I designed this graduate seminar (Fall 2020) prior to the COVID-19 pandemic as a course about ways of not only listening to fiction and literary audio but also writing about literature and culture for a listening audience. I then adapted it for the zoomroom where we met each week. Early on, I emphasized the potential benefits or appeals of inhabiting a private acoustic sphere while social distancing. When might people want or need to listen alone during a pandemic? Why might they want or need to multitask, listening to one thing while also doing something else? And how might people listen together as a group online, in an attention economy and environment oriented toward screens?
Drawing from approaches to my previous seminar, “Media Aesthetics” (HTML), I opted for a range of formats. We listened to audiobooks, radio plays, recorded readings, sound art, podcasts, voice-over, and games, and we shifted between modes of interpretation as we went. Student interest gravitated over time toward vocality studies and its intersections with literary and media studies, and research by scholars such as Nina Sun Eidsheim, Mara Mills, Dylan Robinson, and Jonathan Sterne became central to our discussions. We began the seminar by listening to Toni Morrison read The Bluest Eye (1970), which set the tone for engaging:
- Audio as both a format and medium (the audiobook).
- The political phenomenology of listening, speaking, reading, and seeing as value-laden forms of learning and discipline (the primacy of visible language and whiteness in the “look-say” paradigm of Dick and Jane readers in The Bluest Eye as well as popular assumptions today about how listening to books is “passive”).
- Organized sound as song but also listening for what goes unsaid and how it is said (the blues, laughter, repetition, rhythm, silence, and “truth in timbre” in The Bluest Eye).
- Writing and visual media as evoked sound (“our icebox door opening on rusty hinges in July” in The Bluest Eye).
- Vocality as polyvocality (Morrison the author, narrator, reader, and character voice tending to refuse dramatization).
Since 2020-21 was the first time I’d taught online, I tried to keep things simple by focusing the seminar’s trajectory on a single project: the production of a podcast episode about any topic we addressed in the course. I then structured the seminar as a series of steps (see image below) toward that project and created an online space for everyone to share their audio in progress. That space morphed organically into something like a dial-a-poem network but for literary and cultural criticism. It wasn’t exactly public or open. It was intended instead for a small group of people with shared investments contributing to an ongoing conversation about the politics and aesthetics of listening, broadly understood.
Links to the course website and syllabus for “Readers Are Listening” are below, followed by a seminar description and list of assigned materials (written in the first and second person for a student audience). I also point to a 2020 SpokenWeb (HTML) talk I gave on the topic of Delia Derbyshire’s compositions and to the BC Studies podcast, where Isabelle Ava-Pointon at UBC interviewed me about audio practice, pedagogy, and “Readers Are Listening.” Many thanks to everyone who participated in the seminar for their exceptional work and for building a caring and thoughtful community in such difficult circumstances. Thanks as well to guest speaker, Julie Funk, who facilitated a seminar workshop on “literary machine listening.”
Readers Are Listening
Fall 2020 | UVic English 506 | Grad seminar for 12 students
About the Seminar
“Readers are listening.” We’ll treat that sentence, including its many implications, as a refrain for this seminar.
Readers are listening because, as a 2018 BookNet Canada report (HTML) suggests, more and more of them are purchasing audiobooks and subscribing to podcasts. Readers are listening because publishers, writers, actors, and critics are taking sound more seriously. Readers are listening because they’ve been diagnosed with print disabilities or visual impairments. They are listening because they are multitasking—listening while commuting, working at home, or engaging in hobbies. Readers are listening because they enjoy it, they need a break from screens, or they’re playing games. The list goes on, all to demonstrate that the combination of reading and listening, or the characterization of listening as reading, is not a contradiction. Listening is not “cheating,” or passive, or homogeneous, and it’s long been central to the interpretation of fiction. This seminar explores how and why by treating listening as a critical practice.
