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




8. Voices of Social Conscience - "Excuse Our Progress"

Included in our definition of sonic literacy is the development of social conscience, an awareness of what voices are heard and amplified and what voices aren't. A voice of social conscience, often so hard to motivate in students, emerges dramatically in the co-authored piece by two of Mary's expository writing students. Dionne and Dan's "Excuse our Progress" is about gentrification in the Southeast and its effects on communities. The movie opens with slow-motion footage of a man holding out his hand to ask for money, the wailing voice of eastern a cappella singing, and the ironic title "excuse our progress," which is typical of local construction-site signage. The movie ends by returning to the same dramatic image and music, this time with a lesson in the voice-over narrative that becomes a Jeremiad about the effects of progress.

“Excuse Our Progress” Video Clip 1

The matched beginning and ending generate a deliberate pathos: "That was powerful," is the typical peer audience response. The begging man who frames the documentary featured at the opening of the video is a regular figure at the Five Points subway station one block from the downtown campus. Using this man to frame the video creates resonance for students because he is often seen and recognized as one of the many homeless near the university. The eerie soundtrack of singing creates dissonance as an unfamiliar non-Western musical form that imbues the slowed image with deliberate emotion. This lyrical expression and use of sentiment creates a powerful political and cultural statement that relies on sound.

Brought together in Mary's class by a common interest in the effects of development on poor and working-class communities, a black woman and a white man collaborated on a piece that highlighted each of their communities by using images and interviews they collected separately. Dionne focused on the downtown Atlanta, Georgia, area while Dan visited his costal hometown of Fernandina Beach, Florida. Realizing the risk of fragmentation, each one interviewed the other and they shared tasks of voice-over narrations to balance their complementary perspectives.

“Excuse our Progress” Video Clip 2

In the central part of their documentary, Dionne and Dan turned the voices of their own experiences into a collaborative voice of social conscience persuading their peers about the serious problems that come with gentrification. Rhetorical appeals are used simply, but effectively. After the use of pathos in their opening, Dionne and Dan bring together the facts of their individual and cultural experiences of neighborhoods in their voice-over script, while their use of archival images offers the backing--the logos--for their claims about how quickly and dramatically changes take place when areas undergo rampant development. Their use of ethos becomes literal when they become the talking head experts and discuss reasons for wanting to document these worrisome situations.

To contrast two different locations, they try to create a balanced structure in the collaborative voice-over narratives through comparisons of two gentrified communities seeing rapid change. Their individual voice-over narrations add credibility and a reflective element to their encounter with gentrified communities. Dissonance emerges too, however, in their differences with one another as they compare a historically black urban community to a predominantly white, working-class seaside town. They let differences work in their favor and use their self-interviews about why they wanted to look at gentrification to stitch together what remain two disparate stories with a common theme.

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