Selfe, “The Movement of Air, the Breath of meaning”

Selfe, Cynthia L. “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.” CCC 60 (2009): 616-63. (48 pages)

Selfe reviews the history of US composition instruction and how aurality became dichotomously compared to writing, effectively pushing this mode out of writing instruction and alienating this and other modes of composing that aren’t print-based. The privilege of print as the primary modality for composing knowledge, she argues, limits student rhetorical agency “to the bandwidth of our own interests and imaginations” (618).

When English departments began to focus on the preparation of professionals after graduation, they increasingly relied on writing—a cultural code that lends itself to “innovations in business operations, efficient manufacturing techniques, and science” (621). Orality became devalued “as historical or narrowly defined studies” like religion or classics. She continues, “if the scientific revolution rested on the understanding that seeing was believing, it also depended on writing—and after the mid-fifteenth century—on printing as a primary means of recording, storing, and retrieving important information and discoveries. …the complex networks of cultural formations that reinforced the privileged role of visual and print information” (622). Selfe, in other words, draw a thread between visual and print modes of discourse and a scientific movement that embraces fact-checking and documentation. The visual, then, enjoyed a social and intellectual status that occupied much of the sensory experience in the Western tradition. And further, the embrace of the visual also actively eschewed the oral by also privileging silence and silent reading. Along these lines, Selfe then positions sound and aurality closely to marginalized, non-white communities. “These aural traces identify communities of people who have survived and thrived, not only by depleting but also by resisting the literacy practices of a dominant culture that continued to link the printed word and silent reading, so closely to formal education, racism, and the exercise power by whites” (624).

However, while this history explains the separation between oral and print modalities, Selfe also notes the ways that composition studies have sustained this distinction. She draws attention to the ways orality is often employed as a metaphor—voice, tone, rhythm, etc—but often “in the service of writing instruction and in the study of writing” (627). The use of voice as a metaphor “was less an understanding of embodied physical human voice than a persistent use of the metaphorical language that remediated voice as a characteristic of written prose” (630). She also notes how discourses of speaking/talking were often theorized against writing, namely, some scholars “implied that student’s reliance on the conventions of oral discourse resulted in the presence of problematic features in their written work” (629).

She closes her piece by describing some implications for pedagogy. She references some early uses of aural feedback notes by some instructors, but also extents this conversation by claiming that the success of these methods of assessment lied in the affordanes of aural feedback: “speech conveys a great deal of meaning through pace, volume, rhythm, emphasis, and tone of voice as well as through words themselves” (633). She also references the pervasive use of aural lectures for instruction, such a pedagogical method appears link power (i.e. teacher authority) and aurality by allowing agency for teachers to impart information through oral lectures, but don’t offer students the agency to compose with this mode (634). However, the turn toward multiple modes of making knowledge in academia—including aural—appears to be a product of new aural technologies that have multiplied and spread. She often cites the widespread availability of these technologies as both exigence and motivation for including such composing in the classroom/academia writ large: “By the end of the decade and the century, low-cost and portable technologies of digital audio recording…put material means of digital audio production in the hands of both students and English composition teachers” (638). However, Selfe offers a caveat:

“Although such texts had begun to dominate digital environments and self-sponsored literacy venues, print continued to prevail as ‘the way’ of knowing (Dunn, Talking 15), the primary means of leaning and communicating in composition classrooms. Although e-mail, websites, and multimedia texts were accepted as objects for study, critique, and analysis—and while many students were already engaging in the self-sponsored literacy practices of creating digital video and audio texts—composition assignments, for the large part, continued to resemble those of the past hundred years (Takayoshi and Selfe)” (639). The use of multiple modalities to make knowledge has already been widely embraced in everyday composing contexts yet has yet to be embraced in the day-to-day academic ecologies of writing, i.e. student assignments, dissertations, academic publications for tenure. Selfe acknowledges that the embrace of print likely is part of a wider worldview in composition studies that writing instruction should be designed to bring students to the fore of the discipline; however, she claims, “the primary work of any classroom is to help students use semiotic resources to think critically, to explore, and to solve problems” (644). She further troubles the conflation in our profession of writing and intelligence: “those who do not privilege writing above all other forms of expression—those individuals and groups who have ‘other ways of knowing,’ learning, and expressing themselves—may somehow lack intelligence” (644).



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