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«College English (Re)Educating the Senses: Multimodal Listening, Bodily Learning, and the Composition of Sonic Experiences Steph Ceraso In a certain ...»

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College English

(Re)Educating the Senses: Multimodal

Listening, Bodily Learning, and the

Composition of Sonic Experiences

Steph Ceraso

In a certain sense every experience should do something to prepare a person for later experiences of a deeper and more expansive quality. That is the very meaning of growth, continuity,

reconstruction of experience.

—John Dewey, Experience and Education (47)

f asked to identify the body part that is associated with listening, most people

I would point to their ears without hesitation. Despite the deeply entrenched association between the ears and the act of listening, however, sound is not experienced exclusively through a single sense; other parts of the body can be engaged during a sonic encounter. As Steven Connor notes, “It is said that the deaf Beethoven gripped a stick between his teeth to convey the sounds of the piano to him. Similarly, Thomas Edison would chomp on the wood of a gramophone in order to hear faint overtones that, as he claimed in a 1913 interview, were normally lost before they reached the inner ear” (168–69). It is also possible to feel sound in one’s stomach, throat, legs, and other areas of the body—a common occurrence at clubs where music is amplified. As these examples suggest, identifying the ear as the body part that enables listening does not capture all that is involved in experiencing a sonic event. Listening is a multisensory act.1 Yet, when listening is taught, it is usually treated as the practice of attending to audible words or sounds in order to make meaning of them. That is, teaching listening often involves teaching students to approach sound as another form of text;

sound is simply more content to be interpreted. In addition to teaching students what Step h Cera so is assistant professor of English at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She received her doctorate in 2013 from the University of Pittsburgh, specializing in rhetoric and composition, pedagogy, sound and listening, and digital media. Find more about her research, projects, and teaching at www.stephceraso.com.

College English, Volume 77, Number 2, November 2014 Copyright © 2014 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.

(Re)Educating the Senses 103 sound means, I argue that it is critical to teach them how sound works and affects. As the growing body of interdisciplinary “sound studies” scholarship has made clear, sound is playing an increasingly important role in a wide range of texts, products, environments, and experiences (Sterne).2 Thus, it is imperative that teacher-scholars of rhetoric and composition—and English studies more broadly—develop listening practices that can help students cultivate a heightened sensitivity to sound in different contexts. As I will argue, thoughtfully engaging and composing with sound requires listeners to attend to how sound works with and against other sensory modes to shape their embodied experiences.

This essay is an attempt to reimagine the ways that we teach listening to account for the multiple sensory modes through which sound is experienced in and with the body. I offer the concept of multimodal listening to expand how we think about and practice listening as a situated, full-bodied act. Teaching students to approach sound as an embodied event, as opposed to something that is heard exclusively through the ears, can make them more savvy consumers of sound; it can help students develop a deeper understanding of how sound is manipulating their feelings or behaviors in different situations. Additionally, because attending to the multimodal aspects of sonic encounters can provide information about how sound works as a mode of composition to create particular effects and affects—intentional or unintentional—students can use this information to become more thoughtful producers of sound. I see multimodal listening as a means of preparing students to become sensitive, reflective participants in and designers of sonic experiences, both digital and nondigital.

The aim of this essay is twofold: (1) to illustrate how through multimodal listening practices we might retrain our bodies to be more aware, alert, and attuned to sonic events in all of their complexity; and (2) to examine how incorporating multimodal listening practices into the composition classroom can enrich students’ multimodal composing practices. I argue that the heightened sonic experiences associated with multimodal listening practices can critically and creatively inform how listeners consume and compose with sound, and that these practices are particularly useful in the teaching of multimodal composition.

In what follows, I first introduce the key terms and concepts that inform my listening pedagogy. Then, to illustrate what multimodal listening entails as a practice, I discuss deaf percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie’s listening training, which she has described in numerous autobiographical texts and in a personal interview I conducted with her in 2011. Drawing from Glennie’s experiences, I elaborate on the key role of the body in multimodal listening and explore why reflecting on past bodily experiences with sound is crucially important when teaching students to listen multimodally. I conclude by proposing some specific ways that multimodal listening can enhance students’ multimodal composing practices, elucidating why the composition classroom serves as a productive learning environment for the teaching of College English multimodal listening. My hope is that the ideas presented here will inspire teachers from a range of backgrounds to design assignments that defamiliarize, challenge, and build upon students’ previous experiences with listening.





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The pedagogy I outline in this essay is based on what I call multimodal listening, a term that is intended to draw attention to listening as an expansive multisensory practice. My choice to highlight the embodied, sensory aspects of listening with this term is distinctly different from the majority of scholarship on multimodality.

Scholars—most notably Gunther Kress, Theo Van Leeuwen, and the New London Group3—tend to discuss multimodal communication practices through a semiotic framework. The end goal of this research on multimodality is meaning making. As Kress writes in Multimodality, “There are domains beyond the reach of language, where it is insufficient, where semiotic-conceptual work has to be and is done by means of other modes” (15). In rhetoric and composition, multimodality has been associated primarily with making meaning of digital media, though this association is slowly changing. Scholars such as Jody Shipka and Jason Palmeri have argued that equating multimodality with the digital gives our students a falsely narrow sense of the complexity of multimodal experience (Shipka, Toward; Palmeri, Remixing).

