Welcome back to Sounding Out!‘s 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). Sharpen your pencils and/or give your typing fingers a good stretch, because today’s offering from Liana Silva asks you to exercise unexpected writing muscles—your tongue, mouth, and vocal chords! If you need a make-up assignment for last week’s post by D. Travers Scott, “Listening to #Occupy in the Classroom,” click here. And don’t forget–same class time next week!–JSA, Editor in Chief
When I started this draft, I sat in an office that is not mine, next to an old, whirring Westclox Dialite electric clock. When I write, I usually pop my headphones on and blast my “Writing” playlist on my iPhone. But that day, I was soothed by the sounds of a whirring clock and the air blasting through a wall vent. On another day I worked on my draft while I listened to sports talk radio, a big part of my morning routine; toward the end of the drafting process I shared this blog post with a writing consultant at the writing center where I work.
For me, writing is always connected to sound. Sound inhabits the spaces where I write, either in the shape of music, typing, or voices. These sounds are never far from my writing process. In fact, something so small as the typing of the keys as I write this can be construed as the soundtrack to my writing. Sounding Out! guest blogger and author Bridget Hoida made a case for how sound is part of the texts she reads and how she weaves sound into her own writing; in my case, I can’t think of writing without sound. It is my soundtrack/sound track, in the sense that sound is the track on which I lay my writing process, like the lines of a ruled notebook.
However, many writers and educators tend to think of writing as a solitary, lonely, quiet endeavor. Last month, at an orientation where I was speaking, I heard someone refer to the “quiet activity of writing and learning.” As I looked around me, stunned, I seemed to be the only one surprised at this assertion. Although it is a common perception, as a writer, ex-writing instructor, and writing center staff member, this did not make sense to me. Both writing and learning, for me, are connected to sound, whether it was listening to music while editing or talking through my ideas during class discussion. If, to paraphrase Brandon Labelle in Acoustic Territories, places configure what sounds are deemed acceptable and unacceptable, do schools configure what are the appropriate sounds of learning?
I approach this question about the sounds of learning from the angle of my work at the writing center. For years I taught first-year composition, and later on in my academic career I started working at a writing center (where I currently work). At the Writing Center we are surrounded by the sounds of writing and learning. A student will walk up to one of our locations and meet with a writing consultant. They will discuss the writer’s text, in the case that the writer brings a draft. After this discussion, the consultant will read the writer’s text aloud, a practice that all of our writing consultants must adhere to. The text comes alive in the voice of the consultant; the good, the bad, and the ugly are made audible, concrete in the voice of the consultant. This enables both parties to hear the paper, but also to listen to the paper and, ideally, understand it better. The consultant and the writer then talk about what works, what doesn’t, what could be improved and how. Learning takes place through a conversation. It is at the writing center where writing and learning processes are no longer silent, but actually audible. The value for a writer of hearing their text aloud is not new; in 1967, Anthony Tovatt and Ebert L. Miller did a three-year study on how listening to their writing helped high-school writers improve their writing skills (see their article “The Sound of Writing”). My concern is how learning is coded as silent, despite evidence to the contrary.
I wonder about the implications of describing learning and writing as “silent” processes. Silence already has a domesticating quality: it is portrayed as the gift of the restrainted, of the eloquent, of the elite, and these ideas about silence and noise emerge from 19th Century ideas about respectability and middle-class values. As an example, American Studies scholar Daniel Cavicchi states in Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum,
“In fact, both in the North and the South, genteel people came to value the quietude of silent reading and listening as a form of ‘productive leisure’ that was explicitly opposed to the louder, more boisterous pastimes of slaves, immigrants, and workers. As in the days when European colonists and Native Americans struggled to understand each other’s sound worlds, aural difference now became a wedge that allowed those in power to place certain groups figuratively and literally outside the bounds of civilization” (52).
Ideas of learning as silent are coded in broader discourse about silence (or, to use Cavicchi’s more accurate terminology, quietude) and noise, about what is respectable and what is not. How do these common connotations of quietude as dignified and sound/noise as unpleasant carry over to descriptions of of learning? It is possible that society has normalized these types of learning (the “silent” types) as of a higher caliber, and schools have a major part in that: reading to one’s self in silence, filling out exam questions and not talking to anyone, typing in a quiet library at a computer station fit for only one. Even a lecture dignifies silence, in a way: students sit down and listen to what the teacher/professor has to say while they digest, quietly, what is being taught. In opposition, the sounds of learning can be associated to the sounds of collaboration, as it were: tutorials, consultations, advising sessions, discussion sections, movie viewings. Although talking is not the only way to collaborate in order to learn, I posit that these learning activities that are usually non-silent fall prey to hierarchies of sound and silence.
These hierarchies of sound and silence tell listeners that the learning activities that are portrayed as silent are more legitimate than those that are portrayed as boisterous, loud, animated—in other words, activities producing sound. In fact, it doesn’t have to be either/or. The fact that they are set in opposition to themselves is in itself problematic. Isolating sound from the learning process acts as a way of emphasizing writing as the main component of learning. Jody Shipka in “Sound Engineering: Toward a Theory of Multimodal Soundness” describes how writing is thought of as “the communication of scholarly, rigorous arguments or ideas, something more often associated with the production of linear, print-based texts” (356, emphasis in original). This dichotomy of rigor versus play can be portrayed also as visuality (as embodied in the written text) versus aurality. The writing center can be the place where these ideas are tested, in the sense that it is a location of collaborative learning where some learn by writing and others benefit from talk while others benefit from listening. By privileging quietude and solitude as the ideal modes for learning, we miss out on other important vehicles for learning, such as sound.
