Canadian Mixtape: Sounding Out Digital Authoring Practices with Undergraduate Writer/Designers

Contributor: Rich Shivener (corresponding author), with Hannah Anderson, Mihnea Dumitru, Oyindamola Esho, Jessica Oliveira Da Silva, Varsha Ramnarine Singh, Julia Vaiano, & Ademi Yestayeva
Affiliation: York University
Email: richshiv at yorku.ca
Released: 3 December 2021
Published: Spring 2022 (Issue 26.2)


A cassette tape that is unspooling on a red background
Fig. 1: Cassette photo by Pexels on Pixabay

Widely amplified by the writing studies discipline, the term soundwriting is defined as a composition that makes use of audio techniques and strategies. In their introduction to the collection Soundwriting Pedagogies, Kyle Stedman and Courtney Danforth (2018) argued soundwriting is a "chance to use the available means of sound recording, collecting, and editing to make something new" ("Part 5.0: Conclusion"). The term is loosely defined on purpose, for soundwriting calls for creative uses of "music, silence, sound effects, sound interaction, and voice" ("Part 3.0: Soundwriting Pedagogies (A Literature Review)"). In courses that include soundwriting assignments, student have created podcast episodes, soundscapes (e.g., ambient and otherwise narrator-less audio montages), and remixes of songs and myriad recording sounds. Soundwriting Pedagogies indeed created an exigence for Intermediate Digital Authoring, as Soundwriting contributors such as Jennifer J. Buckner and Kirsten Daley (2018) and Michael Burns, Timothy R. Dougherty, Ben Kuebrich, & Yanira Rodríguez (2018) demonstrate that sound can be approached creatively and flexibly to include students’ abilities and interests.

The purpose of this webtext is to contribute new knowledge to soundwriting pedagogies in three primary ways: First, based on a course titled Intermediate Digital Authoring and its "sonic essay" assignment, it foregrounds voices in a Canadian university’s professional writing program, situated in a sonically rich location that has received little attention in writing studies. The Greater Toronto Area is known for its rich, cultural tapestry and arts scene, cultivating the likes of The Weeknd, Drake, Shawn Mendes, Feist, and Rush. Amid the hum of creative energies in a major city, York University’s professional writing program is one of few in the country in a standalone writing department (e.g., University of Winnipeg’s Department of Rhetoric, Writing and Communications). This webtext aims to turn up the volume on York’s curriculum for local and international peers, similar to the aims of Stephanie Bell (2019) and Derek Mueller, Andrea Williams, Louise Wetherbee Phelps, and Jennifer Clary-Lemon’s (2017) book Cross-Border Networks in Writing Studies. While YU’s program and Intermediate Digital Authoring do reflect American universities’ approaches to digital media composing and soundwriting, these institution specific parallels have not been articulated in our field’s scholarship. Put differently, this Canadian mixtape is our intro to the field, especially one that is working hard to recruit and honour international voices in scholarship and graduate programs now more than ever. It’s also contributing to A.D. Carson’s (2020) definition of the "mixtap/e/ssay." Carson’s 2020 rap album i used to love to dream is a mixtap/e/ssay that critically and creatively entwines beats, samples, and Carson’s rhymes to "more accurately describe that particular loneliness & alienation that exists in my mind between where i’m from & where i’m at currently" ("introduction"). Mixtap/e/ssays can be artifacts of emplaced experience. Emplaced experiences broadcast from Canada are largely missing from soundwriting scholarship.

