Tuning in to Soundwriting

Introduction: Tuning the Dial

by Kyle D. Stedman, Courtney S. Danforth, & Michael J. Faris

Introduction: Tuning the Dial: Transcript

[An orchestra starts tuning: an oboe plays an A, and the strings start tuning to that note. Then radio static plays while the orchestra's tuning continues.]

Courtney S. Danforth: When I think of tuning, I think of that moment the concertmaster signals a tuning note to be played, and the audience hears the orchestra come to life, playing together for the first time.

[More static, as if someone changed the radio station, as the orchestra continues tuning.]

Kyle D. Stedman: The word tuning makes me think of a radio dial. I used to spend so much time trying to get the absolute best signal on my clock radio.

[Radio static again. As the next speaker begins, the orchestra fades out and is replaced by the eerie, calming sound of singing bowls.]

Michael J. Faris: Tuning in also suggests seeking out, paying attention to something. We can tune in to specific ideas about soundwriting—and that's what we're doing here, in this collection: tuning in to the topics soundwriting studies can and should attend to, especially when it comes to pedagogy.

Courtney: Soundwriting's potential has only begun to be explored in the field of rhetoric and composition. We need to keep tuning in by studying how sound affects our understanding and practice of writing—how we soundwrite.

Kyle: Like the word writing, we use soundwriting to mean both the study and practice of writing recorded audio texts. To us, soundwriting is "when you manipulate recorded sound and make something new from it" (Danforth & Stedman, 2018).

[Music begins here, an atmospheric, ambient, electronic drone that's blended with static by the musical artist.]

Michael: Yes, and "something new" can take a lot of different forms. Let's take a minute and situate the work in this book amidst the other work being published in sonic rhetoric these days, especially the work being published that theorizes actual practices around teaching with sound.

[Music swells for a moment.]

Courtney: In "Tuning the Sonic Playing Field," Kati Fargo Ahern (2013) writes, "tuning is a literal, material practice that takes place when large groups (or even small groups for that matter) choose to play together" (p. 82).

Kyle: Ahern (2013) uses the metaphor of tuning, as we do in this book, to help students and teachers to attend to what she calls "different practices and experiences of listening" (p. 85). But let's introduce ourselves, so that people know who we are here. I'm Kyle Stedman.

Courtney: I'm Courtney Danforth.

Michael: And I'm Michael Faris.

Courtney: Those looking for an introduction to soundwriting pedagogies should check out our first collection, Soundwriting Pedagogies (Danforth et al., 2018), which features an introduction plus nine chapters on various aspects of teaching soundwriting, including chapters on disability, writing program administration, listening, oral history, hip hop and resistance, ethics, radio, voice, and noise.

[Radio static, and then this sudden interruption, without any explanation. There will be a lot of these moments throughout the chapter, so we'll refer to them here as "radio moments" and mark them with blockquotes.]

Steven R. Hammer: "And finally, what might a noise-based pedagogy begin to look like?" (Hammer, 2018; audio clip quoted from previous audio publication).

[Radio static, showing that the radio moment has ended, and we're back to the main narration, with the same ambient music as before.]

Kyle: That book came out in 2018 as part of what we would call a groundswell of publications in sonic rhetoric. Not counting our book, I count more than 30 other publications on sound in our field in just 2017, '18, and '19 alone. And 2019 isn't even finished yet, when we're recording this today.

Courtney: But perhaps listeners are wondering why we need another collection on soundwriting if there's so much out there already about sound. And to understand that, it's important to think about two things: the sheer size of the interdisciplinary world of sound studies and the importance of publishing scholarship in sonic form.

[Static marking the beginning of a radio moment.]

Tanya K. Rodrigue: [speaking over big rock drums] "demands a shared sonic vocabulary for students and teachers" (Rodrigue et al., 2016; audio clip recorded specifically for this introduction).


Byron Hawk [speaking over metal guitar] "digital media allow musicians to curate their own ecologies of practice" (Hawk, 2018, p. 163; audio clip recorded specifically for this introduction).

[Static marking the end of a radio moment.]

[New music begins: positive music played on a keyboard with a gentle electronic beat.]

Sound Studies Is Big 03:25

Michael: First, think about how big sound studies is for a minute, which we think suggests we need even more work from our field to fill in all the gaps. Here's how Jonathan Sterne (2004) describes the interdisciplinary field of sound studies in the introduction to The Sound Studies Reader: "Sound studies names a set of shared intellectual aspirations; not a discrete set of objects, methods or the space between them" (p. 4). If we consider just how rhetoric and composition intersects with sound studies, there's still an overwhelming number of "intellectual aspirations" to cover.

