A Brief Case for Audio in the Classroom

When I first started teaching American Lit, I sat down to lesson plan and accumulated a number of questions, directions, themes and various multimedia that I hoped to bring in to the first class (I think we were reading an Iroquois Creation Myth). During the 50-minute class that followed, I got to maybe a tenth of all that I wanted to discuss.

I still have days when I need to fill time (and audio is great for that, too!), but more often than not, I find myself weighing and prioritizing what I should spend time on in the classroom and what I should leave out. Sometimes I feel lucky if we talk through and just understand the basics of a text (I’m looking at you, Prufrock). Other times, I feel like I devote time and energy to explaining history/context/setting, and this is necessary, but the text itself is shortchanged. Here is a quick argument for the inclusion of audio as a valuable and multitasking medium in that classroom, one that perhaps deserves more credit than it gets.

It engages students differently

Firstly, I think audio is useful in the classroom in part because of its relative lo-fi novelty. My students generally come to expect to watch videos, use iclickers, text their professors questions, and to engage in classroom discussion using a range of advanced and sophisticated media.

However, when we sit down as a class and strain to hear Whitman read lines of “America” recorded on wax cylinder, this is something different. It feels both archaic and modern, something ancient salvaged and shared with fresh ears (even if it was recorded yesterday). While many students listen to audio regularly, it’s not often spoken word, and this change in genre is sometimes enough to be initially intriguing.

Listening to audio of any form also engages the brain differently than watching a video complete with audio, and I like that my students have to actively work to receive and understand what they are hearing. Unlike video, which often features song lyrics/dialogue with matching or explanatory visuals, audio requires the listener to visualize for themselves – to visualize the speaker, their setting, the musician, the audience of the speech, the environment the recording was made in, etc.

And yet, for the extra steps that need to be taken by the listener as opposed to video (a medium which has it own nuances and complexities, to be sure), I find that my students enjoy the performance aspect of audio – they are the audience and can assess and engage with a text differently as a result of hearing it, and perhaps reading it simultaneously.

On a slightly more personal note, I often prefer to have a class listen to a sound recording of text read aloud (and read along in their textbook if they like, it is not required) instead of a classmate or myself read it. As much as I love to stride between chairs and gesticulate wildly while growling through Dickinson’s “Wild Nights!”, it can be tiring. And as much as I love to listen as students learn to read work aloud confidently, there has been for me a palpable and unnecessary pressure that many students feel when asked to read aloud. I’m not in any way a proponent of removing all pressures from the classroom, but in the literature classroom, time spent trying to hunt down someone willing to read aloud is a waste of valuable class time and focus.

Instead, I appreciate that audio has no physical focus point. Instead of turning all eyes on me, or a classmate, listeners can close their eyes, follow along in the text (particularly helpful for those who, like me, gallop through a piece and may miss things), or stare at a wall or out a window as they listen. There is a subtlety to audio that encourages alertness, an awareness devoid of the nervousness that often comes along with the fear of being called on to read next. And it is a practice in listening, something we all desperately need.

It can do a lot of work

The great thing about audio, aside from its capacity for engagement, is how much work it can do in a short amount of time. One of my favorite recordings to play in class is Brooks reading her own “we real cool.” This poem is usually a favorite, as it seems easily accessible both in meaning and in recitation. Instead of listening to me prattle on about the potential complexity of the piece, as well as the reception and attitude to it in the 60s, etc., I play this through a few times, and we launch straight into discussion from there. Not only does Brooks’ own voice and reading provide instant authority on what the poem is interested in, but it also illuminates a bit of setting, context and her own feelings about the poem through her brief introduction.

Brooks also demonstrates how her work should be read (and heard), and this is a facet often left unconsidered until we hear a sound recording, as many readers are not confident in their own cadence or emphasis until hearing someone else read. Most of the examples I’ve listed here are poems, which are brief and easily included in a class period, but don’t discount the inclusion of parts or the entirety of longer texts, speeches and stories. I love the tone set by listening to the entire text of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” read aloud, and many other longer pieces lend themselves to being listened to, especially sections of complicated dialogue or text with accent or vernacular that may be unfamiliar to the audience.

I also really like to contrast two recordings against themselves, to see how a reader may change their reading of a piece for different audiences in different circumstances, over time, or perhaps even changing the text itself (for example, C.K. Williams’ reading of his work). Greater attention to sound, regardless of genre, can be a really profitable result of audio.

The ability to charge into a work after hearing it read aloud is especially true of authors reading their own work, which I prefer, if possible, though I think it’s just as valuable at times to look at who is reading the work of others and why. Listening to Christopher Walken read Poe’s “The Raven” (I got a fever, and the only prescription is more raven.) provides a path to discuss contemporary readership, the changing celebrity of authorship, modern writers who are influenced by the work of their forbearers and their peers, and why they might choose to lend their voice to read someone else’s work. Each of these areas leads to questions that boil down to value: Who is valuing what and why? If a student was to record a work/song/speech, what would it be and why? The potential permanence and performance factor of audio usually encourage profitable introspection and discussion.

Not just readings of text

While listening to texts read aloud is the most common usage of audio in the literature classroom, there are a variety of sounds outside of this familiar range that can serve to illuminate a written work or its historical context. For example, I like to play the song “Ave Maria” aloud when we read the O’Hara poem of the same name, and speeches, debates, advertisements and any other audio content that you find helpful can be useful additions.

In the winnowing of superfluous stuff during class time, it’s easy to see precious minutes spent listening to audio as unnecessary “fluff,” but I hope I’ve outlined a few of the ways it can enrich and strengthen literary discussion. Those of you who regularly integrate audio of any kind, what ways are you using this medium in the classroom?

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