- Introduction to the Issue
- Nietzsche was a DJ
- DJ Spooky Interview
- Common Sounds
- inter.Virtual.Vitalism. views: Aural Encounters
- How Music Speaks: In the Background, In the Remix, In the City
- Writing Without Sound: Language Politics in Closed Captioning
- 'Digimortal': Sound in a World of Posthumanity
- Thinking Across the Neck: Playing Slide with Fret/work Blues
- An Autoethnography of Sound: Local Music Culture in Colorado
- Inquiry as Telos
- A New Composition, a 21st Century Pedagogy, and the Rhetoric of Music
- Remixing the Personal Narrative Essay: “The Hardest and the Best Thing I Have Ever Done”
- Auralacy: From Plato to Podcasting and Back, Again
- Digital Lyrical
- Contributors' Notes
Auralacy: From Plato to Podcasting and Back Again
Lydia French and Emily Bloom
The following pieces of sound(&)writing reflect the authors’ forays into the emergent field of sound studies as both students and teachers. They are essays that emerged from a series of conversations over coffee, at conferences, and on the telephone. Though in dialogue we recognized implicitly the resonances between our respective ways of researching and teaching on sound, the written collaboration that emerged from these conversations exposed dissonances between our approaches as well. Thus, instead of merging our research into a single, putatively seamless text, we preserved some of the dialogic quality of our endeavor by keeping the two parts separate. We include audio recordings of an interview between the authors as supplemental material to underpin the connections between reading and listening and between research and pedagogy. Because intellectual development is never as neat as a single essay or even essays in dialogue might suggest, our voices interject to disrupt both the temporal and textual flow.
In the first selection, “Auditing Philosophical Pedagogies: A Memoir,” Lydia French returns to early engagements with speech-writing debates in what she describes as “classroom scenes,” dramatized by Plato, Eric Havelock, and Jacques Derrida. Describing the politics of orality and literacy as they impinge upon philosophical pedagogies, French highlights in these scenes the excision of listening from the operative discourses, which yields an absence tending to perpetuate a notion of listening as passive and mimetic. The second essay, “Listening to Listening: Podcasting in the Classroom,” highlights the role of audience in structuring listening to student-generated podcasts and, thereby, influencing student composition and reception. While each author takes responsibility for the faults and gaps in her “own” writing, readers should bear in mind that the ideas presented in each essay resonate with the voices of both authors – a reminder that writing also shows the traces, however invisibly, of listening.
Auditing Philosophical Pedagogies: A Memoir
Referring to the linguistic residue of a “hearing-dominant” historical moment, Walter Ong draws attention to the practice of listening implicit in the term “audit”: “[E]ven today we speak of ‘auditing,’ that is, ‘hearing’ account books, though what an accountant actually does today is examine them by sight. Earlier, residually oral folk could understand even figures better by listening than by looking” (117). Though from professional accounting I could not be further removed, I seek in this essay to take account of particular figures, namely speech and writing as they stand in certain philosophical renderings of pedagogical practice. My accounting of speech and writing as well as those whose books I audit—Plato, Eric Havelock, and Jacques Derrida—not only calls out an absence of listening in the orality-literacy debate, it also recalls the early stages of my education in sound studies.
Bloom: I know your paper focuses on Greek and Continental philosophers, and want to hear a little more about other versions of aurality you’ve encountered and what you make of those in relation to some of the topics you discuss here.
French: When I began thinking about this question [my research inquiry], I turned to the oral-literate debate. But as the project has developed more and more and since the focus is on Mexican American and American Indian authors, I’m much more interested in how sound and listening are working in those communities. One of the things that’s really important to me is to understand that listening is as socially and culturally and historically conditioned as reading or writing… So, that’s kind of more where I’m going: less the philosophical route, though that’s important, and more toward thinking through what it means to listen socially, and that maybe listening is always already social in many ways.
In Rhythm Science Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, defines sound as “a vector of coded language that goes from the physical to the informational and back again” (5). Elaborating on the utility of the geometrical term, vector, “a line of fixed length and direction but no fixed position,” he urges readers to “consider the way ideas move through our minds and bodies. There is no fixed position. There’s only the improvisational nature of recall” (5). Indeed, sound—whether encoding “language” or not—carries meaning as memory, made intelligible in this essay through writing. Because “recall” or memory, like listening, is improvisational and, I would add, invisible, it demands translation, documentation, and (re)iteration. Without discourse in the form of either speech or writing, the act of listening—and the memories it carries—remains unintelligible, unknowable, opaque. In tracing the following philosophical “classroom scenes,” I offer a memoir of my own training as a listener to the silence of the page as a translator of sound’s opacity. That is, as I recalled these orality-literacy debates from the vantage point of sound studies and what Emily Bloom and I have termed “auralacy,” or learning to listen, I was struck by the silence on listening in so many of these scenes, a silence that I read as a tension that, in turn, impels attention.
