This course introduce students to the idea of listening as a critical practice. It asks them to consider the many ways that humans make and experience sound, both by itself and in conjunction with the other senses. In addition to exploring individual listening practices, we think through the larger social implications of listening, particularly how it impacts and embeds sound within our history, cultures, institutions, literatures, and technologies. Along the way, students are introduced to the interdisciplinary field of sound studies and some of its primary theories and research, especially in regards to the role of listening in film, music, the environment, history, literature, urban space, and politics.
Sample Undergraduate Syllabus: English 380W_How We Listen_Spring_ 2016
This course is broad introduction to the emerging field of Sound Studies, an interdisciplinary site of inquiry into audio culture from multiple vantage points: historical, theoretical, textual, and material. The interdisciplinary field of Sound Studies has recently emerged in the U.S. and Britain to question the visual paradigm dominating contemporary scholarship across the disciplines and to develop a complex and nuanced understanding of the historical relationships between sound, society, and power. In addition to unearthing histories of lost, forgotten, and ignored sounds, Sound Studies addresses how sound—and ideas about sound—are embedded in our institutions, technologies, laws, histories, and cultures.
To structure students’ introduction, we perform a loose historiography that tracks the concept of “noise”—a key site of contestation in Sound Studies—across the various disciplinary sites that have given rise to the field. We will address “noise” as a keyword in the vein of Raymond Williams, examining the function of its traditional definition as “unwanted sound” and tracing the shifting border drawn to distinguish “sound” from “noise” — and quite often “us” from “them”—in Western culture. Through a multi- and interdisciplinary analysis, we will analyze “noise” as a socially constructed influence in the production of racial and social difference in the United States.
Using the filter of “noise,” each class meeting focuses on how and when inquiries into sound have emerged across the disciplines. For every disciplinary site, we will read research that has come to be “canonical” in the field—I use quotes here, as Sound Studies is still fairly fledgling—new “hot” work that engages interdisciplinary methods, and pieces that I argue are “overlooked gems” that should be considered under the rubric of Sound Studies. We will pay special attention to the methodology and research methods of each piece, tracing how the interdisciplinary field of Sound Studies has both challenged traditional disciplines and emerged from them.
In our inquiry, we address key questions like: What distinguishes sound from noise? How and why has “blackness” historically been linked to “noise” in American racial formation? What is the connection between “noise” and power: socially, politically and legally? What is “white noise”? Why have particular black American musical forms like jazz, rock and roll, and hip hop, been labeled “noise” by the dominant culture? Conversely, how has “noise” been used as resistance within black American culture?
Conventional wisdom and previous scholarship have led us to believe that race is a visual phenomenon. This seminar unsettles the longstanding relationship between race and looking by exploring the often undetected ways in which sound and listening have also functioned to produce race in the United States. Just as W.E.B. Du Bois delineated the dangers of the visual color-line, our mutual critical labors will reveal race’s audible contour, the sonic color-line, and examine how race can be heard as well as seen. The seminar is both an investigation of the role of sound in the historical production of race as well as an interdisciplinary introduction designed to open our ears to the field of sound studies from multiple vantage points: historical, textual, technological, and material. Over the course of the semester, we will discuss critical questions like: What is the relationship between listening and looking? How is listening historically and culturally conditioned? What does it mean to listen to race? What do “blackness” and “whiteness” sound like? To whom? How have aural idioms of race shaped American cultural history and thought?
We begin with an introductory unit (weeks 1-3) that focuses on three “keywords” that are essential for interrogating the history of sound and listening: “listening,” “race,” “soundscape,” and “noise.” In the vein of Raymond Williams, we will explore these terms as contested lightning rods for our assumptions and beliefs about culture, society, and the field of sound studies. After critically examining these keywords, we will proceed historically, tracing the following themes as they shift from antebellum slavery to the postwar era: the development of racialized listening practices, the power dynamics and ethics of listening, the construction of “black” and “white” voices and musics, and the role of “noise” in the production of racially segregated space.
To do so, we will interweave archival case studies with literary and cultural analysis that concentrates on four historical moments in the history of race before the Civil Rights Movement: antebellum slavery, Reconstruction, the interwar Great Migration, and World War II. We will rethink each of these eras through the ear, beginning with an examination of an iconic African American musical performer whose career is particularly bound up with racial controversy. Ranging from the inaugural performance of “The Black Swan” in New York City in 1851 to Lead Belly’s World War II-era radio appearances, we will reconstruct and challenge how mainstream media outlets represented various historical iterations of “the black voice,” a sound freighted with a complex blend of fear and fascination. For each case study, we will reveal the presence of deeply held cultural values surrounding listening, sound, and race. We will then use the work of African American writers and thinkers contemporary to the musical case studies to contextualize the racialized listening practices of each era, discussing how Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Charles Chesnutt, W.E.B Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Ann Petry used sonic imagery of their own to expose, resist, and re-plot America’s sonic color-line in their respective historical moments.
Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) was the first novel by an African American author selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Ann Petry’s The Street (1946) sold 1.5 million copies in its first year. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) was the first play written by an African American to open on Broadway. Despite being some of the most popular and influential literature written in the U.S., African American cultural production from the 1940s and 1950s has languished in critical neglect, so much so that writers like Wright, Petry, Hansberry, James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Paule Marshall, and Gwendolyn Brooks have been termed a “lost generation.” Rather than treating this extraordinary group of writers as “too late” for the Harlem Renaissance or “too early” for the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist movements, this course will explore the literary project of this period—increasingly called “the Chicago Renaissance”—as “right on time” in its own aesthetic, literary, political, cultural and social milieu.
