Aurality and Multimodal Composing —————————————————————————————————––––––––––––––———
Rhetoric and composition’s increasing attention to multimodal composing involves challenges that go beyond issues of access to digital technologies and electronic composing environments. As a specific case study, this article explores the history of aural composing modalities (speech, music, sound), examines how they have been understood and used within profession, and points out how aurality has been generally subsumed by the disciplines privileging of print. I argue that the history of aurality (as well as that of visual modalities) has limited our understanding of composing as a multimodal rhetorical activity and has, thus, helped deprive students of valuable semiotic resources for making meaning Further, in light of scholarship on the importance of aurality to different communities and cultures, I argue that our current adherence to alphabetic-only composition constrains the semiotic efforts of individuals and groups who value multiple modalities of expression and compose hybrid texts. I encourage teachers and scholars of composition, and other disciplines, to adopt an increasingly thoughtful understanding of aurality and the role it—and other modalities—can play in contemporary communication tasks.
Participation means being able to speak in one’s own voice, and thereby simultaneously
to construct and express one’s cultural identity through idiom and style. —Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere.”
…perhaps we can hear things we cannot see. —Krista Ratcliffe, “Rhetorical Listening”
A turn to the auditory dimension is…more than a simple changing of variables. It begins as a deliberate
decentering of a dominant tradition in order to discover what may be missing as a result of the
traditional double reduction of vision as the main variable and metaphor.
—Ihde, “Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound”
Anyone who has spent time on a college or university campus over the past few decades knows how fundamentally important students consider their sonic environments—the songs, music, and podcasts they produce and listen to, the cell-phones conversations in which they immerse themselves; the headphones and Nanos that accompany them wherever they go; the thumper cars they use to turn the streets into concert stages; the audio blogs, video soundtracks, and mixes they compose and exchange with each other and anyone else who will listen.
Indeed, students’ general penchant for listening to and producing sound can be eloquently ironic for English composition teachers faced with the deafening silence of a class invited to engage in an oral discussion about a written text. This phenomenon, however, may reveal as much about our profession’s attitudes toward aurality1 and writing—or the related history of these expressive modalities within our discipline—as it does about students’ literacy values and practices. Sound, while it remains of central importance both to students and to the population at large, is often undervalued by teachers of English composition.
My argument in this paper is that the history of writing in composition instruction, as well as its contemporary legacy, functions to limit our professional understanding of composing as a multimodal2 rhetorical activity and deprive students of valuable semiotic
resources for making meaning. As print assumed an increasingly privileged position in composition classrooms during the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, aurality was both subsumed by, and defined in opposition to, writing (Russell, 1991 and 2002; Halbritter, 2004; McCorkle, 2005; Elbow, 1994), thus, establishing and perpetuating a false binary between the two modalities of expression (Biber, 1986 and 1988; Tannen, 1982 a and b), encouraging an overly narrow understanding of language and literacy (Kress), and allowing collegiate teachers of English composition to lose sight of the integrated nature of language arts. Further, I argue that a single-minded focus on print in composition classrooms, ignores the importance of aurality and other composing modalities, for making meaning and understanding the world. Finally, I suggest that the almost exclusive dominance of print literacy works against the interests of individuals whose cultures and communities have managed to maintain a value on multiple modalities of expression, multiple and hybrid ways of knowing, communicating, and establishing identity (Gilyard, 2000; Dunn, 1995 and 2001; Royster, 1996, 2000; Hibbitts, 1994; Powell, 2002; Lyons, 2000).
My ultimate goal in exploring aurality as a case in point is not to make an either/or argument—not to suggest that we pay attention to aurality rather than to writing. Instead, I suggest we need to pay attention to both writing and aurality, and other composing modalities, as well. I hope to encourage teachers to develop an increasingly thoughtful understanding of a whole range of modalities and semiotic resources in their assignments, and, then to provide students the opportunities of developing expertise with all available means of persuasion and expression, so that they can function as literate citizens in a world where communications increasingly cross geopolitical, cultural, and linguistic borders.
What is at stake in this endeavor seems significant to me—both for teachers of English composition and for students. When teachers of composition limit the bandwidth of composing modalities in our classrooms and assignments, when we privilege print as the only acceptableway to make or exchange meaning, we not only ignore the history of rhetoric and its intellectual inheritance, but we also limit, unnecessarily, our scholarly understanding of semiotic systems Kress, 1999) and the effectiveness of our instruction for many students.
The stakes for students are no less significant—they involve fundamental issues of rhetorical sovereignty3: the rights and responsibilities that students have to identify their own communicative needs and to represent their own identities, to select the right tools for the communicative contexts within which they operate, and to think critically and carefully about the meaning that they and others compose. When we insist on print as the primary, and most formally acceptable, modality for composing knowledge4, 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.
By way of making this argument, I begin by recounting a very brief, and necessarily selective, history of aurality and the role it came to assume in college composition classrooms from the mid-19th century onward. I then focus on the ways in which aurality has persisted in English composition classrooms in the midst of a culture saturated by print. Finally, I suggest how digital communication environments and digital multimodal texts have encouraged some teachers of composition to re-discover aurality as a valuable modality of expression.
In four locations throughout this paper, I point to student-made audio essays which have been posted on the web for readers and which serve to illustrate this last point. The irony of making an argument about aurality in print is not lost on me, nor, I suspect, will it be on most other readers of this article. Indeed, it is very much the point of what I will try to say in the following pages. While I and their authors reflect on these four aural compositions in the pages that follow, they are texts have their own lives, that can stand very easily on their own without the benefit of printed commentary. In fact, the environment of print is entirely inadequate to the task of representing the various dimensions of sound as a composing modality. Hence, I encourage readers to go to where I have archived sound essays composed by students in classes that I have taught at the University of Louisville (Sonya Borton’s Legacy of Music and Dan Keller’s Lord of the Machine), Michigan Tech (Elisa Norris’ Can You See Me?) and at The Ohio State University (Wendy Wolters Hinshaw’s Yelling Boy).5
Aural Composing: Sample #1, Sonya Borton’s Legacy of Music At this point, I ask readers to leave this printed text and go to < http://www.english.uiuc.edu/cws/IPRHDigitalLiteracies/Borton.mp3 where they can listen to Sonya Borton’s autobiographical essay, Legacy of Music, in which she tells listeners about the musical talents of various members of her Kentucky. In relating her narrative, Borton weaves a richly textured fabric of interviews, commentary, instrumental music, and song to support her thesis that a love of music represents an important legacy passed down from parents to children within the family. The elements and layers of this aural text lend detail, emphasis, and authority to Borton’s text, her first attempt at digital audio composing. The rhetorical ethos of this aural essay—established through the combined resonance of Sonya’s grandfather’s, mother’s, and daughter’s voices—is deeply inflected with the accents of rural Kentucky. The essay’s weight of aural detail and narrative structure is sedimented in the stories of family members, and forms an intergenerational basso ostinato that traces the individual historical notes of a regionally-situated family history (a handcrafted dulcimer, a guitar ordered through Montgomery Wards, a family farm worked with a team of mules) onto the score of a nation’s history (the Great Depression, the great Louisville flood of 1937, the post-war baby boom). The importance of this work, as Michelle Comstock and Mary Hocks (2005) point out, involves students in considering “their personal and cultural voices within a larger shifting soundscape” and creating resonances between their own voices and those of others.
The affordances6 of sound characterizing this text—the emotional tone and historical information contributed by melodies and instruments; the meaning carried by accent and volume; the nuance conveyed by pace, quality, and tone of voice—could never be fully replicated in print text, although such a text would have its own affordances. As Sonya about this essay, quoting Glenda Hull (2003), composing in the modality of sound, lent “a special performative power and an aesthetic dimension” (p. 231)” to her essay even though many of the challenges she faced were similar to those she encountered with writing,
I…had to take into account many of the same things that I would have had to consider in a written composition. I had to have an introduction where I pulled
my audience in. I had to have a thesis so that my audience would know the purpose of investing their time in my project. My narrative had to follow a logical path to its conclusion, and…the conclusion had to leave my audience with something to remember…[E]ven though audio…gave my narrative an aesthetic quality that I couldn’t have achieved on paper, I still used many of the same analytical skills a written essay would require. (Borton, 2005)
A Short History of Aurality in College Composition Classrooms Theorizing the role of aurality in composition classrooms is not a task that comes easily to most composition teachers. Since the 19th century, writing has assumed such a dominant and central position in our professional thinking, that its role as the major instructional focus goes virtually uncontested, accepted as common sense. As Patricia Dunn (2001) writes, it seems absurd even to
question an over-emphasis on writing in a discipline whose raison d’etre is, like no other discipline, for and about writing. That common-sense assumption, however, may be what makes its so difficult for us in Composition to see word-based pedagogies in any way other than supportive of learning. (p. 150)
Composition teachers, she concludes, have come to believe “writing is not simply one way of knowing; it is the way” (p. 15). Doxa, however, always maintains its strongest hold in the absence of multiple historical and cultural perspectives. While writing has come to occupy a privileged position in composition classrooms—and in the minds of many compositionists—historical accounts by such scholars as David Russell (1991, 2001), James Berlin (1987), Nan Johnson, (1991); and Michael Halloran, (1982), confirm that this situation as both relatively recent and contested.
