A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Listening for Genre Multiplicity in Classroom Soundscapes

Kati Ahern, SUNY Cortland and Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher, University of Waterloo

(Published July 18, 2018) 

In his 2015 enculturation article “Listening to the Sonic Archive: Rhetoric, Representation, and Race in the Lomax Prison Recordings,” Jonathan Stone notes that working with sound may productively complicate and occasion new, challenging orientations to scholarship:

listening can be a different and demanding experience insofar as it requires of rhetoric scholars more time and patience (you cannot skim audio artifacts) in shaping potentially new sonic literacies. This in addition to the new (for many) experience of dealing in the indeterminate materiality of the sonic register itself which include modes not generally foregrounded in scholarly discourse: simultaneity, dissonance, and multiplicity.

In addition to offering an example of a method of conducting research in a sonic archive, Stone traces the development of sonic scholarship in the field of rhetoric from Greg Goodale’s Sonic Persuasion to Joshua Gunn et al.’s Rhetoric Society Quarterly piece “Auscultating Again,” Steph Ceraso’s College English article “(Re)Educating the Senses” to Erin Anderson’s enculturation article “Toward a Resonant Material Vocality for Digital Composition.” What all these scholars have in common is a sense of complicating the juncture between rhetoric and sound studies to include different notions of sonic objects, practices of reading/listening, and theorizing sound as an impermanent, embodied, and contextual material form.

Additionally, Crystal VanKooten notes in her article “The Music, the Movement, the Mix: Listening for Sonic and Multimodal Invention” that listening as a methodology helps to break away from framing interviews and video recordings as a means “simply to extract information from participants,” and instead gets at some of shared experience and reciprocity within the interview space. Like Stone and VanKooten, we are interested in sonic methodologies. We seek to build on their notions of a multimodal, embodied ethic of listening as a methodology for understanding texts differently. In so doing, we have chosen an even less traditional context for sound: soundscapes. In what follows, we use the soundscape of the undergraduate classroom in order to better understand genre multiplicity. Rather than using the soundscape of a classroom as a way of identifying, labeling, or performing an ethnographic study, we outline a method of soundscape analysis that uses codes such as “ambient,” “keynote,” and “signal” sound to investigate some of the unexplored complexity with which genres unfold in the lived experience of the classroom.

Our argument is that sonic rhetoric and rhetorical genre theory might be employed in taking up calls for classroom genre scholarship to focus on temporality, unfolding, and lived relationships between genres. In making this argument, we will first review some key scholarship in rhetorical genre theory and soundscape studies. We will then explore how the intersection of that scholarship may offer a more complex understanding of genre, unfolding through qualitative analysis of seven writing-intensive classroom soundscapes.

Genre and the Classroom

The classroom has often been subject to genre-based studies looking to understand the function of genres as part of the broader educational exigence of undergraduate curriculum (see Freedman). In this tradition, we are interested in theorizing how classroom genres interact, unfold, are called into being through sonic events, and how they shape the pedagogical ecology our students inhabit. We are not, however, interested in the sort of genre “postmortem” that S. Scott Graham and Brandon Whalen describe as a kind of breaking down and describing of a genre’s parts. Nor are we interested in a purely situational account, which Graham and Whalen describe as employing ethnographic approaches. Although Graham and Whalen are concerned with the deployment of genre approaches in new-media environments, their attention to the hybridity of genres in those environments is also instructive for our purposes. In their account, genre hybridity emerges from the changing purposes to which a piece of genred discourse responds as that discourse moves from one situational exigence to act within another situational exigence (89). For Graham and Whalen, an e-card illustrates this “gestalt-shift,” first functioning as a greeting card and then, upon receipt, providing a game that recipients can play (89). Such accounts also recall ongoing conversations in genre studies, where scholars argue that the typified forms that mark genres are entangled with new-media forms (including Miller and Shepherd’s theorizing of blogs), such that these typified genre forms must attend to the material forms that shape and structure spaces within which genres live, so to speak. We see that, similar to the problems posed by studies of genre in new-media environments, sonic environments may productively complicate how we understand the life of genre activity.

When we think of classroom genres, it is easy to attend to the formal genres—the lecture, or even class notes—but there is a richness in the multimodality within which classroom genres unfold and by which they are constituted, as Natasha Artemeva and Janna Fox’s research on math classrooms and the importance of “chalk talk” remind us (Artemeva and Fox; Fox and Artemeva). Extending the study of multimodal genres in classrooms, we attend specifically to multimodality through sound, which gives us a new vantage from which to explore genre activity in classrooms, particularly in relation to how genreing activity unfolds. Translingual approaches to genres—which attend to “temporality, movement, and negotiation” and “view … language boundaries as porous and always emergent”—have begun to redress this omission (Bawarshi 243). Anis Bawarshi makes an important case for what such approaches offer genre studies, namely attention to genres as performances. Like Graham and Whalen’s critique of the postmortem approach to genre studies, Bawarshi describes a good deal of pedagogical work in rhetorical genre theory as “still fixat[ing] on genres as relatively static objects to be taught and acquired as part of disciplinary and professional enculturation” (244). Bawarshi argues that this whole approach misses an important lesson from Bakhtin, who tells us genres are not sentences but utterances; and, Bawarshi further reminds us, Anne Freadman also challenged this genre fixation with her important metaphor that positions genres as shots in a tennis match rather than the ball. We are returned, then, to genre as a performance, a conception that “enables students and instructors to examine the meanings and relations conditioned by genres as well as to open up genre actions to new interplays of possible meanings and linguistic relations” (Bawarshi 245). Using Freadman’s notion of the uptake, the performance consists of “interplays between genres, the lines of movement and trans-actions” (Bawarshi 246).

