Session H ~ The “New” Future of Auditory Rhetoric(s): Sound and Silence “Scene” Through Productive Action


Review by Elizabeth Losh

Genevieve Critel, The Ohio State University
Kati Fargo Ahern, North Carolina State University
Bump Halbritter, Michigan State University
Cynthia Selfe, The Ohio State University

This featured session continued a discussion begun in the 2006 special issue in Computers in Composition on “Sound in/as Composition Space” and given further urgency by Cynthia Selfe’s 2009 call to action, “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.”  By thinking about sound from phenomenological and epistemological perspectives, the group challenged a number of truisms about multimodal rhetoric and interrogated the concept of authorial voice in new ways.

Genevieve Critel of Ohio State University opened the session with a presentation on “Composing Sound Assignments: Modality, Genre, Difference” in which she described how assignments with an auditory component might challenge particular kinds of developing writers who could feel hampered by auditory disabilities or by backgrounds with nonstandard Englishes.  Critel admitted that her initial assignment designs were shaped overly much by imitating the genres produced by National Public Radio and thus referenced rhetorical conventions alien to her students, but she described student feedback that ultimately encouraged her to continue to mandate such assignments in the interest of promoting student development.  Critel’s talk focused on two particular case studies available in the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives, and she explained what she learned from interviewing these two multilingual students about their possible disadvantaged status in relationship to their more fluent native speaking peers.  She also described her fear that students could feel coerced by course design that emphasized creating audio compositions, because the course she taught was also a prerequisite for journalism majors.

Interviewee Sahar from Palestine described herself as more confident in written discourse than in speaking.  She explained how she frequently avoided oral presentations, often by asking the professor after class to be exempted from such assignments.  Sahar was already doing grade calculations in Critel’s class that assumed a worst-case scenario.  In contrast, journalism major Lucy from China characterized herself in her literacy narrative interview as more assured in spoken discourse, but still “nervous” about relying on her voice, which she feared was too low in pitch and too monotonous to be appealing to potential audiences.  Critel observed that such assignments did not present a uniform experience for English language learners and that students such as Lucy may “hate their voices” much like native peers.

Critel summarized her findings as follows:

  1.  Although some course elements may be particularly difficult for students whose first language isn’t English, that doesn’t mean they should be provided alternate assignments.
  2.  Students’ own impressions about their command of spoken English can influence their confidence in producing audio essays, even if L2 subjects are not actually that different from L1 subjects in their language fluency.
  3.  Students for whom English is not a first language have the same concerns that native English speakers have about producing audio work, those about voice, tone, inflection, etc.

Critel’s research emphasized the importance of mainstreaming non-native speakers and focused on how student self-perception may be the critical factor rather than language competency, although by introducing each student with her reading, writing, and speaking history she implied that the quantity and quality of a student’s language immersion in English also mattered as well.  In retrospect Critel expressed regret about not praising Sahar’s performance more in order to help her overcome her inhibitions.

Critics might observe that Critel’s two case studies involved relatively fluent high-functioning bilingual students rather than students who might need additional campus support services in order to plan, rehearse, and execute sound assignments and that she didn’t describe the larger ecosystem of ELL resources on the campus.  Nonetheless Guadalupe Valdes has argued that we should do more studies of such students to move away from the deficit paradigm.

Kati Fargo Ahern of North Carolina State University spoke next on “Tuning and Timing for the Rhetoric(s) of Sound.”  She cited Selfe’s 2009 call to action as inspiration for her own pedagogy around sound.  She began by locating the term “auditory rhetoric” and cited Wysocki to ask if there might be particular designs that are “more available.”  To organize her discussion of her work with auditory rhetorics, she identified three possible frameworks: 1) “multimodal composition,” 2) “material rhetoric,” and 3) “embedded genres,” following Bakhtin.  In addressing how these three frameworks would be applied, she asked the following question: “What allows us to play together?”  By way of an answer, she then focused on two possible activities:  “tuning,” which she defined as negotiating note values and grappling with epistemology, ontology, and theories of sound, and “timing,” which requires much more than rhythm, since it engages with our kaorotic sense and our sensibilities about resources.

