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Audio Ethnography: Listening to Cultures & Communities

by Catherine C. Braun


In all of my courses, the teaching of rhetorical principles is central. Teaching students rhetorical principles helps them analyze the texts they interact with and also helps them produce their own texts that respond to the needs of diverse audiences. Ultimately, I hope that students see writing in its various forms and media as an act of communication that is shaped by the audience, situation, medium, and message.

In order to achieve this goal, I often ask students to interact with and produce ("read" and "write") in as many media as possible. I also ask students to reflect upon their composing processes and how different media shape their composing decisions. In addition, I ask students to use rhetorical principles to analyze the texts they interact with and to produce their own texts that respond to the needs of their audiences. I do this because I believe that in order to be effective communicators in an increasingly global and digital environment, students will need to be able work within digital environments as well as reflect upon and shape them.

In the particular class detailed in this case study, this philosophy came into play when I used online multimedia texts as primary texts for the class. I asked students to read and discuss these texts in order to learn rhetorical analysis, as well as to have models for the audio text I asked them to produce. In addition, I required students to write reflective essays about the rhetorical, textual, and aesthetic choices they made in composing their audio texts.


The Course

The theme of my 109.01 course in the fall of 2005 was “reading cultures and communities,” and the class was focused on ethnographic writing. The texts for the course were Sunstein and Chiseri-Strater's Fieldworking,,, and NPR’s “This American Life” web site of streaming audio versions of their radio programs. The major assignment of the course was to conduct an ethnographic study of a community, with the final “report” composed as an audio essay. In addition, students turned in a portfolio of writing that comprised their ethnographic process over the quarter: all field notes, three field note analyses, a midterm progress report, a detailed plan for their final audio project, and a reflective essay.

In the field note analyses (as suggested by Sunstein and Chiseri-Strater), students wrote about what surprised, intrigued, and disturbed them about a section of their field notes, allowing them to track the assumptions, positions, and tensions they brought to their field sites and to the note-taking process. In the audio plan, students wrote about the rhetorical, aesthetic, and textual elements they planned to include in the audio essay and why they were making those choices. They also had to include a progress report and timeline. In the reflective essay, students discussed what they learned about meaning-making in different media (written text and audio), as well as the rhetorical, textual, and aesthetic choices involved in composing a text for an audience.

Class sessions involved several activities:


A Word About Assessment

The focus on rhetorical practice that undergirds my overarching pedagogical philosophy also informs the way I approach assessment of student projects. I follow in the steps of Borton and Huot, who assert that multimodal assignments “should be tailored to teaching students how to use rhetorical principles appropriately and effectively” and that it is important to teach students how to assess their own compositions, as well as the compositions of others (99). At the beginning of the quarter, I introduce students to a set of rhetorical terms. In this particular course, the terms were those on the listening worksheet. Through class discussion of multimodal texts available online, we discussed how each rhetorical element was used in the text and how effective they thought it was. Through these discussions, the students learned how others crafted texts using these rhetorical elements as building blocks, and they were able to articulate how effective different texts were at achieving their goals through the use of different rhetorical principles.

To connect their reading/critique of texts to their composing, we used the same terms from the listening worksheet during peer response sessions. In these sessions, I asked students to discuss how well their texts utilized the different elements, whether they were successful or not, and, if not, what they could do to make the texts more successful. This moved students from being able to recognize rhetorical moves to being able to make rhetorical moves. Throughout the quarter, I spoke in rhetorical terms and gave feedback to students using this new (to them) language. When it came time to grade the texts, I made two separate assessments. I first graded the digital text itself for how well it employed the rhetorical concepts we had been discussing all quarter. In addition, I asked students to write a final reflective paper in which they discussed why they made particular choices. For the second part of their assessment, I graded how well they understood the rhetorical concepts we had been discussing and how consciously they made their choices (even if, ultimately, the choice might not have been as successful in actual practice as they had planned, whether because of the newness of the concept or their inexperience with the technology).


