January 2012 Archives

What does "Close Listening" sound like?

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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.

First Day Activity

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I ended class introductions by asking students to write silently for 5-7 minutes on the subject: When have you felt silenced? When have you felt that your voice was powerful?

Their answers speak for themselves:

"A time when my voice was powerful - speaking my opinion about certain topics with family and friends.

I felt silenced when I was talking to any older men in the family."

"I felt powerful and that my voice was important when I won the championship in little league.

I felt silenced when someone made fun of me for speaking Spanish and told me that I'm not in a Taco Bell."

"My voice has felt powerful when I am babysitting.

My voice has felt silenced when I am around teachers that I feel do not respect their students."

"Although it didn't exactly involve my voice, I felt powerful when playing in the district honors band in high school.

A time I felt silenced was being raised Catholic; I had no say in my own 'beliefs.'"

"I have felt that my voice was powerful when I had to give my team a pep talk before a big meet.

I have felt silenced when I first came to the U as a freshman and didn't know many people."

"Powerful: when somebody learns from what you tell him.

Silence: Coming into a new country and not being understood while learning a new language."

Wow. I am speechless.

First Day of Class: Manifesto

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This is more or less how I greeted students on this first day of class:

Try to remember your first, or a very early, experience with a story...
How many of you thought of a book?
How many of you thought of someone telling a story, or reading you a story?
Most of us encounter stories first by ear.
...and then we get tricked into thinking what matters about literature is on the page.

I want to challenge that idea, and I want you to help me by proving that we can have intelligent, meaningful, important conversations about stories and poems we hear.

People who study literature use a technique called "close reading" to pay attention to the choices an author makes--about style, and language, character, point of view--all the elements that make up a story or poem or other work. We're going to pioneer a technique of "close listening," seeing if we can pay just as much attention to what we hear as what we see.

I believe that listening to one another--in conversations, in stories, in songs--is fundamental to what it means to be a human, and also fundamental to what it means to be humane. (Q for students: What's the difference?)

We tell each other stories, and if we listen to those stories--really listen--we may be inspired to treat one another better...so you'll see this course also fulfills a social justice theme, which means that we'll be thinking not only about how stories are constructed, but also the way that society is constructed.

We'll be thinking about the relationship between literature and society, and asking ourselves: can literature really change the world? or is that just a cheesy slogan?

Week One: Big Oops

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The beautiful, easily-constructed podcast I boasted about last week?

A dead end. Blind alley. Students can't see it or subscribe to it. Even Alison (PsTL Technology Fellow) has no idea how or why it exists.

Apparently there are still some bugs being worked out with UMN's iTunes U.

The good news is that it's not impossible to reconstruct the same podcast. The key is uploading files through Media Mill, an online tool for storing and sharing large video and audio files.

mediamillpodcast.jpg

So, using UMN Media Mill, we were able to create a new podcast an hour before the first class, so that students could subscribe to it and download the first few assignments.

Whew. Not as easy as I thought, but not a disaster, either.

The Course Podcast

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iTunes screen shot.jpg

Here it is! My beautiful course podcast. The University of Minnesota's iTunes U site made it easy for even a Luddite like me to upload a selection of podcast episodes from those I already had downloaded to my own iTunes account.

I won't explain the technical piece too much because 1.it will vary depending on your university and context and 2. from my own experience, I will spend a week seeking out someone who can show me how to do the technical part rather than an hour or two reading about it myself. Feel free to post questions and I will do my best to help!

(This is where the "creating a course podcast is easy!" part of my blogging mission breaks down: without Alison Link, M.A. student and Instructional Technology Fellow in PsTL, I would be hauling cassette tapes and boomboxes around campus or trying to find earbuds with extenders for 44 listeners. If you are not technologically savvy yourself, you MUST find an ally, jedi, or assistant of some kind. If you can't find someone in your department willing and able to help, try recruiting a techie T.A.)

The one piece of technical know-how I will pass on is this: by right-clicking on a file listed in iTunes, you can "get info" which in the "summary" tab will provide you with the pathway to find the file when it comes time to upload it to a new course podcast, or other holding-pen for your files.

This might be a good time to mention that the advantage of creating a podcast is that students can download files to their listening devices and then carry them around and listen to literature any time, in any place. Pasting them on the course website means that students have to be sitting in front of a computer connected to the internet.