Second, the webtext’s featured assignment demonstrates an approach to soundwriting that emphasizes Damon Krukowski’s (2017) definition of "thick listening." As Krukowski argued in The New Analog, writing and "thick listening" to sound goes beyond signal—the final, seemingly polished audio—and seeks out the noise. Singer hesitations, drum count-offs, and background laughter are examples of noise. "When we listen to noise," Krukowski wrote, "we listen to the space around us and to the distance between us" (p. 197). Noise also includes liner notes and materials (e.g., introductions and acknowledgments) that were commonplace in vinyl record and CD jackets. Without noise, a song loses depth and feeling, Krukowski has argued. Reflecting Krukowski’s argument, my recent approach to teaching soundwriting invited students to compose sonic essays—to do some recording, arranging, and thick listening to the signal and noise of their digital authoring practices as aspiring professional writers. Soundwriting is a means to making sense of the everyday ephemera, tools, and bodies (to wit: the productive noise) that figure into digital authoring. For an instructor, "thick listening" is a means to better understanding a community of digital authors and their (un)available means of production, especially when high-end tools and resources are out of the students’ immediate grasps. Thick listening establishes a course’s rhetorical context.

Last but not least, this webtext demonstrates how students took up the principles outlined in Cheryl Ball, Jennifer Sheppard, and Kristin Arola’s (2018) book Writer/Designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Projects. In this webtext co-designed with students, I focus on the signal and noise of the first major assignment of the course, a three-to-five minute sonic essay about a digital authoring tool or practice. While the primary goal of the assignment was to learn the rhetorical moves of sonic essays and, more broadly, podcasts, a secondary but important goal included building a community of "writer/designers" in York University’s professional writing program. As the sonic essays below demonstrate, we strived toward these goals, and we learned about a range of digital authoring experiences among our small community. Taken together, this webtext and its collection of sonic essays amount to an important contribution to digital writing-based teaching and learning, for Writer/Designer that has yet to be explored critically in an undergraduate Canadian context. It also contributes more voices to the growing movement of soundwriting pedagogies in rhetoric and composition studies (see Danforth, Faris, & Stedman 2018). And because soundwriting pedagogy is gaining traction as a site of inquiry, we need to reflect critically on more iterations in our scholarship, for sound-editing and composing tools are constantly updating and evolving. We invite you to listen to this webtext, then, as an archive of the Canadian voices in this growing conversation, which is primarily rooted in the United States. Soundwriting Pedagogies amplified the voices, bodies and objects in emplaced locations across the US, becoming a rather diverse, cultural mixtape of instructor-student projects. However, the lack of sound stemming from Canada, namely the Greater Toronto Area, means this growing conversation is missing international and cross-cultural perspectives that make up a great deal of the United States' northern neighbour.

And so our mixtape begins. Beginning with institutional context and theoretical orientations, this webtext moves to the course’s sound projects that include sonic essays, transcripts, and rationales. We then describe how we prepared for the projects, ending with a discussion of future directions and limitations of the sonic essay assignment. Our webtext approach is a bit like VH1’s Behind the Music (see Kohn, 2017) or the Song Exploder podcast (Hirway, 2014). In those series, the final projects are out there and subject to behind-the-scenes commentary, where we learn about pains and pleasures that accompanied said project.

Liner Notes: Institutional and Course Context

In the Fall 2017 issue of Kairos, "On Multimodal Composing" (Alvarez et al. 2017) depicted scenes of composing and life experiences of graduate students and their professor. In addition to contributing to soundwriting conversations, this webtext is positioned as a sort of replication of "On Multimodal Composing," focusing instead on an undergraduate digital writing course, Intermediate Digital Authoring, offered at York University in Toronto in fall 2019 to third- and fourth-year students.

Intermediate Digital Authoring is part of the Writing Department’s professional writing major. The Writing Department does not have a first-year composition program, but it does have first-year courses specifically for professional writing students. In fact, my colleague Stephanie Bell (2019) has written about her podcast centred course for teaching research practices to first-year students. As Bell wrote, "students find that they are participants in a communal process of constructing the podcast show’s sound, feel and goals" while learning critical research skills (p. 57). Beyond courses like Bell’s, students can enroll in a three-course stream in digital writing that prepares them for graduate study as well as careers in content creation and technical writing. They take the courses Writing in Digital Cultures, then Intermediate Digital Authoring, followed by Digital Authoring Practicum, a capstone course in which fourth-year professional writing students collaborate with community partners. From Rich’s perspective, Intermediate Digital Authoring is situated at the intersection of theory and praxis, where students apply theories in readings they engaged with in Writing in Digital Cultures (e.g., The Routledge Handbook of Digital Writing & Rhetoric) through the use of digital tools and programs. They leave Intermediate Digital Authoring ready to work for clients who request rhetorical support and guidance on tasks such as podcasting, video-editing, and HTML coding. They also apply learning from that course to the department’s course streams in book publishing, organizational writing, and periodical writing.