We find this approach compelling because it draws attention to unfolding. Bawarshi argues, “Focusing on genre uptake performances . . . shifts our attention from genre conventions to the interplays between genres—the complex performances that take place between and around genres where agency is very much in constant play in relation to myriad forces and factors” (246). Similarly, we argue that studying soundscapes provides a way to attend to genre uptake performances, to borrow Bawarshi’s framing, and attend to genre as a “pedagogical site of transaction where memory, language and other semiotic resources, genre knowledge, and meanings are translated and negotiated across genres, modalities, and contexts” (247). In this approach, the question of agency prevails and, in our analysis of classrooms, we are interested in how human and nonhuman actors exert agency to shape the soundscape within which classroom genres embed. However, for the sake of this initial work explicating a soundscape methodology, we acknowledge these dynamics but leave the task of doing justice to their complexity to future studies of genreing activities and soundscapes. Here we attend to the more preliminary issues of how such unfolding can be charted, specifically attending to temporal aspects of unfolding.

Our approach to listening for genres unfolding also responds to a call for more attention to temporality in the study of classroom discourse. In his article “The Seeds of Time,” Neil Mercer addresses the relationship between “time, talk, and learning,” and notes the relative paucity of such study (35). While Mercer looks at time across different classroom lessons, we have chosen to focus on what Mercer calls the “dynamic aspect” of moments/responses/genres (44). Martin Nystrand et al. have also called for more attention to temporality through a quantitative examination of questions using an event-history analysis. They coded 35,887 questions from 1,152 instructional episodes in order to better understand what sequences in discourse would prompt such events as “dialogic spells” (144), which they defined as productive discourse involving at least three student questions and a suspension of teacher test questions (155). In other words, Nystrand et al. seek to better understand classroom events that they define as productive or desirable through the occurrence of these events in temporal sequences. Our study is exploratory and far more modest in scope, but we are also attempting to employ a new methodology to understand how classroom experience and genres unfold in time.

Finally, in a 40-year meta-analysis of classroom dialogue, Christine Howe and Manzoorul Abedin note the prevalence of descriptive study of classroom dialogue in accord with an “initiation-response-feedback” [IRF] model in which instructors initiate, students respond, and teachers provide feedback (334). We also believe that an overreliance on IRF for characterizing classroom experience could obscure some of the complexity of multiple genres unfolding in time. Howe and Abedin quote Edwards and Mercer, who state that “once seen, [IRF] is impossible to ignore in any observed classroom talk” (334). For this reason, we will argue that focusing on shifts within a verbal and nonverbal classroom soundscape, rather than limiting our study to classroom dialogue alone, allows for attunement that disrupts the prevailing discourse model, allowing it to be “unseen.”

Listening to Soundscapes

In The Tuning of the World, first published in 1977, R. Murray Schafer developed upon the concept of the “soundscape,” particularly in terms of classifying and understanding sounds emplaced in the world, and with the additional purpose of preserving sounds. Schafer defines soundscapes to include “any acoustic field of study” (7), but he notes that the first step in soundscape research is to “discover the most significant features of a soundscape, those sounds which are important either because of their individuality, their numerousness or their domination” (9). To further describe those “significant features,” Schafer uses the following terms: keynote sounds, signals, and soundmarks (see table 1).

Table 1: Schafer’s Significant Features of Soundscapes

Soundscape features


Keynote sounds

Sounds that provide what Schafer understands as the “tonality” of a space: “Keynote sounds do not have to be listened to consciously; they are overheard but cannot be overlooked, for keynote sounds become listening habits in spite of themselves” (Schafer 9).  


Sounds within the “foreground,” garnering the attention of those in the soundscape (Schafer 10).


 “The term soundmark is derived from landmark and refers to a community sound which is unique or possesses qualities which make it specially regarded or noticed by the people in that community” (Schafer 10).


These terms have been taken up periodically by scholars of soundscapes because they provide categories of sound based on function rather than source type. Additionally, the function of a sound can be dynamic. A single source of sound could alternately function as keynote, signal, or soundmark. For instance, a cough could be a keynote sound in a hospital (or a classroom during flu season), or it could be taken as a signal of a patient’s specific illness, a bid for attention, or a demonstration of emotion. Similarly, a school bell could exist as a signal sound for students, letting them know that a class had ended, or a very particular school bell could function as a soundmark, evoking recognition and feelings of nostalgia for a student from that community years later. Thus, these terms emphasize the notion of a listener situated within the immediate, lived experience of a soundscape.

