Voice in the Cultural Soundscape: Sonic Literacy in Composition Studies

by Michelle Comstock and Mary E. Hocks



Sonic Literacy as Embodied Knowledge

Technological Literacies of Sound

Classroom Opportunities in Sonic Literacy

Voices in Soundscapes

Voice and Gender

Voice and Culture

Voices of Social Conscience



Works Cited

Video Clips





4. Classroom Opportunities in Sonic Literacy: Two Assignments

A. Michelle's Sonic Literacy Assignment

During the last several years, Michelle has given her advanced composition students the opportunity to listen analytically to and produce digital sound files for their documentary projects. She's found that the students who choose to create voic-over narrations develop a stronger, more critical sonic literacy and as a result, improve their overall compositional processes. Here's an excerpt from her documentary assignment:

Compose a documentary on a campus and/or community figure, organization, movement, event, or issue. The documentary will be addressed to an audience of your choosing. You will get extra credit for publishing or distributing your documentary to this audience. Also, you may choose to collaboratively compose the documentary with a group of one or more of your classmates.

The documentary project will give you another opportunity to use (carefully and critically) more than one medium to express and communicate your ideas. It will also give you a chance to explore the ethics of writing and representing people and events in informed ways. The purpose is not to "cover" a subject but to build a connection between you, the subject, and the audience and to offer a fresh take on things.

For the first stage (the invention stage) we will analyze examples of print, audio, and film documentaries and do some preliminary writing in order to choose and narrow our subjects. The documentary project will involve library (e.g., archival, historical, social, cultural) and/or field (interviews, observations, recording, videotaping, photographing, etc.) research. You will employ whatever research methods offer you an in-depth, humanitarian view of your subject.  Your access to the subject will also determine the research methods you employ. (Be sure you pick a subject that offers you plenty of accessible information.)

In shaping the documentary (whether it is primarily a print, sound, photographic, or multimedia document) you will add information in two directions--social, cultural, or historical AND individual or idiosyncratic. In other words, you will present a close particular portrait of the subject while at the same time contextualizing it within a larger historical, social, or cultural framework. In writing the documentary script (whether for a primarily print document or for a voice over), you will select details that clarify your subject for your chosen audience. Your selection of detail will also depend upon your particular agenda. Again, your language will aim toward building that connection between you, the audience, and the subject.

Each semester, nearly half of Michelle's students choose to create and record a voice-over narrative in response to this assignment. While those students do spend additional time in and out of class learning how to use the sound technologies, they also spend extra time writing, rewriting, recording, listening to, and getting feedback on their voice-over narrations--all necessary practices for developing stronger, critical sonic (and overall) literacy skills.

Michelle assigns numerous sound documents aimed at helping the whole class develop skills in analytical listening, including segments from the radio show This American Life. Sarah Vowell's TAL piece, "Shooting Dad," is especially useful for understanding the symmetry between the piece's content and her tone of voice. The class also compares documentaries with different kinds of voice-over narration, such as The Corporation, whose female narrator, Mikela J. Mikael, provides a juxtaposition with a mostly male series of talking heads, to documentaries without voice-over narration, such as Dark Days, whose director, Marc Singer, allows the participants to narrate their experiences in a kind of therapeutic relationship to the camera. The class addresses differences between these narrative styles and also between print texts and voice-over narrations, such as the frequent use of the declarative sentence and the frontloading of drama in spoken-word texts.

In addition, we discuss how sound in general gives the text immediacy, as mentioned earlier in this article, with its vibratory and ephemeral qualities, while the printed word can offer a sense of structure and finality. We also discuss how we experience the first and second hearing differently, how we sometimes become more aware of pacing and transitions the second time around and how we miss a great deal of material based on our ideological and cultural conditioning. Michelle asks her students to note points of resonance and dissonance in the pieces, when they sense the voice and words don't quite match up, when they perceive inauthenticity or hear the voice begin to grate. Points of dissonance often reveal assumptions about voice and gender, race, and culture. To further this discussion, she asks students to write and cast an opening voice-over narration for Dark Days. More often than not, they choose a sympathetic, slightly cynical white American male voice (played by the likes of Sean Penn). Students begin to hear and talk about the cultural and political strategies behind this choice when most of the documentary subjects are African American males.  