To trace the relationship this group of writers staked out between “race, realism, and the city”—and its collective literary legacies—we attempt to reconstruct the world of artistic choices they faced at the mid-twentieth century, especially the fiercely-debated divide perceived between “Propaganda—or Poetry?” as scholar and critic Alain Locke described it in 1936. Toward that end, we will consider works from these writers alongside other social realist forms of the period (music, photography, visual art, film, and sound recording), within the formal and aesthetic concerns of African American literature, in dialogue with a long tradition of realism in American writing (Stephen Crane and the like), and embedded in its historical contexts: segregation (Southern AND Northern), the heyday of the Communist Party in the U.S., the second African American “Great Migration” to Northern urban centers, the ascendancy of the “Chicago School” of urban sociology, shifting gender roles, the Great Depression and the WPA, World War II, the rise of anti-colonial movements in Africa, the surveillance of the Cold War era, and the rise of the post-war suburbs.
What is the role of live music in American culture? How has this changed over time? Is “liveness” becoming more or less important in the age of Myspace and Itunes? This interdisciplinary course investigates the relationship between live music, social identities, and the American mass media. Far from being simply entertainment, music provides both performers and audience members with an important venue to perform, shape, and contest the racial, gendered, and classed ideologies of their day. Using a case study approach, we will examine several iconic musical performances in American cultural history—ranging from “Lindmania” in New York City in 1850 to Lollapalooza, 1992—as symptomatic, heavily-mediated markers of their contemporary moments. As we investigate the role of “live” music in American culture we will discuss issues like: racial formations, gender roles, sexual identities, class struggles, the role of youth, the fraught connection between culture and politics, celebrity and “the spectacle,” the crowd vs. the mob, “high” vs. “low” culture, and changing media and recording technologies. Final project will involve original research on a historical concert event of each student’s choosing.
This course is an introduction to the history of African American literary expression from its beginnings in “sorrow songs” and slave narratives to the “Harlem Renaissance.” The history of this literary tradition begins before slave narrators touched pen to paper, with the retentions of oral culture and the expressive culture of slaves: musical, spiritual, and kinesthetic. Early writers in the tradition were thus faced with a dilemma of representation: how to construct and express a black self through the words and written forms of a dominant—and dominating—culture that had historically, politically, economically, and ontologically attempted to negate them, rendering them, as Ralph Ellison and Rita Dove describe, “invisible.”
Throughout the semester, we will examine how African American literary voices constituted themselves, as well as the critical link many African American writers draw between “voice” and “visibility.” Through the practice Henry Louis Gates calls “Signifyin(g),” African American texts “speak” to each other across the bounds of time, space, and often genre, forming a coherent literary tradition where “talking books” speak in “double voices” and “blackness” is particular uses of literary language that are repeated, shared, criticized, and revised. In addition to issues surrounding sound, speaking and voice, we will trace the key tropes of slavery/freedom, authenticity, the color-line, aurality/literacy, double consciousness, passing, migration, and gendered expressions of “blackness.” In addition to novels, poetry, and short fiction, we also pay close attention to the essays and critical writing that have shaped the tradition, especially the ardent intellectual debates surrounding audience, language and the purpose of art.
Sample Graduate Syllabus: Fall 2016_Grad Syllabus_African American Lit to 1939
Resonant Frequencies: Exploring Radio Forms (Binghamton University, Team Taught with Monteith McCollum in Fall 2014, advanced undergraduate seminar.)
This course combines the art and skill of cinema production and scriptwriting with the emerging field of Sound Studies, an interdisciplinary site of inquiry into audio culture from multiple vantage points: historical, theoretical, textual, and material. The interdisciplinary field of Sound Studies has recently emerged in the U.S. and Britain to question the visual paradigm dominating contemporary scholarship across the disciplines and to develop a complex and nuanced understanding of the historical relationships between sound, society, and power. In addition to unearthing histories of lost, forgotten, and ignored sounds, Sound Studies addresses how sound—and ideas about sound—are embedded in our institutions, technologies, laws, histories, and cultures.
We have selected radio as the primary site of inquiry to explore the personal and social impacts of sound in American culture because of its foundational but still little-understood role in the history of mass media and the ways in which it isolated, utilized, and explored sound as its primary mode of storytelling, news delivery, and emotional and psychological influence. In today’s audio-visual media landscape, the role of sound has only increased in importance both for its power to challenge visual modes of understanding the world but also its ability to creating powerful new cultural narratives and epistemologies. Once considered “old-timey,” radio is re-emerging at the forefront of this new landscape—especially taking into account its newer forms such as the thriving arena of podcast production—and its methodologies, production conventions, sonic language of affect, and powers of influence have been revealed as central to the evolution and production of contemporary media. In this rapidly-evolving arena, sonic media literacy is a must, for producers as well as listeners; because we don’t understand sound’s influence nearly enough, it has the potential to exert tremendous power.
This interdisciplinary course is designed to equip students with sonic media literacy through traditional methods of study and research—particularly historical, theoretical, and literary analysis—but, importantly, through hands-on media production that will enable them to understand how sound constructs and challenges narratives by creating their own. The instruction in history and theory will allow them to make informed decisions as they build their own radio stories; the production of the radio stories will enable them to challenge, reframe, and add to the established body of knowledge regarding the study of sound.
Together, we will address such questions as: How does sound tell stories and establish narratives? How do sound narratives differ from cinema or the written word on both an emotional and cerebral level? How can sound disrupt established narratives and ways of knowing? How has radio influenced contemporary global mass media and what is the place of radio within this landscape?
Syllabus: Sound and Radio Forms_Fall_ 2014