Following Schafer’s work, Barry Truax noted in 2001’s Acoustic Communication the importance of the term “soundscape” versus “sonic environment”: “whereas the ‘sonic environment’ can be regarded as the aggregate of all sound energy in any given context, we will use the term ‘soundscape’ to put the emphasis on how that environment is understood by those living within it—the people who are in fact creating it” (Truax 11). Truax moves away from a signal/noise perspective or one that externalizes the soundscape as merely “an environment” to instead note the importance of listeners and response in soundscape studies. “If we shift our focus from the sound waves and audio signal as the artifact to the soundscape, where sound mediates the relationships between the individual and the environment, we will be able to understand the intricacies of how sound functions, not simply how it behaves” (14). This focus on function is important as it builds on Schafer’s key terms described above. Rather than measuring dimensions such as decibel level, a focus on function calls for a communicative relationship between listeners, participants, and a space. Truax’s contribution places sound as a dynamic aspect of communication at the forefront of soundscape studies rather than treating any given soundscape as a simply measurable object. This social and dynamic aspect of soundscapes (now made further possible through mobile technology) is also what Ahern and Frith point to with their concept of “social soundscaping.”

As scholarship on soundscapes continues, the emphasis remains on the relationship between the individual and environment, the role of the listening body, and techniques of listening. Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity, LaBelle’s Acoustic Territories, Bijsterveld’s edited collection Soundscapes of the Urban Past, and most recently, Pettman’s 2017 Sonic Intimacy are only a few examples. Even Pettman, who is critical of Schafer’s “highly romantic” and hierarchical approach to the soundscape (where there are some “sounds that matter” and others that don’t), acknowledges the importance of Schafer’s emphasis on listening and inclusion of nonhuman voices (68-69). Although not all of these authors would necessarily identify as participating in “rhetoric” or “rhetorical soundscape studies,” their various scholarship on soundscapes takes up Schafer’s and Truax’s emphasis on emplacement and function and contributes to what Thomas Rickert has suggested in Ambient Rhetoric: rhetoric not as persuasion, but as attunement.

Our argument for why listening matters, theoretically and methodologically, follows from this scholarship. Sound is unfixed and in some ways unfixable. While we possess the ability to record and attempt to visually notate soundscapes, these traces do not get at the in-the-moment complexity of the lived experience of sound. As Schafer noted, there is no such thing as “aerial photography” for sound (7). In part, our line of argument takes up Rickert’s call for ambience to “both [complicate] rhetorical work and [open] new opportunities” (284). In other words, paying attention to classroom soundscapes may make possible attunement to transitional points or disruptions of “flow” in the way genreing exists in that space. This in turn will allow us to move beyond a simple classification of genres to get at more of the ways in which genres are called upon and called into being. This is also suggested by pedagogical work in soundscape analysis, such as a recent article called “Composing for Sound: Sonic Rhetoric as Resonance” by Hocks and Comstock, in which the authors discuss teaching students to analyze and attune themselves to campus, environmental, and cultural soundscapes through reflective questions related to sound as “completely embodied, multisensory, and vibrational” and through students “tuning into particular places and times” (144, emphasis added). Tanya Rodrigue et al., also theorizing soundscape pedagogy, note the value of addressing “genre awareness” when teaching with sound.

We suggest sound studies and rhetorical genre theory can be productively aligned to  explore the activities and unfolding of genres within a classroom, which reveals important features and functions of the classroom space as discursive, material, and temporal. In what follows, we explore seven different classrooms, ranging in disciplinary commitments from the arts to the sciences. What our approach offers is a broader picture of how students encounter, engage, ignore, and move through genres that live in university classrooms. Although all of the courses we studied are writing-intensive, we do not want to attend only to written genres, or even discursive genres broadly conceived. Rather, we see these genres as useful anchor points, but we wish specifically to draw attention to the complex multimodal spaces in which genre multiplicity comes into being in the classroom.

Approach and Methods

For this study, one of the authors, working in the field of sonic rhetoric, collected data from seven classrooms with two observations in each class for a total of fourteen observations.[1] The data comes from classrooms across the disciplines of biology, creative nonfiction, dance, design, history, nutrition, and psychology. Courses were selected based on a sampling of every tenth course from a list of all writing-intensive courses offered in Fall 2014.[2] Instructors were then contacted, and of those courses sampled, seven instructors consented to the study. During the two observations of each class, the investigator recorded field notes by hand, listening and attempting to record the presence of different genres, materials, arrangements, and sounds in relation to the nonverbal sounds of the classroom soundscape.

