Urban Students, Sounds and Making Sense of Science
In the winter of 2009 I began working in four classrooms across Akron Public Schools as part of a longitudinal interpretive study designed to examine if writing songs about academic content might serve as a curricular tool to help mitigate race and gender gaps in science for young urban students. While this project has retained its original purpose, it has become what the teachers and I think of as “listening to the sounds of science,” the depth and breadth of sounds associated with how participants made sense of academic content, contexts, others and themselves. Now in its final year, what has emerged from our work together is both an understanding of how sound can matter in P-12 schooling and a research methodology I call sonic ethnography, one response to recent calls for a sounded anthropology.
Parallel to forms of visual anthropology and ethnographic film, sonic ethnography is the sounded representation of ethnographic data collection and analysis. My performative discussion of this methodology here is grounded the sounds of room 102, the first grade classroom in the Listening to the Sounds of Science Project. It focuses on sounds from last academic year (2010–11), particularly those of Zykira Eberhardt, Noah Robinson, Ellie Abbott-Hall, Nelijah Bailey, and their teacher, John Bennett. These are participants’ actual names given with the requisite layers of parental assent and personal consent, provided so that they receive credit for their sounds and ideas.
In addition to this short essay, there is a fifteen minute sound portion that forms the corpus of this piece, a point to which I return below. As is the case with all ethnography, the sounds I have constructed are simultaneously representative and incomplete. Finally, given its location in a singular space over time and its representation of traditionally marginalized voices and places, this piece of sonic ethnography can also be understood as an act of social justice and an instance of sonic cartography, a form of artistic (Harmon 2010) and narrative (Wood 2010) mapping of participants and ecologies.
Sonic Ethnography as Method
Reflecting contemporary ethnographic research practices, sonic ethnography involves the interpretation and translation of local actors’ meanings. As such, this methodology can be understood as an effort to make sense of people’s ways of knowing and being, understandings that are sensual in terms of their signification, sensation, and processes (Gregg and Seigworth 2010; Howes 2003; Stoller 1997).
It is important to note that sonic ethnography is not an argument for elevating the aural over any other sense. Of equal significance, what counts as sound is a social and cultural construction. As a result, how any individual conceptualizes sound is as much a result of nested layers of sociocultural norms and values as it a reflection of one’s anatomy or personal predilections. The use of the term sound here is therefore closer to the myriad possible constructions of the sensorium (Howes 2009), the many ways sensation has been conceptualized, than it is to a Western “five senses” model of aurality. Additionally, although there may well be space for a fully texted sonic ethnography, echoing Kim-Cohen’s (2009) argument for a non-cochlear sound art for example, the central feature of sonic ethnography is the presence of sound.
Sonic ethnography is similar to yet distinct from other acoustically oriented scholarship that serves as its foundation such as soundscapes (Schafer 1977) and Feld’s (1996, 2012) discussion and uses of acoustemology (sound ways of knowing). Where sonic ethnography is the sounded representation of ethnographic research practices, soundscapes are not often ethnographic and acoustemologies are not necessarily sounded. In this way, sonic ethnography can be expressed as soundscapes, acoustemology, sound/art, or other sound practices but any instance of these sound possibilities is not necessarily a piece of sonic ethnography. Furthermore, unlike sonic ethnography in which sounds are emphasized, current uses of sound throughout ethnography tend to function similarly to direct quotes and other cited material, as support for texts. The difference lies in methodology and purpose.
Methodologically, a sounded anthropology is not a reinvention of ethnographic research practices (Feld and Brenneis 2004; Samuels, Meintjes, Ochoa and Porcello 2010). In keeping with contemporary constructions of practice, sonic ethnography must wrestle with questions of power, place, identity and sense making. Similarly, because sound representations are necessarily manipulations and interpretations, researchers must also attend to the complications and possibilities of using sound methodologically, questions such as those raised in the field of sound studies about media, medium, and representation (cf Pinch and Bijsterveld 2011; Sterne, in press).
The value of sonic ethnography is often in the power of the aural to interrupt visual metaphors, ways of knowing, and ways of being in approaches that can help researchers better conceptualize the oddities of the ordinarily sensible. Sonic representation of data can also be an opportunity to more transparently and literally give voice to participants and a chance to make the collaborative aspects of ethnography more explicit. Additionally, this addresses questions of agency and the crisis of representation in anthropology. Here, it is a chance for traditionally marginalized voices, those of young children of color and girls, to be literally heard. The act of sounding data also removes of a layer of translation from sound to text, a movement that often deletes salient information about people, meanings, and ecologies.
Sounds are also qualitatively different than texts in significant ways that can be methodologically advantageous for ethnographers. For example, sounds tend to unfold with a particular chronology that causes listeners to experience them differently than they attend to texts, skimming sounds is not the same as skimming texts. Along similar lines, sounds have a messy fluidity and openness that texts and vision do not. For a hearing person, sounds are omnidirectional and one cannot close an “earlid” to avoid particular sounds—ask anyone who has not been sedated for oral surgery or has heard their child laugh unexpectedly from another room. In sum, sounds resonate (Erlmann 2004, 2010) literally and metaphorically in ways that text cannot.
Listening to the Sounds of Science
In addition to writing songs about the science content they learn, students in the Listening to the Sounds of Science Project have been recording audio and occasional video reflections of their experiences and sharing stories of their lives both in and out of schools. The four teachers involved in this study have participated in parallel ways, helping to collect data and sharing their thoughts about everything from students’ songwriting to their own educational and life experiences. My participation has been somewhat more traditional and includes audio and recording, collecting documents, conducting formal and informal interviews, and writing fieldnotes. Collaborative ethnographies have precedents in educational anthropology (Erickson 2006; Grant 1988) and the conditions for authorship have been negotiated.
From October 2010 through June 2011, I spent about two and a half hours in room 102 approximately once every two weeks. Each visit, the teacher, John Bennett, would assign a pair of students to work on their songs about science who would be assisted either by a peer or me. As with the musical accompaniment to their songs using the program Garage Band, students’ elected to work either individually or together to write lyrics for their songs and were responsible for its content and construction.
The sound for this sonic ethnography can be found online at: http://soundcloud.com/wgershon/anthropology_news/s-dBk47. Following the opening science experiment, the sounds presented are of Zykira and Noah working with me on a song about the experiment, their song, and Nelijah and Ellie listening to their song about the experiment followed by the song they wrote. Transitions are intentionally audible so that my manipulations of sounds are rendered more transparent. As you listen, I encourage you to not only enjoy these sounds but also to consider their implications for methodology and ongoing conversations about urban students’ performance in science.
Walter S Gershon is an assistant professor in the School of Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum Studies, Kent State University. His scholarship focuses on how educational actors make sense at the intersection of curriculum, students and sociocultural contexts, emergent understandings that are necessarily situated processes of both sensation and signification. (firstname.lastname@example.org)