In the first half of the eighteenth century, for example, collegiate education in America was fundamentally shaped by Western classical traditions and was oral in its focus. As Michael Halloran (1982) notes, within this curriculum students learned to read, speak and write both classical language and English though recitation—the standard pedagogical approach for all subjects—as well as through a wide range of oratorical performances, debates, orations, and declamations, both inside formal classes and in extracurricular settings such as literary societies. The goal of these activities was to build students’ general skill in public speaking, rather than encouraging specialized inquiry as mediated by the written word.
This old model of oratorical education, David Russell (1991, 2002) notes, was linked to the cultural values, power, and practices of privileged families in the colonies who considered facility in oral, face-to-encounters to be the hallmark of an educated class. The male children of these families were expected to help lead the nation in the role of statesmen, enter the judicial and legal arena, or become ministers. For heirs of these families, as Susan Miller (1989) has added, little instruction in writing was needed other than practice in penmanship. Their lives were imbricated with oral communication practices—speeches, debates, sermons—and such individuals had to be able to speak, as gentlemen, in contexts of power. Universities were charged with preparing these future leaders to assume their roles and responsibilities.
During the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, universities began to change in response to the rapid rise of industrial manufacturing, the explosion of scientific discoveries, and the expansion of the new country’s international trade. These converging trends accumulated increasing tendential force and resulted in profound cultural transformations that placed an increasing value on specialization and professionalization, especially within the emerging middle class. Such changes required both new approaches to education and a new kind of secular university, one designed to meet the needs of individuals focused on science, commerce, and manufacturing. It was within this new collegiate context that the first Departments of English were able to form,7 primarily by forging identities for themselves as units that educated a range of citizens occupied with business and professional affairs. In response to these cultural trends, Russell (2002) has observed, ”the modern project of purification, the drive toward specialization, made old rhetoric impossible” (p. 40).8 Instead, Departments of English focused on preparing professionals whose work, after graduation, would increasingly rely on writing, as David Russell (1991) explains—articles, reports, memoranda, and communications, “texts as objects to be silently studied, critiqued, compared, appreciated, and evaluated” (p. 4-5). Supporting this work were technological innovations—improved printing presses, typewriters and pens, among others—that combined with innovations in business operations, efficient manufacturing techniques, and science to lend added importance to writing as a cultural code, both within the new university and outside it (Russell, 2002).
As they emerged in this context, Departments of English sought increasingly modern approaches to changing communication practices and values—hoping to distance themselves from the old school education in oratory, which was considered increasingly less valuable as a preparation for the world of manufacturing, business, and science, and to link their curricula to more pragmatic concerns of professionalism in the modern university. The new departments of English taught their studies in the vernacular—rather than in Greek or Latin—and separated themselves from a continued focus on oratory, religion and the classics, which became de-valued as historical or narrowly defined studies. These newly emergent departments of English focused primarily on their ability to provide instruction in written composition. During this brief period of time in the latter third of the nineteenth century, writing became one of a very few subjects required at for a university course of study (Berlin, 1987; Russell, 1991).9 Charles William Eliot who became President of Harvard in 1869 noted that instruction in writing—distinguished by a natural, uninflated style—was not only desirable for students at the new university, but necessary for the success of a national culture based on economic development, modern industrial processes, and trade (Eliot, 1869, p. 359)10.
Scholars have described, in various ways, the historic shift that occurred during the last half of the 19th century, from an older style of education based on declamation, oratory, forensics, and delivery11 to a new style of education based primarily on the study and analysis of written texts, both classical and contemporary12—and the production of such texts. Perhaps the most succinct statement, however, and the one most directly to the point for this history of aurality in college composition classrooms is Ronald Reid’s (1959) comment:
The most significant change was rhetoric’s abandonment of oratory. The advanced courses, commonly known during this period as “themes and forensics,” consisted almost exclusively of written work….The beginning course, too, gave much practice in writing, none in public speaking. (p. 253)
While attention to aurality persisted in various ways into the 20th century13, it was clearly on the wane in English studies. By 1913, one year before teachers of speech seceded from the National Council of Teachers of English, John Clapp was moved to ask in an article published by the English Journal,
Is there a place in College English classes for exercises in reading, or talking, or both? The question has been raised now and then in the past, almost always to receive a negative answer, particularly from English departments. (p. 21)
The general response of the profession to these questions, Clapp noted, was that “for the purposes of the intellectual life, which college graduates are to lead, talking is of little important, and writing of very great importance. (p. 23)
This brief history of composition as a discipline can be productively viewed within a larger historical frame as well—specifically that of the rise of Science (and its offspring, technology) in the West before, during, and immediately after the Enlightenment, from the 17th to the 19th centuries. At the heart of Science as a rational project was the belief that humans could unlock the secrets of nature using systematic observations and precisely recorded measurements. In a world attuned to the systematic methodologies of Science, the recorded word, the visual trace of evidence provided proof, and observations rendered in the visual medium of print revealed truth—Newton’s notes on mathematical proofs, Franklin’s written descriptions of experiments, Darwin’s Beagle diaries. If the scientific revolution rested on the understanding that seeing was believing, it also depended on writing—and after the mid-fifteenth century—printing as a primary means of recording, storing, and retrieving important information and discoveries. Later, with the application of scientific methods to a wide range of legal, military, industrial and manufacturing practices, the complex network of cultural formations that reinforced the privileged role of visual and print information.
From the 17th to the 19th century, then as the power of vision and print gradually waxed in the context of a university education, the power of aurality gradually waned, although this trend was, at different times and places, far from even or immediate in its effects. U.S. colleges and universities, for instance, lagged slightly behind those in Europe for a time in this regard, but education within the two cultures followed the same general trajectory. As Hibbits (1994) notes, it was during this period that “the social and intellectual status of vision gradually undermined the position still occupied by the other forms of sensory experience in the Western tradition” (“Making Sense,” 2.25).
In educational institutions and, later, departments of English and programs of English composition, the effects of this shift were far reaching. Writing and reading , for example, became separated from speech in educational contexts and became largely silent practices for students in classroom settings. Written literature, while it included artifacts of earlier aural forms (Platonic dialogues, Shakespearean monologues, and poetry, for instance), was studied through silent reading and subjected to written analysis, consumed by the eye rather than the ear.14 The disciplined practices of silent writing, reading, and observation that characterized collegiate education became normalized and, importantly, linked to both class and race. In educational contexts, Hibbitts (1994) observes, “The most important meta-lesson became, as it today remains, how to sit, write, and read in contented quiet” (“Making Sense,” 2.25). It was through such changes that writing became the focus of a specialized academic education delivered primarily to, and by, privileged White males.
If print became increasingly important within the new U.S. universities in the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, aurality retained some of its power and reach in other locations, where individuals and groups were forced to acquire both written and aural literacies by a range of informal means or through an educational system that retained a fundamental integration of the language arts. Many women during this period, for instance, were discouraged from pursuing a university education or had less time and money for such a luxury. Blacks, Hispanic and Latino/as, and American Indians, in addition, were, for prolonged periods, persecuted for learning to read and write (Gere, 1994; Royster, 2000; Richardson, 2002)15, educated outside the schools that males attended, and denied access to the White colleges and universities. Although individuals from these groups learned—through various means and, often, with great sacrifice—to deploy writing and other modalities of expression skillfully and in ways that resisted the violence of oppression, many also managed to retain a deep and nuanced appreciation for aural traditions, as well: in churches and sacred ceremonies, in storytelling and performance contexts, in poetry and song.
The history of slavery in the United States, for example, shaped the educational opportunities of Blacks, many of whom survived and resisted the violence and oppression in their lives by developing literacy values and practices—often, but certainly not exclusively, aural in nature—that remained invisible to Whites and that were, often because of this fact, highly effective. Although many of the legal prohibitions against teaching Blacks to read and write were lifted after the Civil War, de facto barriers of racism continued to function. Many Blacks were denied access to schools with adequate resources and others had to abandon their own formal education to help their families survive the economic hardships that continued to characterize the lives of Blacks in both the North and the South (Hibbitts, 1994). And while Black citizens, under adverse conditions, found their own routes for acquiring written literacy—in historically Black colleges and universities, in churches, literary societies, homes, segregated public schools—artifacts of this historical period persisted in Black communities—in verbal games, music, vocal performance, storytelling, and other “vernacular expressive arts” (Richardson, p. 680). These aural traces identify people who have survived and thrived, not only by deploying but also by resisting the literacy practices of a dominant culture that continued to link the printed word and silent reading, so closely to formal education, racism, and the exercise power by Whites (Banks, 2006; Smitherman, 1999; Richardson, 2002; Royster, 1996; Mahiri, 1998). “[T]he written word,” notes Ashraf Rushdy (1993), in part ”represents the processes used by racist white American institutions to proscribe and prescribe African American subjectivity.”16 Hispanic/Latino communities, too, while valuing a wide range of literacy practices in their cultural, familial, and intellectual lives (Guerra, 2004; Guerra& Farr, 2002; Kells, Balester, & Villanueva, 2004; Gutierrez, Baquedano-Lopez, & Alvarez, 2001; Cintron, 1997; Villanueva, 1993; Trejo, 1979; Limon, 1990; and Ruiz, 1993) also managed to retain, to varying extents and in a range of different ways, a traditional investment in collective storytelling, cuentos, corridos and other aural practices developed within a long—and continuing—history of linguistic, educational, economic, and cultural discrimination. Contributing to the persistence of these traditions has been the history of U.S. imperialism and discrimination in Texas, California, and other border states; the troubled history of bi-lingual education in this country; the de-valuing of Latin American, Puerto Rican, and Mexican Spanish speakers; and the persistence of the English-Only movements in public education. Given this history of discrimination, as Hibbitts (1994) points out, Hispanic citizens often find themselves “drawn and sometimes forced back into the soundscapes of their own ethnic communities” (1994, 2.43), while simultaneously deploying a wide range of written discourses—skillfully and, sometimes, in ways that productively resist mainstream discourses (Kells, Balester, & Villanueva, 2004; Reyes & Halcon, 2001; Cintron, 1997).