For the observations, the researcher arrived early and sat either where the instructor indicated or where she could least obtrusively observe based on the classroom’s structure and physical arrangement. Each class observation was scheduled at the discretion of the course instructor, and thus one limitation of the study is that classes were not chosen randomly and there might be features that biased instructors toward particular observation days, such as the perception that a day was less important, there were no tests or quizzes, etc. Although we do not know the particular reasons certain days were chosen, we acknowledge there might be an effect on the data collected.

Data collection focused on the soundscapes of the classrooms. Observations included but were not limited to nonverbal sounds, such as coughing, whispering, etc., and nonverbal dimensions of the human voice such as intonation, rhythm, tone, and so on. Other classroom information was also recorded, including the spatial arrangement of the class and other sensory data such as lighting configurations, the presence of physical structures like walls and doorways, and materials such as chalk or snails. Observational notes were arranged in a semi-structured way to direct the observer's attention (see appendix A).

We then devised a set of codes using key terminology from Schafer’s work on soundscapes, described in the previous section “Listening to Soundscapes.” If, indeed, classroom experience could be understood through soundscapes, we posited these key terms or themes would be useful in classifying the kinds of sound events recorded in observational notes during the fourteen classroom visits. The three key terms we applied to the observational notes were ambient sound, keynote sound, and signal sound. We used the codes detailed in table 2 to analyze the observational notes.

Table 2: Typology of Sounds in Classroom Soundscapes based on Schafer

Sound type



Ambient sounds

Products of inhabiting a space in which no information or response is prompted. While Schafer does not define ambient sounds, we wanted to specify a category of sound distinct from keynote sounds in that they do not contribute to the tonality of a “classroom” as a space—they are not recognizable as classroom sounds or they are not based in the practices of a classroom.

An HVAC unit running, coughing, shuffling feet, drinking, the hum of lights, construction sound, doors opening, a person entering or exiting.


Keynote sounds

Sounds that ground the space as a classroom. Sounds that make the space recognizable sonically as a classroom or that are based in the practices of the space as a classroom. They are sounds that “do not have to be listened to consciously; they are overheard but cannot be overlooked because keynote sounds become listening habits in spite of themselves” (Schafer 9). They are sounds that might not directly garner attention but become grounded in the listening habits of a classroom.


Ripping paper, flipping paper, typing, chatter (when not the focus of activity), whispering, pen sounds and clicking, or silence when listening to a lecture.


Signal sounds

Following Schafer, these are “foregrounded sounds and they are listened to consciously” for information (Schafer 10). Signal sounds can be verbal or nonverbal; it is the sound itself that conveys information.

Lecturing, students discussing breakout questions, video on ant parasites, instructor drawing table on board (when students are not otherwise engaged in breakout discussion), student asking a question, instructor confirming answer, or even silence in response to a direct (nonrhetorical) question.



We coded the data and used NVivo to calculate the intercoder reliability between the two authors. In order to calculate intercoder reliability, we coded two of the observational notes from classroom visits. After several passes and refinement of the codes (see table 2), we obtained an overall unweighted Kappa of 0.95, a value that tells us about the agreement of our coding. Our Kappa for ambient sounds and signal sounds were strong, at 0.98 and 0.95 respectively, but our assessment of keynote sounds was somewhat lower at 0.89. This appeared to be due to differences in coding “side talk,” such as student discussions before or during class, as signal rather than keynote or vice versa. Because we used these observational notes in an iterative process to calibrate our codes, we wanted to test these codes on a new sample of observational notes (one transcription from the fourteen). In this, our final test of intercoder reliability, our results yielded an overall unweighted Kappa of 0.86 (ambient = 0.84, keynote = 0.84, signal = 0.90), which can be considered very good agreement (Altman). We note, however, that it is important to understand the information contextually and not interpret this account to be of generalizable significance. Rather, we used this approach to refine descriptive codes to provide an intelligible set of terms with analytic and explanatory power.

Next, we turn to our descriptive account of the classroom soundscapes before returning to our coded data. The following are not the transcriptions, but descriptive impressions based on genre awareness, spatiotemporal configurations, and understanding of classroom genres. These impressions are crucial to describing the soundscape as a functional unit.

Classroom Soundscapes

The following section offers descriptions of each classroom’s material configuration, the flow of the class, and of course, sonic features unfolding in the space. Ethics approval to record audio could not be obtained, so these descriptions are based on detailed notes about the classroom space that were recorded by the researcher as well as notes transcribed by the researcher as the class unfolded. Although we cannot offer the full transcriptions due to space limitations, we provide brief glimpses into these rich classrooms, toward which we take a more qualitative, data-driven approach in the section that follows. In this section, we hope readers will immerse themselves in the descriptions, attending to the explicit and implicit auditory experiences in each classroom and the material events and temporal unfoldings that collude to render sonic events. Each subheading provides the discipline of the course being observed along with a brief summary of the class activities.