Students' analytical listening skills become even more refined when they write and perform their own voice-over narrations. Before they add any images or text, Michelle asks students to write a voice-over script, rehearse it with a peer review group, listen as someone else reads it aloud, revise it, practice it again, then record and digitize it in a sound booth on campus. After recording their scripts, students play the uncut version several times for themselves and others, listening for places where the piece drags or rushes, where the voice is "off" or "on." Michelle also encourages them to splice in other voices, if appropriate, in order to challenge their (and the audience's) notions of the univocal narrator, as well as assumptions about who (what voices) should be allowed to say what. The students then rewrite the scripts, shortening sentences, packing in more information, and adopting styles and tones more appropriate to the narrator's inflection and range.

Through this process they are testing and retesting their re-recorded spoken narratives on others, asking what tones and words resonate or grate. The digital sound editing programs allow students to easily eliminate and replace words, pauses, or background noise, facilitating a highly recursive editing process. As they begin to bring the sound files together with image and text files into a single document (video editing programs like iMovie and Windows MovieMaker allow students to combine these elements), we discuss sound as one element working simultaneously with the other elements to produce an overall effect. In other words, we ask if the voice resonates with the images (textual, photographic, and moving images), as well as with the audience, toward a gestalt. These questions require students to edit the voice-over narrations yet again in relation to the images and text.

In Michelle's own experience, writing for voice-over narrations has helped her write for print. She's more intimately aware of the vicissitudes of pacing and tone, of when to slow down and set up a scene and when to frontload the key conflict in a piece. Students say the same thing about their own writing and recording processes in their post-project reflections. As the examples will later demonstrate, they discover firsthand--in an embodied, immediate way--just how difficult it is to write for one's own voice (or the voice of another) and achieve resonance with an audience and the document as a whole.  

B. Mary's Sonic Literacy Assignment

In a similar assignment, Mary requires a digital video documentary as the final project in an upper-level, required Expository Writing class. These students are writing, literature, education, and journalism majors, with little or no multimedia technology experience from previous classes. After studying traditional nonfiction texts, this assignment introduces students to expository texts that combine digital photography, video, and sound. They pay special attention to a variety of audio and visual forms, analyzing their purpose, intended audience, and structure or navigation in an exposition. Here is her assignment:

Assignment: Digital Documentary
This project asks you to invent and produce an expository project in a digital format. Focus your project on a particular community--an actual community to which you belong, like a neighborhood, or a school or work community in which you participate. You must capture original material, giving your project an element of documentary work. You will conduct research (fact finding, interviews, original photographs/ audio recordings/videos, etc.) that will enable you to compose a short, nonfiction story and take an interesting angle on this community for your audience. Your project can also be reflective in nature: it can explore the intersection of documentary and personal narration or reflection.

Your project must be approved in advance by submitting a 2-page proposal in which you describe the approach and scope of your project. Remember to include:

  • The topic, community, and why it's important;
  • The location where you'll be researching;
  • An individual or collaborative research plan;
  • A detailed timeline for logistics and completing your project (when you plan to reserve equipment, shoot pictures, edit video, record, etc.)

Tips on Research
You may conduct archival research for this project (i.e., using books or historical photographs), but you will also conduct research that consists of artifact finding, interviews, observations, and recording of photographs/audio/video in a location. This location research will become the essence of your project.

Your project must include original documentary material, including original photographs and a choice of video/audio or audio-only files. These media will be incorporated extensively into your project.