Courtney: Yeah, think about it: sonic rhetoric—a shorthand term for sound studies in our field—could potentially be as big as any other subfield of rhetoric and composition. Like, why shouldn't we apply rhetorical theories to sound just as we do with words, visuals, and other forms of multimodal communication? Consider a few recent publications to see the breadth of content that it's possible to cover in this field. For one, Abigail Lambke's 2019 Kairos article applies rhetorical theory on the canons of rhetoric to her own research on podcast classifications.

Michael: Eric Detweiler's 2019 Rhetoric Review article also discusses podcasts, but from a pedagogical perspective: he applies the progymnasmata sequence of exercises to a series of assignments designed to help students create their own podcasts.

Courtney: And Jon M. Wargo's 2019 article in Qualitative Inquiry applies qualitative research methodologies and phenomenology to a John Cage art installation.

Michael: These three pieces are all from 2019, and it wouldn't be hard to find even more examples of innovative work in our field if we went back into 2018 or earlier.

[Static marking the beginning of a radio moment.]

Jonathan Alexander: "in which students have the opportunity to manipulate, edit, and 'splice' a variety of 'texts' in the pursuit of different kinds of expression and meaning-making" (Alexander, 2015, p. 86; audio clip recorded specifically for this introduction).


Diane Davis: "body's sensual response to the beat and rhythm of music is mostly independent of intellection" (Davis, 2011; audio clip recorded specifically for this introduction).


Ben Harley: "interactions among material bodies provide each sample with an affective quality that transcends traditional understandings of meaning" (Harley, 2018; audio clip recorded specifically for this introduction).

[Static marking the end of a radio moment; previous music continues.]

Michael: The trend we see is people updating their understanding of the ideas and methods at the heart of our field—the methodologies, the theories, the connections to classical rhetoric, the pedagogies, the commitments to social justice, and more—and from that common heart, they're finding fresh applications in the podcasts, music, sound art, and other audio genres of today.

Courtney: And that's just the broad field of what we've been calling "sonic rhetoric." We could further understand this work by distinguishing sonic rhetoric from work on soundwriting itself, with soundwriting specifically concerned with understanding and producing digital audio. To us, sonic rhetoric is the bigger umbrella, including all the other ways that we understand the impact and meaning of sound as communication.

Michael: Yes! So this collection will dig into the theory and practice of soundwriting in a few particular areas that we think still need fundamental, key contributions for people to turn to—and tune in to—when they want to learn about a specific topic: You'll hear chapters here about soundscapes, accessibility, podcasts, sonic historiography, and the actual technical work of audio production. The focus is always on how those topics can be understood in the context of soundwriting—actual digital audio production. Yes, some of those topics have been published about in our field, but rarely with this level of depth—

Courtney: — and this much attention to pedagogy! If there's a large umbrella of sound studies, sonic rhetoric is one of the smaller umbrellas under it, and soundwriting is one particular aspect of sonic rhetoric—and we're focusing this book even one notch more specifically, on the teaching of soundwriting.

Michael: Totally. More on each of those chapters in a minute.

[Static marking the beginning of a radio moment.]

A.D. Carson: [rapping over a beat] "So, I finally made my move to the South, and as I'm moving about / I get a better understanding what my roots is about" (Carson, 2017; audio clip quoted from rap album dissertation).


Crystal VanKooten: [speaking over a cappella choral music] "We sing in layers, four parts come together to form a whole. I hear myself: air and voice, vibrato, and then I dissolve into the whole" (VanKooten, 2016b; audio clip quoted from previous video publication).

[Static marking the end of a radio moment]

[New music begins—a jazz combo, marking that this is a new subsection.]

Soundwriting Scholarship Should Be Soundwritten 07:43

Kyle: And here's a second reason why we think another collection is important: as many others have pointed out, so much of what's been published on sonic rhetoric and soundwriting is primarily in written form.

[Saxophone solo begins, as if to say, "I agree."]

Kyle: We see this work as responding to a growing call for us to do more of the work about sound in sound.

Courtney: Steph Ceraso (2018) writes about this in her book Sounding Composition: Multimodal Pedagogies for Embodied Listening: She specifically sees the field of rhetoric and composition as a potential leader in producing "more dynamic, audible scholarship" (p. 23) due to the blend of theory and practice that we've published in multimodal composition and theory for years.

Kyle: Taking a step back, there's also Crystal VanKooten's 2016 article on digital research methods (VanKooten, 2016a), which builds on Cheryl Ball's 2004 call for scholars to produce new media work using the modes and methods that we study. VanKooten (2016a) writes, "along with Ball, I continue to call digital rhetoricians to do the work of enacting scholarship through digital composition, to use composing with multiple and digital modes of expression as a methodology for inquiry into how digital texts communicate." I mean, that's us, right? "Digital composition" is at the core of this collection's topic and its method—it's just a particular, audible kind of digital composition.