Biology Classroom – Trematode Lecture and Lab

Students chat while revising a lab report. The room is dimly lit, with long narrow desks, a sink, cabinets with microscopes and lab equipment, and a life-sized model of a human skeleton. When class begins, genres unfold, from a PowerPoint presentation to a lecture, diagrams for parasite life cycles, freewriting questions, small- and large-group discussions, and embedded video clips demonstrating parasite behavior. Sonic events reflect rhythms of discussion, engagement, uncertainty, and clarification. During the lab, students encounter oral instructions, a demonstration with calipers, written questions, and a table charting snail populations and parasitic presence and variation. Rhythmic instances of hammers, clicking calipers, and preparing microscope slides indicate speed, productivity, and pauses in group lab activity. Squeals and shouts mark moments when parasites are identified via microscope.

Dance Classroom – Labanotation

A nearby “stomp” dance class resonates through the thin walls of the classroom. Wooden floors, beams, and mirrors are arranged alongside a blackboard and audio-visual equipment. As class begins, students receive papers with feedback, and piano scales faintly drift down the hall. The students discuss a reading and papers flip in notebooks, the HVAC hums, and students laugh. Nearby stomping intensifies, and the walls shake. Next, the class shifts to reading labanotation—a highly specialized language for notating dance movements through shorthand visual symbols. Some students groan. They move to the far side of the room, using the blackboard, mirrors, and wooden dance floor to read and write choreography using labanotation. “Hello!” the instructor shouts to chatting students, and then calls beats and moves. A phone text chimes. The soundscape reflects notions of being “in unison” and “errors” in following the labanotation, calling of dance positions, and counting. Muffled footfalls allow the instructor to sonically identify errors in the performance. At the end of the exercise, the instructor shouts directions for the next assignments.

Design Classroom – Computer-Mediated Lecture

The design class meets in a dedicated lab space, and the classroom is filled with sounds from outside: a man yells, birds sing and crickets chirp, and an aircraft passes not long before a helicopter. The instructor lectures, voice modulating from soft to softer, pulling up numerous browser tabs containing video clips, a School of Design website, product icons, and profile photos for practitioners in the field. It is a night class, and the room is quiet. Students yawn. Two Swedish students debate a point across the room, and others pose rhetorical questions while plastic bottle caps are twisted on or off. In the second observation, the instructor uses the point of a large umbrella to emphatically, sonically gesture to important points in his lecture or contributions to the discussion. His voice remains low in tone and volume. Class ends and footsteps disappear down the hall into the night.

Creative Nonfiction Classroom – Workshop of Student Work

Students sit in a circle engaged in side conversations. Their chatter creates distinctive zones. “Okay?” the instructor asks, and after a momentary silence, the first student up for the workshop reads amidst the sound of flipping papers. Applause for the author erupts, and then, silently, peers write feedback on their copies of manuscripts, marked by a light scratching and flipping of pages. Furniture rumbles as it is moved in classrooms overhead. The instructor moderates a large-group discussion of the student’s work, alternately asking questions and offering direct statements. The process repeats for a second and third student, except that for the third student, there is no time for written feedback. There is the shuffling of papers and zippers. Shifting of desks. Class ends.

History Classroom – Circle Discussion of Reading

In the history classroom, students also sit in a circle, but it is quiet save for the sound of furniture being moved in upstairs classrooms. Class begins promptly with a structured turn-taking activity. Within the activity, discussion moves from student to student around the circle, skipping two note-takers who slide pens quickly across notebook paper. Students do not speak out of their turn in the circle. Pens click, pages are flipped, and students muffle coughs. After one revolution, students make additional points with raised hands, and then note-takers report back. The instructor asks questions. There are long silences. The instructor says “yeah yeah, okay” and “right.” Occasional quick, quiet moments of laughter occur. The instructor moves to the chalkboard and indicates items on a timeline by softly hitting the chalkboard with the side of her hand. More discussion follows, and then the instructor stands and erases the board. In the last part of class, the instructor is talking, writing, and recording student responses about the structure of an upcoming assignment. 

Nutrition Classroom – Lecture and Analysis of Case Studies

Students sit in tightly packed, forward-facing desks in the nutrition classroom. They expectantly face the lectern and projector screen. As faint scraping and rumbling of furniture in nearby rooms drifts in from the hallway, the class begins with reminders about an upcoming midterm exam. Over crinkling paper, jewelry gliding across desktops, and a plastic spoon cleaning out the final bites in a Tupperware container, the instructor finally raises her voice as a late student enters. After some question and response, the instructor begins her PowerPoint presentation by bringing up a slide, lecturing, elaborating, and then advancing to the next slide. While lecturing, the instructor moves horizontally across the front of the room, occasionally pausing to ask a question—keyboards click, papers rustle, and then continuous typing increases. Next, students move into small groups, peering at a worksheet of six case studies. Group members talk, nod, and laugh. When the groups are called back, the instructor reads the first case study aloud. Standing directly in front of the group assigned to that case study, the instructor waits for a group member to finish speaking. When the instructor speaks, highlighters and pens skim across pages as students in other groups follow along. Presentation of cases, student response, and instructor feedback continues until all the case studies have been discussed, but before class is finished, bags are being packed, and the instructor again raises her voice. When the instructor dismisses the class, several students line up at the lectern to ask questions.