I hope to share my love of literature and convince students that it can merge seamlessly into their everyday practices: riding the bus, listening to music...why not add a poem a day app, or an audiobook?

Literary Choices II

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The limitations of these two audio archives lead me to search for others that foreground minority voices. I find the Black Media Archive, a treasure trove of recordings (audio and video) of historical and contemporary African American leaders, including writers James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and Gil Scott Heron.

I find fewer resources that lead me to Asian American, Indigenous, Arab or Latino authors, and wonder if that is because fewer resources exist, or because I haven't yet learned the best ways to find them.

When I searched in iTunes for Asian American Literature, for example, I found some lectures, and a few author interviews, but few works of literature. I find a great poem called "Race, to Go" by Fred Wah on "Poem Talk"--one of the many terrific podcasts produced by The Poetry Foundation--but the discussion that follows the reading implies that in order to grasp the poem it is necessary to know Wah's entire oeuvre and to address the context of Canadian multiculturalism. That's right: Canadian (this is a U.S. Lit course). If only the administrators had fudged and called it "American"--but that's another discussion.

While I draw the line at Canada, I decide to be more flexible as I consider what genres constitute literature. A former T.A. of mine gave me a wonderful CD produced by the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis: it's called ┬┐Nation of Immigrants? and records performances from fifteen local spoken word artists. The artists are young and diverse, and speak to issues important to the class: stereotyping, discrimination, identity, immigration and assimilation.

I can't wait to hear students' reactions to these strong, engaging pieces, and to involve them in the questions "What is literature? And who decides?"

Literary Choices I

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The first thing I did when I thought I might want to use podcasts in my class was to start to compile a list. I knew I had a few winners--stories or poems that I'd worked with before, and knew I could use effectively--but could I find enough to fill out a whole syllabus?

(Disclaimer: For anyone considering using podcasts in the classroom, the obvious first step is to try adding one or two. You could have students read a story for one class discussion, listen to it for another, then talk about what changes the audio format brings, what challenges or new possibilities it presents. You might consider assigning two stories by the same author--one presented in podcast format--in order to compare them. I decided to go for broke with an all-podcast syllabus because I am crazy. About podcasts.)

Because I have worked more with fiction than with poetry, I looked for short stories first. NPR Selected Shorts and New Yorker Fiction together provide about a hundred selections.

Selected Shorts compiles sets of three stories in an episode, and each episode is labeled with a topic such as "Our Own Madness" or "Women on the Move." Because the stories are not so much read as dramatically performed by stage actors, they tend to be highly engaging and, well...dramatic. Perfect for grabbing the attention of college students taking a required literature class, one would think.

There is a problem, however. I teach multicultural U.S. Lit, which entails not only including works from a broad range of authors but also explicitly discussing the role of power and privilege in shaping social and historical context. Selected Shorts includes token nods to multiculturalism--Jhumpa Lahiri's "Heaven-Hell," Gish Jen's "Who's Irish?"--but mostly represents the white, upper-middle-class milieu of many NPR listeners.

(While NPR does not collect ethnic or racial data on its listeners, it does report that the average NPR listener is 50 years old, earns an annual household income averaging $90,100, and is 68% likely to have a college degree. Of the 22.6 million estimated NPR podcast listeners, the median age is 33, annual income $76,349, and 83% college educated. See http://www.npr.org/about/aboutnpr/audience.html
According to 2010 Census data, about 18% of U.S. households identifying as white have incomes above $100K, compared with 27% of Asian American households, 8% of Hispanic, and 7% of Black households. Could we therefore conclude that most NPR readers are Asian? Perhaps, but--whatever the audience--the stories in Selected Shorts were not as diverse as I'd hoped.)

The New Yorker Fiction podcasts feature a broader range of authors, but many are international, and therefore outside the ken of American literature. Many of the New Yorker stories also unfold in the rarefied air of the degreed, propertied readers of the magazine. (Mediamark Research reports the average income of New Yorker readers as $109,877.) I need stories that do not carry as a prerequisite for understanding and enjoyment the full weight of cultural capital that tends to accompany the green stuff.

I do find gems: stories that in addition to being masterfully written and engagingly performed, also present readers with perspectives of non-white characters and attend to power relations inflected by race, class, and gender (without requiring a Ph.D. to understand). Edwidge Danticat's "Water Child" is rife with silences that ask us "Who has the ability to speak?" and "When is speech denied?" Sherman Alexie's "Breaking and Entering" considers the consequences of an American Indian, mistaken by many for white, killing a young black man.