If I started this post with the whirring of the Westclox clock, how did I end this post? I ended it on a busy Sunday evening, while my daughter slept and my boyfriend talked on the phone. I finished it with the chatter of the air conditioner, the clack of baseballs against bats coming from the living room, and the click click click of the keyboard keeping me company.
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!
Last month as my sister and I drove to the store, she started to joke with me. “You’re crazy,” she began, “you’re so high-tech, with your computers, and XBOX. You love music. But, you’ve got a cassette player in your car.” I shot her a look. “So what? I like it.” I said, hoping that she would back off. “So what!” she proclaimed in response, “don’t you want a CD player? Or a jack for your iPod?” I responded, “But how will I play my tapes?” She stared at me. “Who cares? They sound like crud. You’re crazy.”
Here at Sounding Out! we’ve featured a number of articles about analog tape. It persists in popular culture (Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s Play it Again (and Again), Sam: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), underground communities (Matt Laferty’s On Hand Made Music), and even our personal histories (Gus Stadler’s Pushing Play). Even though tape is generally understood to be obsolete, niche, and just plain noisy – I will insist that, despite my sister’s concerns, there is something special (even forgotten) about the medium itself. I had tried to articulate this in last year’s article What Mixtapes Can Teach Us About Noise. But, when I re-read it, I can’t help but think that I somehow missed the point. Let me try again with a new question: What is the difference between a mix on cassette tape and an iTunes playlist?
Care is the difference. The material limitations of the cassette recorder demand that care is taken during the act of inscription. In other words, cassette mixes cannot be automated like an iTunes playlist. The practice of recording a mix on cassette requires, at minimum, that some attention is paid to the moment a song begins (as record is pushed), and the moment a song ends (as stop is pressed). The cassette must be tended, as it were, during the encoding process. It is impossible to program a cassette mix otherwise.
After tracks have been chosen and messages encoded, frequently cassette mixes are shared, or gifted. If the receiver chooses to listen to the cassette, they must locate, first, a cassette player. This was not a problem in 1990 when cassette players were a more or less ubiquitous technology. But, in the present day, they are notably rare. Furthermore, even if some care has been taken to locate a listening platform, the tape is far more treacherous than the CD to navigate. Awkward transitions governed by the fast-forward and rewind buttons, encouraged listeners to listen through all but the most wretched sequences of a cassette mix. And, let us not forget, how leaving a cassette in the wrong player could result in a mangle of 1/8″ tape. Or, how speakers, magnets, and poor weather all eventually erode at the contents of poorly stored tape. Care had to be taken in maintaining and storing a good cassette mix; tapes are a fragile technology and that, for me at least, serves to valorize the labor at stake in their creation.
Am I giving the playlist enough credit? Even though the platform may not limit its listeners, and producers, in the same ways that cassette recorders have, who is to say that any less care is taken when producing a playlist? To this point, I must bring up a question of labor. While, the receiver of a cassette mix knows that at least an hour (as cassettes are generally 60 minutes or more) of work has been put into its construction, the receiver of a mix CD, or playlist, cannot be as certain. iTunes playlists can be constructed in five minutes or less. Implicated within this labor divide is both an emerging and ephemeral culture of listening.
As Sterne (2006) has argued in his paper, The MP3 as Cultural Artifact, our bodies respond to MP3s in a way that is fundamentally different than listening to a tape, or record. “[The MP3] represents a liberation of just-in-time sound production, where systems give listeners less and ask their bodies to do more of the work” (p.838). If the very compression algorithms that constitute MP3s make demands on the brains and bodies of listeners, it is interesting to think of the iTunes playlist in parallel. The iTunes playlist makes comparatively few demands on the body of the producer. This, paradoxically, results in a culture that does not valorize the labor of its constituent producers. Most apparent in the nebulous legal credibility of Mashups, the mix exists predominantly within an economy of care. Unfortunately, the digital turn toward playlisting conspires to render the labor of care, in this context, invisible.
Is there hope for iTunes? Can we trust our playlists to be received with the love that was put into them? Some theorists like Hardt (1999) see an upside to caring labor. As he points out in his essay, Affective Labor, “Caring labor is certainly entirely immersed in the corporeal, the somatic, but the affects it produces are nonetheless immaterial. What affective labor produces are social networks, forms of community, biopower” (p. 96). Sharing is caring, the accessibility and ease of production that playlisting provides, is, at least, a way to foster community. I am not so optimistic. For caring labor is not adequately valued, at least not in the context of building a playlist. Playlists rely on an audience to value them, they provide no guarantees. The labor at stake in their construction may only become visible to those who listen. The cassette mix, on the other hand, has care inscribed into its magnetic tape. The listener knows that some work has been put into making the mix, even before play is pressed.
Although cassette tapes may have all but disappeared as a way to share music, the caring labor involved in their production might be salvaged in other forms. Taking a page from Andreas Duus Pape’s recent, Building Intimate Performance Venue’s on the Internet, podcasts (produced on platforms like Garageband or Audacity), provide a viable alternative. Like cassettes, they subject their listeners to a linear play style. And, there is a certain degree of care taken by the producer when splicing, cross-fading, arranging, and sequencing a set of tracks. It is implicit in the construction of a Podcast that some degree of care was taken during its development. Of course, I will keep the cassette player in my car. I have a special tape adaptor, which lets it play music from my iPod.
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and multimedia editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD student at Rutgers University.