Psychology Classroom – Quiz Review and Group Work

The psychology class meets in the lower level of a science building in a room with a false window, a row of unused desktop computers, and chairs with attached desks. The students begin with their chairs in rows facing the projector screen. The instructor sits on the edge of a desk in the front, leaning forward, joking, and laughing. She pulls up a course website on the projector screen and reviews answers from a quiz. Next, students work on research-design projects in small groups. The instructor moves between groups asking questions. Some group members laugh. Others talk and type on laptops. Others stare silently ahead. The instructor reminds groups to come up with a research plan. Group members call out article titles to each other, use Snapchat, and ask questions. The instructor dismisses each group once satisfied with their progress.

Classroom Soundscapes and Lessons on Genre

Our overview of each soundscape helps chart the kinds of activities to which researchers might attune. Using these accounts, we now provide qualitative analysis of these soundscapes. NVivo provided us with tools to explore trends across the fourteen classroom soundscapes. What we report here is an account of these qualitative attributes, but we acknowledge this kind of research attends to some features and not others. However, our purpose in advancing a sonic approach is to redress the broader trend that takes verbal data as an artifact but may miss some of the material and embodied aspects of classroom genres, which we suggest our three categories of sound help us attune to. A keyword analysis also helps illustrate themes we identified while coding our data. First, “instructors” and “students”[3] were prominently featured in the transcriptions, accounting for the most commonly used terms. After that, however, it was “talk,” then “group,” “paper,” “sound,” “question,” “respond,” and “laugh” that appeared most commonly. Through keyword analysis, we begin to see different kinds of sounds that all have a prominent place within a soundscape: ambient sounds (more the product of living in a space than contextual to a classroom), keynote sounds (constituting the listening space of the classroom, but not often explicitly attended to), and signal sounds (information-giving sounds that are explicitly listened for). Notably, however, these sounds are not distinct units operating independently. Ambient, keynote, and signal sounds interplay, constituting the multiple genres of a classroom as well as acting as temporal markers for the unfolding of genre activities.

Ambient Sounds

Ambient sounds had a significant presence in the soundscapes, accounting for at least 10% of the coding coverage in each transcript, frequently running into the 20%+ range. Ambient sounds include those sounds that shape the beginning and ending of class. At the beginning: “A student appears late, enters and takes off bag and sits in chair,” “Five students stream in and one coughs loudly,” “The TA comes in and unzips her bag and takes out belongings”; at the ending: “Students pack up bags,” “Class ends. There is chair rolling,” “Zipper sound.” Certainly, instructors across classroom contexts are likely to be familiar with these sonic features. Often these sonic events mark important temporal configurations—for example, the moments before class begins, which establish the broader context for the events and genres about to unfold. Students unpacking bags and preparing for class reminds us of important material and embodied practices that constitute enactment of classroom genres. Indeed, what is coded as ambient sound reminds us of these features throughout the class rather than simply bookmarking one event.

Also, our physical enactments in the classroom space, as both instructors and students, are marked throughout the unfolding of classrooms: “very light throat clearing,” “a student sneezes,” “There is some light sniffling,” “A student yawns,” “snack wrappers are crinkled,” “Students fidget,” “Students sigh,” “plastic bottle drinking,” etc. While we are not taking an embodied rhetorical approach to analysis due to the length constraints of this article, we do wish to note how our approach is attuned to the physical and material realities of the classroom space, as well as the more traditional discursive modes with which studies of genre have been concerned.

Finally, interjecting in the classroom space are nearby sonic events (e.g., “There is light yelling from the hallway,” “There is rumbling of furniture from the floor above,” “Piano and vocal warmups are heard from a nearby room”) and from the ambient spaces beyond the building itself (e.g., “traffic makes swooshing sound on rainy street outside,” “A helicopter sound outside the window and then larger aircraft,” “A student opens a back window and traffic sound floats in”). What makes these sounds notable is the potential for genre shifts within classroom events. A class might be disrupted if these sounds exceed a certain threshold. For example, during the first dance class observation, an adjacent stomp class’s sonic vibrations were intensely interjected into the observed classroom: “The stomping resumes to the annoyed sighs and whispers from the students.” Eventually, the stomping subsides and the class carries on, but this example illustrates how ambient sonic events are important to the unfolding and enactment of genre activities by way of disruption or even generation of different typified responses (including a back and forth about frustrations related to unwanted sonic experiences). Related to this kind of shift are some of the keynote sounds that commonly appeared in these classroom soundscapes.

