Academic journal article College English

(Re)Educating the Senses: Multimodal Listening, Bodily Learning, and the Composition of Sonic Experiences

Academic journal article College English

(Re)Educating the Senses: Multimodal Listening, Bodily Learning, and the Composition of Sonic Experiences

Article excerpt

In a certain sense every experience should do something to prepare a person for later experi- ences of a deeper and more expansive quality. That is the very meaning of growth, continuity, reconstruction of experience.

-John Dewey, Experience and Education (47)

If asked to identify the body part that is associated with listening, most people would point to their ears without hesitation. Despite the deeply entrenched association between the ears and the act of listening, however, sound is not experienced exclusively through a single sense; other parts of the body can be engaged during a sonic encounter. As Steven Connor notes, "It is said that the deaf Beethoven gripped a stick between his teeth to convey the sounds of the piano to him. Similarly, Thomas Edison would chomp on the wood of a gramophone in order to hear faint overtones that, as he claimed in a 1913 interview, were normally lost before they reached the inner ear" (168-69). It is also possible to feel sound in one's stomach, throat, legs, and other areas of the body-a common occurrence at clubs where music is amplified. As these examples suggest, identifying the ear as the body part that enables listening does not capture all that is involved in experiencing a sonic event. Listening is a multisensory act.1

Yet, when listening is taught, it is usually treated as the practice of attending to audible words or sounds in order to make meaning of them. That is, teaching listening often involves teaching students to approach sound as another form of text; sound is simply more content to be interpreted. In addition to teaching students what sound means, I argue that it is critical to teach them how sound works and affects. As the growing body of interdisciplinary "sound studies" scholarship has made clear, sound is playing an increasingly important role in a wide range of texts, products, environments, and experiences (Sterne).2 Thus, it is imperative that teacher-scholars of rhetoric and composition-and English studies more broadly-develop listening practices that can help students cultivate a heightened sensitivity to sound in different contexts. As I will argue, thoughtfully engaging and composing with sound requires listeners to attend to how sound works with and against other sensory modes to shape their embodied experiences.

This essay is an attempt to reimagine the ways that we teach listening to account for the multiple sensory modes through which sound is experienced in and with the body. I offer the concept of multimodal listening to expand how we think about and practice listening as a situated, full-bodied act. Teaching students to approach sound as an embodied event, as opposed to something that is heard exclusively through the ears, can make them more savvy consumers of sound; it can help students develop a deeper understanding of how sound is manipulating their feelings or behaviors in different situations. Additionally, because attending to the multimodal aspects of sonic encounters can provide information about how sound works as a mode of composition to create particular effects and affects-intentional or unintentional-students can use this information to become more thoughtful producers of sound. I see multimodal listening as a means of preparing students to become sensitive, reflective participants in and designers of sonic experiences, both digital and nondigital.

The aim of this essay is twofold: (1) to illustrate how through multimodal listen- ing practices we might retrain our bodies to be more aware, alert, and attuned to sonic events in all of their complexity; and (2) to examine how incorporating multimodal listening practices into the composition classroom can enrich students' multimodal composing practices. I argue that the heightened sonic experiences associated with multimodal listening practices can critically and creatively inform how listeners consume and compose with sound, and that these practices are particularly useful in the teaching of multimodal composition. …

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