You’ll have the opportunity to test various approaches to listening by studying fiction (mostly Anglo-American) from the 20th and 21st centuries. To invite an array of expertise on the topic, I’ve selected a range of works that not only engage themes of sound and listening (as content) but also experiment with audio formats, such as radio plays, talking books, cut-ups, recorded readings, serialized drama, voice-over narration, and first-person videogames, where listeners cannot see the “source” of a sound. Each week, we’ll examine a work or two with a particular theme or technique in mind. Themes will include listening to writers read, listening to narrators speak, listening for meaning, listening for effects, listening with others, listening in place, listening against the grain, listening spheres, and listening with machines. Across them, we’ll consider the aesthetics and sensory politics of how readers listen to fiction and how fiction is composed to be heard. I’ll also encourage you to try writing for readers who are listening by asking you to develop a portfolio of audio work comprised of brief exercises that culminate in an episode for a podcast of your design about a seminar topic of your choice.
The only thing you should purchase (or rent) for this seminar is Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye as an audiobook, where she is the reader and voice actress. You may want to grab a print copy, too. The remaining materials are available openly online, via UVic Libraries, or in Brightspace. I hope this approach keeps costs down for you.
Here’s a list of the primary materials I’ve assigned. They are intended to help us cover a range of audio and fiction, across formats, while grounding our research in questions of critical listening and its relation to reading.
- Audiobook: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970)
- Recorded reading: Edwidge Danticat reading (2013) Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” (1978) and “Wingless” (1979)
- Radio play: Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall: A Play for Radio (1957)
- Sound art: Delia Derbyshire’s “Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO” (1967), Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room (1969-70), King Tubby and The Aggrovators, “Dub Fi Gwan” (1977), and Laurie Anderson’s O Superman (1981)
- Serialized audio drama: Within the Wires (Season One, “Relaxation Cassettes”) (2016), by Jeffrey Cranor, Janina Matthewson, and Mary Epworth
- Voice-over narration: performances by Regina King (2005), Edward Norton (1999), Christina Ricci (1998), and Sissy Spacek (1973)
- First-person games: Giant Sparrow’s What Remains of Edith Finch (2017) and Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn (2018)
For your reference, I’ve also compiled a series of brief, critical introductions to listening and related issues. These introductions are written mostly from a sound studies angle, and you will find them in Brightspace or via UVic Libraries.
- “Listening,” by Roland Barthes
- “Contradicting Media: Toward a Political Phenomenology of Listening,” by Jody Berland
- “Into Sound,” by Michael Bull and Les Back
- “The Three Listening Modes,” by Michel Chion
- “Operating System for the Redesign of Sonic Reality,” by Kodwo Eshun
- “Listening through History,” by Douglas Kahn
- “Sound,” by Michele Hilmes
- “Profound Listening and Environmental Sound Matter,” by Francisco López
- “Deafness,” by Mara Mills
- “Some Sound Observations,” by Pauline Oliveros
- “Listening,” by Tom Rice
- “Hungry Listening,” by Dylan Robinson
- “Approaching Sound,” by Tara Rodgers
- “Sonic Imaginations,” by Jonathan Sterne
- “Hearing,” by Jonathan Sterne
- “Adequate Modes of Listening,” by Ola Stockfelt
I also recommend the website, Sounding Out! (HTML), edited by Jennifer Lynn Stoever, as well as podcasts such as SpokenWeb and Phantom Power. They are excellent resources for keeping up with audio, fiction, and sound studies.
As for audio technologies that may be useful in this seminar, I recommend Audacity and some headphones or earbuds. You may want an external microphone as well, but that’s certainly optional. For more on gear, see this post (HTML) by Jonathan Sterne or email me. I’m happy to talk more about the tech I use for audio work.
You can also see the syllabus (HTML) for details.
Featured image (PNG), edited in Photoshop, of my parents’ rotary phone. Main image (PNG) of the steps in the schedule for “Readers Are Listening.” This page was created on 20 July 2021 and last updated on 29 July 2021.