A Pedagogy of Listening

Composing with/in Media Texts

Milena Droumeva & David Murphy


Well, the cat is out of the bag, as they say: Literacy has shifted, expanded, and redefined itself, and we as educators have to respond. Students come to our institutions with vast experiences in multiple literacies; lifetimes of digital media have changed all of our perception and knowledge of literacy (Comstock & Hocks, 2006). Sonic literacy in this rapidly evolving era has for us offered ways in which we can listen and attune ourselves as teachers to the lived experiences of our students. Following our legacy of sound studies and acoustic ecology, we reexamine the sonic dimension of curriculum and student experience.

We are university instructors responsible for a stream of communication courses focused on the sonic aspects of media and the history of audio reproduction technologies. As instructors we structure our curriculum with a tuning of material and experience. We use the idea of tuning intentionally to describe the relative and relational aspects of our pedagogy: a pedagogy of listening (Hua, 2012). Tuning is always relative: No string stays in tune for long enough to not require a breadth of relativity or what we call "intonation," which in our pedagogy refers to an openness and flexibility to adjust themes, approaches, and assignment deliverables as needed, through a practice of active listening to the students. Tuning is a useful concept for both teachers and learners because it refers to the depth and relativity afforded by the incorporation of a sonic dimension to the act of composition of any text. It is more than just a metaphor: Tuning evokes a procedure or method for articulating relative differences between individual perceptions (Ahern, 2013). It is also part of the historical tradition R. Murray Schafer (1977/1994) began in the 1970s to understand tuning as not just an adjustment of sound but also an adjustment of our own perceptions to include historical, political, economic, social, factors that influence how we listen. Ted Aoki (1990/2005) took this idea of tuning further to understand it on an ontological level, with attunement understood as a state of becoming that incorporates the relativity and complexity of each unique situation while staying connected to the histories and legacies that accumulate collectively. Aoki described the process of becoming attuned as developing a reciprocal relationship between our subject-based curriculum and our subjective lived experience (p. 360).

The goals of our courses are

  1. the development of a deep and discerning listening sensibility directed towards issues relevant to society, culture, interpersonal communication, urban experience, planning, and design; and
  2. the analysis of technical, historical, and social aspects of audio media, which is taught through both critical theory and media archeology, alongside the experience of "becoming" an audio producer through a variety of production-based audio projects.

With these goals, we try to develop an understanding of the relationships between our sensory experience (listening) and our environment (social, natural, historical). The cultivation of this understanding provides entry points into the complicated conversation of curriculum for both the students and ourselves as instructors (Pinar, 2012, p. 193).

The Sonic Research Studio at Simon Fraser University has a long history of teaching acoustic communication and sound studies (Truax, 1974). The studio-based courses that have been developed are part of an "applied" stream; however, our practice of sound recording, processing, analysis, and archiving has developed in concert with our theoretical and methodological studies, resulting in a fusion that makes the distinction between theory and practice often difficult and sometimes irrelevant. With this in mind, we have developed a series of lab-based exercises specifically for our growing stream of audio–media and sound studies courses. The central ideas behind our pedagogical approach are on one hand to provide students with the knowledge, practices, and theoretical basis for acoustic ecology and soundscape research, and on the other hand to provide them with the conceptual and practical tools to engage with media sound as "text" that reflects dominant cultural values. Sound is contextual—it originates from a place and time, even virtually, and as such this construction of meaning is always ecological: The meanings and understandings we develop refer back to subjective experience and the environments within which sound originates.

In this chapter, we'll start by establishing the history of acoustic ecology at Simon Fraser University, specifically the way it has informed a program of "acoustic communication." Following that discussion, we'll outline theoretical and operational approaches to cultivating aural literacy, and finally we'll describe and discuss a number of innovative audio-based assignments that get students producing media works as a way of critically decoding and encoding media texts.