Situated in Toronto, York is the third largest university in Canada, serving more than 49,000 undergraduate students and 6,000 graduate students. Many students are international and first-generation, commute from homes all across the Greater Toronto Area, and work part-time jobs (see York University, "Quick-Facts: Undergraduate Headcount"; StudentMoveTO, 2016, "An overview of early findings March 2016"). Like many Canadian universities, York’s fall and winter terms last 12 weeks. These factors stand out when compared to the institutional and cultural tapestry of Rich’s previous university, the University of Cincinnati, which is mostly white, more residential, and comprises 16-week semesters (2018, "University of Cincinnati Student Fact Book Fall 2018: Five-Year Trends"; University Housing). By being more residential, for example, University of Cincinnati students have more access to computer labs and learning technology, the kinds of resources that our students need for digital writing courses (i.e., when they don’t own such resources).

To that end, Rich designed three projects for Intermediate Digital Authoring that would occur over 12 weeks: a sonic essay, a short video essay, and a web design, which features the former projects. Each project, then, was allotted a month of our time to explore one or more digital authoring practice. Furthermore, to promote access, each project was tied to open access digital authoring programs: for example, the audio editing program Audacity, the video editing program OpenShot, and Creative Commons web design templates available at HTML5up.net. Intermediate Digital Authoring’s learning objectives drew from the goals of Kristin Arola’s course "Multimedia Authoring Course" (Arola, Ball, and Sheppard, 2018, p. 37) and the Writing Program Administration’s Outcomes for First-Year Composition. Students were required to:

  • Understand rhetorical strategies and design techniques for promoting writing across digital platforms
  • Explore a range of digital writing and publishing platforms
  • Adapt composing processes for a variety of technologies and modalities
  • Analyze and discuss copyright and circulation issues affecting writers in a digital world

Intermediate Digital Authoring’s alignment with WPA outcomes and Writer/Designer shows that it’s not so different from American approaches to teaching multimodality. However, our point isn’t to say our approach is radically different—it’s to say our voices have been on mute, and they’ve been lacking in scholarship of soundwriting pedagogies. The Canadian focus here widens the geographic and cultural contours of soundwriting in the writing studies field.

A-Side: Sonic Essays on Digital Authoring

Fig. 2: A mixtape image that represents the course's collection of sonic essays.

For purposes of demonstrating a range of approaches to sound, this next section presents seven sonic essay projects on digital authoring tools and practices. Considered a Canadian mixtape, due to its range of genres, topics and soundwriting approaches, these projects are based on Rich’s assignment sheet, which you are free to download and modify as you see fit. (Again, this approach honours the open-access spirit of the course and the Digital Media and Composition Institute (DMAC), which permitted participants to transform and remix their content.) Our sonic essays include voiceovers accompanied by Creative Commons sound effects and music, and our rationales describe processes, feelings, and theories that supported our projects. We hope these project examples are pedagogical, helping teachers and students understand the affordances and challenges of such a soundwriting assignment in the context of the rich, cultural tapestry of York University and the Greater Toronto Area. In addition, with the exception of removing from student record details, we’ve chosen to keep these essays as they were at the time of submission (October 2019) so that audiences can see different approaches to citations and scripting.

The Sonic Essays and Rationales

Hannah’s Essay

Hannah narrated some challenges of composing with digital media, beginning with a mock interviewer. Hannah’s rationale offered some critical reflections on using music to shift how listeners think about her past struggles with digital media. "Even though they might be a little embarrassing," she wrote, "I added the music to show that I intended the audience to laugh at my stories, not feel bad for me."