Many American Indians, too, have managed to sustain a value on aurality—as well as on writing and a range of other modalities of expression—as means of preserving their heritage and identities: in public speaking, ceremonial contexts, shared stories, poetry, and song (Clements, 1996; Blaeser, 1996; Keeling, 1992 Evers and Toelken, 2001), although as both Scott Lyons (2000) and Malea Powell (2002) point out, the diversity of tribal histories and the “discursive intricacies” and complexity of Native American’s literacy practices and values remain misunderstood, under-examined in published scholarship, and prone to painful and simplistic stereotypes. The aural literacy practices, that many tribal members have valued, and continue to value—along with the skillful and critical use of other modalities—serve as complex cultural and community-based responses to the imperialism of the “Euroamerican mainstream” (Powell, 2002, p. 398). Such practices form part of the story of survival and resistance that American Indians have composed for themselves during the occupation of their homeland and the continuing denigration of their culture as their battles for sovereignty continue.
In sum, the increasingly limited role of aurality within U.S. English and composition programs during the last half of the 19th and the 20th centuries was intimately tied to the emerging influence of writing as the primary mode of formal academic work, of commercial exchange and recordkeeping, and of public and professional expression. This trend, influenced by the rise of manufacturing and science, as well as the growing cultural value on professionalism, was instantiated in various ways and to varying extents in courses and universities around the country, and enacted variously by groups and individuals according to their different literacy values and practices. The trend was, nevertheless, consistent in its general direction and tendential force. In formal educational contexts, writing and reading, increasingly, became separated from speech and were understood as activities to be enacted, for the most part, in silence.
In this discussion, I take an important lesson from colleagues like Jacqueline Royster (1996), Geneva Smitherman (2000), Adam Banks (2006), Scott Lyons (2000), and Malea Powell (2002), who point out the serious risks, when discussing the oral traditions and practices of people of color, to cede written English as “somehow the exclusive domain of Whites” (Banks, p. 70). The work of these scholars reminds us in persuasive and powerful terms that people of color have historically deployed a wide range of written discourses in masterful and often powerfully oppositional ways while retaining a value on traditional oral discourses and practices. My goal in this article, then, is not to suggest that teachers focus on either writing or aurality, but rather that they respect and encourage students to deploy multiple modalities in skillful ways—written, aural, visual—and that they model a respect for and understanding of the various roles each modality can play in human expression, the formation of individual and group identity, and meaning making. In this work, the efforts of the scholars such as those cited above as well as attention to historical and contemporary discursive practices of Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, and other peoples of color can help direct our thinking and lead our profession forward in productive ways.
Audio Composing: Sample #2: Elisa Norris’ Literacy = Identity At this point, please go to < http://www.english.uiuc.edu/cws/IPRHDigitalLiteracies/Norris.mp3and listen to Elisa Norris’ audio poem, Literacy=Identity, which opens with a school bell, a teacher reading a classroom roll, and her own personal call and response, “Elisa Norris, Elisa Norris…is she absent today? No. Do you see her? No.” In this poetic text, an aural variation on a conventional writing assignment, Norris layers music, voice, and poetic images to create a composition that asks listeners to acknowledge her presence and the complex dimensions of her cultural identity. Through the sonic materiality of her own voice, Norris invites listeners to enter her life, and with her to resist the cultural erasure and racial stereotypes that shape her experience.
The poem’s intensity is underscored by the spare and insistent instrumental track, “So What,” from Miles Davis’ legendary album, Kind of Blue, an album that changed the nature of jazz in this country, as Norris talks of literacy as agency, juxtaposing references to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Tony Morrison, images of daisies from Madagascar, and memories of cars “riding on twenty inch rims.” These multiple references to the artistic and cultural contributions of Blacks, to the different communicative modalities Black artists have used to make themselves heard, and to the racist culture that continues to deny their existence, rise through the deep green substrate of this poem, accumulating at the surface of listeners’ attention, in Norris own words, “as subtly as Godzilla through downtown Tokyo.” The piece ends with the lyrics and music of “Outside,” a song by Staind, that contributes additional pathos to Norris’ message;
But I'm on the outside, I'm looking in
I can see through you, see your true colors
Cause inside your ugly, you're ugly like me
I can see through you
See to the real you.
This piece, which Norris later re-made into a digital video, compels us to listen to her words, to note the twin qualities of strength and pain in her voice, to image a classroom without her voice and without her presence, to see her by hearing her, and to pay attention to her perspective. To imagine how such composing tasks work fit into composition classrooms, we need only listen to Norris’ own words;
This audio essay, and the video essay, that followed, represent the promises and possibilities that the field of Rhetoric and Composition holds. They allowed me to bring together all of my passions—the visual, the aural, and the written—and construct a rhetorical argument that makes specific claims about my relationship to literacy. If we can imagine using these types of projects in our writing studios, we can open up that learning space so that all students have room to express themselves. Equally important, we can equip them with the analytical tools that can help them understand—and respond to—the historical, cultural, social, and political factors that influence their lives and their experiences. If we adopt these same attitudes about teaching every student who comes through our doors, we can’t help but be increasingly responsible and productive rhet/comp instructors and scholars.
Artifacts of Aurality Tracing how aurality became subsumed by print within composition classrooms in the United States during the 19th century, however, provides us only one part of a complex historical picture. Another, and perhaps as important, a part of the picture involves investigating how and why aurality has persisted in English composition classrooms, in the midst of a culture saturated by print.
From one perspective, this process can be understood as a kind of cultural and intellectual remediation, using, and to some extent modifying17, Jay David Bolter’s and Richard Grusin’s term for the process by which new media and media forms (for instance, flat screen television) take up and transform prior media (conventional televisions)—promising to fulfill a particular unmet need or improve on some performance standard. One interesting part of this remediation process, as Bolter and Grusin note, however, is that new media never completely supplant or erase prior media because they must refer to these forms in making the case for their own superiority (p. 54). Thus, new media often retain some of the familiar features of their predecessors and characteristics of earlier media and technologies generally persist within the context of new media.
As an example of remediation, consider the new media form of digital video and how it seeks to supplant the prior technologies of physical videotape and videotape players, promising new capabilities for viewing and editing, ease of use, and improved performance. In part, these claims rest on the fact that, once video images are digitized, they exist as a set of bits and bytes within computer memory. Thus, they can be easily manipulated and edited, and users are not constrained to strictly linear operations such as fast-forwarding or rewinding.18 Digital video cannot make this case for itself, however, without relying on some of the familiar features of older tape-based video—features that allow people to comprehend and use the medium easily. Consider, for instance, the Quicktime digital video player pictured below, especially its Play ( ), Fast Forward ( ), and Rewind controls ( ):
Figure 1: Quicktime digital video player.
We know how to go about using the new digital Quicktime video player, only because we are familiar with prior technology of videotape and the manual Play, Rewind, and Fast Forward controls that characterize older videotape decks. The design, arrangement, and visual cues of these buttons, which are really artifacts of older tape-based technology, offer users a familiar context for operating the new digital video player—even though the medium of video has been fundamentally re-fashioned within digital environments. Functioning in this way, the controls both support digital video and its claims for improved functionality while masking the fact that we are no longer dealing with the physical recording medium of tape or the manual push buttons on a tape player.
At the end of the 19th century, as Ben McCorkle (2005) suggests, aurality underwent a similar process of remediation, especially within the specialized cultural location of the college classroom in the U.S. In these settings, aural practiceswere increasingly subsumed by academic writing, which was presented as the improved medium of formal communication characterizing new U.S. universities. At the same time, academic writing often made its case for superiority by referring backwards to characteristics of aurality, which was never entirely erased. n tIn this context, for instance, faculty still lectured and students still completed assignments, but these educational tasks, within the new university, were increasingly remediated by writing and the standards of print—in published textbooks, in written assignments, in collected and printed lectures, in written examinations for students. Indeed, the programs of English composition may have been so successful in shifting their focus to writing, precisely because the move to written instruction continued to be imbricated with references to aurality in ways that were both acknowledged and unacknowledged.
