“the movement of air, the breath of meaning: aurality and multimodal composing”

Selfe notes that multimodality challenges the tendency of composition studies to focus on access and electronic composing environments (Faigley). Selfe goes onto suggest that students care about their “sonic environments” (read: orality). But when confronted with a context that prescribes to the primacy of text (like the college classroom), there is silence. Selfe notes that this social relationship between students, teachers, and sound suggests that sound is undervalued in college classrooms. This tendency – both historical and cultural – limits the importance of aurality and other modalities for understanding the world even when aurality is significant for and in the interest of those cultures and communities who value “multiple modalities of expression, multiple and hybrid ways of knowing, communicating, and establishing identity” (see: Gilyard, Royster). The stake for including both sound and print is the fundamental issue of rhetorical sovereignty (see: Lyons), “the rights and responsibilities that students have to identify their own communicative needs and to represent their own identities, to select the right tools for the communicative context within which they operate (see: Shipka), and to think critically and carefully about the meaning that they and others compose” (Cooper, Flower and Haas)

  • Selfe traces the shift from oral-centric instruction to writing instruction: “departments of English focused on preparing professionals whose work, after graduation, would increasingly rely on writing… articles, reports, memoranda, and communications, “texts as objects to be silently studied, critiqued, compared, appreciated, and valued.” This work was supported by new technological innovations: printing presses, typewriters, and pens that lent added importance to writing as a cultural code.
  • To accommodate these shifting communicative practices, English departments privileged writing in vernacular language in “natural, uninflated style” as the landmark outcomes for students
  • All of this was happening in a historical context that saw writing as a medium for analytical, methodological thought & a primary means of recording, storing, and retrieving important information and discoveries
  • Selfe traces the ways that the a typographic bias in the academy conflicted with the socio-historical literacy practices of others (Lyons, Gilyard, Royster, Villanueva) –“ My goal in this article, then, is not to suggest that teachers focus on either writing or aurality, but rather that they 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 individual and group identity, and meaning making. In this work, the efforts of the scholars such as those cited above as well as attention to historical and contemporary discursive practices of blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, and other peoples of color can help direct our thinking and lead our profession forward in productive ways.”
  • Although orality was subsumed by writing, it showed up in conversations about writing, often metaphorical: “the voice of the writer, the tone of an essay, and the rhythm of sentence” (Elbow)
  • By considering composition’s history through its attentions to orality, Selfe notes that a modal history offers a way to understand the field through a “constellation of factors – not all of them technological” – “Chief among them, for instance, is the profession’s continuing bias toward print and ongoing investment in specialization, understandable as historically and culturally informed methods of ensuring our own status and continuity. Given this context, many English composition programs and departments maintain a scholarly culture in which, nonprint forms, genres, and modalities of communication are considered objects of study and cri- tique, but not a set of resources for student authors to deploy themselves. As Gunther Kress observes, “Control over communication and over the means of representation is, as always, a field in which power is exercised” (“English” 67).”

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