Indeed, rhetoric and composition scholars are starting to recognize and embrace more capacious notions of multimodal interaction. In a recent College English article titled “Evocative Objects,” for instance, Doug Hesse, Nancy Sommers, and Kathleen Yancey use ordinary, nondigital material things “to summon a network of associations and evoke cross-disciplinary inquiries, using both visual and verbal resources in an effort to make meaning” (325).

Although rhetoric and composition scholarship is beginning to acknowledge a wider range of nondiscursive materials and modes, the ultimate pursuit of meaning making in this work positions multimodal approaches in the same realm as the discursive: a realm where objects are analyzed and interpreted. I argue that alongside and in addition to semiotic approaches to multimodality, it is necessary to address the affective, embodied, lived experience of multimodality in more explicit ways.

Sound is an especially ideal medium for better understanding multimodal experiences because unlike visual or tactile experiences, interactions between sound and the body depend on vibrations. This vibratory aspect of sound is one of the reasons that listening, though it is not usually treated as such, is a multimodal event that involves the synesthetic convergence of sight, sound, and touch. That is, sound is often experienced via multiple sensory modes—it can be seen, heard, and felt. My term multimodal listening encompasses both the semiotic and the embodied, sensory aspects of multimodal experiences, which I see as significantly interconnected.

(Re)Educating the Senses 105 As I explore multimodal listening practices in what follows, my aim is to expand and deepen the ways that we think about both listening and multimodality in our scholarship and teaching.

John Dewey and the Esthetic To distinguish multimodal listening from listening practices that depend on the ears exclusively, it might be useful to think of listening to and for audible sound as earing. Multimodal listening moves away from organ-specific definitions and instead conceives of listening as a practice that involves attending to not only the sensory, embodied experience of sound, but to the material and environmental aspects that comprise and shape one’s embodied experience of sound. Unlike ear-centric practices in which listeners’ primary goal is to hear and interpret audible sound (often language), multimodal listening amplifies the ecological relationship between sound, bodies, and environments. Broadly speaking, multimodal listening is a bodily practice that approaches sound as a holistic experience.

Experience can be a tricky concept to discuss in relation to listening practices because it seems like a generic term for everything we do. If you are alive, you are experiencing; or to put it another way, you are never not experiencing. However, what is significant about the role of experience in cultivating multimodal listening practices is the quality of experience. As John Dewey emphasizes in the epigraph that begins this essay, the quality of an experience is essential to facilitating growth and learning in subsequent experiences (Experience 47). Throughout this article I will rely on Dewey’s Experience and Education and Art as Experience—two texts that are relevant to my argument due to their detailed discussions of the relationship between experience and learning.4 Specifically, I want to suggest that multimodal listening practices are a means of achieving high-quality, educational, or what Dewey calls “esthetic” experiences (Art 18).5 To better understand what counts as an esthetic experience, consider this example: I often listen to the same album on repeat when I am using my laptop. The miniscule computer speakers make the sound a bit flat and tinny, but that does not matter much to me because I am listening mainly for content. At first I attend closely to the lyrics and music, the pace and rhythm of the songs. I think about the meaning of the songs and the way they make me feel, and I sometimes connect them to my own memories. After repeated experiences with these songs, though, I do not find them as stimulating, and they tend to fade into the background. Because I am no longer actively learning or growing from each listening, one could say that this particular listening experience has become habitual, routinized. It has decreased in quality. However, if I buy tickets to see the band play live, the quality of my experience with the album increases. I am jarred from my listening routine by immersing myself in a new listening environment. The club I am in is crowded with moving College English bodies, and we are all are participating in the performance. By screaming out lyrics and yelling and clapping, we are shaping the sonic experience as it is unfolding. My senses are bombarded with new sights, smells, and sounds. I can feel vibrations from the massive speakers near the stage. I am engaged fully in this experience, which involves much more than my ears and thoughts.

This kind of “heightened vitality” is what Dewey refers to as an “esthetic” experience. As he writes, “Instead of signifying being shut up within one’s own private feelings and sensations, it [an esthetic experience] signifies active and alert commerce with the world; at its height it signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events” (Art 18). When I listen to the album on my laptop again, my listening experience is colored by my experience at the concert. I notice things I did not before—particular lyrics or beats that were emphasized more in the concert than in the recorded version of the album. I am also aware of the limitations of my new listening environment. The recorded version never changes or surprises me. I cannot feel the music as I did at the concert, or participate in the sonic event in the same way. By reinvigorating my senses, the immersive concert experience has sharpened my awareness of sound’s possibilities and impossibilities in my subsequent listening experiences with the album. Dewey views the reinvigoration associated with esthetic experiences “as participative [...] knowing, doing, feeling, and making sense are inseparable” (McCarthy and Wright 17). Esthetic experiences are holistic in that they do not separate mind and body or isolate one sense from another; they involve a heightened sensitivity to the experience in its entirety. Similarly, I suggest that multimodal listening practices involve a full-bodied awareness that heightens listeners’ experience of the sensory, material, and environmental aspects of sonic interactions.

I am not concerned with esthetic experiences for their heightened vitality alone, however. Like Dewey, I am interested in how people might use the newfound awareness and sensitivity associated with esthetic experiences—in what people might learn, do, or make with their experiences of heightened vitality. As James Scott Johnston notes, “Dewey often connects aesthetic inquiry to making and doing: art, music, building, designing, and developing” (15). I find it significant that Dewey discovers so many connections between esthetic experience and the compositional arts. Throughout this article, then, I extend Dewey’s exploration of the relationship between esthetic experience and creative production to an examination of multimodal listening and sonic composing practices.

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