Thus, increasingly throughout the 20th century, English composition faculty continued to talk about oral language, but primarily in comparison with written language. They continued to make reference, to the oral qualities of language, but metaphorically in the service of writing instruction and in the study of written texts (the voice of the writer, the tone of an essay, and the rhythm of sentences) (Yancey, 1994; Elbow, 1994). Similarly while students continued to have opportunities for oral performance, they were carefully circumscribed and limited to conferences, presentations, and class discussions focused on writing.19 And although writing assignments in the 20th century sometimes focused on topics that touched on aurality and oral performances—popular music, for example—students were expected to write their analyses of songs, to focus on written lyrics, or to use music as a prompt for written composition. In scholarly arenas, scholars studied the history of rhetoric, but considered orality and the canon of delivery (McCorkle, 2005) to be of interest primarily as an historical artifact. Even rhetoric scholars whose work was designed to focus attention on the discursive practices and “voices” of long-ignored groups—Blacks, Latinos/as, Native Americans, women—wrote about these oral practices.20 The majority of English composition scholars who spoke about their work at professional conferences, delivered written papers that they wrote first and, only then, read. By the end of the twentieth century, the ideological privileging of writing was so firmly established that it had become almost fully naturalized. The program of the 1998 Watson Conference, for example, included Beverly Moss as a featured speaker. Moss who had fractured the elbow of her right hand, delivered a talk about oral language practices in Black churches. She introduced her presentation by mentioning her own struggle to prepare a talk without being able to write her text first. Moss’ presentation and delivery were superb—cogent and insightful—but her framing comments highlighted how difficult and unusual it was for her, and many other scholars, to deliver an oral presentation without a written script.
Writing as Not-Speech A brief examination of major aural artifacts in English composition classrooms during the 20th century can be instructive in helping readers understand the ways in which aurality has persisted in U.S. composition classrooms.
By the time the Conference on College Composition and Communication was formed in 1949, attention to students’ writing in English Departments, with a few brief exceptions, had almost completely eclipsed attention to aural composition. Although the professional focus on speech was revived somewhat after scholars like Lev Vygotsky published his groundbreaking work on the developmental relationship between speech and writing in 1962, many composition scholars—concerned with staking out the territory of the new field and identifying the intellectual and professional boundaries of the nascent discipline—chose to focus on the differences between writing and speech, to define the work of composition classrooms (i.e., writing and the teaching of writing) in opposition to talking, speech, and aurality.21 This scholarly effort continued throughout the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, until informed by the work of linguists like Douglas Biber (1986 and 1988) and Deborah Tannen (1982 a and b), many in the profession came to recognize that writing and speaking actually shared many of the same characteristics and did not exist in the essentialized, dichotomous relationship that had been constructed by scholars.
During the 60s and 70s, however, many compositionists defined writing primarily in terms of how it differed from speech. Motivating some of this activity, at least in part, were two converging trends. The first, well underway at this point in time, was the movement away from current-traditional rhetoric (which posited knowledge as pre-existing language, as external, as discoverable, and as verifiable) and toward a social-epistemic understanding of rhetoric (which posited knowledge as socially constructed and created in, and through, the social uses of language) (Berlin, 1987). During roughly the same period, teachers of composition were also attempting to digest poststructuralist theories of language, which occasionally proved less than directly accessible. In his 1976 work On Grammatology, for example, Jacques Derrida pointed out the fallacy of immediacy and questioned the notion of coherent, self-presentation of meaning in spoken discourse, and urged close attention to writing as the ground for understanding the active play of difference in language and the shifting nature of signification. Although Derrida’s aim was not to reverse the historical hierarchy of speech over writing, but rather to call into question logocentricity itself, many composition scholars connected his focus to the field’s emerging understanding of writing as both social and epistemic. Influenced not only by these scholarly streams of thought , but by the overdetermined forces of specialization that continued to shape the field within the modern university, compositionists turned their scholarly attention and pedagogical efforts, increasingly, away from speech and toward writing, defining the figure of writing against the ground of speech.22 In 1984, for instance, Sarah Liggett annotated 51 articles on “the relationship between speaking and writing” (p. 354) and suggested another 19 pieces for “related reading.” The majority of these works, not surprisingly, concluded that the aural language practices of talking and speaking were related to writing in various ways and at various levels, but also that they differed significantly from writing in terms of important features (Emig, 1977: Barritt & Kroll, 1978; Connors, 1979; Farrell, 1978; Halpern, 1984; Hirsch, 1977). In some cases, further, scholars claimed that writing posed more intellectual challenges to students than speech or oral composing, that writing was more sophisticated or complex than speech (Sawyer, 1977). Many of these works associated speaking and talking with less reflective, more “haphazard” communication (Snipes, 1973), and with popular culture while writing was considered “inherently more self-reliant” (Emig, 1977, p. 353), a “more deliberate mode of expression” and “inherently more intellectual” (Newman & Horowitz, p. 160). In their 1965 article in College Composition and Communication, John Newman and Milton Horowitz concluded:
Writing and speaking clearly represent different strata of the person. Although both functions funnel thought processes, speaking evidences more feeling, more emotive expression and more “first thoughts that come to mind.” While writing is more indicative of the intellectualized, rational, and deliberative aspects of the person. (p. 164)
Other scholars (Dyson, 1983; Bereiter & Scardemalia, 1982; Carroll, 1981; Furner, 1974; Lopate, 1978; Snipe, 1973; Zoellner, 1969) explored speech and talking as auxiliary activities that could help students during the process of writing. The ultimate goal of these activities, however, was always a written composition or a literate writer. The profession’s bias against aural forms of expression was also evident in the work of scholars who implied that students’ reliance on the conventions of oral discourse resulted in the presence of problematic features in their written work (Cayer & Sacks, 1979; Collins & Williamson, 1981; Robinson, 1982; Snipes, 1973, Shaughnessy, 1977). In 1973, for example, Wilson Snipes, investigated the hypothesis that that “…orientation to an oral culture has helped cause a gradual decrease in student ability to handle written English in traditionally acceptable ways,” (p. 156), citing “haphazard punctuation” “loose rambling style” “diminutive vocabulary” (p. 159), writing that is “superficial, devoid of subtle distinctions,” and thought which remains “fixed in a larval state” (p. 160). He noted,
This is almost certain to be the case when the student has little exposure to the talk of individuals at once learned and articulate, people whose thought and speech have the qualities of a well-wrought book. Even here, though, the student is probably better off to read the book, for the visual experience is apt to give him a surer grasp of the technical elements of written expression—spelling, punctuation, transitions, paragraphing, and so on—as well as an equal understanding of content. (p. 160)
Despite the scholarly work of linguists (Biber, 1986, 1988; Tannen, 1982 a and b) who identified a broad range of overlapping elements that writing and speaking shared as composing modalities, the bias toward writing continued to grow in composition studies throughout the 20th century. By 1994, Peter Elbow sounded a wondering note at the profession’s continued efforts to separate voice from writing:
What interests me is how…most of us are unconscious of how deeply our culture’s version of literacy has involved as decision to keep voice out of writing, to maximize the difference between speaking and writing—to prevent writers from even using those few crude markers that could capture more of the subtle and not so subtle semiotics of speech. Our version of literacy require people to distance their writing behavior further from their speaking behavior than the actual modalities require. (p. 8)
The Silence of Voice Another persistent artifact of aurality in the composition classroom has been the reliance on metaphors of voice in writing. In Kathleen Yancey’s (1994) germinal collection, Voices on Voice, for instance, the bibliography annotates 102 sources that inform professional thinking about voice,. Yet Yancey and Elbow, the authors of this bibliography, describe it as “incomplete” because “’voice’ leads to everything” (p. 315). The treatment of voice in College Composition and Communication and College English attests to that statement: between 1962 and 1997, in articles or citations to other scholarly works, voice was explored in connection with feminist theory (Fink, 1993), rhetorical theory (Shuster, 1985); personal expression, identity, and character (Gibson, 1962; Faigley, 1989; Stoehr, 1968); the writing process (Winchester, 1972); style and mimesis (Brooks, 1973); academic writing (Bartholomae, 1986); race, gender, and power (Royster, 1996; Smitherman, 1999; Wiget, 1984, Hennig, 1991); technology (Eldred, 1997), political dissent (Murray, 1969), advertisements (Sharpe, 1985), public and private discourses (Robson, 1965), and authenticity and multiplicity (Fulwiler, 1990), and evangelical discourse (Hashimoto, 1987), among many other subject. Between 1972 and 1998, ten books with voice in their titles were reviewed in the CCC.23 What these works on composition had in common, however, was less an understanding of embodied, physical human voice, than a persistent use of the metaphorical language that remediated voice as a characteristic of written prose. As Kathleen Yancey outlined the scope of work on voice in 1994,:
[W]e use the metaphor of voice to talk generally around issues in writing: about both the act of writing and its agent, the writer, and even about the reader, and occasionally about the presence in the text of the writer…. Sometimes we use voice to talk specifically about what and how a writer knows, about the capacity of a writer through “voice” to reveal (and yet be dictated by) the epistemology of a specific culture. Sometimes we use voice to talk in neo-Romantic terms about the writer discovering an authentic self and then deploying it in text. (vii)
Aurality in Popular Culture While aurality continued to take a back seat to writing throughout the 20th century in collegiate composition classrooms—especially in terms of the texts that students were asked to produce—teachers continued to recognize its importance in the lived experience of young people. In 1968, for instance, Jerry Walker wrote of his concern that English majors were asked to focus almost exclusively on printed works of “literary heritage” (p. 634) that provided youths little help in dealing with the problems of the Cold War era. Given students’ concerns about “alienation, war, racial strife, automation, work, and civil disobedience” (p. 635), Walker noted, they often found the texts of television and radio to resonate more forcefully than the texts of historical eras. Walker pointed to the successes of teachers who focused on popular culture and who used aural texts and popular music as foci for classroom assignments. Similar suggestions for assignments were put forward in subsequent years—with assignments that examined the music of The Beatles (Carter,1969) and Billie Holiday (Zaluda, 1991); on popular music in general (Kroeger, 1968); and on the writing associated with popular music (Lutz, 1971)—for instance, the liner notes that accompany albums and CDs.
