Transcript: [jubilant sound of ringing church bells fades in and out] Every Christmas Eve, my extended family eats dinner at my grandparents’ house. We squeeze around the table in the dining room, the thick scent of incense from the pre-meal Catholic mass still clinging to our hair and clothes. A red stained-glass light fixture gives the space a warm glow. Before the meal my grandfather breaks the Eucharistic wafer [sound of wafer snapping], putting a glob of honey on each of the papery shards. He says a prayer and goes around the table, using the honey to make a sticky sign of the cross on each of our foreheads. [sounds of dinner conversation and ambient noise begin] A feast of family favorites is laid out before us: steaming bowls of homemade pierogi, breaded chicken and pork tenderloin, mashed potatoes, crunchy coleslaw, sweetened carrots, heaps of cookies and candies; a smorgasbord of distinct smells, textures, and tastes. [Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” fades in and out quickly] The holiday stylings of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby mingle with the sounds of silverware making contact with plates [sounds of silverware scratching plates], ice rattling in glasses. [Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” fades in, gets louder] Their crooning punctuates and sometimes overpowers our conversations. [“White Christmas” fades out] The night winds down. [sounds of dinner conversation and ambient noise start to fade] Stuffed and drowsy, we linger over dessert and coffee until someone suggests it’s time to wash the dishes. [dinner sounds fade out completely and are replaced by the sounds of vigorous water spraying and dishwashing, which eventually fade to silence]
Things have changed over the years.
My grandfather is no longer with us. Grandma has taken over the wafer ceremony, which we now do in grandpa’s honor. The house looks slightly different due to updates and renovations. And I have long since strayed from my Catholic upbringing. But the experience of the meal [a collage of dinner sounds, church bells, and Sinatra continues until the end of the track]—the mixture of sensory elements that creates the comforting vibe—remains the same. It’s the feeling of this sensory ritual that stays with me.
I’ve always been hyperaware of the ways that sensation affects my state of mind-body. Even as I write this, I need the conditions to be just right. I am sitting in my home office. There is music playing (Brian Eno’s Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror). My desk is full of trinkets and mementos: punk pins, an old canteen filled with pencils, distinctive rocks and seashells from places I’ve traveled. When I have writer’s block, I sometimes hold these things in my hands. I especially like the texture of the backs of seashells. For some reason, I believe that rubbing their smooth surfaces will stimulate my brain and bring me back to the words on the screen. I’m also drinking coffee out of my favorite mug. To my right, there is a small bowl of salted almonds resting on top of some research notes. The blinds are open and natural light floods the room. These are the kind of sensory conditions that increase my productivity. I know this from experience.
Despite my longtime sensitivity to sensation, I have only recently begun to consider how sensory experience might figure into my work as a teacher and scholar of digital writing and rhetoric. During research for my book Sounding Composition, I became interested in the multisensory nature of listening—in the ways that engaging with sound involves much more than our ears. While the book focuses primarily on connections between sound, vision, and touch, this plunge into the world of sound and the senses eventually led me to food science research on the connections between sound and taste—research that, in part, inspired the pedagogical work I share in this project. As I will describe throughout Sound Never Tasted So Good, food science research is one area that is opening up new avenues for understanding the complex interconnections among the senses. This research can serve as a heuristic for pedagogical experimentation in multimodal composition and rhetoric courses.
My aim in this project is to imagine new possibilities for incorporating sensory rhetorics into the classroom by treating rhetorical and compositional work more expansively. As Thomas Rickert reminds us, “rhetoric is compositional, broadly construed: the synthesis of multiple content threads of varying intensities, including discourses, symbols, colors, graphics, musics, sounds, haptic elements, and more, all as gathered within, conditioned by, and expressing a material and affective environment” (133). I wanted to find a way to bring into my teaching practices this multisensory, material, ecological approach to rhetoric—and by extension, composition. Sound Never Tasted So Good documents my first attempt at doing so.
