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Are You Listening?

posted: 12.29.14 by Andrea Lunsford

When “elocution” and speaking began to fall (or were they shoved?) out of the English curriculum fairly early in the 20th century, they took with them attention to listening. In fact, the hegemony of print (put it in writing, please!) focused attention more and more on written words and their correctness. My grandmother remembered near-daily recitations (at 96 she could recite the poems she memorized and performed in middle school), but only a decade or so later, those exercises were gone, replaced by reading and writing.

The late 20th and early 21st century, however, have seen a spectacular return of the spoken word, so much so that even college curriculum committees had to take note. Thus it’s increasingly the case that writing centers now include speaking and presenting (Stanford’s writing center is now the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking, for instance) and that writing courses now teach students about presenting their work in both written and spoken media.

But the exclusion of speaking from the curriculum took with it another important ability, that of listening. And while speaking has been making a formidable comeback in writing classes and centers, listening is still most often given lip service only. In spite of Krista Ratcliffe’s magnificent work on listening (Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness) and the work of those scholars who answered her call for more research on and understanding of listening, few teachers fully engage the issue in their writing classrooms. And with good reason: teaching listening is HARD.

What a treat it was, then, to open the November 2014 issue of College English and find Steph Ceraso’s article “(Re)Educating the Senses: Multimodal Listening, Bodily Learning, and the Composition of Sonic Experiences.”

Ceraso’s article makes a major contribution to research on listening, especially by insisting that listening is a fully embodied practice that goes far beyond ears only. In addition, Ceraso introduces us to “sound studies,” arguing that “we must reimagine the ways we teach listening to account for the multiple sensory modes through which sound is experienced in and with the body”: this is “multimodal listening.” This thesis certainly got and held my attention by helping me see that my focus on multimodal composing is incomplete without an accompanying pedagogy for multimodal listening.

Along the way, Ceraso introduces readers to how a deaf percussionist, Evelyn Glennie (who performs over 100 concerts a year) learned to listen multimodally, quoting from some of Glennie’s autobiography as well as from an interview Ceraso conducted with her 2011. If you have friends who are deaf, you may have experienced ways in which they “listen” holistically. Still, it was stunning to read of Glennie’s  multimodal listening practices and to realize, slowly, that I or anyone else can learn to experience the kind of tactile interaction with sound that is, in effect, a kind of touch.

Evelyn Glennie explains embodied listening and shows off her skills.

Later in the essay, Ceraso addresses the practicalities of such teaching, saying that

Teachers of multimodal listening must design assignments that encourage the kind of heightened awareness that enables students to learn and grow with every new sonic experience. To develop as listeners, students need to unlearn the listening practices that they have become accustomed to in their everyday lives. We need to find ways to defamiliarize these habitual practices—to make them strange again.

And she goes on to outline not only some ways to practice embodied listening in the classroom but also to outline four ways that our teaching of multimodal composing will be enhanced by attending to multimodal listening.

I came away impressed and convinced by this article, from which I have learned a great deal. Now I hope to try out some of what Ceraso suggests in my own listening (I clearly need to “unlearn” my habit of listening only with my ears, for example) and in my teaching of multimodal composing. As always, I am grateful to scholars such as Steph Ceraso for leading teachers of writing in such exciting and provocative new discoveries.

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3 Responses to “Are You Listening?”

  1. David Beard Says:

    I appreciate this citation and look forward to this work.

    At the same time, especially as Composition and Communication converge in the arena of rhetoric, I am disappointed that, again, we hear the claim that the teaching of listening is vanishing, or that “rhetorical listening” is the same as actual listening. (It’s not — it’s an inventive use of metaphor.)

    For resources, see:
    The International Listening Association
    with its publications:
    The International Journal of Listening
    Listening Education

    Graham Bodie and I have an article tracing the history of listening education in this Centennial Volume for the National Communication Association

    I edited IJL for four years, and placed some pieces in it (after my term was up) that I find nifty; here is one.

    But I offer this less to toot my own horn than to say: There is a wealth of research (cognitive, sociocultural, behavioral) on listening. We just need to remember that there are databases that aggregate research in disciplines other than our own to find it, and I hope (as Comp and Comm come closer to each other) that that becomes a more standard practice.

  2. andrea lunsford stanford Says:

    Dear David:

    Thank you so very much for all this information on research on listening: I appreciate this very much and look forward especially to getting caught up on your work.

    Happy New Year!

  3. David Beard Says:

    Thank you for accepting my cranky post. The economics of library databases and journal subscriptions are, I think, a major contributor to my frustrations at how hard it can be to find each other’s work.

    We give our work away to for-profit publishing companies, who then charge our libraries to allow us to access it, and who make it more difficult for us to find each other.

    Sigh.