Beyond Writing: Voice and Rhetoric in the Digital Age
I have devalued orality, placing it beneath writing. Whether as a natural tendency due to my lack of developed verbal skills, or as a product of a system of education which valued writing over aural expression. Cynthia L. Selfe references Jacqueline Jones Royster’s “When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own.” My deep respect for Royster’s work is based not just on the power of her message, but on the strength of her well-formulated argument, couched in the language of academia. For Royster, “voice” is multi-faceted, more than a definition of “authority” (31). While I wholeheartedly agreed with Royster’s message, I also admired the structure and scholarly tone of her essay and found myself thinking it would be an excellent blueprint to follow for creating strong arguments of my own.
My admiration for the structural integrity of Royster’s article is indicative of the notion that composition is solely a written activity, which conflicts with Selfe’s major premise: that “multiple modalities of expression” have value (8). Selfe argues that we “need to pay attention to both writing and aurality” (8). If we “ignore the history of rhetoric and its intellectual inheritance, … we also limit, unnecessarily, our scholarly understanding of semiotic systems” (618). Ignoring the value of all forms of communication does a disservice to the emergent possibilities that technology holds for learning. As social justice issues (hopefully) become increasingly central to class discussions across all academic disciplines and a vital aspect of curriculum development, integrating other forms of communication into the classroom serves to increase equity, participation, and respect for cultural diversity
Selfe states that “voice” became increasingly linked to writing, and that “speaking and listening in composition classrooms was identified as improved writing” (630-31; 634). Written communication skills became increasingly vital to economic success as the “growing middle class,” scientific progress, and the growth of manufacturing in the mid-1850s drove shifts in education and society (Selfe 620). Noting the dichotomy that existed between teaching methods (oral lectures) and student assignments (written essays), “[b]y the end of the nineteenth century …. English studies faculty still lectured and students still engaged in some oral activities,” but students were expected to respond in writing to material presented orally (626-627).
Selfe argues “that every teacher and student understands [that] power and aurality are closely linked” (634). Minority cultures used aurality as a means to preserve history and for storytelling (624). Aurality “persisted in black communities in verbal games, music, [and] vocal performance” (624). Call-and-response singing, “scat” singing in jazz, and Rap are examples of the verbal dexterity and creative resilience of African American communities subjugated by slavery and oppressed by racism. Literacy became a tool used by the dominant white society to keep persons of color powerless (624).
Societal shifts in the last twenty years have contributed to the rise of different modes of communication. With the increasing accessibility and ease of use of technology, “technology scholars” have encouraged “multimodal composing” (638). Software such as Audacity, “low-cost and portable technologies of digital audio recording,” and easy-to-use digital video recording and editing software all have helped the resurgence of communication through other means beyond the written word (638).
In “Composing for Sound: Sonic Rhetoric as Resonance,” authors Mary E. Hocks and Michelle Comstock maintain that “in 2006 we defined sonic literacy as “the ability to identify, define, situate, construct, manipulate, and communicate our personal and cultural soundscapes (136). In other words, sonic literacy demands that we attune to aurality in explicit and exacting ways. The authors also argue that “sonic rhetoric can be characterized as embodied and dynamic rhetorical engagements with sound” (136). Thus, both sonic literacy and sonic rhetoric are more than passive listening; sound can be a means to an end, a part of the rhetorical toolbox that can be used to create, support and incorporate persuasive arguments. This necessitates “particular [different] ways of listening”; it demands a “listener-centric approach” to “sonic rhetorical engagement” (136). Composition of such works, therefore, requires thinking of audience—and setting—in different ways.
Different approaches to listening were identified by Pierre Schaeffer as a way for listeners to strip away unnecessary distractions in order “to hear in a new way” (139). From Schaeffer’s work, his student, Michel Chion defined three “modes of listening”: “causal, semantic, and reduced” (139). Useful as an to aid critical listening, these modes of listening function in complementary yet distinct ways. Causal listening acknowledges that “sound is supplementary,” as the listener attends to “the source,” seeking “information” (139). Semantic listening “interprets for code or meaning” (139). “‘Reduced listening,’ …. is bracketing the first two modes and making the sound itself the object” (139-140). They differ in the ways that the listener attends to and ultimately interprets aural perceptions. Just as written text can be interpreted through a multitude of lenses, modes of listening offer listeners interpretive frameworks from which to discuss the aural experience that provides a “vocabulary” with which to express and interpret the listening experience which includes (but goes beyond) writing about aural work.
New possibilities for scholarly expression are fueling imaginative approaches to assignments. Tech offers ways to better include marginalized populations. For example, having students create an argument that must be communicated visually may give non-deaf individuals some small insight into what it is like to convey meaning without the use of sound. Or having students produce work that is solely aural could provide a deeper meaning to the term “voice.” Learning how the privileging of written communication has served to exclude populations of color from society, or learning how technology is aiding to remove cultural bias from library classifications, can give students opportunities to increase tech proficiency while addressing issues such as racism, oppression, and exclusion.