Sound Never Tasted So Good features an audio-gustatory pedagogical experiment I conducted in 2015 at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). For the final project in a class called Sound, Composition, and Culture, I asked students to design a multisensory dining event, which required them to create original sonic compositions that complemented the visual design, smell, texture, and taste of a prepared meal. They also had to integrate into their sound designs food science research on the relationship between sound and the senses. The theme of the meal was “Comfort Food,” and the menu included an appetizer of homemade mac and cheese, an entree of pulled pork sandwiches and coleslaw, and a dessert of warm apple crisp with vanilla ice cream. Students invented this menu with an amateur chef we enlisted for the project, and we put on the event for students and faculty at the University of Maryland, College Park (more details about this event are provided in the “Liner Notes”). The goal of the project was to compose sound designs that—along with other design elements—would enhance and amplify feelings of comfort in our participants. In short, the multisensory dining event gave students an opportunity to think holistically about how sound works with other sensory modes and materials to shape experiences in specific ways.
Though a lot of time has passed since this pedagogical event took place, I find myself thinking about it often. Like the feeling of my family’s Christmas Eve dinner, the experience of the multisensory meal has stayed with me, prompting me to think about what multisensory education can or should look like. In Sound Never Tasted So Good, then, I want to take seriously a question that Elizabeth Ellsworth poses in Places of Learning: “What might become possible and thinkable if we were to take pedagogy to be sensational?” (24). Or, in this case, what might become possible and thinkable if we were to ask students to design multisensory experiences in addition to more traditional texts and multimodal projects? Further, how might a more explicit engagement with sensory rhetorics in the classroom change or complicate the ways we think about teaching multimodal composition?
In attempting to address such questions, Sound Never Tasted So Good builds upon and extends a recent cluster of rhetoric and composition scholarship that deals with the interrelated concepts of sound, embodiment, materiality, and space. In addition to treating sound as a semiotic compositional material or an object of study, scholars have begun to focus on the experience of and material engagement with sound in various situations and settings. For example, in “Singer, Writer: A Choric Exploration of Sound and Writing,” an experimental piece of video scholarship, Crystal VanKooten investigates chora—“an inventional method that is intuited and felt”—through the resonant, embodied sonic experience of singing in a choir. VanKooten’s provocative video raises questions about the experiential nature of sound and composing. Relatedly, Mary E. Hocks and Michelle Comstock argue in “Composing for Sound” that teaching students to tune in to sonic experiences at the level of the body can enhance their compositional practices. They write, “teaching sonic rhetorical engagement through fully embodied listening practices helps students to produce increasingly complex and sonically rich multimodal projects” (137). Bodily experience has begun to figure into disciplinary discussions of sound in significant ways; the field is moving toward considerations of sound that are not just meaningful, but immersive and multisensory.
Scholars have also been exploring the material nature of sound. Erin Anderson’s “Toward a Resonant Material Vocality for Digital Composition” and Jonathan Alexander’s “Glenn Gould and the Rhetorics of Sound” both examine, albeit in different contexts, the rhetorical and affective affordances of the recorded voice (and nondiscursive sound) as a malleable compositional material. Anderson and Alexander demonstrate how a focus on sound’s material possibilities can move beyond strictly semiotic sonic paradigms. More recently, in Resounding the Rhetorical, Byron Hawk offers a new materialist reading of sound as a quasi-object. For Hawk, sound “is part energy, part material force, and part relational exchange” (6-7). Quasi-objects, he explains, “are bound up with the energies that drive them, the ecologies that coproduce them, and relations that sustain and transform them” (7). Concentrating primarily on musical examples, Hawk shows how sonic composition—and composition in general—involves a host of human and nonhuman material relations that circulate, transduce, and cocompose ecologically.