Keynote Sounds

Keynote codes commonly appeared throughout the observations, with coverage ranging from around 13% to a more average mid-20% range. One point worthy of note was the prevalence of chatter, paper flipping, and laughter as keynote sounds within the classroom. Occasionally, these sounds shifted or had the potential to shift into signal sound. For instance, when an instructor flips a piece of paper to explicitly point out directions on the back, or when students’ or an instructor’s laughter is an explicit response signaling information about another’s response or question, then the code for those sound sources would be signal rather than keynote. However, chatter, paper flipping, and laughter were often coded within the transcript as keynote. In the case of chatter, that keynote sound might indicate that a genre activity was still in process, particularly in the case of breakout small-group discussions or group work. In the case of paper flipping or laughter, these sounds sometimes contributed to an unfolding of genre, such as a break in lecture to consider a student question or an unexpected or unplanned moment in a PowerPoint sequence.

Another instance was paper flipping that anticipated the start of lab-report questions or, in the history class, the circle discussion. This is an important finding because, as we noted previously, we would not necessarily expect attention to the classroom soundscape to provide a way of navigating the shift and arrangement of genres. However, the embodied, lived experience of a classroom is certainly rich with sound apart from the mere vocal production of the teacher and students. Beyond simply contributing to the equipment of living, sound can indicate activity, change, and the dynamic sense of temporality that Mercer indicates are missing from studies of classrooms.

Another important theme that emerged in the keynote sounds was related to technology use broadly considered: the clicking of keyboards as students and TAs type, the sounds of pens and writing along with the paper flipping described previously, and the sound of laptops opening programs as moments of interaction to enact genres. Classroom technologies offer a rather overt example of genre multiplicity, as we see a lecture unfold and students writing notes using a pen and paper or by typing them out. Again, Mercer’s “dynamic aspect” can be found in our sonic accounts, this time of media use in the classroom, and helps illustrate the ways recurrence and typification occur. Consider the following from the history classroom observation: “The instructor moves to the chalk board and there is a quiet sigh. Notebooks are shifted into position to take notes.” Or consider another example from the nutrition classroom observation: “Paper flipping occurs in unison as students follow along (as before) with their printed copies of the slides.” In both examples, media helps mark the recurrent exigence that calls for a typified response, namely a lecture calling for students to transcribe notes. Lecture activity and note-taking mark two different typified forms, but they are embedded within the larger unfolding of the classroom genreing activity and, one might go so far as to say, symbiotic with one another. Indeed, a postmortem account of either the lectures or note-taking is likely to attune to the features of the typification, whereas the sonic account attunes to the “dynamic aspect” or unfolding of genre activity. What such an account provides is a way to coherently map (through sonic events) the unfolding of a class event, including multiple intersecting genres or genre activities. The vantage we find through a sonic lens is one that accounts for the kinds of liminal spaces in which we begin to carve out what are characterized as genres, grounding the rhetorical conception of genres not only as exemplars but also as rhetorical, material, lived, embodied, and temporally bound practices.

Signal Sounds

Signal sounds appeared with the most frequency in the observation transcriptions, with coverage occasionally as low as 40% of coded sounds but more frequently in the 50-60% range. This is notable because, while higher than other categories, the coverage assigned to signal sounds suggests a good deal of sonic activity was not coded within this category.

Among the signal sounds coded in the transcripts, the interplay of nonverbal sounds with implicit genre unfolding is striking. We might have expected more explicit, oral/verbal language pointing to genre unfolding, such as “now we will begin our lecture on X,” “Please consult your group and discuss the following concepts,” or “Look at Case Study #5,” but we found instead that even in the cases where we identified “explicit unfolding,” there was less introductory or pointed language. In some cases, explicit unfolding did not occur in the realm of instructor talk, orality, or dialogue, but instead it took place in what was written up on the chalkboard or in a subsequent PowerPoint slide. Often, genres simply began and implicit unfoldings offered more of the lived experience of transitions between genres. For instance, during the biology lab, the instructor signaled that the class would begin aggregating data when she “goes to the chalkboard and asks questions.” Similarly, in the history class, during one point in the large-group discussion, “the instructor moves to the chalkboard, and there is a quiet sigh.” At another point, “The instructor takes the chalk and stands at the board, ready for a student response.” Though there is not yet an explicit unfolding, the sounds of these movements offer an anticipatory implicit unfolding of or shift into a new genre—possibly embedded within the ongoing class discussion or possibly moving out of discussion entirely.

Signal sounds also remind us of Stone’s argument that a sonic approach offers distinct methodological advantages when examining texts. Stone tells us that a sonic approach to texts helps attune us to “modes not generally foregrounded in scholarly discourse: simultaneity, dissonance, and multiplicity.” Simultaneity occurs throughout the observational transcriptions: oral lectures and slides operate together, along with side talk and a wealth of ambient sounds that can interject themselves into the unfolding of the genred space, interrupting or intervening in those spaces. In moments of dissonance, the ambient or even keynote side talk clashes with the signal sounds—often the sort of genre activity examined in postmortem or situational genre studies (Graham and Whalen)—and these ambient or keynote sounds also shape the particular invocation of genres. Consider the following rich example of signal sounds, which demonstrates how simultaneity, dissonance, and multiplicity are foregrounded through attention to the soundscape (rather than any particular exemplars of the genre activities):

Instructor clarifies a response and group side conversations settle down. Instructor speaks quickly and uses her hands to show injection. The PPT slides for lecture points have a different design from the slides for discussion questions. The instructor’s voice maintains a constant speed, but also volume and tone with only occasional dips up for points of attention. She pulls up a video of wasp larvae. A little side conversation cooresponds [sic] to the Instructor having turned the lights off. Side conversation becomes very low.