Ahern then described the results of a particular student soundscape assignment in her advanced elective course, where students were expected to design for a specific restaurant space and evoke fullness, movement, and sociability. Unlike more naïve approaches to multimodal composition that are simply additive, Ahern was careful to cite more sophisticated work, such as Norris’s 2004 research on multimodal interaction and to point out that multiple forms of embodied action may exist on sliding scales.  After discussing the complexities of foreground-background relations, she moved from “multimodal composition” to “material rhetoric” and pointed to Carole Blair’s 1999 “Five Questions about Materiality” as a touchstone.  Material rhetoric was a frequent theme at the 2012 Computer’s and Writing, and final keynote speaker Alex Reid provided a long-form argument for the importance of object-oriented ontology to the field of composition, especially in light of Latour’s recent “An attempt at writing a ‘Compositionist Manifesto.”  Themes such as durability in time, action on bodies, reproduction, and preservation emerged as Ahern continued her analysis of the soundscape assignment. She noted that such material rhetorics often privileged the tactile rather than the auditory.  In concluding with her final framework, embedded genres, she observed the value of two different conversations in rhetorical genre theory: the conversation around “parsing” (where John Swales might be a reference point) and the conversation around “grouping” (where Orlikowski and Yates have done useful work.)  She concluded by presenting a visual model of the Italian Casual Restaurant as a scene of embedded genres, which might include “greeting,” “ordering,” “bill,” “menu,” “banner or sign,” “mural art,” and various menus.  Ahern’s presentation was much more theoretically sophisticated than multimodal composition talks of the past in that it seriously engaged with questions of user experience by exploring a single modality in depth, and she gave students an embodied and situated assignment that asked them to get beyond simplistic clichés that celebrate remix uncritically.

The third talk by Bump Halbritter of Michigan State University on “Hearing to be Scene: Landscaping the Superfield of Audio-Visual Writing” asked listeners to think about the complex knowledge practices of cinema audio professionals as sites of reflection and revision.  Halbritter began with two auditory references:  Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” in which multiple sonic events can be unpacked by the listener and the now classic soundtrack of the THX opening that begins any movie screening as a way to introduce superfield theory and the aesthetics of ambient, multitrack film and the idea that the “audience is listening.”  Although he opened with the more academic work of experimental composer Michel Chion, much of the talk was devoted to the practical working knowledge of Academy Award winning sound editor Lon Bender, who, he observed, talked about this sound editing “like writing” with attention to many rhetorical and narrative elements in films such as The Hunger Games or Blood Diamonds.   Halbritter claimed that Burke had created a false opposition between image and sound that denied the “all-there-at-onceness” of auditory experiences by asserting that sound and sentences were sequential.  In contrast, following Karl Mannheim, work like Bender’s showed how immediate aesthetic experience could both take note of different strata and englobe.  He closed by connecting his analysis to functional, rhetorical and critical literacies and process mapping activities that might be more familiar to compositionists.

The session closed with a longstanding leader in the Computers and Writing community, Cynthia Selfe of Ohio State University, who gave a fresh presentation about materials in the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives entitled “Sound, Silence, and Rhetorical Responsiveness.”  Selfe opened by discussing the power of silence at UC Davis by displaying hundreds of silent protesters shaming the university’s chancellor for her failure to prevent brutal crackdowns by police on the campus against those engaged in peaceful dissent.  To understand this kind of disciplining, Selfe referenced Foucault, but she also argued that such rhetorics of silence operate in our students’ literacy histories.

In beginning to make sense of the large corpus of video in the literacy narrative archive Selfe argued that silence sometimes functions as “weighty dark matter.”  She recommended reading Jen-Louis Chrétian’s Ark of Speech as a starting point in considering the relationship between listening and reception.  In her talk she focused on three specific case studies in the archive: Christopher Driscoll’s literacy narrative describing life as a deaf student, Annah Marzia Zaidi’s literacy narrative about the silence of non-native English speakers, and Kristin Oliveira’s literacy narrative about her inability to speak while living abroad in Mexico. Driscoll emphasized his frustration at using an FM transformer around his neck for “SimCom” training that coerced deaf students into vocalizing while signing, even though this made it very difficult to try to communicate in both languages at same time and promulgated attitudes that ASL was somehow insufficient.  Zaidi’s story also illustrated the problems with having an “ideological allegiance to correctness” that made this young woman from Afghanistan who spoke five languages feel like she was “FOB” or “fresh off the boat.”  In understanding the importance of critical thinking about “voiced expression” and its associated expectations of competence, native English speaker Oliveira experienced a role reversal in Mexico where she found it hard to communicate.  In conclusion, Selfe showed how the archive could be mined for silences by using the visual timeline representation of the audio waveform.  As she argued, we need both sound and silence.

This was a smart panel that was richly illustrated with interesting case studies, and I would recommend the researchers’ work to anyone tired of overly simplistic accounts of multimodal composition or new media literacies.  The composition community continues to be in shock over the death of Critel just a few days later and the loss of her distinctive and important voice in this new area of scholarly research.

Elizabeth Losh is the Director of the Culture, Art, and Technology core curriculum at Sixth College and the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT, 2009) and co-author of the forthcoming Understanding Rhetoric from Bedford/St. Martin’s with Jonathan Alexander.  She has published many articles about digital rhetoric and is currently working on a new monograph: The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University.


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