An increased disciplinary attention to soundscapes has contributed to embodied and material understandings of sonic encounters as well. Kati Fargo Ahern’s “Tuning the Sonic Playing Field” and “Understanding Learning Spaces Sonically, Soundscaping Evaluations of Space” amplify the key role of sound in shaping our experiences of and relationships with place. Ahern is interested particularly in the pedagogical functions of soundscapes. Taking a more theoretical approach, in “The Sounds of Climate Change,” Comstock and Hocks draw on the work of sound artists Susan Philipsz and Bernie Krause to show how sound recordings can reveal humans’ inextricable entanglement with ecosystems. They contend that sound is “a significant rhetorical resource not only for documenting environmental toxicity but also for reshaping our very sense of time, place, and self as environment” (166, emphasis in original). And, alongside writing about soundscapes, rhetoric and composition scholars have also begun to publish soundscapes as scholarship. For instance, in Rhetorics Change/Rhetoric’s Change, which features texts and multimedia work from the 2016 Rhetoric Society of America conference, editors Jenny Rice, Chelsea Graham, and Eric Detweiler solicited a range of soundscapes, or what they refer to as “aural chora” (15). These soundscapes are offered “as ephemeral examples of what rhetoric scholarship might become as the field embraces sound not just as a phenomenon worthy of rhetorical analysis, but as a medium in, with, and through which scholars might create” (15).
As this brief overview illustrates, the field has embraced approaches to sound that involve much more than interpretation. The aforementioned scholarship acknowledges that sonic experiences involve various senses, environments, and ecologies. It also makes clear that composing with and in relation to sound has become a salient practice, especially in multimodal composition courses. While this sensuous approach to sound is a relatively recent development in rhetoric and composition, it is important to note that there is a substantial amount of work on the embodied, relational nature of sonic experience in sound studies writ large (Goodman; Daughtry; Sun Eidsheim; Voegelin). Further, research on black musical traditions particularly underscores the significance of sensory engagement in sonic experiences. For example, scholars such as Kodwo Eshun, Paul D. Miller, Julian Henriques, Alexander Weheliye, and Jennifer Stoever—to name just a few—have written at length on embodiment, sensation, identity, and technologies in the context of hip hop and other forms of black cultural production.
In addition to the work discussed above, Sound Never Tasted So Good has been inspired and informed by a wide range of scholarship on sound and the senses. Expanding on this work, my project offers a pedagogical experiment that asks students to consider how sonic experiences affect and are affected by bodies, technologies, objects, aesthetics, and environments, all of which in turn help to coproduce and cocompose sonic experiences.
Sound Never Tasted So Good also attempts to account for multisensory experience in fuller ways than previous scholarship on sound. In addition to hearing, sight, and touch, taste and smell play a significant role in the pedagogy I share. Ultimately, the sensational pedagogy I propose makes explicit the kinds of sensory rhetorics that all humans experience but rarely notice or think about, and thus has the potential to defamiliarize our everyday experiences of engaging with the world. I want to encourage students to become curious about their relationship with sensation—to consider how their lived experiences are entangled with complex, ambient ecologies. I am not sharing my students’ work so that it can be replicated exactly in others’ classrooms. Rather, I offer this experiment from my own classroom as one particular iteration of multisensory education that highlights fundamental ideas about multisensory education more broadly. Put differently, my intention in Sound Never Tasted So Good is not merely to share a specific assignment, but to use this assignment to delve deeper into the ways that sound can teach us about multisensoriality, and to explore what it means to “teach” sensory rhetorics. I believe that treating the senses as a vehicle for embodied inquiry can enliven how teachers and students think about multimodal composition. I also hope to inspire readers to take up sensory rhetorical work in their own pedagogies while recognizing the unpredictability and vulnerability involved in designing multisensory projects.
