickr user Ren:), CC BY-ND 2.0
Cassie J. Brownell is a doctoral candidate and Marianne Amarel Teaching and Teacher Education Fellow in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. A corecipient of a 2015 NCTE-CEE Research Initiative Grant, Cassie’s most recent collaborative project—#hearmyhome—explores how writing with and through sound might help students and teachers attune toward literacies and communities of difference.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
SO! Amplifies: #hearmyhome and the Soundscapes of the Everyday–Cassie J. Brownell and Jon M. Wargo
(Sound)Walking Through Smithfield Square in Dublin— Linda O’Keeffe
A Listening Mind: Sound Learning in a Literature Classroom–Nicole Furlonge
Today, SO! continues its series reconsidering the life and work of Alan Lomax in his centenary year, edited by Tanya Clement of The University of Texas at Austin. We started out with Mark Davidson‘s reflections on what it means to raise questions about the politics behind Lomax’s efforts to record and collect folk music, and continued a few weeks later with Parker Fishel‘s consideration of Lomax’s famous “Southern Journey” and how it has been appropriated by musicians more recently.
With Clement’s own article below, the series begins to rethink Lomax as a touchstone in current and continuing drives to collect, measure and compute sonic cultures, something that seems hot all of a sudden (see, for instance, coverage of recent digital analysis of trends in pop music at Queen Mary University of London). In her thoughtful, illuminating and inspiring article below, Clement challenges us to consider the politics behind these efforts to search, retrieve and analyze audio, something that the case of Lomax throws into stark relief.
— Special Editor Neil Verma
When the Association for Cultural Equity, an organization that Alan Lomax founded in 1983, announced the release of 17,000 music tracks from Lomax’s fieldwork collections, the New York Times heralded the release as a manifestation of Lomax’s Global Jukebox project, a computational experiment for accessing and studying his vast multimedia collection of the world’s culture. The Times piece likens Lomax’s project to Pandora, which allows the listener to search for music “like” music she has already found. Lomax’s biographer, John Szwed, also makes this comparison but modifies his description by proclaiming that unlike Pandora’s recommendations which are “based on personal taste” and “tend to lead sideways . . . to production style,” Lomax’s Global Jukebox idea held the potential to point a listener to “deeper principles of cultural and musical organization” (The Man Who Recorded the World 391).
Gobsmacked by whizbang possibilities, neither the Times nor Szwed discuss the deeper principles behind Lomax’s attempt to represent culture as a global search engine. In the context of the powerful work being accomplished in the Music Information Retrieval (MIR) community and my own project (HiPSTAS) to develop software for making sound collections searchable and accessible, In this article I will argue that how we build systems for searching and retrieving and browsing cultural artifacts as data is a profoundly political act. Recognizing such politics suggests that Lomax’s Global Jukebox project serves as a cautionary tale for how social and cultural contexts — or what Donna Haraway calls our “ways of being” — are reflected in the systems we develop.
The Singer with the Song
The year that Alan Lomax was born (1915), his father John Alan Lomax published a landmark piece heralding seven new types of American ballads for study. American ballads, he argues “reveal the mode of thinking, the character of life, and the point of view, of the vigorous, red-blooded, restless Americans, who could no more live life contented shut in by four walls than could Beowulf and his clan, who sailed the seas around the coasts of Norway and Sweden” (“Some Types of American Folk-Song”, 3). Unlike any other collection of ballads, John’s “American ballad” included the ballads of the miner, the lumbermen, the inland sailor, the soldier, the railroader, “the ballads of the negro; and the ballads of the cowboy . . . [and] the songs of the down-and-out classes, — the outcast girl, the dope fiend, the convict, the jail-bird, and the tramp” (3). Governed by a laudable goal to record the songs of folk cultures at the fringes of mainstream society, the senior Lomax’s view of the communities where he would collect his songs (including jails and state farms), was complex, and can fairly be called both progressive as well as racist (Porterfield 170).
John and Alan went on seven collecting trips together between 1934 and 1936 and co-authored five books on their return. On these trips, they collected songs from people on the street in cities like New Orleans and people in the country, from both church-goers and prisoners. While John held romanticized views of the “noble” southern black man, Alan, on the other hand, indicated a more nuanced understanding of the complexities inherent to his father’s attempt to generalize patterns of “folk” for study. Alan linked “the singer with the song” and was interested in the politics behind prisoners made to sing with guns at their backs and in the cultural lives of people that were so poor in means but so rich in “beautiful harmony, with enormous volume, with total affection” (Szwed 49). While Alan maintained that he was interested in the individual’s story, John believed that “a genuine ballad has no one author. It is therefore the expression of no one mind: it is the product of the folk . . . It might have been written by any one” (“Some Types of American Folk-Song”, 1).
The Global Jukebox project demonstrates an almost complete reversal in Alan’s concerns. The studies behind the Global Jukebox include Alan’s Cantometrics and Choreometrics, in which he produces taxonomies for studying song and dance and his Parlametrics project, an “experiment in metalinguistics,” which Alan and his collaborators describe as a taxonomy of “patterns of style” in speech based on dynamic changes in pitch, loudness, speed, spacing, rhythm, and timbre (“A stylistic analysis of speaking”). These taxonomies show that Alan’s early consideration for the individual performer gave way to a desire to make folk study more scientific as a cultural mapping like what his father espoused rather than what Szwed and others have seen as Alan’s concerns with the situated politics of individuals.
