Yes, it’s that time again, readers. You are going to have to stop pretending the “Back to School” aisles haven’t been appearing in stores for the past few weeks. We at SO! are here to ease your transition from summer work schedules to the business of teaching and student-ing with our fall forum on “Sound and Pedagogy.” Developed to explore the relationship between sound and learning, this forum blends the thinking of our editors (Liana Silva), recruited guests (D. Travers Scott), and one of the winners of our recent Call For Posts (Jentery Sayers) to explore how listening impacts the writing process, the teachable moment, and the syllabus (and vice versa). We hope to inspire your fall planning–whether or not you teach a course on “sound studies”–and encourage teachers and students of any subjects to reconsider the classroom as a sensory space. We also encourage you to share your feedback, tips, and experiences in comments to these posts and on our Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit sites. As I said in the Call for Posts for this Forum: “because teaching is so crucial—yet so frequently ignored at conferences and on campus—Sounding Out! wants to wants to provide a virtual space for this vital discussion.” This conversation will be ongoing: we will also bring you a “Spring Break Brush-Up” edition in 2013 featuring several more excellent posts by writers selected from our open call. Right now, the bell’s about to ring–so take a seat, open those ears, and enjoy this shiny auditory apple of an offering from D. Travers Scott in which he discusses how the sounds of #Occupy invigorated his classroom. And, yes, it will be on the test. —JSA, Editor-in-Chief
In the late fall of 2011, I was teaching a class on cultural studies of advertising. I presented the Occupy Student Debt campaign, a subcategory or spinoff of the larger Occupy movement, while we were examining ways people challenged consumer culture. We discussed education as a commodity and students as consumers. Unsurprisingly, my seniors were dissatisfied consumers. They expressed that what had been advertised to them was a product that guaranteed or at least would strongly increase their chances for quality employment (of course, it was also a product they had worked for years in creating, and one they couldn’t return.) If higher education really did land you the lucrative job it had been advertised as guaranteeing, in theory, then, you would be able to more easily pay off student loan debt. To address this dissatisfaction, I showed them two artifacts: a video from the launch in New York City on November 12, 2011, and the OSD debtors’ pledge*.
In the video, OSD founder Pamela Brown reads the pledge one line at a time, with each line chanted back by others. I played the video in a dark classroom. I also projected it on the room’s main screen, but I didn’t use the room’s amplification system because it sounds too much like an authoritarian public address and disperses the audio in a dominating way. External speakers connected to my laptop made the sound feel, to me, more localized and objectified, something we could focus on rather than an institutional part of the room. The students’ first reaction was, not to the words, but the sound: the verbal relay used at the public demonstration. Brows furrowed and heads cocked quizzically, they asked, “Why are they all repeating the speaker like that?” I explained how this provides additional amplification, but the students’ listening experience was instructive to me. Their unfamiliarity with a sonic practice of vocalization indicated their unfamiliarity with larger practices of collective, public social action.
Listening to OSD, and paying attention to how my students listened to it, informed me of larger contexts they needed to understand and discuss it, in ways that the object of the text did not suggest to me. It made me think about the experience and process of my students’ encountering OSD. I immediately noticed its ambient sounds of city life, which I no longer hear. These sounds of traffic, the acoustics of being surrounded by buildings, etc. gave several urban dimensions to the movement the pledge text did not. From the perspective of Upstate South Carolina, “urban” is not a simple thing, an identity or geography category, but intersectional: our largest city, Greenville, has a population under 60,000. City noises feel not merely urban, but un-Southern, and thereby alien. (I say un-Southern rather than Northern or Yankee because another thing I’ve learned here is the inadequacy of that binary: Los Angeles, for example, is not a Northern city but most certainly is as un-Southern as New York. Cities also carry a class dimension.) Even though my school is one of the elite institutions in this area, this region is still worse off economically than the rest of the country and has a generally lower cost of living. Cities require money to live in. In spatial, class, and urban dimensions, OSD felt alien.
The experience of listening to the ODS rally illustrates how a sound studies perspective foregrounds experiential processes over exclusive categories of things and ideas. For example, when I read the OSD Debtors’ Pledge aloud to my students—vocalizing the text and sounds and listening to them— it brought the text into my body, making it an action. It also made students uncomfortable. Even just a round-robin reading of theory seems to make then anxious and fidgety. While I try to understand and accommodate anxieties around public speaking, I think the way sound makes a text enter the body can be a powerful affective experience. And no one ever said the classroom always had to be comfortable. For me, reading the text aloud personalized the OSD pledge. It evoked sensory memories: “Pledge of” evoked saying the pledge of allegiance in public school; saying “We believe” took me to attending Lutheran church services with my husband at the time where they collectively recite the Apostles’ Creed. These associations evoked emotional disidentifications from organized religion and mandatory collective professions of patriotism. It also temporalized and spatialized OSD for me, positioning it in relations to Dallas, Texas in the 1970s and Greenville, SC today.