Mihnea’s Essay

Mihnea described his fears with going public with digital media, whether on Facebook or the gaming platform Steam. Mihnea also recorded voices of his peers in order to convey his fear. As he wrote in his rationale about working with a cacophony, "what I had imagined was a chaotic overlap of the various voices in an effort to display how common and uncontrolled our social media use is; I want to scare the listeners."

Oyindamola’s Essay

Oyindamola argued that Microsoft Word, while mundane, is a bridge to digital media authoring. More specifically, it’s a bridge to writing about music on her blog. In her rationale, Oyindamola described a random happening that inspired her introduction. "While I was working on finding sounds that I could use for my introduction, my brother walked into my room and said, ‘oh this is nice you’re working on a podcast’ in a funny voice."

Jessica’s Essay

Jessica recalled her failures with composing an Instagram post in relation to public transit in Toronto, pondering why she made her posts private. In her rationale, she described using public transit noise to relate to her audience. "I choose train noises instead of general busy public noises because the motif of trains is one of connectedness and public encounters." She also described the challenges of finding the right music.

Varsha’s Essay

Varsha narrated her experiences with photography and social media, the focal points of her digital authoring practices. Her narration was accompanied by DJ Quad’s lo-fi hip-hop, a genre many students in my classes turn to for studying. Like Jessica, Varsha sought out the right music, writing in her rationale that "deciding on the right music in addition to the tone of my voice and volume of sound made the biggest of differences in my composition process."

Julia’s Essay

Julia cooked up an essay about maintaining a blog on gluten-free eating, something that ran counter to her family’s traditions. The essay about her process contains a phone interview with her grandmother as well as uplifting background music. Writing about her aural decisions, Julia wrote that "an essential element of aural mode is music. I think background music is integral in establishing the mood, tone, and overall atmosphere of a podcast. It’s essential that the background track is carefully selected because it can alter the delivery and message of a podcast."

Ademi’s Essay

Ademi composed an essay about composing in two languages on Instagram and YouTube. "I provide subtitles in both languages for my YouTube channel, for example, but the videos are still in English, because that’s the language I need in order to reach out to a wider audience, especially if I want to be able to represent my home and cultural background." The opening seconds of her essay included a clip of her speaking Russian, which was designed "to set a scene, so to speak, for English-speaking audiences, and show the contrast of when I switch from one language to another as to not make over 1/3 of my online audience feel left out."

B-Side: Reflecting on the Mixtape, Sonic Theory and Praxis

The Intermediate Digital Authoring mixtape demonstrates that sonic essays depend on thick composing, because students are both recording and collecting myriad sounds and reflecting on (read: thick listening to) those sounds in their rationales. Krukowski (2017) discouraged us from recording and listening in isolation, rather encouraging us to mix our signals (e.g., our voiceovers) with environmental noise. Train sounds, voiceover hesitations, brief conversations with family members—these noises are "as communicative as signal" (Krukowski, 2017, p. 55) and shed light on the students’ lives as digital authors.

Krukowski’s The New Analog and Soundwriting Pedagaogies were primary sources of inspiration for this project, and I was also inspired by writing studies scholars who have written extensively about musical rhetorics. As I’ve written about else (Shivener, in press), writing studies has a long playlist of enriching rhetorical theory and composition pedagogies by drawing on sonic theories (Alexander, 2015; Banks, 2010; Ceraso, 2014; Hawk, 2010; Rickert, 2013; Sirc, 2005; Stedman, 2012; VanKooten, 2016). Steph Ceraso's, Thomas Rickert's, and Crystal VanKooten’s works were—and still are—useful because they theorized that sensations and emotions accompany musical composing and listening, whether Brian Eno’s Microsoft Windows startup music (Rickert, p. 144) or samples of a choir singing Brahms’s Requiem. Rickert and VanKooten valued the "chora," or a space in which "we compose and feel out meanings from diverse materials, patterns, emotions, bodies, and memories" (VanKooten, 2016). Sonic theory widens the rhetorical field. Space and the noise that recorders pick up from that space have rhetorical value. As such, thick composing-as-soundwriting calls for instructors to recognize and encourage creative uses of signal and noise. Furthermore, recent open access projects like Soundwriting Pedagogies and A.D. Carson’s (2020) i used to love to dream amplify the scholarly prowess of mixtapes and sonic collections that depend on emplaced experience.