In an age where digitization overdetermines the aural, I return to Plato because, after all, that is where memory leads, but also because “he” proves instructive. To situate what constitutes that instruction and thereby to “fix” this memoir, I must acknowledge that I am listening for something. I have an agenda. In the tradition of students who have come before, I seek among ancient teachers to find what has been encoded in their memory, because, ultimately, their memories return as listening. The ancient classrooms become a kind of echo-chamber wherein I hear repeated anxieties over a structure of listening that has been effectively excised from philosophical discourses that triangulate pedagogy, speech, and writing.
To illustrate this excision and its influence on pedagogical practice, I begin, with no pretension to identifying an origin-point, with Plato’s condemnation of poetic and artistic representations of the Forms in the Republic. Socrates’ censure of mousikē, a combination of music and poetry, rhythm and verse, as the purview of the appetites rather than the spirit or intellect, forms the basis for the model of education he develops throughout the dialogue. Music and poetry, he claims in Book VII,
is just the counterpart of physical training. It educated the guardians through habits. Its harmonies gave them a certain harmoniousness, not knowledge; its rhythms gave them a certain rhythmical quality; and its stories, whether fictional or nearer the truth, cultivated other habits akin to these. (522a).
These qualities, it seems, prime the soul for true education, but they do not provide its substance. Since this discussion appears upon the heels of the myth of the Cave, we might say that music and poetry represent rather the stairs that lead one out into the light, not the light itself. And just as the stairs’ physicality—the technicality of their construction—renders them mimetic, so musico-poetic techne manipulates the “real” and the “True” through representation, making the representation appear the more real. On the other hand, the object of true knowledge, and thus the goal of pedagogical practice, is that which absolutely is.
In his Preface to Plato, Eric Havelock ascribes Plato’s inclination toward the Being of the Forms to a radical shift from oral to written pedagogy that Plato at once heralded and sustained. According to Havelock, Plato sought to substitute instruction by way of oral poetry, with its emphasis on activity, identification, image, and, in turn, imitation, with an objective analytic that distances the subject (the writer) and the object (the written). The philosopher whom Havelock’s Plato heralds and personifies is one who redefines education (and therefore the pursuit of philosophy) as a mode of Being rather than a mode of doing. For Havelock, the oral epic composition and performance that constituted Greek education before Plato relied so heavily on “event,” “action,” and “immediacy” (i.e., narrative mimesis) that it instituted a pedagogy of “instinctive reaction,” for which Plato substituted a philosophy of “reasoned analysis” (283).
On this embattled pedagogical terrain, then, Havelock’s Plato substituted writing for oral epic composition. But Havelock experiences difficulty at times describing the (visual) technology of writing in opposition to the oral technologies that he claims Plato disavows; much of his argument, in fact, relies on the development of imagery in the poems as that which the audience imitates. In fact, Havelock asserts that “Platonism at bottom is an appeal to substitute a conceptual discourse for an imagistic one” (261). Following this argument, the immediacy of oral epic discourse creates in the student an unreflective visual identification; whereas, the mediated distance inherent to inscription creates the possibility for conceptualization, or theoria.
But this ostensibly strict distinction between the essential subjectivity of orality and objectivity of writing is complicated by the material history of the classroom, as indicated in the extent to which the practice of listening dictates the form of oral transmission. That is, as Havelock historicizes the oral epic pedagogy against which Plato reacts, even in the semi-literacy of the late fifth and fourth centuries BCE, teachers must still recite lessons to their students, who will continue to memorize them as oral recitations. Thus, writing must bend to the dictates of an educational tradition premised not necessarily on oral epic composition (anymore) but rather on the students’ acquaintance with listening as the primary mode of knowledge acquisition. Havelock thus describes the position of the literate instructor:
The rhapsodist was also the teacher. He, like the poet . . . responded to the traditions of craft literacy. He himself used his Homeric text as a reference to correct his memory, but taught it orally to the population at large who memorised but never read it. Like the poet, he also remained under audience control. (47-48)
As Havelock finds in his historical reading of the Republic, part of Plato’s resistance to poetry lay in his adherence to the possibility of a new epistemology for which writing laid the foundation. The lines above, however, also indicate an anxiety of influence that one must recognize not only among one’s masters and predecessors but in one’s students as well. Indeed the Socratic dialogues frequently dramatize that potential. The Phaedrus in particular illustrates how Socratic dialogue-as-pedagogy defi(n)es a student’s expectations of pedagogical listening and its relationship to speech and writing. Despite Havelock’s claims for Plato in the Republic, in the Phaedrus Socrates dismisses writing as a potion (pharmakon) not “for remembering, but for reminding,” indeed reminding at a second remove (275a). Philosophy, on the other hand, “is discourse that is written down, with knowledge, in the soul of the listener; it can defend itself, and it knows for whom it should speak and for whom it should remain silent” (276a). Mixing metaphors here, Socrates acknowledges that writing offers a base, physical reminder analogous to the reminders of the Forms of goodness, beauty, justice that the soul glimpses before inhabiting a corruptive physical body that imposes amnesia on the soul. As with imitation in the Republic, then, we are faced on one hand with a living and therefore “good” reminder embodied in the philosopher’s beloved student, and on the other the negative reminder of writing that also encompasses any kind of technical or stylistic aid. Speech in this rendering is not opposed to writing in a good/bad binary; rather, a certain kind of speech—dialectic—assumes philosophic priority over other kinds—rhetoric, poetry, and written discourse.
