Many composition teachers have enthusiastically embraced digital and visual culture and have begun incorporating visual and web-based rhetorics into their writing classes and their pedagogical research projects. With visual rhetoric, for example, part of our work as teachers and researchers has been defining terms and changing the language for how we talk about composition (i.e., Wysocki 2001, George 2002, Hocks 2003, Handa 2004). Even with the renewed emphasis on visual and digital rhetoric, however, we as writing teachers are still very text-centered in our classrooms. Pedagogies that are text-centered usually ignore the aural possibilities of digital media compositions and literacy practices. For many of our younger students, life is already rich with sounds--they live in a music video. Because of immersion in popular culture, they are already sensitive to how music and voice set mood, create drama, and fill in emotional gaps of the visual picture. The majority of our younger students are also adept at creating personal sound tracks for things that they do, from ripping and burning sound files for their friends to traveling with MP3 players attached to their heads. How then might we critically engage these newer everyday literate practices with our students in the composition classroom?
In an effort to account for our students' use of sound and sound technologies to create meaning, for the past several years the authors have assigned to our composition students multimedia research and documentary projects that feature sound, as well as words and images. Our own experiences with sonic literacy and sound technologies inform our ability and desire to assign such projects. Mary, as a lifelong musician, has composed and performed music using instruments and voice and has recorded in several studios. She follows sound technologies out of interest and passion--not because they are valued in any way by English departments. Michelle has hosted a radio show, voluntarily co-taught multimedia courses and independent studies in the university and the community, as well as taken a digital storytelling workshop, in an effort to keep up with the technologies of multimedia production. All of this occurs outside of her regular workload (or what counts as such). If it weren't an integral part of our research and work in the community, we would have very little incentive to learn or assign such literacies. However, we both believe sonic literacy--the ability to identify, define, situate, construct, manipulate, and communicate our personal and cultural soundscapes--should become an integral part of any course aimed at developing students' skills in writing and digital literacy.
Richard Lanham wrote in The Electronic Word that digital text had recaptured the rhetoric of performance and oral culture and dubbed this change "digital literacy. We agree with this embrace of the oral tradition, but we argue further that sonic literacy changes and transforms how we view text and images. Therefore, teachers of composition need to begin developing sonic literacies just as we have with visual literacies--by starting small and encouraging our students to do the same. In the following discussion, using research in film studies, music, psychoacoustics, and audio technology as a starting point, we will focus on what our students and our own experiences with creating voice-over narratives and musical soundtracks tell us about the process and effects of sonic literacy in the composition classroom.
When we ask students to compose voice-over narrations and soundtracks, we are asking them to write scripts and produce sound files that function as narratives in the cinematic sense--in relation to text, photographs, graphics, and/or moving images. Students combine their voice narrative and/or soundtrack with these other elements on a timeline to create a whole composition. We've noticed that when our students create and manipulate sound files, whether in the form of a voice-over narration or soundtrack, that they develop a stronger, more embodied sense of audience and of our popular cultural soundscapes. When they record a voice over, for example, students develop a closer attentiveness to how their words and sentence structures resonate with their own voices and their chosen audiences, and as a result, produce better texts with more awareness of the emotional impact of tone and style. They are also more apt to see composing as an iterative process that requires listening, getting feedback, revising, and starting over again. In relation to multimedia projects, sound helps students become more conscious of the cultural power as well as limitations of text and images. They see how sound can (and often does) function with these other elements to produce an overall effect. As students become better listeners and producers of sound they become more effective rhetorical agents, using sound together with other elements to create a whole composition.1
In what follows, we will first elaborate on sonic literacy as we now understand it--as a critical process of listening to and creating embodied knowledge, of understanding our soundscapes as cultural artifacts, of achieving resonance with particular audiences, and of developing the technological literacies involved in recording, amplifying, layering, and mixing sound. Next, we will discuss how we've integrated sonic literacy into our composition curricula and analyze several student examples that resulted from our earliest and on-going attempts at teaching sonic literacy. Throughout the piece, we will address some of the challenges and the advantages of teaching sonic literacy in our writing courses.
Sonic Literacy as Embodied Knowledge>>