In addition to sonic theory, the pedagogical design for Intermediate Digital Authoring was based on assignments and readings from a professional institute on digital composition and Ball, Arola, and Sheppard’s textbook Writer/Designer. When designing Intermediate Digital Authoring, Rich applied the principles and practices of the Digital Media and Composition (DMAC) Institute at The Ohio State University. Typically held in May or June, DMAC is a two-week institute with workshops from faculty and graduate students who teach sound, video, and accessibility practices in the context of writing and literacy studies. (A rich history of theory and praxis underpins DMAC, so my references include links to works by Jonathan Buehl (2016), Scott Lloyd DeWitt, Brian Harmon, Dundee Lackey, and Christina M. LaVecchia (2015), Margaret Price (2017), and Jason Palmeri and Ben McCorkle (2017) that illuminated the institute’s principles and topics in 2018. Also, this very webtext functions as an open access artifact of the institute’s assignments, something not all instructors have the privilege to practice first-hand.) At DMAC 2018, Rich composed an infographic, an audio description of that infographic, and a short video and transcript. After the institute, Rich integrated similar assignments into Intermediate Digital Authoring to test how they scaffolded for students. The sonic essay, then, served as a scaffold for a video project we composed later in the term. It was a means to putting sonic theories into practice and testing practices assigned at DMAC and in Ball, Arola, and Sheppard’s textbook Writer/Designer.

As our essays and rationales demonstrate, we applied theories of soundwriting and practices of DMAC and those found in Writer/Designer. According to the authors, "rhetoric is the study of making texts to effectively persuade an audience toward change (2018, p. 35). Chapter 2 of Writer/Designer, for example, discusses how writer/designers persuade audiences through multimodal texts, outlining five modes from which we might draw: linguistic, visual, aural, spatial, and gestural. The sonic essay invited us to draw on linguistic and aural modes, as we adapted brief alphabetic essays for three- to five-minute audio segments. In other words, we were applying Ball, Arola, and Sheppard’s argument that the aural mode provides multiple ways of communicating and understanding a message, including:

  • music
  • sound effects
  • ambient noise/sounds
  • silence
  • tone of voice in spoken language
  • volume of sound
  • emphasis and accent (2018, p. 16)

Such ways are integrated in our projects. As Ball, Arola, and Sheppard argued, writer/designer projects "might be a mix of original content created by you, plus content, such as images or video clips found on YouTube, that you integrate and relate to your rhetorical situation" (p. 172). We layered our voice recordings with Creative Commons sound effects and music, field sounds (e.g., Toronto Transit Commission subways; conversations with friends), and we revised and edited our sonic essays several times as we thought critically about silence, tone, and emphasis. Indeed, we were mixing and repurposing a range of rhetorical materials to enact digital authoring practices.

Furthermore, we found use in Ball, Arola, and Sheppard’s discussion on genres, especially dynamic genres. The authors stated that dynamic genres "do change and are often timeline based or require user interaction to work. Dynamic genres include videos, audio projects, websites, pop-up books, presentations, performances, and the like" (p. 67). In our course, we examined the dynamics of podcasts such as Canadaland’s Thunder Bay (McMahon, 2018), and CBC’s Someone Knows Something (Ridgen, 2016). Analyzing transcripts, sound effects, musical selections, and vocal tones helped us understand how podcasting professionals use such elements dynamically to evoke feelings and sensations about a topic, place, or person. When it was time to create our own sonic essays, we used timeline-based platforms such as Adobe Premiere, Apple Garageband, and Audacity, all of which are common in the podcasting world. In sum, working toward the role of writer/designer means we "must be able to consciously use different modes both alone and in combination to communicate [our ideas] to others" (p. 4).