Mary's students prepare for their project by watching and discussing various types of documentaries to compare the styles of voice-over narration. From the explicitly argumentative and political voice in Fahrenheit 9/11 to the subtle story told by the narrator of Capturing the Freidmans, students witness how the spoken script creates the story and controls the visual presentation. They note differences between what film theorist Bill Nichols describes as an "Interactive Mode" .... and an "Expository Mode" (32). An Interactive Mode is when the filmmaker interrupts a chronological event with interviews, voice-over narrations or commentary from an overt perspective. Expository Mode is when voice overs shape the spoken text as viewer directed commentary, create rhetorical continuity, and emphasize objectivity, causality, or persuasive argument. As in Michelle's class, students in Mary's class realize how much cultural specificity they miss on the first viewing. Mary asks her students to describe the tone and style of the narrative voice much as they would in a written expository text. They discuss whether they trust this voice and thus begin to perceive those moments of resonance or of inauthenticity.

Students find the work of voice-over narration time consuming and challenging. To help students complete their sequence of project assignments, Mary co-teaches workshops in an instructional technology center where students can learn the details of how to select, edit, and splice pictures, music, video interviews and general background footage or "B-roll" into several scenes that tell a story about a particular community. The software tools for creating digital video (e.g., iMovie, FinalCut Pro) use timelines where the individual media elements are placed in a sequence and can be moved or edited over time during the compositional process--a process called non-linear video editing. Novices find it easy to paste in visuals and music with their interviews and begin to move and splice them. They begin to see this non-linear editing process as a type of composition analogous to researching, drafting, and revising of written text. Students then become consumed with editing their interviews into usable segments, or sound bytes, and correcting mistakes (coughs, blips) in the spoken recordings. Those who wait to create their voice-over narratives at the end of this editing process find they must return again and again to the timeline and make painstaking revisions to the media so that the images and clips fit their recorded script. Mary wants her students to learn through this practice how the narrative about a community emerges inductively from their research, but in the production process, the narrative script must explicitly determine where and how the visuals, interviews, and other information appear in the movie; thus, students begin to recognize the deductive style and tonal quality of their own recorded voice-over narratives.

C. Background on These Assignments

We both love trying new approaches in our teaching. But we also suggest trying out new assignments first and offering those texts and experiences to the students for analysis. We developed our documentary assignments after we attended the BETHA Summer Institute for New Media in 2004.3 The institute, coordinated by Scott DeWitt at Ohio State, gave us and other compositionists the opportunity to discuss new media literacy and use newer video and sound editing technologies. In order to explore the meaning making at work in BETHA, as well as to learn some basic digital video production software, we created a documentary movie called "Bertha" (a malapropism playing on BETHA), which captured some of "the talk" on stage and behind the scenes at the institute.  

"Bertha" Video Clip

The first time Mary taught her documentary assignment, she showed our film in class. Her students, novices with the technology, felt comforted and seemed to understand the concept of multimodal meaning-making by the integration of sound, text, and visual elements. Our video generally speaks to the importance of sonic literacy in meaning making by demonstrating how the sound cannot be separated from the textual and visual within one semiotic space of meaning. The ending of "Bertha," for example, includes the last wave goodbye by participants and then gives credits over the soundtrack of a thrashing rock and roll guitar. The combination of the music, the familiar schoolroom form of handwritten text on whiteboards, the smiles and the waving of hands all bring together this moment of closure into one gestalt of meaning where the modalities cannot be separated or you lose the irony of contrasts, the humor. In "Locating the Semiotic Power of Multimodality," Glynda Hull and Mark Nelson similarly argue that at its best "a multimodal text can create a different system of signification, one that transcends the collective contribution of its constituent parts" (225). Students inevitably laugh out loud when they see this final scene; they feel compelled to integrate its visual representation, video, sound, and text into one moment of meaning, making it funny.

After students watch "Bertha," the emotional and tonal power of voice and music stands out as an accessible and important element of video. They realize that sound will set the tone and help create the impact of images recognized by the audience. Some students use sound to create humor and irony as we did, while others use both voice and music to make a serious critique of culture.


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