x. let’s chat about The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing

If that’s not the deepest-sounding title for an academic article, I dunno what is. I mean, “Breath of Meaning” sounds more Zelda franchise than writing theory, but okie dokie.

Allllllllllrighty, here we go with presentation #2. I’m hoping this one will be less nerve wracking than the first one for me, but let’s be real, I’m gonna be stressing about it the whole day leading up to class.

Same ol’, same ol’.

Let’s jump into it, shall we?

The text I’ll be leading the discussion in (on? in?) is “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing,” an article published in College Composition and Communication by Cynthia L. Selfe in 2009.  Selfe is a humanities professor emeritus at the Department of English at Ohio State University and was co-director of OSU’s Digital Media and Composition summer institute. Her expertise falls in the field of computers and writing. She’s written numerous books, articles, chapters, and edited collections (both solo and collaboratively) on the subjects of technology, language, education, and more. Selfe has won several awards for her contributions to the field.

Suffice it to say, Selfe knows what she’s talking about. She’s got 7 pages of additional notes and 9 pages of references to prove how well-versed she is. And that’s just this article.

But anyway.


What the heck is that.

I mean, I could get an idea of its relation to oral/auditory right off the bat, but the exact definition… I’ll leave that to Selfe (646):

Screenshot 2018-11-26 at 00.09.17

So yes, it means a bit more than a simple word mash-up, and the description along pretty much covers the overall use of sound as a form of learning and means for communication in the classroom. There has been debate on the subject, for literal decades–no wait, scratch that–literally hundreds of years, particularly in terms of writing v. speech.

Selfe want the reader to know (several times throughout the article) that she’s not taking sides. She doesn’t want to be a part of the either/or argument, but rather a part of a both/and movement of sorts to have the education system show the equal importance of writing as a medium as well as aurality/speech/oratory/etc.

And that’s the kind of indecisiveness/compromise that’s Right Up My Alley. I wonder if Selfe is a Libra, because that’s some Libra talk.

Those Dang Samples

Throughout the article, Selfe links the reader to a series of 4 Aural Composing Samples. Auditory essays/poems/etc. that go along with her ideas (for lack of a better word, my apologies). The link, which I’ll attach here, wouldn’t work for me, ergo I couldn’t listen to the samples. I also did a search of each of the samples’ titles (Sonya Borton’s A Legacy of Music; Elisa Norris’s “Literacy = Identity: Can You See Me?”; Wendy Wolter Hinshaw’s Yelling Boy; and Daniel Keller’s Lord of the Machines: Reading the Human Computer Relationship), to no avail. All I would get were links to Selfe’s article and reviews of said article. Alas, guess I’ll go off of the mini-descriptions and relate to what I can.

{Little quick fun fact! I get the description for Legacy of Music. My father being a musician, I was brought up in a music-loving household. My parents played Vivaldi and Beethoven and that brat Mozart and Bruce Springsteen for me when I was an infant. I went as far as learning a few instruments and having a deep, inherent love for music up to now, and as far as I’m concerned, music will continue to be a thing in my family’s generations to come, if I have anything to say about it.}

Now, back to our regularly-scheduled programming.

Aurality: A History

Y’know, any time I write a title like that (“_____: A History”), I just hear first-year Hermione Granger talking about how the ceiling of The Great Hall has been bewitched to look like the night sky, and how she’s read all about it in “Hogwarts: A History.”

Okay, seriously. Now we’re back.

Around the time of the early 18th century, oratory was a big part of American universities’ composition studies. There was a focus on public speaking and communication over the written word, but only Western classical traditions. Today, there is almost complete focus on the written word, but there are more perspectives being brought to the spotlight.

Back then, though, oral communication was more the norm, “linked to the cultural values, power, and practices of privileged families in the colonies who considered facility in oral, face-to-face encounters [such as oratorical performances, debates, orations, and declamations] to be the hallmark of the educated class” (620).

The latter half of the 19th century brought about change with the increase of industry, the emergence of the middle class, and the rise of trades, sciences, and business that made writing and print more necessary. A need for more secular and trade-specialized education made the old forms of education, training in classics, religion, oratory, etc., impossible (621). Brushing arts and humanities aside for STEM… sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Selfe (622) quotes John Clapp then, from a 1913 article of his from the English Journal, regarding aurality’s remaining remnants in composition classes:

“Is there a place in College English classes for exercises in reading, or talking, or both? The question has been raised now and then in the past, almost always to receive a negative answer, particularly from English departments” (21).