Courtney: And don't forget Eric Detweiler's (2018) chapter in the Rhetorics Change / Rhetoric's Change collection.

Kyle: [laughing] It's so fun to hear someone say that collection title out loud 'cause you can't tell which rhetorics has the apostrophe, right? But yes, Detweiler digs into a topic that's been on my mind for years: the odd ways that we talk about the divide between "critical" and "creative" work. He sees sonic work—and especially podcasts, because it's Eric—as examples of work where the line between the critical and creative can be productively questioned.

[Static marking the beginning of a radio moment.]

Patricia Fancher: [speaking over repetitive, high-note piano music] "When listening to someone's voice, we learn not just their ideas but also we learn of their embodied particularity though the breath, tenor, warmth, and affect that comes through in voices" (Fancher & Mehler, 2018; audio clip recorded specifically for this introduction).


Jeremy Cushman: [speaking over quiet vocal music] "the distinction between an active writer creating for a well-behaved and passive reader no longer makes all that much sense" (Cushman & Kelly, 2018; audio clip quoted from audio publication).

[Static marking the end of a radio moment; previous music continues.]

Kyle: And like Ceraso (2018), Detweiler thinks our field is the perfect place to dig deeper into that divide: he writes, "I would argue that the subfield of sonic rhetorics, given both its recent history of categorical inventiveness and its connections to rhetoric's much longer history as both an inventive art and a critical–theoretical tradition, is distinctly positioned to trace and complicate creative/critical boundaries across the broader fields of rhetoric and sound studies as well as other disciplinary conjunctures" (Detweiler, 2018, "Sonic Rhetorics and Postcritical Scholarship" section, para. 4).

Courtney: In short, Ceraso, VanKooten, and Detweiler are reminding everyone why this book exists in the form that it does: to build on our field's strengths by creating creative/critical work that uses the modes it discusses.

Michael: Still, this collection only tunes in to a small number of topics. Think of it like this: at any given time, a radio tunes in to a small slice of all the radio waves that are present in the electromagnetic spectrum. So listening to the radio always presents just a small part of what's actually there.

[radio tuning sounds]

Courtney: Yes, and Tuning in to Soundwriting works the same way. You'll find five chapters in this collection discussing five different topics, like five different instruments among a whole orchestra—

[orchestra tuning sounds]

Kyle: —or five stations on the whole radio dial! In fact, we're purposefully modeling this introduction on a radio broadcast to emphasize that some work is out there already, like the shows and songs that fill up part of the dial, but also to emphasize that lots of work still needs to be done, filling in those empty frequencies that currently play nothing but static.

[more radio sounds, at this point bordering on excess]

Michael: Perhaps you've already recognized a few voices from our field intersecting with our airwaves here so far, in this introduction.

[Static marking the beginning of a radio moment.]

Jared Sterling Colton: [speaking over electronic buzzes] "to understand whether I am practicing caring or wounding in my acts of sampling and remixing, I must identify or even address those people from whom I sample.… I must ask, 'Where did this come from?' and 'Who took part in this work?'" (Colton, 2016, p. 26; audio clip recorded specifically for this introduction)

[Static marking the end of a radio moment.]

Michael: Those voices are quotes from existing scholarship, played to remind us that the dial isn't empty, that there is important work that we're building on.

[New music fades in: rhythmic, repetitive keyboard music.]

Kyle: Sometimes, you'll hear audio clips from actual audio scholarship that was published in sonic form, but sometimes scholars recorded themselves reading clips from alphabetic work, just for this introduction. So see our written transcript for information on which is which.

Courtney: Alright! Let's tune in to the five chapters you'll hear in this book.

[Above music continues for a few seconds, letting it all sink in.]

Introduction to Chapters in the Collection 12:37

Courtney: "Within every space there exists a complex ecology of sound," writes Kati Fargo Ahern. She continues by describing "sonic events vibrating, comingling, moving, unfolding, receding, and persisting." She's describing soundscapes, a term used since the 1970s to describe the sonic landscape of a space, whether discovered or composed. When composed, soundscapes are very much the domain of writing curricula, though they are composed typically of what we might call "nonlinguistic sound."

[Sounds from Ahern's chapter begin and continue under the beginning of the following narration: what she calls "an old-timey bell sequence," perhaps from a carillon, followed by the crunch of footsteps.]

