a drawing of Japanese waves with article title

Discussion and Example of the Voiceless Audio Essay

Other scholars have pushed against the traditional audio voiced essay and likewise aimed to inspire colleagues to try new forms. For example, in "Remixing the Personal Narrative Essay," Mark Blaauw-Hara and Kevin Putman (2011) detailed their attempts at remixing the personal narrative assignment. The article details how instructor and students worked together to create new forms of personal narrative essays, and it examines a student composition (a rap about suffering from OCD) in depth. Another recent example of pushing the boundaries is Steph Ceraso and Kati Fargo Ahern's (2015) "Composing with Sound"; they too identified that talking about sound in composition often assumes using sound "to create linear, narrative driven texts like audio essays or musical soundtracks" (n.p.). They offer ideas for "assignments that make composing with sound open to greater material and spatial opportunities" (n.p.). In a similar vein, Comstock and Hocks (2016) examined unique ways of using audio to communicate complex ideas, a critical sonic rhetoric that can bring ideas into an embodied state through immersive, interdependent soundscapes. Such ideas bode well for the future because they go well beyond the traditional audio essay and have the ability to inspire instructors to create a bevy of new types of audio-related assignments.

The student example that this section focuses on exemplifies what I call the voiceless approach, choosing to forego the author-driven narrative that forms the background of so much audio work in writing classrooms. I want to go beyond the traditional idea of a single author sweating over a page (or a recording button) to more accurately reflect the diverse constructions of the digital age, the collaborative, polyvocal compositions found in more and more academic and non-academic pieces across a range of modes.

In voiceless essays, the authors go beyond recording their own voices and collecting and re-arranging existing sounds—what some might consider bricollage or soundscape or mashup—to create audio pieces that are not reliant upon their own words or sounds but upon a creative multimodal style that relies on technological ethos (Folk, 2013): The author uses audio editing prowess to create a new argument from original sound resources. The argument arises not just from order/juxtaposition, but how the author transforms the original voice(s).

In short, by foregoing the reliance on authorial voice in favor of what essentially are outside voices, the voiceless essay breaks familiar written patterns that are easier to remediate into audio and makes the composer approach invention and arrangement in different ways. Research, arrangement, and revision come to the fore, and the power of editing across multiple modes is highlighted in meaning-making. The assignment is a bridge between a personal composition and a more heavily researched project, and it addresses course learning outcomes such as conducting primary research, becoming more adept at digital composing, understanding voice and tone differences, and crafting multimodal arguments. While the original assignment was first used in a graduate class, it can be adapted and customized as a similar bridge assignment in courses such as first-year writing. In addition to the audio composition, the students supplied a reflective rhetorical analysis of their own work and composing process (most handed this in as a written piece of around five pages, although this could be done in audio as well if the student chose to). The actual grading is based on the power of the argument, the ability to engage the audience throughout, the way outside sources are incorporated and deployed, and the overall logical arrangement of the piece. The reflective rhetorical analysis often provides helpful insight as to intention when issues may have hampered the clarity or construction of the audio construction.

Audio 9: Context for the Voiceless Student Example

Audio 10: Student Example of Voiceless Audio Essay: "Nuclear Cacophony"

Audio 11: Discussion of "Nuclear Cacophony"

Audio 12: A Brief (And Somewhat Doleful) Segue Wherein the Author Talks About Eagerly Sharing the "Nuclear Cacophany" Student Example with Colleagues

Conducting and Assessing the Assignment

In terms of conducting and assessing such audio assignments, my advice is the same as with any multimodal composition for those who may be trying it for the first time:

1) Examine the capabilities and limitations of your infrastructure to get a clear picture of the composing possibilities open to your students (e.g., access to computer labs or laptop carts that could be integrated into class time and what programs they provide access to).
2) Make an audio composition yourself using the same digital composing and editing conditions your students will face (and if it seems somehow intimidating, start with the voiced essay because it is more familiar and deviate later because it will be easier to achieve).
3) Although you may now be adept in navigating a particular program and approach within the material composing realities of your institutional context, allow your students to choose their own paths to completing the assignment. If a student wants to use a program or app they identify as helpful and worthwhile, let them. (For example, I tell students I will show them how to use Audacity, a free and robust cross-platform audio editing program, but many of my students use GarageBand, video editing software such as Adobe Premiere Pro, or one of the many free audio-editing apps.)

In terms of approaching the technological aspects of the assignment, keep in mind the overall goal of the assignment is to have students craft a great argument in sound, not just an argument that sounds great. Achieving big-picture composition classroom learning outcomes such as gathering and evaluating sources and making persuasive arguments are more important than avoiding . For additional helpful discussion of working with audio in classroom assignments, see Mark Blaauw-Hara and Kevin Putman's (2011) discussion of their composing processes (including links to multiple digital tools) and Bump Halbritter's work (2006, 2013).

The Visual Rhetoric of Aural Rhetoric

We may not be able to see sound waves entering our ears or penetrating our bodies, but there is a visual rhetoric of aural rhetoric if we choose to acknowledge it. For example, assessing student audio work in a player that shows only a slider and a time length (such as those included in this webtext) is completely different from assessing student work in places that show a slider, time length, and waveform such as SoundCloud or Audacity. The individual parts may be unknown, but the unified whole is seen; an expectation is created. In writing, we get a sense of sentence variety and form as we read; in audio, we can determine a sense of the variance of an audio composition before even listening. We have an idea of where we might need to strain, where we might need to recoil. Whereas we might feel the material heft of a student's printed 20-page essay in our hands, or we might get a sense of the heft of that same document as a digital file when it downloads slowly on our LMS, we can get a sense of the variance and creativity of an audio file simply by looking.

The picture below illustrates the differences between the two student examples' waveforms as opened on Audacity, and the final audio piece discusses the repercussions of that difference. By making students cognizant of the visual rhetoric of their waveforms throughout the composing process, instructors can help students make additional multimodal connections to audio composing and help students identify problematic areas of their audio compositions.

As the old saying goes, flat words = flat sentences = flat writing; by acknowledging the visual rhetoric of audio, students can see if they've created flat audio compositions. The voiced essays almost always appear as flatter constructions than voiceless ones, which can be demonstrated to students and therefore help them to push the boundaries of their creations.

To an outsider who hears a voiceless essay for the first time, it may appear as nothing more than mindless cutting-and-pasting; this is, in many ways, an understandable reaction born from entrenched notions of print. After all, just because a student's voice is present doesn't mean more intellectual work is automatically involved—students can throw a voiced essay together in a matter of minutes without much thought because it necessitates only adding some add-libbed audio after hitting the record button a few times before and after some already cut-and-pasted clips. Such an approach, though, is betrayed by the visual rhetoric of the waveform. Just as with writing, rigor is built into the composing process of feedback and revision, and in the end, the more complex an audio composition, the more complex its waveform is likely to be.

In short, a different form that requires moving students out of their comfort zones provides intellectual challenges, and audio compositions are no different in that regard. The less writerly an audio composition is, the more it builds students' multimodal capacities and yet also serves to inspire new attitudes and skills that can then be used of their own accord, as well as brought to bear when researching, editing, and writing in a digital world.

a screencapture of the Audacity interface showing the different soundwave patterns between the two student examples

Audio 13: Visual Rhetoric, Audio, and Conclusions