While I use the word “multisensory” frequently throughout this piece, the term does have limitations. On a very basic level, “multisensory” means involving multiple physiological senses. By singling out physiological senses, this definition isolates sensation from other perceptual engagements or involvements; it implies that humans (and other beings capable of sensation) are simply receptors that are somehow separate from the environments they inhabit. However, as J. J. Gibson has argued, human perception is not merely a human activity since it relies on and responds to the external environs being perceived. Scholars influenced by Gibson—like Tim Ingold—have also elaborated on this idea. In The Perception of the Environment, Ingold writes, “persons and things do not exist as bounded entities, set aside from their surroundings, but rather arise, each as a nexus of creative growth and development within an unbounded and continually unfolding field of relations. This is not to say that they are undifferentiated, or they all merge into a kind of blur. It is rather to argue that their differentiation is a function of their placement within the relational manifold” (xv). In other words, perception—which includes multisensoriality—is always emplaced, participatory, and ecological. The standard definition of “multisensory” I shared above does not encapsulate the expansive theories of perception put forth by thinkers like Gibson and Ingold.
Despite the limitations of the term “multisensory,” I decided to use it in this text for a couple of reasons. First, “multisensory design” is a well-known strategy in many fields—including architecture, product design, and sound art—and many of our course readings employed this term. “Multisensory” is a familiar transdisciplinary concept used to describe exactly the kind of work that my students and I were setting out to do. Second, I wanted to use the dining experiment and this essay as a means to explore how a more pronounced emphasis on multisensoriality might enhance current understandings of sensory rhetoric and its application to the classroom. In addition to sensory rhetorical work on single senses—sight, touch, sound—it is imperative that we give more attention to the ways that the senses work together to persuade and affect. Again, while “multisensory” is a useful term for these reasons, its literal definition is too narrow to capture the experiences I wish to describe. Thus, when “multisensory” appears in this piece, I intend it to invoke the kind of perceptual complexity portrayed in the work of Gibson and Ingold. In this essay, “multisensory” is meant to call to mind the many intricate ways that the perceptual is entangled with all of our engagements and involvements, which are always enmeshed with specific environments.
Finally, a note on structure: Sound Never Tasted So Good includes an “album” with each of the tracks that my students composed for a specific portion of the meal, as well as an “After-Dinner Debrief” that incorporates recordings of the discussion that took place after the meal. With accessibility in mind, I have provided multiple ways to engage with this album. By clicking on a track, readers can listen to the audio itself and/or read a detailed textual description of the soundtrack. The album also includes “Liner Notes,” both at the beginning of the album and for each of the main tracks. These notes—based on students’ artist statements—explain the intentions behind the soundtrack and contains images and, in one instance, a video of the event. While readers can engage with the tracks and notes in any way they wish, I have found it informative to play the soundtracks while reading the liner notes. There is also a “Bonus Track” that offers sample pairings for listening-tasting that readers may want to experiment with at home or in their classes.
In addition to the album itself, there are four “ambient texts”: “Enlivening Sonic Composition,” “Sensational Pedagogy,” “Food, Comfort, Sensation,” and “Sonic Education and Reeducation.” These texts are not simply written reflections that are separate from the experience of the multisensory dining event. As Rickert writes in Ambient Rhetoric, “Language does not grant things their being. Rather, language stems from the world, understood as a composite of meaning and matter.... Language is ambient, occasioned by the world” (102-103). With Rickert’s description of language in mind, I designed these ambient texts to enact the ways that my thinking emerged from sensory and material engagements associated with the multisensory dining event. In turn, these ambient texts will help shape readers’ experiences with and interpretations of the album I present. The ambient texts surround, entwine, and immerse readers in the ecology of the pedagogical event I share. Though each of these texts feature a different topic, they are connected through related themes: the complexity of sensory experience, the lasting power of experiential learning, defamiliarization as a pedagogical strategy, the relationship between sensory experience and memory, and the ecological nature of multisensory education. Like the elements of any environment, the themes of these ambient texts mix and intermingle with one another—and with the album itself—to create a holistic experience.
Because sensory experiences are not linear, predictable events, this essay does not need to be read or interacted with in a particular order. It will certainly make sense if you listen to the album in order first and then move on to the ambient texts. But you also might start with one or two tracks from the album, skip over to an ambient text, and then go back to the album. There are many possible ways to engage with Sound Never Tasted So Good—and many possible ways that Sound Never Tasted So Good may engage your senses. I hope you enjoy your experience.