Overall, the reading aloud of the pledge staged a tension or dialectic of identification and disidentifications. Although I agreed and identified with the sentiments of the movement, several alienating and unsettling aspects of the pledge came through as I read aloud: the blithe collapsings of “we” and “as members of the most indebted generations” made me wary (collectives always do, but so do easy historical assertions. Really? Are we more indebted than indentured servants who came to America, or people born into slavery?), and the sudden shift to first person singular at the very end seemed jarring: (After saying “we” six times, suddenly it’s ‘I’ now – what happened?). Lastly, the numerous alliterations also had an alienating effect, making the text seem sophistic and manipulative, artificial, composed.
The auditory experience of OSD can also provide insight into how we create texts. A video of Andrew Ross shows him presenting the first, “very rough draft” weeks earlier at an OWS event. Listening to him read this different, earlier version underscores the text as process. The pledge is something that developed. While his flat tone and straight male voice do not appeal to me, they do complexify and dimensionalize Brown’s reading, giving it depth. They also show that some things that bothered me in the final version – the collectivity and alliterations – were not there. This intertextual, diachronic listening does not erase troublesome aspects of the ‘final’ text, but it mediates them. I am moved closer to it by listening to its different origin.
Arguably, any of these points could have been arrived at by good ole’ textual analysis. My point is not that listening always should supplant visual modes; sound studies tries to break that false dichotomy by not denigrating or replacing the visual but by elevating the sonic to complementary – not superseding – status. I argue that reading aloud should be a fundamental, basic component of sound studies methodology, as it allows anyone to hear, voice, embody, and experience a text. I not only noticed these aspects sooner through listening – my first time speaking it aloud, despite having read it at least a dozen times before. Moreover, I didn’t just notice them: I felt them on a personal, emotional, level, which spurs thinking and analysis that is, if not completely new and unique, definitely qualitatively different in its potency and urgency.
Listening to OWS, and the OSD in particular, brings insights affective and personal. Yes, I can read a statistic from a survey stating that a certain percentage of participants in OWS feel angry or betrayed. That doesn’t mean anything to me in a specific, personal, and empathetic way – and empathy is crucial for a social movement to garner support. Listening to both Ross and Brown, I am reflective and conflicted over my professional role – no longer a grad student, but certainly not an established scholar like Ross. I feel connected to OSD in ways beyond the literal facts of my debt. Listening draws me into a contemplative, reflexive space beyond a sticky note on my office desk saying “OWS: teachable moment.” I can see a map with big, red OWS circles over Washington D.C. and New York, but I don’t feel the distance from myself and my students in the same way—and this is crucial for my teaching and engaging them in dialogue about what could be the most significant social movements of their lifetimes.
Welcome to our 100th post! It’s me, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief, Guest Posts Editor, and Co-Founder of Sounding Out! : The Sound Studies Blog, which has been faithfully “pushing sound studies into the red since 2009.” Together with Liana Silva, Co-Founder and Managing Editor, and Aaron Trammell, Co-Founder and Multimedia Editor, we thank you for your faithful readership, your enthusiasm, and of course, your likes, shares, retweets, and good, old-fashioned word-of-mouth!! We are going to keep serving up sound studies’ latest and greatest for a long time to come, for anyone who wants to listen. Keep a look out for our site redesign coming in January 2012: same good stuff, just that much easier on the eyes.
In honor of this momentous occasion, I am going to get all “meta-“ on you and take you behind the scenes of Sounding Out!, sharing some of the reasons why we decided to start a public conversation about sound studies on the Internet. A manifesto of sorts, this post is adapted from a talk I gave a few weeks back at the American Studies Association annual meeting in Baltimore as part of an excellent panel called “Digital Displays: Women Imagining The Blogosphere as Alternative Public Spheres,” sponsored by the American Studies Women’s Committee, organized by Nicole Hodges Persley (University of Kansas) and featuring the excellent work of Tanya Golash-Bolaza, Judy Lubin, and Jamie Schmidt Wagman.
With all that has happened in the short time that has passed since mid-October—especially at #Occupy sites across the country and around the world—I am only more convinced of the need to empower ourselves by building our own microphones, platforms, and audiences, rather than wait for “official” channels to open up; more often than not, they are cut off, nonresponsive, non-existent or just plain hijacked. Without stretching the metaphor too far or confusing what we do with front-line activism—no one is pepper spraying SO!, let’s be real—I’d like to think that the story of Sounding Out! is also a tale of occupation in its own way. In that spirit of solidarity and D.I.Y. information exchange, here’s a bit about why I blog. I hope to inspire you to join in the conversation.