When Socrates says that philosophy “is discourse that is written . . . in the soul of the listener,” he gestures toward listening as key to the process of discerning the good from the bad reminder and, we might assume, the good from the bad imitation as well. In spite of the potential for Socrates to teach Phaedrus a mode of listening alternative to that cultivated in Lysias’s speech, the work of listening is once again subsumed under the integrity of composition. Listening, in fact, appears throughout the Phaedrus as an act entirely internal and out of one’s control. Thus, Socrates can disavow responsibility for the arguments of his first speech against Lysias’s by claiming, “I was filled, like an empty jar, by the words of other people streaming in through my ears” (235D). He makes similar claims to the passivity of listening in his renditions of the myth of the cicadas and the myth of writing.
Although this dramatization of the passivity of listening appears to affirm Havelock’s hypothesis in Preface to Plato, it also troubles it. That is, if the teaching of both philosophy and myth hinges on how the student listens, then Socrates is here illustrating that different modes of discourse require different modes of listening, which presupposes alternatives to the passivity of sounds “streaming through [one’s] ears.” For instance, at several moments in the Republic, Socrates must use myth to guide his students to an ultimate dialectical understanding of absolute Justice, Beauty, Truth, and Good. Nevertheless, he refers to such “falsehoods” as pharmaka throughout, suggesting that the determination of their medicinal versus their poisonous qualities lies in the students’ listening ability. Here and in the Phaedrus, he thus draws a distinction between the way in which students listen to mythopoeisis and the way in which they listen to philosophy. While this affirms the suggestion that, for Plato, mousikē as a pedagogical tool remains a passive way of learning,it also indicates that the philosophical and pedagogical turn Plato may have been advocating in this moment actually called for a more active listening. That is, writing and widespread literacy did not necessarily eradicate the pedagogical potential of oral composition. But it did call attention to audience reception of oral composition as a particular structure of listening, indeed as one among others.
Bloom: I know you have incorporated your thinking about listening and your thinking about sound technologies into the classroom, and that you have taught a class in which you podcasted a good deal and in which you incorporated a lot of popular music. I’d just like to hear a bit more about how you use aurality in the classroom and the effects you feel like that has on your pedagogy.
French: In the Fall of 2008 and the Spring of 2009 I taught a course called “The Rhetoric of Southern Rock,” which was the first time I used podcasts as, basically, source material for the class. Originally what I would do is have a setlist or playlist of songs that would be their texts for the week or the day, and I would usually preface them with a little introduction of the artist and the song title. Then I would say things like, “I particularly want you to listen for blah blah blah…the saxophone or the lyrics at a certain point.” Without realizing it, I was guiding them in the kind of techniques I wanted to use for the material.
Each of these renderings of “classrooms” as scenes of listening reveals a tension between conceiving of listening as intrinsically passive and the need, therefore, to instruct students in the act of listening, tailoring listening to varieties of discourse. A later scene of instruction, in which the student, Jacques Derrida, speaks back to the pedagogue, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, articulates this tension once again as the difference, ultimately, between speech and writing. In Of Grammatology, Derrida traces Rousseau’s structure of supplementation according to the logic that writing supplements speech, speech supplements gesture, and so on. Yet, in the course of his reading, Derrida implicitly draws listening back into the fold. Thus, we encounter in the following line Derrida’s interpretation of a passage in which Rousseau traces the movement from gesture to speech, deconstruction of which reveals Derrida’s anxious silence regarding listening: “Speech excites attention, the visible exacts it: is it because the ear is always open and offered to provocation, more passive than sight? One can more naturally close one’s eyes or distract his glance than avoid listening” (235-36). This passage should give us pause. What it appears to say is that listening is always passive, while vision is always active. What it actually says, though, is far more problematic.
Breaking apart the terms reveals an ambiguity and, yes, another layer of supplementation that impinges, this time, not on speech or writing but on listening. Provoke, for instance, from pro- + -vocare means a “summons or call” “on behalf of, instead of, or in return for.” In other words, a summons or call that is supplemental. There are, then, at least two possibilities for the suggestion that the “ear is always . . . offered to provocation,” each of which amount to the same basic structure. First, if the summons or call occurs before the speech, which makes sense in keeping with the notion that speech excites attention, then speech “sets in motion” or activates a mode of “turn[ing] one’s ear to [or] listen[ing].” But that also means that listening “happens” or presents itself before speech. If, secondarily, provocation means that the summons or call substitutes or is substituted by the speech itself, then, again, speech supplements a structure of listening already in place.
