Media · Pedagogy

Multimodal Listening

So when we do listen to each other, it’s unbelievably important for us to really test our listening skills, to really use our bodies as a resonating chamber, to stop the judgment. —Evelyn Glennie, “How to Truly Listen”

I was pumped to start off my reading list with Steph Ceraso’s College English piece, “(Re)Educating the Senses: Multimodal Listening, Bodily Learning, and the Composition of Sonic Experiences.” It almost feels like watching a really popular movie a year later because so many folks I know were talking about this piece when it first came out, but I’m actually glad I read it a little later because so much of what Ceraso argues really resonates with the conversation I had with Brenda Brueggemann in our most recent This Rhetorical Life episode: “Transcription // Translation.”

This article combines my love of multimodality, disability studies, and multisensory experiences into a lovely argument about the importance of thinking about sound not simply as an act of listening with the ears but as a felt, embodied sonic experience. As Ceraso argues, we often teach listening in writing classrooms as a text: “sound is simply more content to be interpreted” (102). And in this way, sound and listening are situated within a semiotic framework of making meaning that we often use to discuss multimodality. And although Ceraso highlights the usefulness of analyzing and interpreting sound, she takes a different approach, focusing instead on “the affective, embodied, lived experiences of multimodality in more explicit ways” (104). Or, as Crystal VanKooten argues in the “Transcription // Translation” episode, sound is extra-discursive: it’s felt in your body.

So here’s the overarching goal of the article:

This essay is an attempt to reimagine the ways that we teach listening to account for the multiple sensory modes through which sound is experienced in and with the body. I offer the concept of multimodal listening to expand how we think about and practice listening as a situated, full-bodied act. (103)

Positioning sound this way allows students not only to become more thoughtful consumers of sound but also more thoughtful producers of sound, and the goal is not only to show how multimodal listening can help us more consciously attune to sonic experiences but also to apply multimodal listening to the composition classroom.

Because sound operates through vibrations, Ceraso argues that it’s a perfect example for illustrating the multiple ways we experience (see, hear, feel) it and—unlike listening that is dependent on ears (“earing”)—thinking about sound through multimodal listening draws attention to both the material and environmental factors that shape our experiences with sound (105). She writes, “Unlike ear-centric practices in which listeners’ primary goal is to hear and interpret audible sound (often language), multimodal listening amplifies the ecological relationship between sound, bodies, and environments. Broadly speaking, multimodal listening is a bodily practice that approaches sound as a holistic experience” (105).

multimodal listening and disability

Moving away from listening as something we do with our ears opens up possibilities for thinking more inclusively about sound. I feel like a lot of times (and even I make this argument), we think of sound in terms of closing off access. Indeed, when I make arguments about podcasts, I talk about how they can be inaccessible for deaf or hard-of-hearing audiences, folks who don’t process auditory information well (e.g., me), people who are in a time crunch for whom skimming a transcript is a more effective use of time than listening to the audio, or for people with unstable internet connections who may benefit more from downloading a PDF than streaming audio. But I rarely think of them as providing access. When I visited the Belfer Audio Archive on campus a couple years ago, Jenny Doctor noted that she teaches a lot of sonic writing courses that attract LD and ESL students. And in the podcasting roundtable I was part of last week at #cwcon, Courtney Danforth noted that podcasts are an avenue of accessibility for folks who struggle to process visually.

But, again, these arguments all hinge on the presumption that listening is an ear-based activity and, as Ceraso notes, sonic assignments like podcasts often simply reproduce the narrative elements of a written essay without asking students to experience sound more holistically.

Ceraso’s in-depth example of solo percussionist and composer Evelyn Glennie (quoted in the epigraph) is interesting for thinking about sound from a disabled experience but also for thinking about how Glennie’s experiences with sound can be translated and taught (as more of a UD approach). Ceraso focuses on Glennie not to highlight her difference as a deaf percussionist but instead to illustrate how “multimodal listening practices are learned bodily habits that can be reproduced in any individual regardless of where he or she falls on the hearing continuum” (107). Glennie is a famed percussionist who has talked at length about experiencing sound at the bodily level, and her “body listening practices provide her with experiential knowledge about how sound works as an affective mode of communication” (108).