Hidden Track: Feedback and Evaluation of the Sonic Essays

As noted, the sonic essay in Intermediate Digital Authoring was the first assignment of the course. Thus, I evaluated these projects generously, aiming to be more formative than critical and giving students ample time to revise and resubmit their work. Below are three items that encapsulate my approach: a sonic version of feedback on the students’ sonic essays, its transcript, and a sample feedback letter in which I respond to a student’s submission. (I’ve chosen not to include their name or identifying information, as the comments are more important than the author’s identity.) Overall, students produced effective sonic essays and demonstrated working knowledge of theories of digital rhetoric and writing, even if they didn’t directly cite them in rationales (before revisions at the end of the term). The latter skill called for more intervention and guidance on my end, and I attribute part of that to my decision to prioritize "making sound" versus theorizing its role in writing. Their understanding of theories snowballed as the course went on.

Rich’s Feedback Essay and Sample Letter

I also attribute some shortcomings of the assignment to the strange, hybrid nature of the rationale that I asked students to submit with their sonic essays. They were asked to explain their process and discuss how it speaks to theories of rhetoric. At this level of a professional writing project, these should be two separate essays, with one falling more in line with technical writing ("how I made the text"); the other, a rhetorical analysis. My future idea, then, is to ask students to compose a midterm essay in which they complete a rhetorical analysis of a peer’s sonic essay. Doing so might strike a better balance between practice and theory.

The Next Mixtape: Concluding Thoughts and Future Signals

In Intermediate Digital Authoring, the sonic essay was a means of invention for the video essay and web design projects that followed it. From my perspective, it was an inventory of students’ digital authoring practices, practices they might explore further in proceeding projects. For Hannah, Mihnea, Oyindamola, Jessica, Varsha, Julia, and Ademi, composing a sonic essay was difficult and uncomfortable yet amusing and rewarding. Collectively, we also relied on our creativity and prior knowledge in teaching and meeting the goals of the course content. As Jessica noted in her rationale, "I learned I have to listen to my background music in completion with my eyes closed, not bopping along, so that I could understand how this music would anchor my words." Sounding out digital authoring practices helped us understand how our senses figure into digital, rhetorical projects. Furthermore, video and design projects deepened such an understanding. As Mihnea’s video essay demonstrated, the sonic essay parlayed into an embodied argument about disengaging from the digital world.

Mihnea's Concept in 60 video.

The iteration of Intermediate Digital Authoring presented here was limited in scope and inward facing, as we focused on our own practices rather than studying the work of fellow digital authors or formulating arguments about a topic of choice (e.g., as one might in a first-year composition or argumentation course). A future iteration of Intermediate Digital Authoring might integrate and remix Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs’s (2007) "Writing about Writing" (WAW) pedagogy, in which students "leave the course with increased awareness of writing studies as a discipline, as well as a new outlook on writing as a researchable activity rather than a mysterious talent" (pp. 559–560). WAW pedagogy has its share of resistance and revisions, insofar as some students might be dismayed when "they [can’t] write arguments, research papers, and literary analyses as they had in high school" (Rudd, 2019, p. 104). However, Intermediate Digital Authoring might be a moment to re-imagine Mysti Rudd’s (2019) argument about writing about writing pedagogy: "[digital authoring] students will have explored their identities as writers and reflected upon the usefulness of the premises they previously held about [digital authoring] and readings [related to it]." I’m not prepared to say that it deployed a digital authoring about digital authoring (DADA, we might say) approach. However, it was an inward-facing experience for myself and students, with the goal of preparing us for outward-facing projects in our fourth-year digital authoring practicum. We had to become a community before we could do any work with communities.


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