In general, however, the aural text was not the focus of these scholars. Music and communication in mass media (especially radio, film, newspapers) was considered part of popular culture, and teachers of English composition—influenced by the biases of the belletristic tradition (Trimbur, 1994; Paine, 1997) that shaped composition as a discipline—distinguished such texts from academic discourse, dismissing them as part of the “philistine culture” outside the walls of the university (George & Trimbur, 1999, p. 694).24 While most composition teachers in the 20th century were willing to accept the draw of popular culture, the goal of the composition classroom, remained at some level, as Adams Sherman Hill had described it in the 19th century: to “arm” students (Hill qtd. in Paine, p. 292), to “inoculate” (Paine, 282) them against the infectious effects of popular culture and various forms of mass communication, to encourage them to turn to the written texts of geniuses from the past as a means of discovering their “real selves” (Hill qtd. in Paine, p. 282) and “resisting mass culture” (Paine, p. 283). Although it was permissible to lure students into English classes with the promise of focusing on popular culture or music, most composition teachers agreed it was best to approach such texts in essentially the same way as composition teachers had once approached belletristic texts, as objects of study, analysis, interpretation, and, perhaps most importantly, of critique (Sirc, 1997).
As representative pieces of popular—or low—culture, aural texts were not generally recognized as appropriately intellectual vehicles for composing meaning in composition classrooms. Only writing held that sinecure, and the goal of teachers’ assignments continued to be excellence in reading and writing. Robert Heilman summarized this view succinctly in 1970, within the context of a discussion about the use of electronic media in composition classrooms,
…the substitution of electronic experience [music, film, radio] in the classroom, for the study of the printed page is open to question. It tends to reduce the amount of reading by creating a thirst for the greater immediate excitement of sound and light. The classroom is for criticism; the critical experience is valuable; and it cannot be wise to attenuate it by the substitution of sensory experience which the age already supplies in excess. (242-243)
Despite this common characterization, some pioneering teachers during the 60s, 70s, and 80s continued to experiment with more contemporary texts and assignments that involved aural components. Lisa Ede (1977) and John Lofty (1985) for instance suggested incorporating oral histories into composition classrooms. Both authors, however, also considered the goal and the final step of such assignments to be written essays that quoted from conversations with interview subjects. While aurality was acknowledged and deployed as a way of engaging students and even a way of investigating various phenomena, it was generally ignored as a compositional modality.
Aurality and Pedagogy A value on aurality—in limited and constrained situations—also persisted in the context of certain classroom practices throughout the 20th century. One strikingly persistent thread of work, for instance, focused on teachers and using audio recordings to convey their responses to student papers (Olson, 1982; Sommers, 2002; Mellen & Sommers, 2003; Anson 1999; Sipple 2006). In such articles, faculty talked about the fact that their taped oral responses to students’ written work allowed for a clearer acknowledgment of the “rhetorical nature” of response to a piece of writing, because remarks could be “more detailed and expansive” (Mellen & Sommers, 2003, p. 11-12) and unfold across time. As Jeff Sommers (2002) noted, the sound of an instructor’s voice seemed at once more immediate and more personal; the aural nature of the comments were able to give students a “’walking tour’” through their texts, as if a reader were conversing with them (p. 186). Interestingly, however, none of these authors mentioned some of the more basic affordances of aural feedback—that speech conveys a great deal of meaning through pace, volume, rhythm, emphasis, and tone of voice as well as through words themselves.25 Teachers continued to provide other aspects of their instruction orally, as well. Diana George (1984), for example, explored the use of audio taping in the composition classroom as a way of recording the texts of small-group interactions and responding to these texts with her own suggestions, observations and remarks. George noted that this approach provided her insight about the problems that such groups encountered when discussing each others’ written papers, as well as the work small groups accomplished when a teacher was not present. This scholarship deserves attention because it is one of the relatively rare instances in which students’ oral exchanges, were considered as semiotic texts that were composed and could be studied for the meaning they contained.
As much of this scholarship suggests, however, while students were expected to engage in discussion and oral group work in many composition classrooms, their speaking was located within specific contexts and occasions, and expected, generally, to happen on cue. Such occasions were limited in many classrooms, and often were not wholly satisfying to teachers. In 1974, for instance, Gerald Pierre noted that well meaning teachers who depended on lecturing to convey information often short-circuited their own attempts to generate class discussions, turning them into “oral quizzes, guess-my-conclusion games, or bristling silences” (p. 306).
In an attempt to address such concerns, some teachers turned to oral presentations as venues for student talk within the classroom. Mary Saunders, in a 1985 article in College Composition and Communication, described a sequence of assignments in which students were asked to make short oral presentations abstracted from drafts of their written research papers and then to revise their papers based on the feedback they received from classmates. The primary goal of these presentations, of course, was to improve students’ written work, to help them “write better papers” (p. 358). Similarly the aural work accomplished within teacher-student conferences (Schiff, 1978; North, 1982; Arbur, 1977; Rose, 1982; Memering, 1973), and writing-center appointments (North, 1982; Clark, 1984), was subordinated almost wholly to the end goal of writing. For students, the primary reason for speaking and listening in composition classrooms, in other words, was identified as improved writing.
It this context, it is interesting note that aurality also continued as a key form of faculty teaching and testing practices.26 Lecturing, for instance, remained a relatively popular form of teaching in many composition classrooms through the end of the century and beyond—despite a growing agreement that classrooms should be centered around students’ opportunities to practice composing strategies rather than teachers’ chances to talk about such strategies (Finkel, 2000; Dawe & Dornan, 1981; Pierre, 1974; Lindemann, 1995).27 The continued use of the lecture as one method of conducting instruction foregrounds some of the complications and contradictions of the profession’s stance toward aurality and writing: although students have been encouraged to focus on the production of written texts, and while such texts have increasingly become the standard of production for composition classes, many teachers have continued to impart information through oral lectures, often expending a great deal of time to craft and deliver effective oral texts. In this respect, as every teacher and student understands, power and aurality are closely linked. Indeed, the enactment of authority, power and status in composition classes is expressed, in part, through aurality: how much one is allowed to talk and under what conditions. This phenomenon has been mapped as well in teachers’ aural evaluations of both undergraduate and graduate students, which, while not generally considered as important as the evaluation of written work, has remained nonetheless persistent. For undergraduates, for instance, such evaluations have continued to be conducted in highly ritualized one-on-one conferences in which students are expected to explain the purposes, audiences, and approaches taken in their written projects (Schiff, 1978; North, 1982; Arbur, 1977; Rose, 1982; Memering, 1973). For graduate students, oral questioning and disputation has persisted in candidacy exams, as well as in more public defenses of theses and dissertations. To pass such exams, graduate students are expected to succeed both in producing a written text, and defending their ideas in disputational aural exchanges, forms rooted historically in verbal argument and display (Ong, 1981; Connors, 1996).
Aurality and Silenced Voices It is important to note that attention to aurality has also persisted in the work of scholars who focused on the rhetorical contributions and histories of marginalized or under-represented groups. Individuals like Jacqueline Jones Royster (1996, 2000) and Beverly Moss (1994), Scott Lyons (2000) and Malea Powell (2002), Anne Gere (1994) and Geneva Smitherman (1999), among others, for example, brought to bear an understanding of aurality—and its complex relationship to written literacy—informed by the historical richness of their own families, communities, and experiences, and trained it on the complex problems associated with racism, classism, gender inequity, and the exercise of power in education and English composition.
This richly textured scholarship—which holds great value for the profession and our larger culture—contributes, in particular, to resisting simplistic binary splits between writing and aurality that have informed instruction in mainstream college composition classrooms during much of the 20th century, despite linguistic evidence suggesting the erroneous nature of such a division. At the same time, this work acknowledges aurality and as an important way of knowing and making meaning for many people in this country—especially those for whom, historically, higher education has often been part of a system of continued domination and oppression. Royster, for example, in her 1996 College Composition and Communication article, “When the First Voice You hear is Not Your Own” and in her later book Traces in the Stream: Literacy and Social Change among African American Women (2000) explored the cumulative and multiplied power of her own authentic voices and those of other African American women—and the responses of a racist culture to these voices. In doing this work, Royster outlines a powerful argument for aural discourses (as well as, and in combination with, written discourses and hybrid forms of communication) that take up the challenge of border-crossing and political action to confront the insidious “cross-cultural misconduct” (p. 32) so frequently characterizing racism, especially in educational contexts. Writing about her scholarly project—while enacting the political potential of her work—Royster references the discourses of aurality in acknowledgement and respect for the different forms of discursive hybridity that are required for such activism to succeed:
My intent is to suggest that my stories in the company of others demand thoughtful response...I draw from these scenes a specific direction for transformation, suggesting dimensions of the nature of voicing that remain problematic. My intent is to demonstrate that our own critical approaches to voice,…as a central manifestation of subjectivity, are currently skewed toward voice as a spoken or written phenomenon…The call for action is to refine theory and practice so that they include voicing as a phenomenon that is constructed and expressed visually and orally, and as a phenomenon that has import also in being a thing heard, perceived, and reconstructed. (1996, p. 30)
The work of Malea Powell (2002) and Scott Lyons (2000), too, has helped compositionists complicate the profession’s “uncritical acceptance of the oral/literate split” (Powell, 2002, p. 397) which helps mask the complexity, range, and depth of Native American texts and discourses, and perpetuate the stereotypes which continue to sustain racism. Native Americans, these authors point out, have employed both oral and written discourses as tactics of “survivance” (Powell, p. 428), while acknowledging the many problems associated with communicating in discursive systems—academic writing, legal writing, treaties, legislative venues—that have been “compromised” (Lyons, 2000) as part of a racist, colonial mainstream culture. As Lyons reminds us, because writing for many Native American people is bound so intimately to the project of white colonization and domination, and oral discourse so often supports uncritical and racist stereotyping, “rhetorical sovereignty” (p. 449) is a centrally important feature of Native American self-determination. Lyons goes on to say that this sovereignty—“the inherent right and ability of peoples to determine their own communicative needs and desires” and in this pursuit, to decide for themselves the goals, modes, styles, and languages of public discourse—“requires the presence of an Indian voice speaking or writing in an ongoing context of colonization and setting at least some of the terms of debate” (p. 462).