What does it mean for Derrida to say that speech sets in motion an out-stretching (another meaning of attention) of the ear (presumably as a metonym for listening) and, moreover, to suggest that there is a temporal and functional play between the call that “excites” listening and listening itself as a kind of call? As a student of writing, Derrida reads Rousseau “saying what he cannot [explicitly] say” within the philosophical contours of his discourse, thus giving credence to Havelock’s suggestion that pedagogues are beholden to their students’ “control” of the media of instruction. On the other hand, as a student of sound, I hear in the silence of this quote Derrida saying about listening what he cannot, within the structure of writing-as-such, say about listening. Rather than a passive act to be excised from pedagogies of writing (even arche-writing, as a precondition or potential for speech), a structure of listening already in place, before the production of sound with or without semiotic content, suggests the integrality of listening for both philosophies of pedagogy and pedagogical philosophies.
To suggest that there are structures of listening in place prior to sound complicates what Havelock describes as the imitative, identificatory, or passive listening of the recitative audience. It indicates a need to identify what constitutes practices of listening as an activity, an embodied technique or practice contoured by discourse but not necessarily beholden to it. As Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past teaches, as an actively acquired practice, listening is, in fact, a learned (and, implicitly, unlearned) activity. Studies of the relationship between orality and writing have been marked by what Sterne describes as an “audiovisual litany” in which various religious and ethical values are ascribed to either sound or sight. For instance, those who seek to describe the intrinsic differences between sight and hearing— which undergird Derrida’s question above— posit that “hearing is spherical, vision is directional,” “hearing immerses its subject, vision offers a perspective,” “hearing tends towards subjectivity, vision tends towards objectivity,” and “hearing is about affect, vision is about intellect” (15). Indeed, this is the legacy of listening with which contemporary instructors must contend if we are to introduce students to sound-writing. Our own shifting media environment, on the other hand, affords the unique opportunity to revitalize and broaden listening as pedagogical practice through the incorporation of recorded audio into the literature or composition classroom. Joining the philosophical debate over the pedagogical function of listening with contemporary classroom practice, that is, allows instructors to analyze auralacy, how we learn to listen.
To offer auralacy as a pedagogical intervention is not to suggest that there are no precedents for a pedagogy of listening. Clearly, Sterne’s history of “audile technique” leads in this direction; Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s oral epic composition thesis documents a model of listening in the training of oral poets; Jean-Luc Nancy’s Listening, as a structure of the sense of self as such, gestures toward a philosophical auralacy; and, most recently, Veit Erlmann’s Reason and Resonance demonstrates the historical significance of theories of listening to the development of the modern subject.
Rather than positing reading and listening, writing and speaking, as incommensurate binaries, I want to suggest that cultivating “auralacy” in discourse and pedagogy can draw attention to the acoustic elements inherent to composition and mobilize the listener as an active agent in discerning the sounds of the text. That discerning ability is already inherent in the structure of listening that is “excited,” to borrow Derrida’s term, by sound. But if a structure of listening precedes sound, then there is really no such thing as listening qua listening. So-called “pure” orality, that is, consists of an aural technology that offers listeners a context of mediation. Even oral-poetic composition constitutes an aural technology, apprehension of which prepares listeners for a certain kind of recognizable sonic pattern. Calling attention to that recognition (or lack thereof) offers a way to teach critical listening in much the same way we would teach critical reading through student writing.
Bloom: That brings me to my next question, which is about another assignment that you developed, which is the listening journals. One thing that's interesting to me is if you think about the word journal, it has such associations with being on your own, with writing, with print, with sort of private thoughts; whereas listening is sort of inherently public in a way. I was curious as to how you developed the listening journal and what it taught you about pedagogies of aurality.
French: That's a great question. The listening journal came as the first installment of a longer assignment that I call the cultural readership journal. The idea behind it is that everybody is coming to a cultural production with a certain set of expectations and familiarities based on their own experiences, which themselves are conditioned and created by different social and cultural factors. With the listening journal specifically, I had a number of students say things like: "Oh, I found out that if it doesn't pertain in some way to me, or my identity, or something I find interesting, I tend not to listen." And--you and I have talked about this before--that really flies in the face of theorists who say you can close your eyes but not your ears. I also asked them the difference between a critical or analytical listening and passive listening. And after the exercise, a lot of them had a hard time identifying a difference and sort of came on the side of, well, if you're listening, you're really being critical already.
However, as instructors, we must also recognize the extent to which we remain under “audience control,” to once again borrow Havelock’s phrasing. As I hope to have demonstrated with this “recall,” this “auditing” of philosophical discourse banked in my own memory, our students approach listening, reading, and composition with their own memories that, in turn, define for them appropriate structures of listening in the classroom. Nevertheless, just because the practice of listening remains hidden from view does not mean that it should remain silent. Through the combination and composition of sound(&)writing in the classroom, as instructors with memories of our own auralacy, we can empower our students to make audible and visible their own practices of learning to listen.