Three Example Audio Essays

Roller Coaster Enthusiasts
[wav | mp3]
By Matt
Jungle Gym
[wav | mp3]
By “Rita”
Band of Brothers
[wav | mp3]
By Jeff



Through this curriculum, students developed a language of composing that works to describe compositions in a variety of media. This language includes the rhetorical, textual, and aesthetic elements of texts. Students learned, for instance, how to compose with their audience in mind. “Rita,” who composed a narrative about her first day working out at a new gym, was a non-traditional student who had been away from school for a while. Her children were teenagers and she said on the first day of class that she came back to school to get through college before they did. Her audio essay narrates a walk through the gym, as she notices and describes the different types of people who exercise there. She moves from describing a group of teenage boys playing basketball, to young women who seem more interested in finding a man than working out, to the “lunchtime” crowd of businessmen, to the seniors who are “just enjoying the time in conversation with each other.” Her text moves effortlessly from age group to age group, without calling attention to that pattern of movement. Originally, she had planned to include a more detailed description of her interpretation of the seniors: their desire to avoid aging and stay active rather than wither away. Her “peer” writing group (a small group of traditionally aged students in the class), however, told her that that was depressing and she should delete the seniors altogether. She struggled to tailor her text to this audience feedback while at the same time staying true to her reading of the community. Ultimately, she kept the seniors in the text but altered her comments about them so that they were light on the surface but still hinted at the cycle of life through her narrative journey through the age groups.

In addition to attention to audience, students learned about different ways to structure texts and how the choice about structure is related not only to the content of a text but also to the audience and purpose. Jeff, for instance, used only found audio (clips from TV, movies, and the web) and used juxtaposition as his primary meaning-making strategy. There is a narrative thread embedded in the piece: the quotation from the World War II veteran sets up the feeling of a flashback to a particular operation; however, the story is not told in a straightforward manner but is rather evoked through the sounds that Jeff incorporates into the piece. Rita, on the other hand, constructs a deliberate narrative that is as much an interpretation of a community as it is a narrative of self-discovery, of her figuring out where and how she fits into the community. Matt’s piece is quite different. His is a topically structured argument that the term “roller coaster enthusiasts” describes a community, not just isolated individuals who love riding roller coasters. All of these different formal choices were modeled by the audio texts from,, and "This American Life" online, which the class discussed and analylzed.

The students, however, had to choose the best structure for their pieces depending upon their audience and purpose. Because Jeff’s primary goal was to evoke a strong emotional response, he felt that juxtaposition would be the best choice. Because Rita’s primary goal was to lead her audience through her own self-discovery of a community, she felt that the narrative structure would work best. And because Matt’s primary goal was to convince the audience that roller coaster enthusiasts were a community, he felt that an argumentative structure with topical arrangement would be best. These students clearly made their choices confidently and deliberately. They could not simply dump their ideas into a structure without thinking about it, the way so many students use the 5-paragraph format for every type of assignment. Rather, they had to make connections between their audience, their material, and their purposes. For many students in the class, this was a frustrating enterprise; they really had to think. Ultimately, though, they rose to the challenge and created interesting and thoughtful explorations of the communities they studied.

Besides making connections between audience, material, and purpose, students also had to deal with the benefits and limitations of the medium of sound. In particular, we explored the concept of layering. The students were accustomed to viewing layered texts, but they were not accustomed to listening to them, not to mention creating them. In their first attempts at audio essays, many students wanted to string sounds together linearly, as you might string together paragraphs, without layering them on top of each other. This practice resulted in excessively long audio essays (the students’ time limit was 3-4 minutes; most went over). They had to figure out how to compress multiple meanings into a shorter length through the layering of sounds. Rita’s piece is a wonderful example of this. As she narrates her walk though the gym, she layers music underneath her own voice, and each song helps her evoke a description and interpretation of each group in the gym so she can use fewer spoken words in the narration.

By the end of the quarter, students were able to discuss the rhetorical, textual, and aesthetic elements of texts written by others as well as of texts they composed. This language about composing can carry them through other writing classes as they learn to work with other forms of discourse. In addition, their experience with self-reflection—discussing the rhetorical, textual, and aesthetic elements of their own texts and justifying their choices—encouraged them to see the constructedness of writing as well as convincing them of their agency as creators of discourse.


Jump to: Introduction | "The Emergence of a (Reluctant) Leader" | "Audio Essays: A First Attempt" | Closing Thoughts