Aural Composing, Sample #3: Wendy Wolters Hinshaw’s Yelling Boy At this point, please go to http://www.english.uiuc.edu/cws/IPRHDigitalLiteracies/Wolters.mp3 and listen to Wendy Wolters Hinshaw’s Yelling Boy, a reflective examination of her interaction with an undergraduate student in a section of first-year composition. The reflection, a painfully frank and honest look at Wolters’ own teaching is rendered in stark terms—no music and no soundmarks28 of the classroom (Shafer, 1977), no chalk sounds on a blackboard, no scraping of chairs as a class session ends, no collecting of papers or reminders of assignments due. This piece, a memory of what took place in a “dirty grey office,” is focused on a single exchange that happened across a “small teacher’s desk,” and takes three minutes for Wolters Hinshaw to recount in its entirety.
The power of this audio memory rests in the midst of its plainness, its silences. Wolters Hinshaw tells the story of a young man who insists on telling his own personal story on his own terms, despite her carefully considered assignment, her firm theoretical grasp of teaching goals and media representations, and her attempts to steer him toward what she hopes might be a more complicated and nuanced examination of his family photographs
I ask again in my best teacherly tone, “What do you think are the larger implications of this family album?” Although he has no idea what the “larger implications” are of his collection of pictures, the larger implications of our conversation are becoming very clear: I'm asking him over and over again to look at his family photographs my way, and he’s getting madder and madder.
In her reflection about this incident—a key event in her development as a teacher—Wolters Hinshaw deploys a “register of knowledge” (Walker, 2003, p. 161) that differs from in subtle ways from that which is used in writing. By performing her story, Wolters Hinshaw re-lives the acoustic memory for listeners. She recalls her own words, imitating the pedagogical tone of voice she used; she speaks the words of Yelling Boy, protesting loudly, as he did, “these are just my family pictures. This is just me.” The significance of such a performative moment, Julia Walker points out lies in its embodied nature; it is an expression deeply felt, “registered within the body’s viscera.” (p. 160). Wolters Hinshaw (2007), herself, in reflecting on this essay notes,
I think I felt more vulnerable in this assignment than I had in any assignment I can remember; partly this was due to the fact that we were modeling our essays after the “This I Believe" project on NPR, and so I was forced to figure out what I believe and talk about it in front of everyone. But telling my story in an audio essay also meant putting myself there, really boiling myself down to that moment and talking about it out loud. I didn't have the comforts I typically rely on in a written paper—this was shorter, there was no room for citation or other scholarly voices to help contextualize and soften the experience I was sharing. It was really just all riding on my voice.
Aurality and Digital Environments for Composing As many contemporary scholars have pointed out—among them Graff (1987), Gee (1996), Brandt (1995 and 2001), Barton & Hamilton (1998), Powell (2002), Royster (1996), Hawisher & Selfe (2004)—we cannot hope to understand literacy practices or the values associated with such practices fully unless, and until, we can also understand the complex cultural ecology which serve as their context. Such ecologies both shape peoples’ literacy practices and values and are shaped by them in a ongoing duality of structuration (Giddens, 1979). In the United States, then—especially at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st—we cannot hope to fully understand literacy practices and values without also understanding something about digital and networked contexts for communication, among many other factors.
While these digital environments have had many different effects at local, regional, national, and international levels (Castells, 1996, 1997, 1998), some of the most profound and far reaching changes have involved communication forms, practices, values, and patterns. Although the relationship between digital technologies and literacy is complexly articulated with existing social and cultural formations and digital environments remain unevenly distributed along axes of power, class, and race, it is clear that the speed and extended reach of networked communications has directly affected literacy efforts around the globe (Human Development Report). Digital networks, for example, have provided routes for the increasing numbers of communications that now cross geopolitical, cultural, and linguistic borders. The international versions of the Aljezeera, The Japan Times, BBC, and the Herald Tribune web sites, for example, offer not only traditional alphabetic journalism, but also video and audio interviews. Similarly, the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and the international Olympic Movement, among many other international organizations, all maintain richly textured web sites that offer not only print reports and white papers, but audio, video, and photographic essays as well. These communications—which consist not only of words, but of audio and video transmissions, images, sounds, music, animations, and multimedia presentations—are used by organizations, non-governmental agencies, multinational corporations, international financial institutions, governments, affinity groups, and individual citizens who form around common interests and projects, and who compose, exchange, and interpret information.
At the same time, new software and hardware applications—video and audio editing systems and conferencing software, electronic white boards, digital video cameras, multimodal composing environments, and digital audio recorders, among many, many more—have provided increasing numbers of people the means of producing and distributing communications that take advantage of multiple semiotic modalities.
These two converging trends have had many effects29, among them an increasing interest in aurality and modalities of expression other than the printed word—not only in linguistics, literacy, and language studies (Ong, 1982; Kleine & Gale, 1996; McCorkle; Halbritter, Hawisher & Selfe, 2005; DeVoss, Hawisher, Jackson, Moraski, Johnson, and Selfe; 2005; Tannen, 1982) but also in medicine (Medical History, 2006; Sterne, 2003; Sykes, 2005), legal studies (Hibbitts, 1994; Gilkerson, 1992; Hespanha, 2002), cultural studies (Bull & Back, 2003), geography (Sui, 2000; Olson, 1997; Carney, 2003), architecture (Labelle, Roden, & Migo 2000; Brooks, 2002; Kahn, 1999), film (Altman, 2004; O’Brien, 2005; Chion, 1999), and history (Smith, 2003; Yow, 2005; Richie, 2003) among many other areas and disciplines. As Hibbitts (1994) sketches the connection,
The history of Western culture over the past 125 years suggests that the recent turn toward the aural is largely a product of new aural technologies. In essence, cultural aurality has tended to become more pronounced as aural technologies have multiplied and spread. At every stage in this process, the existence of these technologies has radically extended the power and range of aurally communicated information. As technologically transmitted and amplified sound has become able to assume more of the cultural burden, culture itself has turned towards sound for information. (3.12)
In composition studies, then, it is not surprising that some of the impetus for a new turn toward aurality has been contributed by technology scholars focusing on electronic, multimedia and multimodal composing. Foundational for these scholars has been Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982) and the concept of secondary orality,30 the technological mediation of voice by electronic, and later, digital technologies. As early as 1987, for example, John McDaid, in a paper delivered at the CCC in Atlanta wrote,
Like Ong's description of speech, electronic writing "comes into existence just as it is going out of existence." In a kind of visual analog of speech, text scrolls up out of your "hearing" into nothingness. But it is retrievable [in digital environments], for we have externalized our capacity for memory as well as our capacity for speech.
It prevents the co:presence of pages and retrieves the evanescence of orality. It forces us to a more recursive vision of text by collapsing "drafts" into an ongoing modification of the "text-as-experienced," as if we were modifying our spoken discourse in response to the Other.
This early thread of scholarship resisted, for the most part, simplistic distinctions between orality and writing, and connected digital writing to aurality in metaphorical terms. Such work became increasing important throughout the last decade of the twentieth century as computer systems developed to accommodate new forms of communicative exchanges: online conferences (Batson, Bertram, and Peyton, 1993; Faigley, 1992); listservs (Cubbison, 1999; Selfe and Myer, 1991); MOOs and MUDs (Haefner, 1999; Haynes & Holmevik, 1998), and email (Yancey & Spooner, 1996), for example.31 By the end of the decade and the century, however, low cost and portable technologies of digital audio recording, such as minidisc recorders, and simplified open-source audio editing software, such as Audacity, put the material means of digital audio production into the hands of both students and English composition teachers.32 Many of these teachers were already experimenting with digital video, using Apple’s iMovie or Microsoft’s Movie Maker33, both which contained an audio track and limited audio-editing capabilities, but digital audio-editing programs like Audacity or Final Cut Pro made it possible for teachers and students to compose with audio in ways that they could not do theretofore: recording and layering environmental and artificial sounds to create a textured sonic context and collection of detail, weaving vocal interview and commentary sources together to provide multiple perspectives on a subject; adding music, silence, and audio effects to as ways of changing emphasis, tone, pace, and delivery.
