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





6. Voice and Gender - "Bikes"

In her digital documentary "Bikes," Mary's student Christy uses her voice-over narration as an understated and authoritative presence while documenting an urban bicycling community to which she belongs. Christy chose Right of Way, a group that promotes car independence, as an issue about which she cares strongly and used the documentary to make an explicit argument against automobiles in Atlanta. An avid cyclist and bicycle commuter, she is currently the only woman in the group. In contrast to her boisterous interviewees, Christy's voice remains soft and she never appears on screen; instead, she creates a presence through her absence, using only her voice to punctuate points between interview clips and statements typed out using animated text. After displaying facts about car pollution, for example, Christy narrates, "Bikes, though, are completely pollution-free." Christy's rhetorical voice-over choices become gendered because they remind audiences about the absence of the female voice in the context of cyclist culture as well as in its media coverage. Like other students, Christy uses humor to resonate with her audience, by her verbal ironic understatement and--picking up on one of her cyclist interviews--a surprise insertion midway through the video of the popular Queen song, "Bicycle."  

"Bikes" Video Clip [wmv file, mpg file]

Christy's quiet, steady narration in the video alternates with text screens, interviews with group members, and footage of on-road cycling. The cyclists that she interviewed are eccentric characters: one man holds a tallboy beer and smokes a cigar throughout the interview while making humorous statements. She reflected later on the process: "Developing an outline for the documentary was difficult--especially considering the people that I was filming (I'm sure this is evident upon viewing the documentary)." She clearly wants to establish some authoritative distance from the guys who are her informants in her narrative.

Christy's voice-over narration, including rhetorical questions for the audience and one audible question posed to her interview subjects, provides our only impression of her subjectivity. She originally didn't want to record her own voice for "Bikes," but had planned to "just use one of the guys" to replace her voice overs later on. When asked why she spoke so softly, she mentioned having a cold and also having to speak close to the microphone in a noisy lab, but then admitted she was also self-conscious and unsure when making her first video; she assumed voice-over narrations were only recorded by professionals or by her more humorous informants in the documentary. By keeping herself in the background and instead relying on a steady persuasiveness based on facts about pollution, she makes the documentary more overtly argumentative than the assignment required. In part, this style points to some of the uncertainties that students face with the genre when they first produce a video in a writing class. Their techniques for rhetoric, composition, and production must be modified in order to research their subjects and still create a coherent structure. They also must achieve resonance with their audience using visuals and sounds.

Christy found the experience of making a digital documentary difficult, but ultimately liberating and also congruent with her interests in feminist theory. What she writes about her general experiences with writing tie directly to her experiences with voice in developing digital and sonic literacies:

My academic essays obviously have to follow a certain mode, but when I write for myself or for personal endeavors outside of the classroom, I write very much in a style reminiscent of Virginia Woolf--though definitely not nearly as articulate or polished. . . . Woolf's writing has often been deemed "male" by feminist scholars because of her methods of arguing points in her essays, but I feel as though she takes the linear style of male writing and uses it to make feminist statements and incorporates stream of consciousness to fully expound on the entire realm of thoughts and feelings about the subject.

Sonic literacy does not come easily to students, and it is intricately connected to their understanding and critique of culture. Even though Christy considers herself a feminist, and writes like a feminist, her default response was to feature the voices of her male friends. After she showed "Bikes" to her peers, however, she began to value her quietly authoritative tone and she also recognized how her voice provided an overtly humorous contrast to the other cyclists. Her process of revision and reflection ultimately helped reveal her own developing sonic literacy as the peer review process showed her just how hilarious her video had become. Christy's close relationship to her subject resonates with an authoritative voice of experience, while the deliberate juxtaposition of her quiet gendered voice to the visual antics of her interviewees and the loud song excerpts create a soundscape with several kinds of resonance: rhetorical, musical and comical.


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