Aurality has persisted here and there, but separate, hidden in speech classes, theatre classes, other specified classes in higher education that are generally (usually) apart from the English department. Selfe notes that it was briefly present (but not enough to be substantial) in English classes, saying that “[w]ritten literature, although including artifacts of earlier aural forms (Platonic dialogues, Shakespearean monologues, and poetry, for instance), was studied through silent reading and subjected to written analysis, consumed by the eye rather than the ear” (623). I recall in a Shakespeare class of mine that, instead of reading the printed text of Shakespeare’s plays, we watched the plays and discussed them from there. The purpose was to experience the works how they were initially intended to be experienced.

[Yikes, I didn’t want this section to be this long, but here we are. Just a bit more!]

Selfe brings up learners barred from U.S. universities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, basically all those who weren’t “privileged white males”–women, black, Hispanic/Latino/a people, Native Americans, etc. She states that although these “individuals … learned–through various means and, often, with great sacrifice–to deploy writing skillfully and in ways that resisted the violence of oppression, many also managed to retain a deep and nuanced appreciation for aural traditions as well: in churches and sacred ceremonies, in storytelling and performance contexts, in poetry and song” (623).

She then goes into how Euroamerican elitism, racism, discrimination, and oppression (that our country is just so famous for) had people of color turning toward more aural forms of communication, storytelling, practices, etc. but Selfe then warns the reader to keep in mind that “people of color have historically deployed a wide range of written discourses in masterful and often powerfully oppositional ways while retaining a value on traditional oral discourses and practices.” Selfe later mentions how academic writing has been compromised for these groups of people based on the prevalence of it throughout white colonization history (634).

She calls, then, for teachers to “respect and encourage students to deploy multiple modalities in skillful ways–written, aural, visual–and that they model a respect for and understanding of the various roles each modality can play in human expression, the formation of the individual and group identity, and meaning making,” a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with (624-625). 

Okay, now I’m done.

Artifacts of Aurality

I kinda touched on that earlier, mentioning how aurality has stayed (and is gradually reemerging) in classrooms, but Selfe brings up here that aurality is utilized in classes in the context of the written (voice, tone, rhythm), but not in actual, aloud speech. Aural practices have been whittled down to “conferences, presentations, and class discussions focused on writing,” with writing as the end goal (626).

This came about almost completely, with writing becoming the privileged form of composition, by the end of the 20th century. Nowadays, it’s difficult for people to present an oral presentation without a written text as a guide. Which, like, yeah, that’s a mood.

{Maybe it’s a good thing I minored in music and theatre. The former gave me rhythm and a penchant for criticism, the latter gave me an ear for speech, delivery, and tone. Y’all know how many monologues and scenes I had to do in my acting class? My voice for the performer class? Oof. Haven’t spoken that much in a class since elementary school.}

Writing as Not-Speech

During the latter part of the 19th century, discourse regarding writing v. speech Was A Thing. Basically, there was a big back and forth about which was more important and if both were important together. In 1984, Sarah Liggett concluded that they’re related in various ways, but different significantly. Some researchers saw speech as a less formal form of communication, less reflective, while writing was more deliberate and intellectual. Logic v. Emotion.

Others saw speech as an activity that helps during the writing process–(end goal was still writing, though)–while others said students’ reliance on it was a crutch and detrimental to the process, saying it will drag academic writing down to utilizing informal speech patterns and decreasing the overall quality of it. Bleh. I have thoughts about that.

{Personally, and I’ve mentioned this before, I tend to speak aloud when I write stories as well as academic papers. It’s reassuring to hear your words out loud. Makes it easier for some to find errors in their work, as I’ve learned from working in the writing center.}

The Silence of Voice

Some day I will stop talking about voice in writing. That day is not today.

Use of the word “voice” in writing is… if we’re being LITERAL literal here, lie–it’s meant as a “characteristic of written prose” and it’s… not really the LITERAL voice at all. This is what Selfe claims, and I’m not 100% sure I agree with separating the two so much. Voice in writing v. Literal voice in out speech. I have thoughts on this, too.

“[W]e use the metaphor of voice to talk generally about issues in writing … Sometimes we use voice to talk in neo-Romantic terms about the writer discovering an authentic self and then deploying it in text” (vii) (631).

That’s how I know it. In relation to aurality, though, is the use of the term “voice” a betrayal? Since modern academia had kinda left oratory by the wayside?