Although new software environments expanded the opportunities for experimentation with audio compositions in English classrooms, the intellectual basis of such work was also fueled by the germinal scholarship of The New London Group (1996), Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen (1996), Cope and Kalantzis (1999)—all of whom identified the aural as one modality among many that individuals should be able to call on as a rhetorical and creative resource in composing messages and making meaning. These scholars argued for an increasingly robust theory of semiosis that acknowledged the practices of human sign-makers who selected from a range of modalities for expression (including sound, image, and animation, for example) depending on rhetorical and material contexts within which the communication was being designed and distributed. They also noted that no one expressive modality, including print, was capable of carrying the full range of meaning in a text, and pointed out that the texts sign makers created both shaped, and were shaped by, the universe of semiotic resources they accessed.
This expanded semiotic theory brought into sharp relief the hegemony of print as an expressive mode in English composition classrooms—especially for scholars studying emerging forms of communication in digital environments. Many of these scholars had observed the profession’s love-hate relationship with these new forms of expression during the last decade of the 20th century—blogs34, home-made digital videos35, multimedia sites like MySpace36 and Facebook37, digital audio and podcasting.38 Although such texts had begun to dominate digital environments and self-sponsored literacy venues, however, print continued to prevail as “the way” of knowing (Dunn, 2001, p. 15), the primary means of learning and communicating in composition classrooms. Although email, web sites, and multimedia texts were accepted as objects for study, critique, and analysis—and while many students were already engaging in the self-sponsored literacy practices of creating digital video and audio texts—composition assignments, for the large part, continued to resemble those of the past 100 years (Takayoshi and Selfe, 2006).
In a 1999 chapter, “English at the Crossroads,” in Passions, Pedagogies, and 21st Century Technologies, for instance, Kress described the cultural changes he saw literacy practices undergoing in an increasingly technological world and compared these to the continued privileging of print by teachers of English. The exclusive focus on print and written language, he noted,
…has meant a neglect, an overlooking, even suppression of the potentials of representation and communicational modes in particular cultures, an often repressive and always systematic neglect of human potentials in many…areas; and a neglect equally, as a consequence of the development of theoretical understandings of such modes….Or, to put it provocatively: the single, exclusive and intensive focus on written language has dampened the full development of all kinds of human potential, through all the sensorial possibilities of human bodies, in all kinds of respects, cognitively and affectively... (p. 85)
With the development of the Internet and digital audio and video applications, new depth and scope was added to scholarship around aurality. In 2004, for example, Scott Halbritter, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wrote a dissertation which explored sound as a rhetorical resource in multimedia compositions, In 2005, in her MIT dissertation, Tara Shankar described a project in which young students composed using a “spriting” software that she had developed to take advantage of their oral exchanges; and, in a 2005 dissertation completed at Ohio State University, Ben McCorkle explored the remediation of aurality by print and writing, as well as the subsequent diminishment of professional attention to the canon of delivery in 19th century collegiate instruction.
By 2006, Computers and Composition: An International Journal published a special issue on sound, edited by Cheryl Ball (Utah State University) and Byron Hawk (George Mason University). In tandem with this collection of print articles, Ball and Hawk also published a related set of online essays and resources in Computers and Composition Online, an online version of the journal edited by Kristine Blair (Bowling Green State University). The collection contained not only print essays, but also video and audio texts that offered key arguments, illustrations, and examples that could not be rendered in a print environment.
As such scholarly works have emerged during the last decades, compositionists have continued to experiment with assignments that encouraged students to create meaning in and through audio compositions, focusing assignments on podcasting39, audio arguments40, audio remixes of critical written responses41, radio essays42, audio documentaries and interviews43, audio ethnographies44, sound collages45, as well as video, multimedia, and other forms of multimodal composition. Other rhetoric and composition scholars, taking their cue from increasingly visible projects in history, folklore, and anthropology began to involve students in recording and collecting the oral histories of two-year college composition teachers46, key figures in rhetoric and composition studies47, and pioneers in the writing center movement48.
Aural Composing Sample #4: Daniel Keller’s Lord of the Machines: Reading the Human Computer Relationship At this point, please go to < http://www.english.uiuc.edu/cws/IPRHDigitalLiteracies/Keller.mp3 and listen to Daniel Keller’s audio essay, Lord of the Machines: Reading the Human Computer Relationship. This richly textured essay explores the complex relationship that humans have established with computers through their daily interaction and through media representations. It is worth focusing on a few key elements in the introduction and first five minutes of this eleven-and-a-half minute audio essay—just in case readers are tempted to dismiss this piece as a fun little distraction from the serious rhetorical work of composing.
One of the first things that many readers note is that this aural essay, like many written essays, opens with a hook—an attempt to engage the reader, drawing them into the essay and orienting them to its subject matter. In written essay, the hook makes a reader want to read on; in an audio essay the hook should make a listener want to listen carefully. To compose this hook, Keller selected a series of eight closely related sounds that play for approximately thirteen seconds. We hear the sound of typewriter keys, pages being flipped, a mechanical voice reciting the alphabet, a pen scribbling on paper, a ringing telephone, another computerized voice, this time reading binary code, and a computer modem dialing and successfully connecting to a network. In combination, these small bits of aural information alert us to the technological subject matter of the essay “But many people fear what the wired world is doing to our world.” and provide an acoustic foreshadowing of the issues that it will take up.
As this introductory mosaic of related sounds resolves itself and fades out, Keller introduces an important musical reference. Readers who didn’t grow up in the sixties or seventies, might initially miss Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine,” that Keller uses at in both the introduction to this essay and, later, in the conclusion as a unifying element. The song, published on their 1975 Wish You Were Here album, is generally interpreted as an anthem of creativity lost, the story of overwhelming systems—social machines like the recording industry—that consume and corrupt human beings, especially rock musicians.
As a cultural reference, this song works on several levels. The first level, as we have said, is the allusion provided by the lyrics to machines in general and their general hunger for human resources, a point that would be appreciated by Martin Heidegger (1977). This dark allusion is picked up by the heavily synthesized minor chords, haunting vocals, and industrial resonance of the music that conveys a second level of meaning in this piece. But an audience of perceptive listeners may also catch the hints of a third more ironic layer of meaning, one suggested by a band that warns listeners about the inexorable power of the machine’s destructive ways, while speaking in hollow tones from within the machine, on an album made by an industry that depends on machines. For Dan Keller, this disturbing irony also rests at the heart of the human-computer relationship, and in thirty seconds of carefully selected and artfully deployed cultural references, Dan has prepared us to understanding the complexity of the thesis he is about to articulate.
It is also clear, from this essay, that Daniel Keller understands the canon of delivery not only as an historical artifact, but as an important component of his essay. His use of a robotic voice in this piece is a good case in point. To create this essay, Keller used a synthesizer of the kind employed by individuals with vocal impairments. His altered voice—artificially measured, mechanical in its emphasis, unmarked by pauses or nuance of emphasis—serves as a metonymic reference to the cyborg—the being that is neither man nor machine, but some combination of both. This aural allusion to the complex linkages between humans and machines is a performative enactment of the relationship that rests at the heart of the essay. As Keller (2007) noted about his use of this cyborg voice,
I wanted to unsettle audiences with a computerized voice, make them negotiate the irony of a computer talking about the human-computer relationship, and possibly cause audiences to think about how and why they might have adjusted to the voice after eleven minutes….I aimed for an exploration and an experience of an idea, which is what NPR and music and poetry do so well.
Finally, listeners may want to focus on how Daniel Keller brings his thesis home, adding texture and depth to his essay through the inclusion of popular culture texts that serve as examples, illustrations, quotations, and references, all of which he cited in his bibliography that you see on the screen. As Keller (2007) explains his work:
I had to consider how audio delivers information, which then influenced
the content: I researched numerous books and articles on the human-computer relationship, but I couldn’t figure out how to translate that material to audio by using the traditional model of quoting and paraphrasing. Pop culture examples from television, movies, and music expressed many of the same ideas I found in my research, and they offered better use of aural affordances.
With these examples, Keller explores the complexities of the human-computer relationship in different aural registers. In his essay, for example, Keller includes, among other references, the paper jam scene from the 1999 movie Office Space, a clip from The Six-Million Dollar Man (1973), a parody of Darth Vader’s mechanized breath, The voice of Hal the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a bit of dialogue from the 1991 movie Sneakers, the voice of Robocop (1987), and Elliott Smith’s song “Can’t Make a Sound” (2000). Each of these examples resonates with the broad cultural concern about humans and computers that Keller refers to in his essay and opens a space for the closer look he takes at particular issues in the rest of this piece: among them, how best to maintain a sense of human agency in an increasingly technological world, what can be done to ensure privacy in digital environments, how closely technology is linked to multinational capitalism, and whether or not we can identify the essential nature of what makes humans truly human.
By Way of Concluding, But Not Ending… In this essay, I have tried to offer some perspective about the way in which U.S. composition studies has subsumed, remediated, and re-discovered aurality during the past 150 years. This story, however, is far from complete, and far from as tidy as I have suggested. The recent attention to, and re-thinking of, sound as a composing modality—and the understanding and use of other composing modalities such as video, images, and photographs—remain fragmented and uneven, far from a broadly defined professional trend. Although many teachers who work with digital media in this country recognize the efforts I have described here and have participated in them or helped sustain them, for other teachers, the bandwidth of composing resources remains limited to words on a printed page.
