Sonic Rhetoric: Public Resonance

Jacqueline Waldock’s critique of the rise of sound mapping sites was interesting to me as a longtime listener to public radio stations, which have been a principal driver of the trend. This also revisits a blog post from October 2012, written only two months after I had moved from Michigan and was in the grips of homesickness. I had returned to Michigan Radio’s Sounds of the State page, selecting

a lone blue dot in East Lansing titled “MSU Medley.” My ears drank in ducks on the babbling Red Cedar River, Beaumont Tower’s distant carillon bells, and the route announcement of a CATA bus. I was immediately resituated from my desk here in Smyrna to the riverside between the Hannah Administration building and Wells Hall, my feet dangling over the water and ducks pulling at my shoelaces because I was too slow in crumbling up the stale bread I’d taken from Brody Hall’s cafeteria earlier that morning.

That soundscape has become part of my experience, and will always be one of the places I can situate myself. I was there. That has meaning to me.

Waldock takes some issue with the predisposition of these sound map projects to focus on “public” sounds rather than private:

A large majority of the recordings are of something else or at least are tagged as something other and are always tagged in the impersonal: ‘Church bells’, ‘Frankie and Bennies’, and not: ‘my dog’, ‘my front room’, ‘my church bells’. The sounds are tagged as observations of something else. This creates a tension between the personal and the other, as the act of recording and the choice to record are inextricable from the personal.

I would argue quite the opposite. Sound maps, to varying degrees of success, are meant to reproduce sounds of public significance and provide routes to experiential resonance. Mission drift invariably strikes these sound collections, but these sounds are intended to draw power from common experience. I know that the person who recorded that MSU soundscape heard something within it that powerfully conjured the aural umwelt of that location, and they knew that it would do the same for others. It says a lot about the private meaning of this public sound space that I decided to include it in my own sonic memoir earlier this month, completely forgetting until now its significance when I had visited the Sounds of the State page.

Waldock suggests the trend toward exclusion of private sound experiences is missing the greater experiential significance of personal moments that, if I can extrapolate for the author, are potentially just as powerful in their revelation of similarity in our intimate lives.  I don’t think Waldock is wrong, exactly, but I do believe the nobility of best intentions are quickly sabotaged by human tendency toward narcissism. That the prevailing expectation of sound maps is to upload publically significant sounds keeps people honest; otherwise, we’d be quickly overwhelmed by sounds that may be accessible only to a relative few. Waldock intends to show the value of a personally-aware, private recording by providing a sample taken from two speakers who are directly aware of and address the recorder in the room as they attempt to have a conversation. The effect is they end up doing neither very well; their conversation is stilted and overly expositional like poorly-written movie dialogue, and the listener thus gets no sense of what their home life is really like. Recordings like these lack both the opportunity for experiential resonance and the insight of truly candid expression.

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8900: Scholarship rechanneled (or, A meta-analysis of academic blogging)

By the time Yancey’s Made Not Only in Words was published, blogs had been around for a few years. It wasn’t until mid-decade – about the time in which Yancey writes – that the format was beginning to be realized for its scholarly potential.

Since that time many composition instructors have worked course blogging into their pedagogy, grateful to provide an outlet for student writing that was an alternative to, as Yancey stated, “emphasis on a primary and single human relationship: the writer in relation to the teacher” (309). Instructors saw in blogging many potentials: the encouragement of critical thinking and writing; the revoicing of writing into a conversational tone that they wouldn’t feel compelled to call out during grading of a major course paper; and the tearing down of the firewall of official school writing venues so student writers could engage with a broader audience that didn’t necessarily have to include the instructor. Scholarly blogging was, and is still, a developmental win-win.

Concurrently, these same instructors were realizing the potential scholarly blogging held for their own professional development. Blogs, especially when shared with a circle of like-minded pedagogues, were a New Media writing locus somewhere short of the same status as journal publication, but still worthy of consideration as scholarship. The immediacy of an academic blog’s writer-reader relationship helped to refine rhetorical thinking and pedagogy through a much quicker, nimbler, and more negotiated channel than the proposal>submit>rewrite>publish>review>respond process of traditional publishing. While there wasn’t the same strength of quality control we attribute to a peer-reviewed journal, there was a real-time editorial process enabled by peers nonetheless: colleagues in the academy received and reciprocated profoundly helpful criticism. This is a strength that is arguably unique to scholarly blogging: agile, rigorous, yet collaborative pedagogical development.

I’ve already experienced the benefits of scholarly blogging requirements twice as a student. In 2009 (the course that required the development of this blog’s earlier iteration) and now in this course, I’ve felt more free to engage with whatever little item of interest I personally find worth writing about, but to not worry about inflating it to full paper size, scope, or rigor. Comments that I’ve left and that have been left for me continue this sort of development. Much like the professional’s circle of like minds, these course blog rings synthesize that reciprocal development.

I came to choose this topic for this week’s post from two inputs: Yancey’s mention that “faculty see blogs – if they see them at all – as (yet) another site for learning” (302) and Ball’s Show, Not Tell quoting of Steven Krause:

‘Prior to the web, it was east to determine what should or shouldn’t count as scholarship: if it appeared as an article in a peer reviewed journal or if it was published as a book by a respectable press, it was definitionally ‘scholarship’ both in the abstract sense of advancing knowledge and in the tangible sense of being worthy to count toward tenure, review, merit, and so forth.’ [emphasis added] (404)

I too have experienced the sense of reciprocal development the way an academic would when a few of my blog postings have briefly become known to the larger internet community of rhetoricians. There’s nothing like seeing an unknown name as a commenter on your blog to put your confidence in your writing to the test. It is because of these moments that I wonder if blog scholarship really isn’t as rigorous as the more accepted forms of scholarly development. Departments must also be wondering about this status, too, as scholarly blogs are included more and more in instructor portfolios for review, promotion, or even tenure.

Scholarly blogs serve as a microcosm of the Burkean parlor conversation or, to stretch the metaphor a little further, conversations among a small gathering of parlor attendees off to the side. The larger conversation is still in effect, but these sidebars draw from it and later add back to it, enriching the breadth and depth of the parlor topic over time. If we see blogs in composition class as worthwhile (something I certainly plan for 1102 and the next time I teach 1101),  blogs have to be worth something professionally.