proFile: Dr. Steph Ceraso of UVA on Using Sound in the Writing Classroom

Ever since I was in high school, I’ve loved making mixtapes (or mix CDs, as the case may be). There’s something so powerful about creating this sort of sonic artifact for someone – a friend, a crush, or a loved one – full of songs that mean something to you, designed specifically with someone else in mind. It wasn’t until grad school that I met a friend who likes mix-making as much as I do: Steph Ceraso, who is now Dr. Steph Ceraso, Assistant Professor of Digital Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Virginia. When we met at the University of Pittsburgh nearly a decade ago, Steph and I bonded over our love of music, mix-making, and Rob Sheffield’s amazing book on the subject, Love is a Mix Tape. Ever since, even though we’ve both moved to different places, we’ve maintained what she likes to call a “mix exchange,” sending good ol’ fashioned mix CDs back and forth via snail mail. Basically, we’re a couple of sonic pen pals who just can’t seem to quit the compact disc.

Steph has also incorporated her love of music and sound into her academic career. While I knew her at Pitt, she was already taking the innovative approach of teaching with sound and technology in her writing courses (I used to tutor student-athletes, and I still remember the excitement with which some not-usually-enthusiastic football players told me about the podcasts she had them working on). Since then she has continued developing her pedagogy of sound and digital media in composition and rhetoric courses, both in the classroom and in her book-in-progress, entitled Sounding Composition, Composing Sound: Multimodal Pedagogies for Embodied Listening.

Dr. Ceraso spoke with proFmagazine about her exciting work in the field of digital writing, her interests in music and mixing, and her dynamic approach to teaching.

MM: First of all, because your official title is Assistant Professor of Digital Writing and Rhetoric at UVA, can you explain, for those who don’t know, what digital writing is?

SC: Digital writing (also referred to as digital composing) is an umbrella term for digital production practices, which might include creating websites, podcasts, videos, videogames, and other kinds of media. I think digital writing is hugely important because students today need to be able to do more than read and write well. They need to be able to make arguments, express ideas, and tell stories in a variety of different digital modes and environments. They should be able to create the types of digital texts they’re consuming in their everyday lives.

MM: How did you become interested in sound studies? Did that interest come before your interest in rhetoric, and composition, or was it an offshoot of that field?

SC: Well, I’ve been a music nerd since I was a kid. I was a teenager in the ’90s, so I was especially captivated by grunge music and the culture surrounding it. Though music has always been a big part of my life, I didn’t know what “sound studies” was until I was in graduate school. By that time, there was an explosion of scholarship on sound happening in the humanities and social sciences. Scholars in my field, rhetoric and composition, were also beginning to publish about using sound in their classrooms. I was so excited that sound was something that people were actually studying. I immediately gravitated toward this research. It just made sense to me.

MM: I love the way you incorporate sound into the writing classroom. Can you explain some of the ways you do this?

SC: I love doing audio-based projects with students. In previous classes I’ve designed assignments that involved mixtapes/playlists, soundscapes, and other sorts of sound and music-based experiments. Most recently I taught a class called “Writing with Sound,” which required students to collaboratively develop an original, three-episode podcast series in small teams. The students really exceeded my expectations. None of them had any previous experience producing a podcast, and in 16 weeks they learned a lot about not only how to tell a compelling story across different episodes, but also how to use digital tools to produce this work. The student teams ended up creating a diverse range of podcasts about race, memorials, and public space in Charlottesville, food truck culture, college sports, and the psychology of human nature.

MM: That sounds incredible! How do you see this type of project as helping students improve their writing and related skills?

SC: Learning to create a podcast requires a lot of skills that are relevant to students interested in writing and media. Good podcasts take listeners on a journey. Instead of simply presenting information to develop an argument (like you might do in a research paper), students in this class have to figure out how to make listeners feel like they are participating in the story as it unfolds. Tone, structure, music, sound design, and excellent writing are all key to creating that feeling. I think the course is effective because it gives students an opportunity to gain writing and audio storytelling skills that will be relevant to many of their future jobs, listening practices that allow them to engage deeply with people and the world around them, and confidence in using technology to complete a large-scale, collaborative project.

