If My Syllabus Had a Soundtrack…

segment-of-urban-graffiti-wall-showing-letter-sOne of my fondest memories of junior high school was passing notes in the hallways at the change of classes.  We signed our notes with one big letter “S” instead of our government names. The “S” reflected the following label we gave to ourselves: Super… Sweet… Soul… Sonic… Sister.  And we knew who the other was by the design of the “S.”  Now, of course, we jacked some of that language from Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, a force which we fully claimed as our own. I laugh when I think back on that and how we tried to get some kind of sound into those letters we wrote, usually by including, at least, some lyrics.  Though no one would have thought so, those notes that we wrote to one another were more sophisticated and interesting in their centering of multimedia work than most of what I see in classrooms today.  The idea that classroom spaces could and should include both visual and aural artifacts still escapes most of us.

Fall 2012 was the first time I decided to really situate my teaching in a digital ecology, hence this website.  I have never considered a university’s corporate technology-package a digital ecology of anything except capitalism so I wanted to think about what an alternative might be.  I taught a graduate class so there was still a good deal of print texts but we mixed in multimedia texts into the weekly seminars.  This semester, however, I am teaching a class called African American Women’s Rhetoric and I plan to fully explode what is available on the internet because the texts of this course are very multimodal.  What this means is that I am right back where I started in  fall semester 2012 with these same, central questions:

I feel more confident that I can create a visually-rich learning space for students.  Most of what I have in my head visually, I do not have the skills to get onto the page here though— so “confidence” here is really an overstatement. Yet and still, at least I do have something in my head.  I do not have the confidence of creating an aurally rich site though. It is simply not my strength in the sense that I am not a musician, music theorist, or sound technician.  Of course, I play music, in every class, in every semester that I have taught, but that is too basic for what I mean here.

FrontWhen I asked this question about aural learning and attempted to have this as a public discussion at my university last fall, I distinctly remember a few of the white faculty laughing (and later making jokes for what kind of song I could use on my website, as if they might ever know enough about black music to even step into my office with a suggestion).   Clearly, I do not consider myself, my scholarship, or my questions about digital spaces for youth of color an issue of humor or comedy.  These faculty members seemed to think it was a funny thing to interrogate the meanings of sound in digital spaces as irrelevant or esoteric to the concerns of teaching, technology at our university, and to a multimedia age (yes, this is an absurd response to sound, as in… M.E.D.I.A…. A.G.E… the irony has not been lost on me).  I highlight the fact that these faculty were white, most of whom are compositionists, because I hold their sentiment in stark contrast to what I see as a clear-cut fact: every BLACK revolution, rebellion, resistance movement has been sounded. I mean, after all, Afrika Bambaataa chose to create a soul sonic force.  So what might it mean, look like, sound like to teach a class about African American women’s rhetoric and include the music and the sound of black women’s voices in song, music, or speech in deeply contextual ways?  What might it mean to teach a class, with the large numbers of black female students I always have, who probably have never HEARD black women in a college curriculum because white faculty think that’s a funny idea, even in the multimedia age?  I am clear what side of the revolution these white folk are on and I am clear that I need to get me and my students on the other side.

This clarity that I have here, however, does not mean that I know how to do what I have in mind or how to even think things through differently.  So I am reflecting today about what we were doing as Super, Sweet, Soul, Sonic Sisters. We didn’t just play songs for each other— we took the music and the concept to craft an identity.  That’s what I am thinking about now.  How can this class create an identity with sound— a soul sonic identity?  How can this class embody its own sonic rhetoric as a way to investigate the sonic rhetoric of black women? Students have often told me that they create a playlist with the music from this class so how can I be more deliberate about my syllabus having its own soundtrack?  Needless to say, I have some work to do… and no part of it will be a laughing matter.