Listening to Listening: Podcasting in the Classroom
The two words that comprise the neologism “podcast,” iPod and broadcast, evoke two very different genealogies of listening. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, before the modern definition of broadcast, meaning a message “disseminated by means of radio or television,” broad-casting referred to the act of scattering seed across a field with a “broad-cast” of the arm. Whether sowing seeds or projecting sound waves, the word "broadcast" suggests the wide, almost haphazard, diffusion of information. Radio in particular is a “blind medium” in which disembodied voices speak to listeners in a variety of places—in their homes and their cars, at work and in school, assembled together or sitting alone, focused on their listening or distractedly multi-tasking. A recurring debate among early media practitioners and theorists concerned whether broadcast audiences are more effectively imagined as collectives or as individuals. On one side, Marshall McLuhan described radio’s “almost instant reversal of individualism into collectivism” (304), and on the other, BBC producer Donald McWhinnie described how radio listeners experience a broadcast “privately and personally” (34). The first syllable of podcast, on the other hand, stems from the massively popular Apple iPod, which was first sold in 2001. One aspect of the iPod’s popularity is its promise of an individualized listening space beyond anything that McWhinnie imagined for radio. Michael Bull argues that the iPod’s iconic white earbuds render the experience of listening increasingly private, with each listener shutting out external sounds and atomized by his or her personal playlist. By combining these two different genealogies, the word “podcast” carries a latent ambiguity regarding the spaces and structures of listening.
French: Tell me a little about just your research in general.
Bloom: One reason I became interested in listening and the relationship between listening and pedagogy is [that] my dissertation is focused on Irish writers who were broadcasting for the BBC around the 1930s through 1950s , and one of the things that came up a lot in that body of work was a sort of central ambiguity about what kind of audience they were dealing with. The act of broadcasting was in some ways intensely solitary—often it was just one person with a microphone—and yet authors often had this awareness of broadcasting to this immense, immense mass.
This ambiguity surrounding the podcast audience makes it a compelling tool through which students and instructors alike can analyze the relationships between writing and reception. Since broadcasts, iPods, and podcasts are more often associated with pleasure and relaxation than with rigorous attention, incorporating podcasts into the classroom requires instructors and students to explore and often shift their expectations about listening. This paper will explore my own initiation into classroom podcasting and show how expectations about sound, media, and the classroom space influence students’ and instructors’ listening practices.
Composing with Podcasts: Why, How, and Where?
For some instructors, “listening” is a metaphorical or ethical act or, more literally, a task circumscribed to classroom discussion and peer review; however, with the expansion of multi-modal pedagogies, instructors can experiment with sound media that create ever-widening opportunities for listening in and out of the classroom. Cynthia Selfe argues that incorporating aurality—which she defines as a combination of speech, music and sound—into multimodal pedagogies encourages greater “semiotic dimensionality” that can benefit students from different cultural backgrounds. Selfe writes:
When we insist on print as the primary, and most formally acceptable, modality for composing knowledge, we usurp these rights and responsibilities on several important intellectual and social dimensions, and, unwittingly, limit students' sense of rhetorical agency to the bandwidth of our own interests and imaginations. (3)
In addition to the rhetorical agency Selfe describes, I want to consider further the ways in which “semiotic dimensionality” can give students more agency as listeners—an agency that can shape composition strategies and that can unsettle traditional classroom hierarchies.
In my own attempt to create an audio essay assignment, I found that listening to podcasts in the classroom tests students’ and instructors’ assumptions about listening. Like other public genres incorporated into classroom assignments, such as the newspaper editorial, there is often a disconnection between the imagined audience (newspaper readers, say) and the actual audience (peers and/or the instructor). I found this to be less true when students listened to podcasts in class and were able to witness, and interact with, an embodied listening audience. Just as students often consider writing to be a personal, rather than a public act, and instructors utilize strategies such as peer review and multimodal writing assignments to create awareness of the publics of writing, classroom podcasting creates enhanced awareness of the public reception of the student’s work. As instructors trained to position ourselves in relation to writing in print, we must also, as Krista Ratcliffe writes, “listen to a student’s listening” (197), a process that can upend our pedagogical assumptions and radically de-center authority in the classroom. When the site of audience reception moves from their instructor’s eyes to their classmates’ ears, students must also reorient themselves. They must shift their strategies, re-imagine their audience, and consider what role the media should play in shaping their rhetorical approaches.
Podcasting first began to play an important role in higher education with the practice of podcasting lectures and, as Khe Foon Hew observes, studies of podcasting pedagogy tend to focus on teacher-generated podcasts rather than student-generated podcasts. Podcast lectures allow students the flexibility to listen at the times and in the spaces they choose; however, this model is still essentially top-down and does not explore the possibilities of podcasting as a compositional medium for student writers. As podcasting software has become increasingly accessible, instructors such as Jonah Willihnganz at Stanford University, Jeffrey L. Porter at the University of Iowa, and Amie C. Wolf at the Ohio State University, have developed assignments in which students create original sound compositions. All three instructors situate the “audio essay” within a broader genre of sound compositions developed for radio, and often draw their examples from NPR broadcasts such as “This I Believe.” Wolf describes the benefits of the audio essay assignment in improving students’ engagement with the revision process and speculates that this improvement stems from students’ changed sense of audience in the move from printed text to audio. She writes that her students “were producing more productive comments and considering the audience in a truer sense . . . they seemed to take their roles much more seriously and considered the impact of each and every change on a deeper level than they had in previous text-only projects that quarter.” As Wolf’s experience with podcasting makes clear, the podcast assignment can supplement and enhance well-established modes of composition instruction such as peer review. While one might contest Wolf’s choice of the word “truer” to describe the audience of the podcasting assignment, her sense that student’s perceptions of audience shifted as they engaged with the podcast medium was corroborated by my experience podcasting in the classroom.