MM: How do students react to your classes? I imagine they are unlike any writing-related course they've taken before.

SC: Generally speaking, students have been enthusiastic about courses that incorporate digital practices – especially those students in the humanities who don’t often get opportunities to work with digital media. They understand how and why digital writing is relevant to their lives beyond college. Because most students don’t have much experience with actually producing their own media, they are sometimes anxious about learning unfamiliar technologies. Usually after they complete a project and gain some confidence, though, they become excited about new possibilities for expressing their ideas beyond textual writing.

MM: Your book project focuses on the concept of "multimodal listening." What is this, and why is it important?

SC: The aim of my book project is to reimagine listening education for the 21st century. I’m interested in how we can teach students to be more savvy consumers and producers of sound in their everyday lives, and in relation to the work they do as authors of digital projects. My book proposes a pedagogy that is based on what I call “multimodal listening,” which I argue can help students and scholars learn to use sound creatively and strategically in their own work.

I define multimodal listening as a practice that involves attending to the sensory, contextual, and material aspects of a sonic encounter. Rather than thinking of listening as something that only involves our ears, multimodal listening treats sonic experience as immersive – as something that involves all of our senses. Multimodal listening helps students understand sound in digital projects as part of a holistic experience that they are designing for users. In other words, multimodal listening is significant because it can help students produce more lively, creative, multisensory sonic projects.

MM: Many faculty might find technology difficult to incorporate into the classroom, or feel that it gets in the way. How do you confront the challenge of using so much technology in the classroom?

SC: I think a really important part of developing technology-based assignments is to not lose sight of the purpose: what do you want students to learn and why? For example, when I ask my students to use audio editing software I do not expect them to master it. I don’t teach sound engineering and my job is not to train students to become sound engineers. Rather, I want students to be able to learn enough technical skills so that they are able to achieve the goal of the assignment, which, depending on the assignment, might be to develop inquiry-based research and writing skills, or to enter a critical conversation with the authors/creators of the materials we engage with in the course.

It should be reassuring to teachers that they do not need to be experts when it comes to teaching with technology. For me, the learning goals always come first and the technology/technical skills are secondary. A lot of the time I learn new technologies along with the students. I think creating a collaborative atmosphere in which everyone is a student­, including the teacher, can make learning with technology less intimidating and more fun. At least that’s been my own experience.

MM: Lastly, I know you're a huge fan of mixtape culture and the practice of "remixing." What do you find so interesting about this concept, and how does it relate to writing and rhetoric?

SC: Yes! I love the transformative power of remixing. Remixing is literally a kind of re-vision – a way of re-seeing and re-making the world around us. Revision is also a critical part of the writing process, so drawing parallels between remixing and writing seems natural to me. For example, in several composition courses I’ve asked students to create video remixes using found footage from a single television show. Their task was to remix the footage and present it in a way that radically revised the meaning of the original series. By transforming the form and content of the original footage through manipulation and editing, students literally saw the drastic effects revision can have on the meaning of a text (one student turned an episode of Breaking Bad into a Full House-like sitcom, for instance). The remix project also had a noticeable influence on the textual writing they completed afterwards. Compared to their writing earlier in the semester, students’ final revised essays demonstrated greater risk taking, bigger shifts in thinking, and more attempts to examine their arguments from new angles. Several students completely changed the direction of their previous work. Practicing revision as remixing clearly expanded students’ ideas about the possibilities of revision.

Revision is just one way that remixing and writing/rhetoric relate to one another. Bringing remixing practices into classes can also complicate notions of authorship, originality, and creativity, raise questions about the ethical and legal implications of creating things out of other people’s creations, and present students with powerful forms of argument and expression. To me, remixing is an exciting way to introduce students to many different aspects of digital writing and rhetoric that are also relevant to more traditional forms of textual writing.

To learn more about Dr. Steph Ceraso’s work, check out her website.

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