Teaching with online audio archives

April 3, 2010 at 3:04 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Eric Baus
(Link to MP3 recording of this talk) .

I’ll be talking about some of the possibilities and pitfalls of using audio files in the classroom. Now that several huge archives of literary recordings are freely available on the internet, the question becomes, how best to make use of this material in the classroom? I’m drawing on my own trial and error process, in addition to some issues raised in a 2007 podcast conversation between UPenn Professor/Pennsound audio archive co-founder Al Filreis and University of Maine Professor Steve Evans.

In the podcast, Evans discusses the instinctive way in which audio files tend to be taught: “Illustratively.” Al Filreis comments that “In this model, (this misunderstanding) printed text is a neutral, more grounded, closer to actuality thing, that the recording can add to detract from–there is a plus or minus effect.”

Using audio files _only_ to stand in/introduce print versions of the poem limits their pedagogical possibilities. If students read a printed text of a poem first, then listen to only one recorded version of that poem, the printed text tends to become primary and the audio file becomes more difficult to fully experience, often closing off the possibilities for considering the rich layers of information contained in the audio. Also, that one particular voicing of the poem risks becomes instantly definitive.

The conversation often becomes evaluative rather than exploratory (“How well did the voice match up to the voice readers imagined?”). Although this use of audio files is not inherently bad, it can divert discussion away from a more complex consideration of the ways sound and social context create meaning in these documents. I have found it helpful to begin my use of recordings each semester with texts that suggest a nexus between print and audio. David Antin‘s site-specific improvisatory talk poems, Cecilia Vicuna‘s multilingual performances, and Hannah Weiner‘s collective, polyvocal texts are ripe for conversation because they suggest a reciprocity between reading and listening, between live performance and recorded playback.

Using Multiple Versions of the same poem by the same poet.
By examining various audio versions of the same poem, listeners can gain a sense of the multiple ways in which texts create meaning beyond the static score of the page. One example that springs to mind is Bernadette Mayer reading her translation of Catullus #48 in 3 different contexts: one in the studio recording in the mid-90’s (preceded by a deep, echoe-y male voice reading the poem in Latin), one at Naropa in 1987 (accompanied by Mayer’s comments on the poem), and one in England in 1989 (read in an environment of lively audience feedback). There are significant differences in tone, pace, intonation, ambient sound environment, and level of audience response in each of the recordings. The poem is less than 1 minute long, so it would be practical to begin a class that would incorporate sound recordings with a discussion of this particular poem, especially in light of the idea of Mayer’s translation as a versioning itself. Multiple versions can help students to move past the idea of stable, monolithic, timeless texts and into a more complex understanding of literary production and reception.

Comparative Listening.
Another strategy I have used in creative writing classes has been to play two or more audio recordings by authors who write in different aesthetic modes and who read their poems in radically different ways. By creating a dialogue between two audio texts, various issues of the social location of authors in terms of gender, region, time period, and other markers inscribed in sound can come into play. I have paired Yeats reading “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” with Bernadette Mayer reading “Sonnet (You Jerk You Didn’t Call Me Up)”. I found that playing these recordings next to one another provoked a lively discussion of diction, tone. Obviously, the contrast between these two poets and poems is fairly stark, but we also look at any unexpected similarities between the poems. We talk about the ways these two recordings bring one another into relief. The idea is not to come out with an aesthetic winner, but to talk about both content and context in a more organic, experiential way than listing and defining terms on the board. I like this kind of discussion because students build an understanding of terms and techniques out of their own concrete perceptual experiences.

Ambient Listening +Repeated Listening
As someone who has listened to a lot of audio recordings of contemporary writers, I often find myself trying out unfamiliar texts in a casual, frequently interrupted listening environment. I will click on a reading from PENNsound or UBUweb and let it run while I wash the dishes, check my email, or wait for the bus. The digital format of literary audio files opens up the potential for a new, expanded relationship that moves beyond compartmentalized periods of sober study and more into everyday life. I often ask students to experiment with putting a recording on repeat while they do various daily activities. Amateur “ambient” listening has been a good way for me to engage with difficult texts. This kind of listening strategy seems particularly useful when dealing with contemporary writing.

In Michael Davidson’s essay By ear, he sd’: Audio-Tapes and Contemporary Criticism, he discusses the value of a repeated listening practice:

By listening over and over again to a reading, the listener begins to hear what the page can never render: the emphasis and character of the line, the pausing and halting of a voice among caesurae, the pattern of vowel music, the tone of delivery—and of course those points where the ear has failed and the line has gone flat. The ear hears the general trajectory of words, the large movements of syntactic play, the rhythms, which remain as much the meaning of the poem as does its semantic content. (par. 26)

Audio Portfolios
Recently, I ended a creative writing for non-majors class by creating an audio anthology of student work. Students selected 5 minutes of their writing and read it to the class and into a small mp3 recorder. I usually create some form of print publication in my classes. However, I sometimes have the feeling that these paper texts are quickly recycled. I posted the recordings as individual files for each student as well as one collective file of the group to the online classroom management site, Blackboard. I was able to track the number of downloads of the individual and group files. I was excited to see that the files had been downloaded many times. Although there was no grade attached to downloading and listening to one another, students enthusiastically engaged with their peer’s texts. I was also happy to see that several of those downloads occurred well after the course ended.

Online Audio Archives:
Pennsound
Ubu Web
Meshworks
Naropa
Slought
University of Denver’s Word & Image Archive

Websites that discuss and annotate audio recordings:
Steve Evans Lipstick of Noise
Eric Baus To The Sound

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