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Faithful Listening

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Reviewed by Chris Friend and Marisol Brito
Watchful” by Fio; CC BY-NC 2.0


When you read through and comment on your students’ work, how do you assess the twenty-fifth essay you read as faithfully — as painstakingly, as generously, as truthfully — as you did the first?

My answer is that I literally listen as I read. Using a text-to-speech program like TextAloud, I listen to each paper as I simultaneously read it with my eyes. When my eyes are tempted to skim, I make sure my ears hear every last word.

This kind of listening, I argue, promotes fidelity to our students and their work and encourages us to read more truthfully and generously.

I was first struck by the difference between reading and listening when I revisited Jane Austen’s Emma eight years after reading it for the first time. Instead of reading it, however, I listened to an unabridged audio recording read by English actress Juliet Stevenson. I was quickly riveted by Stevenson’s vocal depiction of Miss Bates — Jane Fairfax’s aunt. When I initially read the novel, I had pegged Miss Bates as a one-joke character. Austen, it seemed, was testing some special kind of stylistic stunt-pilotry with Miss Bates, giving herself the task of writing an endless variety of banal remarks to put in Miss Bates’s mouth.

Take, for instance, Stevenson’s performance of this typical Miss Bates dialogue from early in Volume II wherein Miss Bates shares the news of Mr. Elton’s marriage: “Where could you possibly hear it, Mr. Knightley? For it is not five minutes since I received Mrs. Cole’s note — no, it cannot be more than five — or at least ten — for I had got my bonnet and spencer on, just ready to come out — I was only gone down to speak to Patty again about the pork — Jane was standing in the passage — were not you, Jane? — for my mother was so afraid that we had not any salting-pan large enough. So I said I would go down and see, and Jane said, ‘Shall I go down instead? for I think you have a little cold, and Patty has been washing the kitchen.’ — ‘Oh! my dear,’ said I — well, and just then came the note. A Miss Hawkins — that’s all I know. A Miss Hawkins of Bath. But, Mr. Knightley, how could you possibly have heard it? for the very moment Mr. Cole told Mrs. Cole of it, she sat down and wrote to me. A Miss Hawkins — ” The stops and starts in an effort to provide unnecessary context, the pause to appeal to others to support her story, and the choice of one hundred words when ten would do–Stevenson’s reading manages to capture the hallmarks of Miss Bates’s speech with maddening fidelity.

As I listened back through the novel, I discovered that while I remembered Miss Bates’s basic plot function, I didn’t remember any of her actual lines. Miss Bates hovers purposefully between comic foil and tragic spinster, and throughout the novel, Austen explores the paradoxical relationship between Miss Bates’s social standing and public reception. An early description from the narrator highlights this tension, paying special attention to what might happen if Miss Bates were unfortunate enough to be disliked: “Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favour; and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who might hate her into outward respect.” While I was not on the list of those “who might hate her,” I was certainly among those who had dismissed her.

The audiobook wouldn’t let me dismiss her so easily, however. Miss Bates’s speeches were too short to fast forward through and too long to ignore. I found myself in the affective position of Miss Bates’s audience, captive to her by turns unintentionally comedic and frustrating prose. If I wanted to tune Miss Bates out, I had to confront consciously my own refusal to listen to her. The audio asked me to be present to Miss Bates’s words in a way that hadn’t happened when I read the book.

The experience showed me the generosity encouraged by the practice of listening by forcing me to focus my attention on the person speaking as much as the speaker’s words. My strict attention to content is what allowed me to reduce Miss Bates to a caricature and brazenly skip her dialogue. When that dialogue was embodied in a voice instead of a text — that is, when I had to give up control over how fast I could experience her words — I was less likely to simply dismiss it. An audio file granted my neighbor a voice and asked me to listen.

Hearing and seeing are not mutually exclusive, however. In fact, my attention to language is most faithful when I listen to something as I’m reading it, when my eyes and ears work together. In a 2009 issue of The International Journal of Listening that was specifically devoted to ethics, Pat Gehrke draws out a helpful analogy between the eye and ear that reinforces this point: “[T]he way in which ethics and listening function may be much like the eye and the ear: they rely upon one another, shape one another, feed sound-images to one another, and to try to shut one off or close one out will inevitably alter the operation of both” (6). Rather than acting as a substitute for the eye, the ear ideally functions as the eye’s partner. So too does a commitment to faithful hearing work in tandem with faithful seeing.

Listening forces us to read differently and opens up a connection between the two kinds of criticism Laura Marks investigates in Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. Marks draws a distinction between “haptic criticism” and “optic criticism,” arguing that the former helps us maintain the “wetness” of the word that tends to become “dry” when absorbed through the eye alone (Jesse Stommel gives a practical application of Marks’s insight in his discussion of House of Leaves). I propose that listening opens up a third kind of criticism — an “aural” one — that helps bridge the conceptual and material gap between touch and sight. The greatest discovery I’ve made using audio files involves reading not in place of but while listening. The sensory combination of my eyes on the text, my headphone-covered ears attentive to the audio file, and my hands on the physical book (pen and metallic straightedge in hand) — this is when my reading becomes most active, my attention to the speaker and spoken word most intense and sustained.

Moreover, the discipline of faithful listening reinforces a commitment at the heart of education. In an article on collaborative peer review, Sean Michael Morris describes how the journal Hybrid Pedagogy itself addresses a listening problem within the academy: “I believed that…colleges would run better if they listened closely to their troops on the ground. I was sure there was knowledge lost at every turn, simply because no one was listening” (emphasis mine). While Morris may be speaking metaphorically here, I think his principle can be actualized through the literal practice of listening and taking the time to hear, rather than just look at, our neighbors’ words.

Faithful listening, then, becomes one way for us to model the educational environment we wish to create. Listening to audio files is not the only way to encourage or practice this discipline, but it is an effective start.

Every semester, I assess at least 300 papers. Ideally, I would have time to read each paper on its own, but time constraints force me to read them in bulk. When I sit down to grade, I’m going to offer comments on at least five or six papers at a sitting, and if the papers respond to similar prompts, it’s easy to let my methodical attention slip. I have started having my students turn in electronic copies of every paper so that I can have a text-to-speech program read every paper aloud as I look through it. Functionally, I read every paper twice: once with the aid of the audio file and another as I go back through the text to fill in the comment boxes I’ve opened up. Yes, the audio files promote efficiency by regulating my response time, but they also make sure that I’m attending to every word my students have written. This is my commitment to them.

I’m convinced that I can’t be the only teacher using audio files in this way. Yet, if there is a body of scholarship devoted to the theoretical and practical ramifications of this technology, I’ve yet to find it. My insights are admittedly discipline and learning-level specific — college composition and literature courses. However, the commitment to improving reading, writing and listening is interdiscplinary.

I offer this article as a provocation to the Hybrid Pedagogy community. Why hasn’t a larger body of scholarship developed around this technology? What are the missing or theoretically problematic exigencies for faithful listening? Where should the discipline of faithful listening best be deployed? How would the insights above play themselves out in the sciences as opposed to the humanities? Who benefits from this discipline most or least? If you have answers to these questions or others I haven’t thought of, let me know. I promise to listen.

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