In their introduction to the hot-off-the presses special issue of American Quarterly on sound studies—which actually mentions Sounding Out!, on page 451! Yes!—editors Kara Keeling and Josh Kun report receiving an unusual number of submissions from junior faculty members and graduate students, which they describe as “a sign not only of sound’s quantitative currency but the promise of its future as a field of ongoing inquiry, and its importance and relevance to the future of American Studies itself” (452). Keeling and Kun’s editorial openness to newer work is a wonderful exception in traditional academic publishing, where issues of access can loom large for emerging scholars struggling to publish and build a national reputation, particularly for women, scholars of color and/or first-generation scholars, whose expertise in their particular fields is rarely taken for granted. I use the term access here to refer to breaking into the centers of power on our campuses and/or in our respective fields. When you are a “nontraditional” scholar frequently isolated at and from your institution, marginalized in your field, and excluded from formal and informal networks of power, all key characteristics cited by Rosabeth Kanter’s influential study of “Tokenism,” gaining a foothold in the increasingly bleak academic landscape can seem insurmountable.
Because Sound Studies is not yet fully institutionalized—there are beginning to be sound studies masters’ concentrations at a few schools like NYU and the New School, but there are still no “sound studies” departments in the United States—I believe the kind of intervention that I am helping to stage with Sounding Out! is even more important. Scholars working in audio cultures are spread across, and often isolated in, many fields that are themselves identified as white and male dominated, both in terms of demographics and research agenda: media studies, the history of science and technology, popular music, sound art and design, and film studies, to name a few. When considered alongside the abysmal numbers of many professional fields for sound practitioners, like video game design, radio announcing, and audio recording—the Women’s Audio Mission reports that 95% of the professional recording industry is currently male—the need is even more clear for two-way channels that increase the access of women and people of color to the central conversations of their industries and academic fields while improving the access of other scholars and wider reading publics to our work.
Rather than wait for a platform for our sound studies scholarship to arise, I helped to build a public conversation in a medium that could not only be more responsive to the lightning-paced nature of sound studies’ breakthrough moment, but also one that could be more responded to: open, collaborative, and in conversation with a wide range of interested parties. Way back in 2009, there were few traditional publication venues for research on sound; sound studies scholars had to rely on rare special issues or occasional essays on the margins of various disciplines’ journals. The first print journal primarily devoted to sound launched in Summer 2008, Music, Sound, and the Moving Image, but it still left large gaps for those not working in film. Not only did we lack the considerable resources necessary to start a print journal, but the medium wasn’t quite up to our tasks. A blog seemed much more flexible, able to build a continuously updated, networked, public archive of sound studies scholars, while sustaining what Kathleen Fitzpatrick describes as “an open, post-publication review process [that] is a non-anonymous discussion by a community of scholars working together on collective issues” in her September 30th, 2011 interview with Inside Higher Ed.
Paul Krugman called such interventions “breaking in from anywhere” in his October 18th, 2011 blog for the New York Times, “Our Blogs, Ourselves,” arguing that the blogosphere makes academia’s “magic circles” seem “less formal and less defined by where you sit or where you went to school.” Krugman argues blogging has “showed what things are really like. If some famous economists seem to be showing themselves intellectually naked, it’s not really a change in their wardrobe, it’s the fact that it’s easier than it used to be for little boys to get a word in.” We at Sounding Out! like to think we’re also helping women (little, big, or otherwise) to join this conversation, and more importantly, to change it.
While voices like those on Team Sounding Out! are often central to the “ground floor” conversations that shape a new field at conferences, online, and/or at our home institutions, they are often left behind when a field crystallizes in print journal publishing, which, given its limited space and slower-pace, favors the seasoned scholar. Publishing a blog can both complement peer-reviewed research and intervene in its recalcitrant institutional practices. As Claire Potter, author of the blog Tenured Radical, writes, the blogosphere “works against the stultifying tendency of the academy to keep untenured people in as subservient a state as possible for the longest possible time.” Sounding Out! enables our untenured but knowledgeable editorial crew to approach the field with agency and gusto, actively seeking out the “ground floor” intellectual labor and innovation happening in sound studies, making it audible and visible in a public forum that is far from ghettoized. We deliberately curate an integrated, and dynamic collaboration between junior scholars, senior scholars, graduate students, and sound professionals. Thanks to you, we’ll be topping 50,000 hits this week.
Before this all sounds too rosy, I should also be clear that running Sounding Out! is plenty of work, even with a brilliant editorial team. I am constantly surprised at how much time I spend just wrestling with WordPress, let alone the cooler parts of the gig. Not to mention, its role in my tenure case remains to be seen. However, even when the hours get long (squeezed in on nights and weekends after already impossibly long days and weeks), I will also say that it is work that is deeply satisfying and creative, work that feels both truly my own and yet deeply connected to a worthy collective goal.
I am also thrilled to report that several members of my non-academic family have told me that, thanks to the blog, they “finally understand what the hell it is I do,” which is one of the highest compliments I have received in a long while. As Editor-in-Chief, one of my main missions for Sounding Out! has always been for the blog to become—and remain—a smart, well-written, and informative-yet-irresistible venue for the work of emerging sound studies scholars for academics and non-academics alike. That is ultimately why we work so hard over here at SO!: to share the most vital and important findings of our field in a way that impacts lives as well as careers.
Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman is co-founder, Editor-in-Chief and Guest Posts Editor for Sounding Out! She is also Assistant Professor of English at Binghamton University and a Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University.