… Theory is weird, man.

Aurality in Pop Culture

Students during the post-Cold War era, in their (understandable) paranoia, “often found the texts of television and radio … to resonate more forcefully than written texts of historical eras” (631). Why was this? Difference in types of learning? More direct? Harder to hide a lie in audio/video than in print? Good ol’ rebellion?

On the flip side, the more strict of academics looked down on these aural types of texts. Oh how the turn tables, that academia that once prided oratory above all else now claims it rots students’ minds. Professors tried to have students go “against the infectious effects of popular culture and various forms of mass communication, to encourage them to turn to the written texts of geniuses from the past as a means of discovering their ‘real selves’ (Hill, qtd. in Paine, p. 282) and resisting mass culture (Paine 283)” (632). (This is Not good citation style. Don’t do this. I’m just lowkey lazy.)

Not gonna lie, I got a little chuckle out of Heilman’s quote in this section. His distaste for electronic media was not very subtle and it basically felt like he was saying STRICT CRITICISM > FLASHY LIGHTS AND PRETTY COLORS. I dunno, reminded me of that old Simpsons meme “Old Man Yells At Cloud.” Man, I don’t even watch The Simpsons, what the heck.

Aurality and Pedagogy

In this section, Selfe brings up hearing feedback v. written feedback. She mentions Jeff Sommers, who noted that students who heard recordings of their professors’ feedback were able to get an immediate, more personal response than if they’d gotten written feedback–a “walking tour” of a critique, where they could get a more specified understanding of their words based on non-verbal cues (tone, pace, volume, rhythm, emphasis, etc.). Flashback to my writing center work (again) where students get a lot more out of face-to-face feedback than out of professors’ (often unintelligible) written comments.

Other elements of hints of aurality in class (as mentioned before) include class discussions, group work… both of which are usually forced and can seem… awkward. Eventually, though, they can be stimulating and helpful in a classroom.

Selfe then mentions how, whatever aural/oral work was done (professor conferences, writing center sessions, peer reviewing, etc.), the end goal was always to better writing, not speaking. Writing is still on top. So like. We have some progress, but not really.

Aurality and Digital Environments for Composing

Selfe shifts focus to how global communications thrive from multimodality. The use of video, audio, photography, software and hardware applications, etc. all allow for agencies, organizations, professors, students, etc. to communicate and spread ideas around the world, transcending language barriers.

The multitude of technological resources for audio production to put forth that communication around the world… leads to technology in the classroom (which is a whole different subject in and of itself, let’s be real).

Despite all this, “print continued to prevail as ‘the way’ of knowing (Dunn, Talking 15), the primary means of learning and communicating in composition classrooms” (639). Composition assignments still remain the same today, despite the steady reintroduction of aurality to the classroom.

The End, but not really

Selfe sums up by claiming that a mix of print and aurality in the classroom should be ideal, accommodating multiple learning styles, cultural considerations and appreciations, etc. but not all professors, teachers, or educators in general have access to the kind of technology necessary for multimodality in the classroom. Computer access is generally standard these days, but more advanced editing software and such is more difficult to acquire and master for the classroom. So, a preference for print and written assignments it is, accompanied by (mostly) auditory lecture, across the board, while these technological resources are unevenly distributed.  

In the end, what Selfe is arguing is that there shouldn’t be that either/or debate, but a utilization of multiple forms of composition and communication for students to portray their ideas. Let students express themselves in ways that feel right to them, learn in ways that are the most beneficial to them. “We need to learn from their motivated efforts to communicate with each other, for themselves and for others, often in resistance to the world we have created for them. We need to respect the rhetorical sovereignty of young people from different backgrounds, communities, colors, and cultures, to observe and understand the rhetorical choices they are making, and to offer them new ways of making meaning, new choices, new ways of accomplishing their goals” (642). Despite the uneven technological shortcomings, academia as a whole needs to learn to accommodate for its infinitely wide range of students.

Oof. Okay, I honestly don’t think that I will be able to sum up this richly dense article on my own, so I’ll give you Selfe’s final words:

Screenshot 2018-11-25 at 20.24.11

I’m looking forward to discussing Selfe’s article in class. There was so much to it, and I hope that I will be able to do it justice as I lead our discussion.


P.S. – and just because I like this quote and I couldn’t find a good place to put it, I’m throwing it here:

“Young people need to know that their role as rhetorical agents is open, not artificially foreclosed by the limits of their teachers’ imaginations” (Selfe 645).

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