Kyle: In a chapter called "Soundscapes: Rhetorical Entwinements for Composing Sound in Four Dimensions," Ahern introduces composition and rhetoric scholar-teachers to the genre of soundscape. She proposes four "entwinements" of soundscape and rhetoric: first, the selection of sound sources entwined with doxa, the ordering of sounds in time entwined with dispositio, the construction of simultaneity and layers entwined with copia, and the spatialization of sound entwined with saphes. [laughing] I'm doing my best on these pronunciations.

Michael: This chapter demonstrates that the soundscape can make concepts like process, collaboration, and rhetorical awareness clearly accessible for writing classes across the curriculum, at all levels of composition instruction.

Vera Hall: [singing, in a clip from Jonathan W. Stone's chapter] Black cat and the white cat / Lay in the cold one day. / The white cat told the black cat / Man, I wish that I was dead.

[Singing continues under the following narration.]

Courtney: A potential hazard for researchers working with archival sonic content is that sonic rhetoricians' research tools are fewer and less familiar than tools we have for analyzing print texts—after all, there's no Ctrl+F for music. Making this archival work even harder are problems surrounding audio archives themselves, which can suffer from incomplete collection and preservation and which can be difficult to access.

Kyle: Yet still, audio materials in sonic archives are irresistible. In Jonathan W. Stone's chapter "Resounding History: A Rhetoric of Sonic Historiography (in Two Parts)," he leads us to "resound" our approach to history, rhetoric, archival research, and the composing practices that surround them. He argues that sonic historiography defies the expectations of tidiness for print content and offers an engaging opportunity to study extemporaneous composition.

Michael: Stone couples his arguments about historiography with an example of historiography: with an original audio essay about Vera Hall, an African American woman interviewed by Alan Lomax in the early twentieth century, whose voice we're also playing for you here.

Eric Detweiler: [Speaking over repetitive keyboard music, in a quotation from his chapter.] If you can imagine it, there's probably a podcast about it. And people are tuning in: in 2017, the Pew Research Center reported that 40% of Americans have listened to a podcast, and almost a quarter have listened to one in just the past month (Shearer, 2017). Those numbers are still lower that traditional AM and FM radio, but they're on the rise. The number of regular podcast listeners has almost tripled—tripled—in the past decade alone.

Courtney: That's Eric Detweiler, writing about the Great Podcast Boom that began in 2005 and hasn't slowed down since. It's no coincidence that soundwriting and sonic rhetorics emerged in academia during this era. After all, writing instructors knew exactly what to do with it once the technology for recording and distributing podcasts became readily accessible.

Kyle: Still, the landscape of podcasts is daunting—they are many, varied, and increasing, and new listeners may not know where to start. Detweiler's chapter, "The Bandwidth of Podcasting," is the introduction and definition compositionists have been waiting for. He describes "podcast" as a medium, format, and genre; he examines its function in distribution and circulation; and he explores its potential for seriality, scale, and collaboration.

Michael: In short, Detweiler clarifies why we should pay attention to podcasts, connects them to related emerging scholarship, proposes a taxonomy for understanding them, and suggests pedagogies that take advantage of them.

Angelia Giannone: [Speaking in a classroom in a quotation from Bose et al.'s chapter.] Did everyone get a good caption? Do we want to rewatch that clip again? No? Okay. Does anyone want to share their captions? I think that there was a lot of really interesting stuff in that clip.

Courtney: We heard Angelia Giannone, writing teacher and one of the coauthors of "Sound and Access: Attuned to Disability in the Writing Classroom." She's walking her students through one of the assignments described in the chapter: writing captions of film clips.

Angelia: So how do you describe the tone of the music through words? Right? Sometimes we see this in movie captions—it'll be like, "intense drums beating in the background" or something like that, right? Or it'll be like, "happy pop music playing in the background" or something like that. So, what sorts of words do you think you can use to capture the feeling of a song?

Kyle: Giannone's chapter, which she cowrote with Dev Bose, Sean Zdenek, Prairie Markussen, and Heidi Wallace, takes many of the concepts from the last decade of work in disability studies and applies it to the soundwriting classroom. Throughout the chapter, they shift our focus away from seeing accessible teaching as an afterthought and instead show how practices of transcribing and captioning should be built into the core purposes of our courses.

Michael: Yes, it's about bringing questions of access to the forefront of courses about sound. These authors argue that access facilitates "transformative" experiences for students, regardless of disability, "enabling insight" about rhetorics of diversity and inclusivity.

[Muffled sounds of videogames, a clock tower, and a sneeze.]

Mathew Gomes: [Speaking over the above sounds in a quotation from his chapter.] Hello? Hold on, I can't hear you. Hold on a second.