This part of the article reminded me of Brenda Brueggemann’s interview for This Rhetorical Life and her reflections on how sound is not merely heard but is also visual and felt:

I have a good friend and colleague [Benjamin Bahan] who’s a very famous deaf storyteller, and he has a line in an essay he wrote—one of my favorite lines of all time—he says, “sound has a way of bouncing off visual cues.” When someone’s cell phone rings in class, I don’t hear the cell phone, but I know immediately a cell phone has rang because it’s registered all over their bodies, and they’re eyes are darting and they’re doing that things where [laughs], they’re trying to pretend. And sound does that. People say well, like a siren coming. I can tell a half-mile back because the traffic just changes. There’s this pause, there’s this shift.

Ceraso describes these visual experiences as an opportunity to make sense of a soundscape without depending solely on auditory input (108). And earlier in our interview, Brueggemann discussed how actually seeing sound waves in a program like Audacity helps her fill in some of the gaps in pitch and discrimination. When we think of sound this way—as a multisensory experience—it becomes much more holistic, inclusive.

bodily memory and unlearning

Ceraso’s attention to bodily memory and the act of acquiring knowledge through our sensory experiences is also useful for thinking about sound more inclusively because it positions the body and bodily experiences as dynamic. Just as we constantly learn and experience, though, we also need to unlearn. Because we’re met with so many low-quality sonic experiences, we begin to tune out and our senses dull. Ceraso argues that we need to unlearn these mundane, everyday sonic experiences in order to attune to multimodal listening and esthetic experiences: “Thus, multimodal listening instruction requires a feedback loop of teaching students to develop new listening habits and helping them unlearn old listening habits that have come to feel ‘natural’” (110).

Ceraso draws on Cathy Davidson in this discussion of unlearning, which I think further reinforces the possibilities of multimodal listening as a way to rethink ableist notions of sound. Throughout Now You See It, Davidson argues for unlearning conceptions about disability and which students can (and cannot) succeed within the classroom. Unlearning is “required when the world or your circumstances in that world have changed so completely that your old habits now hold you back” (Davidson 19). For me, unlearning is also required when our cultural narrative devalues certain abilities.

This is partially why Davidson’s notion of “collaboration by difference” is so important. She writes, “Collaboration by difference respects and rewards different forms and levels of expertise, perspective, culture, age, ability, and insight, treating difference not as a deficit but as a point of distinction” (Davidson 100). Instead of devaluing students who lack particular abilities, collaboration by difference places students with different abilities together in settings where they work together on a project that requires all of their particular abilities. I think of this when I think of sonic assignments that ask students to take different roles in a project and saw resonances of this in Ceraso’s prompt for students to collaboratively compose soundscapes of Pittsburgh.

In order to enact this kind of participatory collaboration, though, and move toward a more holistic understanding of sound as embodied, we have to unlearn our pedagogical practices:

The main challenge of multimodal listening instruction, as I see it, is for teachers to design the kinds of productive, quality sonic experiences that will continue to build on and expand students’ past sonic experiences. For multimodal listening instruction to be effective, teachers need to resensitize students who are most likely unaware of their desensitization from repetitive, low-quality sonic interactions. 112

This piece offers a lot of great arguments for thinking about sound holistically, for unlearning not only our listening practices but also how we privilege certain types of listening, and makes really smart arguments for incorporating multimodal listening practices into our composition classrooms in order to encourage students to be more thoughtful, rhetorical consumers and producers of sound.


Ceraso, Steph. “(Re)Educating the Senses: Multimodal Listening, Bodily Learning, and the Composition of Sonic Experiences.” College English 77.2 (2014): 102-23.


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