Alan’s Parlametric study serves as good example. Approaching delegates from the United Nations and soliciting mail-in samples from regions not covered by the U.N. volunteers, Alan and his team collected representative recordings of 114 languages. Then, in order to study the “generally neglected meta-communicational level” in these recordings, the team designed a rating system including 50 codes that (1) “described the distinctive features of each recording,” and (2) “tended to cluster the recordings into sets of similars” that Alan maintains anyone could “readily use” to record “salient differences in conversation style” (19). These clusters pointed to 14 factors that Alan and his team would use to categorize the cultures from which they received samples:
- Speech length
- Descending cadence
Using these factors, Alan makes some broad assertions. The association of clear syllabification” (the degree to which syllables run together) “is most strongly predicted among gardeners with domesticated animals” and “[t]he association of clear syllabification to feminine autonomy is suggested by the discovery that this mode of speaking predicts and is predicted by permissive rather than restrictive premarital sexual mores” (27). Further, “Dominance vs. Sharing of conversation space” is strongly correlated with settlement size and severity of sexual sanctions,” a statement that Alan immediately rationalizes by noting that “this relation between a more crowded social space, high sexual tension and increased rate of interaction seems to make good sense, even if it does not account for every possibility” (31).
These spurious and broad generalizations were what Lomax hoped to facilitate for all with his Global Jukebox as the access point for “the first numerical models of the full range of global cultural variation in holistic form” for “the scientist, the layman, and the student to explore, experience, and manipulate the broad universe of culture and creativity in a systematic fashion, with audio-visual illustrations at every turn of the road” (“The Global Jukebox,” 318). By leveraging his taxonomies of song, dance, and speech in the computer age, Alan could suddenly associate and differentiate cultures holistically and en masse.
Machinic Methods / Humanistic Questions
As someone who works in the liminal spaces between the humanities and technology, between cultural studies and critique and the machines that increasingly function both as access points and barriers to our cultural artifacts, I see Alan’s switch to generalizable taxonomies as par for the course in the digital age. My own >HiPSTAS project’s primary objective is to develop a virtual research environment in which users can better access and analyze spoken word collections of interest to humanists. We understand that in order for us to search digital sound artifacts, we have to create taxonomies, metadata, keywords and other generalizable frameworks that facilitate discovery.
At the same time that we are using machinic methods, however, we can still ask humanistic questions that open up rather than close down debates and dialogues. In a recent test for the HiPSTAS project, for example, we used machine learning to analyze the recordings in the UT Folklore Center Archives, which comprises 219 hours of field recordings collected by John and Alan Lomax, Américo Paredes, and Owen Wilson, among others (UT Folklore Center Archives, ca. 1928-1981, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin, Box 2.325/R). In our attempt to predict the presence of different sonic patterns including instrumental music, singing, and speech, the results of our analysis are noteworthy as the visualization shown in this brief movie demonstrates.
from Tanya Clement on Vimeo
Within the results, we see a visualization of how many seconds comprise each file (in blue) and how many of those seconds for each file our software has predicted the presence of instruments (green), speech (red), and song (purple). A subtle yet striking difference emerges in the comparison between the Lomax recordings (created 1926-1941), which are the oldest in the collection, and the others, which were created up until 1968. The Lomax recordings (primarily created by John Lomax) consistently contain the least amount of speech in comparison to what the other files contain.
Of course, there are a number of ways you can read these results. Given the conversation above, one could hypothesize that perhaps the Lomaxes were primarily interested in their participants’ songs rather than their stories. One could also think about it in terms of recording capabilities across time. When the Lomaxes were first recording, John Lomax writes, “The amplifier weighed more than one hundred pounds; the turntable case weighed another one hundred; two Edison batteries weighed seventy-five pounds each. The microphone, cable, the tools, etc., accounted for sufficient weight to make the total five hundred pounds. . . . In order to carry them in the car I tore out the back seat . . .” Even in 1967, forty years later, good recorders still weighed 70 pounds and required a car battery, but tapes were longer and costs were less. More tape and more time at less cost both financially and physically had a big impact on what researchers recorded. At the same time, the data shows that the later recordings are not much longer, but do seem to have more seconds of speech.
There is a danger in these kinds of machine-generated generalities. We employed taxonomies (instrumental, sung, speech) to teach the machine to categorize these patterns, but why these patterns? Are there others? Or did I choose these based on what I already wanted to say about the Lomaxes’ practices? And, I haven’t even mentioned here the subjective practices inherent to choosing algorithms for such work.
These kinds of questions require more research, and more contextualization than this aggregated data set can show. Just as the ballads that John and Alan Lomax once collected were written and sung by someone, so were the communities that Alan interpreted through his Parlametrics made up of individuals, not types. Perhaps Alan’s desire “to record the world” was just and Google, the collector, categorizer, and interface for all things on the Internet, isn’t evil. But the Global Jukebox Project serves as a cautionary tale about the politics behind the speed and efficiency that machinic methods seem to promise, a politics that needs to be far less opaque about its deeper principles and problems.
Tanya Clement is an Assistant Professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. She has a PhD in English Literature and Language and an MFA in fiction. Her primary area of research is scholarly information infrastructure. She has published widely on digital humanities and digital literacies as well as scholarly editing, modernist literature, and sound studies. Her current research projects include High Performance Sound Technologies in Access and Scholarship (HiPSTAS).
Featured image: “Day 21 – Waveform” by Flickr user evil_mel, CC BY-NC 2.0
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Revising the Future of Music Technology — Aaron Trammell
SO! Amplifies: Carleton Gholz and the Detroit Sound Conservancy — Carleton Gholz
Sounds of Science: The Mystique of Sonification — Margaret Anne Schedel