I admit to feeling a bit flummoxed after our first attempt at "close listening." I assigned a spoken word piece that only exists as a recorded performance--not even the option of following a text: 09 Extraordinary Hmong.m4a
I'd asked students to prepare "Close Listening Cards," an index card with a memorable sentence from the listening assignment, and two questions it inspires. I also ask them to mark the time in the recording when the sentence occurs, so we can go back to it easily in class.
It was exciting to hear the voice of a passionate performer, Ka Vang, projecting through the classroom. Her stance is confrontational, sassy, funny, and challenging.
We first spent some time clarifying unclear words (in conjunction with an assigned ongoing class glossary on the course website). This segued nicely into some moments of close reading...for example, how do we know whether Vang is referring to "the McDonalds-eating sun" or "son"? And what are the consequences of each? In fact, it seems that she deliberately plays on words to personify the sun as a son.
Students had picked out some interesting sentences, and were prepared with thoughtful interpretations. Example: When Vang says "I'm not sushi; I'm not take-out" she's using the foods to represent Japanese and Chinese identity, as seen through the limited perspective of mainstream American society. She's not either; she's Hmong, but people think they can categorize her easily with other Asians.
The problem for me was with sequence. Without words on the page laid out sequentially, I felt unmoored as we touched down to analyze a sentence here, a sentence there.
We were having some good conversations but circling back to the same conclusions about Vang's confrontational stance, her play with stereotypes.
Maybe this is a feature of the spoken word genre, which does seem to build meaning often through association rather than mounting argument.
For the next class I'm going to try having students line up according to the time sequence of the piece (since they record the time of their "close listening" sentences).
In this way we'll be able to discuss the performance chronologically...
But I wonder if it's my own text-based bias that makes me want to fit our analysis into this linear pattern. ...if there's not something to gain by being guided by the associative pleasures of spoken word.
In applying the analytic tools of a literary critic to audio recordings I am trying to show that listening can have comparable outcomes as reading as a means of engaging with literature. But in this effort to legitimate a methodology I need to be careful not to miss out on the unique qualities of the aural, and consider different analytic frames.