Instructor Reflection – Sounds of Silence (5.1)

by Jennifer Buckner

English 429 was a topics class with a focus of introducing students to multimodality, inviting them to consider alternate possibilities to alphabetic script for making meaning. In this course, students were asked to explore various modalities through studying key theories and composing practices through what were called CREATE projects. As part of that approach, I introduced students to open source software for composing in various modes. In this segment of the class, we spent time listening to a variety of audio pieces, reading theory about sound, and learning digital sound editing software. I was impressed with Carol’s design of a provocative, postmodern audio piece following a few rudimentary lessons with Audacity. She worked closely with her project and revised it following any feedback to maximize her ability to communicate her message with her available resources.

While all of Carol’s projects in ENGL 429 conceptually addressed some aspect of her hearing impairment, her sound composition most acutely captured a sense of her unique relationship with this modality. It was a powerful learning experience for myself and the students when we encountered media that involved sound, and Carol would explain how her perception of sound differed. For example, when listening to a RadioLab podcast that featured remixed tracks of discordant sounds, Carol would point out how difficult it was for her to decipher different sounds in complex compositions. As a result, our study of sound was enhanced by her presence because she recognized features of sonic literacies that other students had not considered (e.g. noise, volume, accents, soundscapes). In response, we drew critically closer to consider our embodied relationships with the sounds we were studying.

Carol powerfully uses digital sound in this CREATE project, ironically capturing the “sounds of silence” for non-hearing impaired individuals. As a hearing impaired composer, Carol crafts a soundscape that causes listeners to question our sense of silence, recognizing instead how noise is ever present and exaggerated for hearing impaired individuals. Her incorporation of culturally significant clues from a hearing impaired community (e.g. reading language from hearing tests, a hearing aid ringing, amplified ambient noise in public, mishearing a joke in a noisy cafeteria) further captures her unique perspective on sound. Her project is exceptional in its metacognitive invitation for listeners to consider digital sound as material, cultural, and social. In doing so, Carol reclaims a modality which she often struggles with and uses sonic composition as a means to help others resonate with her embodied response to silence.