Audio Essays at The University of Texas, Austin
My first foray into podcasting pedagogy occurred in an introductory rhetoric class at the University of Texas at Austin, in which I asked students to create a ten-minute podcast advocating a position on a controversy that they had studied throughout the semester-long course. Predictably, my academic research in mid-century radio broadcasting did not fully prepare me for understanding the complexities of a sound composition assignment.
The first casualty of my rapid initiation was the time requirement, which my students and I eventually agreed was too long. I shaved it back to six minutes. In preparation for the assignment, my students analyzed several spoken arguments, learned podcasting software such as Garageband (Mac) and Audacity (open source software), and created a short practice podcast in order to master the basics before they developed more comprehensive pieces. While some students incorporated visual images into their podcast, most relied entirely on auditory information.
Bloom: I think this was a bit much for me to ask them. I’ve looked at some other assignments and mine was very long; it was [a] ten-minute oral composition. You know, I can spend forty-five minutes reading one of their papers, but they don’t have to watch me read it. So it’s a different model, and to share that with a group of people can be very frightening.
French: Yeah, there’s something about your own voice asserting itself in space, particularly a public space, for that amount of time that may seem a little daunting.
Bloom: But in some ways I feel like that makes it worthwhile, too. Especially being able to use technology to edit it to create the kind of voice that you want— that you feel empowered by. You know, as much as I know that in the future I will have a shorter assignment, one that’s a little more manageable, I do feel there’s a valid reason to give a student a ten-minute platform.
Once they finished their final podcasts, students posted them on the class website and also wrote a process narrative explaining their choices and their thoughts about podcasting. On the last few days of class, we listened to the podcasts together, and students submitted a written response describing which podcasts they thought were most successful and explained why. By listening to the podcasts in class and soliciting student feedback on their listening experience, I was able to get a better sense of how students, as members of an audience, experienced audio compositions.
In their written feedback, students frequently described the podcaster’s voice— its quality, variability, and relation to the media. Even though the assignment was pitched to them as a composition, it was often heard and assessed using the terms of performance. This allowed students to discuss the nebulous literary and rhetorical term “voice,” which often evokes an unchangeable existential essence, as performance. Students wrote about “voice” as an intentional and constructed entity that enhanced their engagement as listeners. In their peer feedback, one student wrote that the podcaster’s “voice drew me in,” and others praised the tone of voice as being either “firm,” “clear,” or “steady and neutral.” Others noted the usefulness of a speaker who changed or “played” with his or her voice to denote shifts in the argument. Students listened for this playfulness and sense of performance and were grateful when they found it. One student explicitly compared a podcaster’s voice to a more familiar aural medium, saying that the student spoke in a “good radio voice.” No longer a mark of an authentic and static identity, voice, for my student listeners, was performative, playful, and malleable.
After voice, the next most frequently praised elements of the podcasts were the uses of musical sound (both lyrical and instrumental) and sound effects (from the innovative use of a school bell to basic hand-clapping). Student listeners praised the use of sound, even when it was accidental. When one student inadvertently recorded static noise from a faulty microphone, in her podcast arguing against mental health parity laws for insurance providers, one of her peers argued that the sound created sonic depth. Another student accidentally used metronome sound effects from Garageband in his argument against the “Cash for Clunkers” program, which led a few students to defend the effect as adding drama and intensity to the composition. These happy accidents led the class to consider the relationship between sound and the emotional responses engendered by it. On other occasions, student listeners found the co-presence of sound and voice to distract from, rather than enrich, the listening experience. Thus, after one student chose to accompany her complicated argument on the personhood debate with piano music, she told me later in office hours that upon hearing her work performed for her classmates, and watching their responses, she concluded that the accompaniment was distracting and unsuitable to the material. In this case, listening to her audience listen to her work provided important information about the effect of voice and sound arrangement on an embodied audience.
Students used sound in their podcasts in several different ways, but most often it served as a frame to introduce and conclude the spoken argument. Two of the podcasts that were chosen by the class as the most successful examples each used popular songs as a framing device for the argument. In the first such podcast, arguing in favor of same-sex marriage, the student framed her composition with The Beatles’ “All We Need is Love.”