Sustaining this situation a constellation of factors—not all of them technological. Chief among them, for instance, is the profession’s continuing bias toward print and ongoing investment in specialization, understandable as historically and culturally informed methods of ensuring our own status and continuity. Given this context, many English composition programs and departments maintain a scholarly culture in which, non-print forms, genres, and modalities of communication are considered objects of study and critique, but not a set of resources for student authors to deploy themselves. As Gunther Kress (1999) observes, “Control over communication and over the means of representation is, as always, a field in which power is exercised” (p. 67).
It is also true that recording and editing sound—or images or video—in digital environments is still far from a transparent or inexpensive activity, and many composition teachers lack the technology, the professional development training, and the technical support needed to experiment with assignments such as those I have described. Although most schools now have access to computers, and most Departments of English and writing programs can count on some kind of computer facility, work with sound and video still requires computers specially equipped for such projects, access to mass storage for student projects, support for teachers who want to learn to work with audio, and sympathetic and knowledgeable technical staff members who understand the importance of such work. These resources are unevenly distributed in small state- and privately-funded schools, historically Black colleges and universities and reservation schools, rural schools, and schools that have been hit devastating events like Katrina. None of this, of course, is helped by the reduction of support for education in the wake of our country’s massive expenditures on national security and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
I should be as clear as possible, here, about exactly what I am advocating, and why. My argument is not either/or, but both/and. I am not arguing against writing, the value we place on writing, or an understanding of what writing—and print—contribute to the human condition that is vitally important. Indeed, it is evident to me that the ability to express oneself in writing will continue to be a hallmark of educated citizens in the U.S. for some time to come. Nor do I want to contribute to re-inscribing the simplistic terms of a writing/aurality divide, a division that is as limiting as it is false.
I do want to argue that teachers of composition need to pay attention to, and come to value, the multiple ways in which students compose and communicate meaning, the exciting hybrid, multimodal texts they create—in both non-digital and digital environments—to meet their own needs in a changing world. We need to better understand the importance that students attach to composing, exchanging, and interpreting new different kinds of texts that help them make sense of their experiences and lives—songs and lyrics, videos, written essays illustrated with images, personal web pages that includes sound clips. We need to learn from their motivated efforts to communicate with each other, for themselves and for others, often in resistance to the world we have created for them. We need to respect the rhetorical sovereignty of young people from different backgrounds, communities, colors, and cultures, to observe and understand the rhetorical choices they are making, and to offer them new ways of making meaning, new choices, new ways accomplishing their goals.
I do want to convince compositionists how crucial it is to acknowledge, value, and draw on a range of composing modalities—among them, images (moving and still), animations, sound, and color—which are in the process of becoming increasingly important to communicators, especially within digital networks, now globally extended in their reach and scope. The identities that individuals are forging through such hybrid communicative practices, as Manual Castells (1997, p. 360) points out, are key factors in composing the cultural codes that will characterize coming decades. Students are intuitively aware of these related phenomena, but they need help understanding the implications of such cultural trends as well as in managing their own communicative efforts—in ways that are rhetorically effective, critically aware, morally responsible, and personally satisfying—within such environments. Responsible educators, critically aware scholars of semiotic theory and practice, will not want to ignore these world-order changes or the opportunities they offer.
To understand how literacy practices change, especially in times of rapid transformation, Deborah Brandt (1995) maintains, both teachers and students need to understand how literacy forms emerge and contend and to study those contexts within which “latent forms of older, residual literacies...are at play alongside emerging ones.” (p. 665). To undertake such work in classrooms, Brandt suggests, we can talk to students about how both “’school based’ and ‘home-based’ literacies form and function within larger historical currents” (p. 666). Composition classrooms can provide not only a context for talkingabout different literacies, but also of practicing different literacies, learning to create texts that combine a range of modalities as communicative resources: exploring their affordances, the special capabilities, they offer to authors; identifying what audiences expect of texts that deploy different modalities and how they respond to such texts.
Within such a classroom, teaching students to make informed, rhetorically-based uses of sound as a composing modality—or of other modalities such as video, still images, and animation—could help them better understand the particular affordances of written language, and vice versa. Pam Takayoshi and I (2006) have outlined this case elsewhere in the following pragmatic terms:
…[T]eaching students how to compose and focus a thirty-second public service announcement (PSA) for radio—and select the right details for inclusion in this audio composition—also helpsteach them specific strategies for focusing a written essay more tightly and effectively, choosing those details most likely to convey meaning in effective ways to a particular audience, for a particular purpose. In addition, as students engage in composing a script for the audio PSA, they are motivated to engage in meaningful, rhetorically-based writing practice. Further, as students work within the rhetorical constraints of such an audio assignment, they learn more about the particular affordances of sound (the ability to convey accent, emotion, music, ambient sounds that characterize a particular location or event) and the constraints of sound (the difficulty of going back to review complex or difficult passages, to convey change not marked by sound, to communicate some organizational markers like paragraphs). Importantly, students also gain the chance to compare the affordances and constraints of audio with those of alphabetic writing—and, thus, improve their ability to make informed and conscious choices about the most effective modality for communicating in particular rhetorical contexts. (p. 3)
The challenges and difficulties of such work cannot be underestimated. The time that students spend in composition classrooms is altogether too short—especially during the first two years of college. Indeed, many teachers will argue that they don’t have enough instructional time to teach students what they need to know about writing and rhetoric, let alone about composing digital audio texts (or digital video or photo essays, for instance). A variation of this argument will be familiar to any compositionist who has offered a writing-across-the-curriculum workshop to colleagues who understand their job as involving coverage of a set amount of disciplinary material rather than the task of teaching students how to think through problems, Frequently, these colleagues—who design instruction around the mastery of facts, procedures, or series of historical events—consider writing instruction to be add-on content, material that detracts from the real focus of disciplinary mastery. Like most writing-across-the-curriculum specialists, however, I would argue that the primary work of any classroom is to help students use semiotic resources to think critically, to explore and solve problems. In composition classes, this means helping students work through communicative problems—analyzing a range of rhetorical tasks and contexts (online, in print contexts, and face to face), deploying a range of assets (both digital and nondigital) effectively and responsibly, making meaning for a range of purposes, audiences, and information sets. It is an understandable, if unfortunate, fact, as Patricia Dunn (2001, p. 150) argues, that our profession has come to equate writing with intelligence. Even more important, she adds, we have allowed ourselves to ignore the “back story” implications of this equation—the unspoken belief that those who do not write—those individuals and groups who have “other ways of knowing,” learning, and expressing themselves—may somehow lack intelligence. This unacknowledged and often unconscious episteme has particular salience for contemporary literacy practices which are not focused on print or alphabetic writing. As teachers of rhetoric and composition, our responsibility is to teach students effective, rhetorically-based strategies for taking advantage of all available means of communicating effectively and productively as literate citizens.
And so back to what’s at stake. As faculty, when we limit our understanding of composing and our teaching of composition to a single modality, when we focus on print alone as the communicative venue for our assignments and for students’ responses to those assignments, we ensure that instruction is less accessible to a wide range of learners, and we constrain students’ ability succeed by offering them unnecessarily narrow choice of semiotic and rhetorical resources. By broadening the choice of composing modalities, I argue, we expand the field of play for students with different learning styles and differing ways of reflecting on the world; we provide the opportunity for them to study, think critically about, and work with new communicative modes. Such a move not only offers us a chance to make instruction increasingly effective for those students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds; but it also provides an opportunity to make our work increasingly relevant to a changing set of communicative needs in a globalized world. As Gunther Kress (1999) has suggested, it may also make us better scholars of semiotic systems by providing us additional chances to observe, systematically and at close quarters, how people make meaning in contemporary communication environments when they have a full palette of rhetorical and semiotic resources on which to draw; new opportunities to theorize about emerging representational practices within such environments; additional chances to study the communicative possibilities and potentials of various modes of expression. It gives us, in sum, another reason to pay attention and to learn.
For students, the stakes are even more significant. Young people need to know that their role as rhetorical agents is open, not artificially foreclosed by the limits of their teachers’ imaginations. They need a full quiver of semiotic modes from which to select, role models who can teach them think critically about a range of communication tools, and multiple ways of reaching audience, They do not need teachers who insist on one tool or one way.
Students, in sum, need opportunities to realize that different compositional modalities carry with them different possibilities for representing multiple and shifting patterns of identity, additional potential for expression and resistance, expanded ways of engaging with a changing world—as the four audio essays I reference in this article indicate. As Elisa Norris put it, “If we can imagine using these types of projects in our writing studios, we can open up that learning space so that all students have room to express themselves.”
Students need these things because they will join us as part of an increasingly challenging and difficult world—one plagued by destructive wars and great ill will, marked by poverty and disease, scarred by racism and the ecological degradation. In this world, we face some wickedly complex communicative tasks. To make our collective way with any hope for success, to create a different set of global and local relations than currently exists, we will need all available means of persuasion, all available dimensions, all available approaches, not simply those limited to the two dimensional space of a printed page.
Works Cited 2001: A Space Odyssey. (1968). Century City, CA: MGM.
Aljazeera.net (2007). The international web site of Aljazeera. Accessed 17 February at 2007 at