[Under the following narration, sounds from Gomes's chapter continue: videogame sounds, doors, footsteps, etc.]

Courtney: Soundwriting assignments often ask students to use digital audio workstations like Audacity, but often in a limited way that doesn't take advantage of these tools' full potential. In "Unboxing Audacity: Mixing Rhetorically with Digital Audio Workstations," Mathew Gomes argues that learning the "predictable set of rhetorical moves" allowed by these programs enables soundwriters to be more ethical, creative, and rhetorically effective—which he illustrates throughout with a soundscape he composed of someone sneezing on her way to class.

Kyle: Throughout his chapter, he returns to the concept of "preserving headroom," the audio engineer's way of reserving enough "space" in a sonic mix for a composition to play effectively, without leading to distortion. Gomes teaches us how to understand headroom in terms of amplitude, frequency, and stereophonic space, expanding his readers' and listeners' understanding of these rhetorical tools.

Michael: To Gomes, preserving audio headroom is a matter of ethical soundwriting, clarifying messages, building ethos, and teaching students critical awareness about the technologies they use.

[Static marking the beginning of a radio moment.]

Yanira Rodríguez: "Dealing with lived experience challenges an easy wrap up for our soundwriting pedagogies" (Burns et al., 2018; audio clip quoted from previous audio publication).


Jennifer Sano-Franchini: "sound offers a helpful way of examining with greater detail the embodied, affective, and material experience of Asian/American rhetoric" (Sano-Franchini, 2018; audio clip recorded specifically for this introduction).

[Static marking the end of a radio moment.]

Conclusion 20:01

[Mellow keyboard music with a beat begins.]

Kyle: You know, this book's focus on tuning reminds me of this weird prediction I used to make when I was in middle school, when I listened to the radio all the time. I would always tell my friends, "By the time we're adults, the radio band we listen to isn't going to be big enough 'cause with all the music constantly being made, there just won't be enough space on the dial. So I bet that eventually, instead of going from, I don't know, it's like 88-something to 107-something, I bet radios will start tuning into frequencies above and below those numbers on the dial."

Courtney: But isn't that kind of what happened when we started to get satellite radio? The dial expanded; it just did it via satellite instead.

Michael: Yeah, kinda. But doesn't that mean that so many new radio stations are only available by subscription instead of free and open on the airwaves? What I like about the ethos of digital rhetoric—and soundwriting in particular—is what Byron Hawk and Greg Stuart (2019) call "a democratization of practice" instead of a "professionalization of technology" (p. 45).

Kyle: Wait, you're saying soundwriting is democratic? But don't you sometimes hear people say the opposite: that the technology needed to record and edit sound excludes their classrooms and students?

Courtney: Yes, and that's why technological availability and universal accessibility have been foundational editorial concerns for us in all our scholarship about teaching with sound. We're trying hard to make sure that soundwriting is for everyone.

Michael: Exactly. But I think Kyle was trying to get at something with his childhood reminiscing about the radio, right, Kyle?

Kyle: Yeah, I was saying that the metaphor of a radio dial that needs to be expanded is like our need for an expanded scholarship dial.

[Static marking the beginning of a radio moment.]

Mari Ramler: "Beyoncé drops her erotic music into a kairotic moment, thereby employing her sexuality and skin to critique racial inequality" (Ramler, 2018; audio clip recorded specifically for this introduction).


Ames Hawkins: "there happened to be articles on digital storytelling in trans communities, or digital storytelling in the queer community. So—and I noticed in the last three or four years that this idea of digital storytelling has exploded" (Hawkins & Trauman, 2015; audio clip quoted from podcast episode).

[Static marking the end of a radio moment as previous music continues.]

Courtney: And remember the use of tuning that I mentioned at the very beginning of this introduction: the tuning of an orchestra, [sped-up recording of an orchestra tuning is heard] that moment when all the players come together to play the same note, grabbing the audience's attention and signaling that the concert is about to begin.

Michael: I like that image too. We're not just tuning in to the dial, we're also tuning in to each other.

Kyle: Thanks to the scholars who made recordings of their written work just for this introduction: Jonathan Alexander, Jared Sterling Colton, Diane Davis, Patricia Fancher, Ben Harley, Byron Hawk, Tanya Rodrigue, Mari Ramler, and Jennifer Sano-Franchini. And thanks too to the scholars whose voices we sampled here from their published audio scholarship: A.D. Carson, Jeremy Cushman, Steven Hammer, Ames Hawkins, Yanira Rodríguez, and Crystal VanKooten.

Courtney: You all have great radio voices.

Kyle: For real.