From Student Podcast #1: “Imagine yourself in the hospital after a major accident or illness. Wouldn’t you want to have the person you love most in the world there by your side for support? If your wife were having your child, wouldn’t you want to be in the delivery room to see the life that you created entering the world? Heterosexual couples that have been together for six months have more tax and social security benefits than homosexual couples who have been together for fifty years. There is no one person or group of people who have the right to define marriage or allow who they deem appropriate to legitimize their relationship. With all the hate happening in the world, adding more love to it is sure to harm none. [music: 'All You Need Is Love’].”
The words of The Beatles’ song, in this case, served to contextualize the issue of gay marriage within a broader appeal to “love” as a universal good. It also connected a topic that some students might still find unfamiliar, if not threatening, with the familiarity of The Beatles’ lyrics. In the second podcast, the student argued in favor of congressional legislation mandating employers to use a governmental database (E-Verify) to confirm the legal status of employees—an argument that affects the wider debate surrounding illegal immigration and is therefore of particular interest to students from border states such as Texas—and framed her argument with Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to Be an American." The appeal to patriotism, while it seemed strained to this instructor, was deemed highly effective and, perhaps more importantly, highly entertaining by the class.
From Student Podcast #2: “[Music: ‘And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.’] I’m proud to be an American. Where at least I know I’m free. America takes pride in its liberty, but what about those non-American citizens who work and live here in the USA? Illegal immigrants are not legally allowed to work for US companies. They do not have the same freedoms that Americans do. And yet, American employers are free to hire them? No, logically, this doesn’t work. Even the free have to be regulated. So, you have asked for a solution to regulate illegal immigration. Well, E-Verify is your solution.”
Another reason for accounting for the popularity of the Greenwood and Beatles podcasts was the structure of listening in the classroom. Because students listened collectively to the podcasts in class, appeals to collective emotions seemed (in their verdicts) particularly effective. Taken as a whole, the podcasts were split rather evenly between appeals to individuals and appeals to groups: some student podcasters addressed their listeners as individuals with quiet, intimate addresses to “you” the listener, while others imagined their audience as a group and appealed to them collectively as fellow students or, more broadly, Americans. These latter students often employed strategies from other mass media forms like political advertisements or, as one student commentator astutely observed, infomercials.
Crowd Minds?—Interpreting Podcast Success
Popular music in these last two podcasts draws on audience familiarity as a major part of the appeal. We might be tempted to find in these podcasts confirmation that sound composition echoes either the formulaic invention strategies of oral-poetic composition (discussed by Lydia French above) or the “crowd mind” of radio theorists. Eric Havelock claims that semi-literacy in ancient Greece meant that even new writings, such as plays, represented “ancestral memories for which the artist serves as the unconscious vehicle of repetition and record. The situations were always typical, not invented” (48). However, Havelock’s conservative usage of “invention” fails to maintain its currency in the twenty-first century. Havelock seems to suggest that because dramatists and poets in ancient Greece were beholden to what he calls “audience control,” they could never create anything utterly new in the way their fully literate successors would. Today, and as the narratives of podcasting in the classroom demonstrate, writing and listening are once again (or, more likely, still) operative in a kind of invention that draws on shared familiarity between speaker and audience, even as it reshapes familiar forms for new media and genres. It is worth pointing out that before we embarked on the podcasting assignment, I informally polled the class to see who had ever listened to a podcast before. None of them had. Podcasting was entirely new to each and every one of my students and, in approaching the unknown, student composers drew upon known auditory experiences, popular music-listening being primary among these experiences. Judging by the students’ written responses to their peers, student listeners were particularly receptive to the podcasts that gave them a taste of the familiar.
The Greenwood podcast was particularly successful, in part, because its author imagined a room of her peers listening and aimed to entertain this group with a fun, somewhat kitschy appeal to patriotism. Group listening is quite different than the scenario that Donald McWhinnie once imagined for the solitary radio listener or that theorists of podcasting imagine as self-encased iPod listeners bobbing along with their white earbuds. One student described this podcast as “very catching to the audience.” There was something of contagion at work here—student enthusiasm seemed to breed more enthusiasm and the class, as a whole, seemed to appreciate it as a collective experience. Students, upon hearing Greenwood’s popular nationalistic country anthem, were singing along, clapping, and nodding in agreement. It is also worth pointing out that this enthusiastic response was a reaction to the comparatively dry subject of employment verification. This podcast was wildly successful among the class, with one student writing in her feedback that “patriotism is something anyone can relate to!” “What can beat patriotism?” another student asked.