I discover that in some ways my observations about what is included in NPR and New Yorker podcasts confirm my concerns about whose voices are heard--literally and figuratively--and whose are avoided or silenced. And yet from these archives I cull nearly a semester's worth of material that encourages readers to consider questions of voice and power.

Getting Started

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1. Listen.

My belief that podcasts could be effective in the classroom came from my own enjoyment of podcasts like NPR Selected Shorts and New Yorker Fiction. Try subscribing to a few podcasts (download iTunes for free if you haven't already). If you're inclined to be suspicious of educational claims involving new technology, check out iTunes U, where you can find thousands of recorded lectures on everything from classical sculpture to Mid-East politics.

2. Talk

Ask your friends whether they listen to podcasts or audiobooks, and what they like. Talk to people in your department. I found out that David Arendale, two doors down, has been using podcasts to teach U.S. and global history for eight years! He loves the tech side and has in his office a mini recording studio that students use to produce their own programs. I walk right by Dave's door ten times a day, and I never knew this. Invite an IT person into your office to shoot the breeze. There's no reason to wait until you have a specific technical problem. If you explain you budding, even tentative, interest in using podcasts, chances are this person will offer a handful of easy tips and help you find resources you didn't know existed.

Not a Techie

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The first thing you should know about me is that I am all but a Luddite. I read the paper on paper and prefer books that I can dog-ear and coffee-stain.

I started listening to audiobooks studying for my qualifying exams as a Ph.D. candidate in literature. I listened to Henry V while hiking at Sleeping Giant State Park and Beloved while walking the dog. Audiobooks provided a way for me to leave my desk without feeling guilty or overwhelmed with the fear that the very book I was neglecting could be the subject of a pivotal exam question.

After passing my exams, I continued to feel drawn to the powerful voice of Lynne Thigpen reading Toni Morrison, or Will Patton reading Faulkner. A high point was a fourteen-hour road trip accompanied by Tess of the D'Urbervilles. A low point was an audio "dramatization" of D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love--with much grunting and howling.

Audio formats became a subject of my dissertation research in spite of--not because of--my relationship to technology.

I'm writing this blog post on a borrowed MacBook, which I find anything but intuitive. I'm not yet confident opening and closing windows (are they even called "windows" on a Mac?).

One time when my partner left town I couldn't figure out how to watch a DVD.

I confess these foibles because one goal I have for this blog is to empower the technophobic bibliophile.

I believe that podcasts can improve attention spans and foster sustained engagement with literature: "close listening," if you will, an analog for close reading.

Students and professors alike can fall in love with literature by ear, and you don't have to own a Mac or understand HTML to do it.

Introduction

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Does listening to an audio recording of a work of literature “count” as reading?

Think about it.

Your answer says a great deal about how you think about literature, technology, and the acquisition of cultural capital.

When a parent reads a bedtime story to a child, we credit the parent, not the child, with the act of reading. And yet I can carry on a conversation about Middlesex, the Jeffrey Eugenides novel I listened to several years ago, with the same confidence I have when discussing Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, which I read recently in print.

During the last five years, I have written and thought a great deal about how listeners experience literature “by ear” through books on tape, CD, and digital formats.

I’ve published articles defending the literary value of listening practices and suggesting ways that listening can expand and enrich our engagement with texts.

This semester, I’m putting my ideas to the test. PsTL 1366, “Literatures of the U.S.: Multicultural Perspectives” has no book list; when registered students click on the “bookstore” link, they’ll see under the heading “required texts,” “none.”

Instead, students subscribe to the course podcast through iTunes. Included in the playlist are stories like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Thing Around Your Neck” and Sherman Alexie’s “Breaking and Entering” and poetry by Robert Hayden, Agha Shalid Ali, and Thylias Moss.

These are podcasts I downloaded for free from sites like PoetryFoundation.org, Black Media Archive, NPR Selected Shorts, and New Yorker Fiction.

I’ll be using this blog to record the process of planning, teaching, and reflecting on a podcast literature course.

I present myself as Patient Zero in this experiment, hoping that this record will aid my own research, as well as provide a resource for others.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from January 2012 listed from newest to oldest.

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