In contrast to seeing genres as “overlapping,” a sonic approach helps articulate how genre activities unfolding into different activities may absorb, digest, and unfold within one another. In other words, rather than listening or looking for the discrete boundaries of genre activity (even when those boundaries may be acknowledged as overlapping), a sonic approach renegotiates our notion of boundary, of part, and of whole.

Concluding Remarks

In relation to implicit and explicit genre unfolding, our coding has re-emphasized for us the importance of conceptualizing the lived classroom experience as a complex, multimodal whole with a multiplicity of genres working within, amongst, and against each other. After mapping out the disruption of ambient sounds (such as the nearby stomp class in the dance class observation), as well as the occurrence of implicit unfolding in nonverbal visual and sonic realms, we believe more than ever that methodologies must be developed for garnering an attunement to classroom genres as experienced. While we agree that studies such as Nystrand et al., which build elaborate discourse models from a single instance (such as selecting and focusing on questions), provide us with invaluable pedagogical findings, we also maintain that exploring pedagogical attitudes toward the striking of an umbrella on the floor to emphasize discussion points, or the shutting of a laptop indicating implicit unfolding, should not be ignored.

However, as we advocate for further studies that bring together soundscape studies with rhetorical genre theory to understand the complex, lived experience of classrooms, we also acknowledge some of the difficulties involved in developing these methodologies. First, in seeking IRB approval, a request to make field recordings of nonverbal classroom soundscapes was rejected. While classroom discourse or dialogue is often recorded and transcribed, the request was seen as not allowing students to opt out of the study. While particular student responses could be excluded in a verbal sense, the IRB board ruled that singular coughs or chair movements could not be excluded from a field recording. Although the IRB board only required informed consent from instructors before allowing us to record written field notes based on listening, the murky territory of how much claim a human subject has to his or her cough or the shutting of a door is an interesting and problematic one.

Another challenge to our study, which might be addressed in the future, is the fuzziness of codes that rely on function (as opposed to codes based on categories of source types). Although we were able to achieve sufficient intercoder reliability for these codes, the possibility of the same sound source (such as laughter) being coded in different ways depending on context presents challenges. However, this has as much to do with temporal focus as it does with attuning ourselves to the soundscape. Mercer notes that temporality “problematizes the use of categories such as ‘types of questions’ and other atemporal coding schemes for studying the educational functions of discourse” given that “[t]he same act repeated cannot be assumed to be ‘the same’ in repetition, because it builds historically on the earlier event” (36).

Despite the challenge of working with a notion of classrooms as complex and embodied spaces that perform an arrangement of multiple multimodal genres, we argue that studies of this kind need to continue alongside other studies of genre in classroom spaces. Ultimately, we argue that the fuzziness of listening and the theoretical bridge between soundscape studies and rhetorical genre theory helps to deepen our attunement to the complexity of studying lived experiences in a dynamic, temporal form. For genre studies, the implications are significant as we continue to explore how individual performances of a genre are enacted and how we theorize and define “context.” For soundscape studies, listening for genres allows us to understand sound in typified performances.   

Additionally, we hope that this study suggests a pedagogical shift. In addition to the value of pedagogies involving soundscapes and teaching soundscape awareness, as Hocks and Comstock as well as Rodrigue et al. outline, we believe that instructors also benefit from listening to classroom soundscapes. As teachers, both of us are used to listening for changes in a classroom—the rhythm of a group discussion tapering off or an unmistakable pause or silence. However, we believe a fully sonic approach to understanding our students’ experience of our classrooms requires further exploration of the complexities of listening to/in pedagogical spaces. If instructors are only listening for what we expect, what we desire, or the boundaries of a genre being performed, we may be missing the multiplicity of genres and genre unfolding that takes place in our classrooms. What makes such multiplicity of genres and genre unfolding important is what these moments reveal about particular performances of genre and, more crucially, genre learning. Each performance is fashioned by a configuration of the material space and its sonic affordances and agency, the individuals who comprise our audience and also our fellow composers (shaped by their affective, cognitive, and physical experiences and embodiment in the world), and our own understanding of the genre we are invoking. We suggest, then, that while we may be attuned to the “signal sounds” of our classroom genres, we must also become attuned to the ambient sounds of our spaces and the keynote sounds that ground our classrooms and establish their more subtle tonalities and dissonances.

[1] IRB approval was granted through Long Island University, Post.

[2] Such courses were capped at twenty students.

[3] Our keyword analysis included root words and stem words (forms of root words with affixes).

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