While these effusive responses to Greenwood’s patriotic appeal, mobilized as it was to support E-Verify, may seem to support claims that listening, unlike reading, is passive, incorporative, and enables group identification, I would like to suggest an alternative. When assignments create scenes of listening in the classroom, students and instructors alike must explore components of writing that are often ignored, suppressed, or denied when we adhere to what Jonathan Sterne describes as the “audiovisual litany,” which posits writing as a visual medium that is inherently rational and analytic as against irrational sound. Podcast sound compositions do not represent what Walter J. Ong describes as “pure” orality and which Parry and Lord explore in their studies of oral-poetic compositions. Although both podcasts and oral poetry are technologies of sound composition, podcasts come into being tightly enmeshed with the written word as students recite, often extemporaneously, using print transcripts or handwritten notes. Therefore, these podcasts are essentially written compositions that have been adapted, or remediated, into an auditory medium. As such, they allow students to listen to writing in new ways. While student writers, not to mention professional writers, often appeal to patriotism, we rarely explore what that means. In listening to the Greenwood podcast, the class experienced pathos in action and were able to see, quite clearly, how an appeal to patriotism functions, when deployed effectively, on a body of listeners. Whether the lesson of these sonic effects are considered positive or negative may depend on the politics and aesthetics of individual listeners, but all the same, in the case of the Greenwood broadcast, the effect was undeniable and has implications for understanding the relationship between sound writing and audience. Rather than merely experiencing an “irrational” emotional response to sound, students were able to articulate how this podcast fostered group identification among the audience. In the future, I hope to push these discussions further by incorporating more extensive written responses that would allow students to explore how sound-composers and their divergent audiences mutually engender the listening experience.
Bloom: There’s a great deal of fear about mass audiences and one of the ways that’s manifested is through this idea that listening is inherently passive. I know this is something that you’re interested in as well. And this idea that listening was inherently passive, that the only kind of mass listenership you could imagine is a kind of unthinking, responsive, reactionary kind of listening—that really came to a head in World War II, with propaganda broadcasts that were aimed at creating that kind of listener and encouraging that sort of listening response. One thing, that to my mind happened thanks to the school of media studies in the 1960s led by Marshall McLuhan, was that in some ways the listening audience promoted, created, and enhanced by propaganda broadcasts became the stand-in for all listening.
Neither “I” nor “Broad”
Podcasts are themselves flexible digital audio files that can either be experienced in personalized soundscapes supplied by the iPod or can be rendered public and experienced in a group setting such as the classroom. Deterministic explanations offered by old or new media theorists about the relationship between media and its audiences cannot fully account for my students’ complicated engagements with the classroom podcast as writers, performers, and listeners. I take my cues, therefore, from Robert Silvey, first Director of Audience Research at the BBC, who writes, “when studying the relationship between individuals and the broadcasting media . . . start with people and ask what they do with the media rather than starting with the broadcasting media and then asking what they ‘do to’ people” (149). As Silvey suggests, writers and audiences alike approach media, particularly new media, through a range of creative strategies. They also carry into this encounter prior understandings of visual, oral, aural, and digital media that shape their engagement with the new. Podcasting in the classroom pushes students to imagine an audience that will be both technologically mediated and also present as an embodied group of listeners. While all of the students, each in his or her own way, navigated the tensions of re-imagining their audience as listeners, the classroom listening scene, one not typical for either broadcasting or podcasting, created new realities with which students played.
Within the matrix of play, I found my role as instructor-arbitrator-judge displaced by the classroom podcast. Listening to students listen to podcasts, I had to reconsider the role of peers in shaping rhetorical strategies and the nature of the classroom as a space of listening. One of the questions sound-writing poses for the contemporary writing classroom is the extent to which the audiovisual litany determines the kind of “audience control,” to borrow Havelock’s terminology, we as instructors remain under. Moving away from the audiovisual litany means recognizing that, like the students, we as instructors have learned to associate certain sonic patterns with certain behaviors, emotions, and identifications. When our listening expectations fail to match those of our students, this disconnect tends to make the structure of listening governing the classroom all the more apparent. In the case of the Lee Greenwood podcast, the students heard something different than did the instructor, who was unfamiliar with the song and found dubious its use in an argument about illegal immigration. Confronted with embodied listeners who responded physically to the podcast, I could only access the emotional appeal through its listeners, an awareness that necessitated I relinquish the role of imagined audience to the class.
Returning to the epistemology with which I began this essay, the classroom podcast functions by omitting the “i” from iPod and the “broad” from broadcast. Neither individual nor broad, its audience is a small group of peer listeners whose responses, either anticipated or actual, can productively influence invention and revision strategies. Bearing this in mind can help instructors structure assignments that mobilize aurality as a means for exploring the relationships among the writer, the audience, and the shifting, multi-modal “text.” Although playing the student podcasts in class was a time-consuming endeavor, it allowed students to focus their invention strategies towards a familiar group of listeners and, during the performance, provided important information about the reception of their work. Rather than merely replacing print with sound, podcasting in the classroom allows students to perform their writing personas, to listen to the auditory undercurrents of their writing, and to bear witness to an audience listening to their work.
 We include the original French to demonstrate that the operative words here deconstructed are Latinate in origin and therefore retain their etymological valences in both the English and the French: “La parole excite l’attention, le visible l’exige: es-ce parce que l’ouïe est toujours ouverte et offerte à la provocation, plus passive que le regard? On peut plus naturellement former les yeux ou distraire son regard que s’empêcher d’entendre” (De la grammatologie 335).
"Broadcast." Oxford English Dictionary. <www.oed.com>
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