Hearing Heels: Thoughts on an Aural Archive*

In the fall of 2016 I taught a specialized 105 course called Writing in the Humanities. I chose “Stories of Chapel Hill” as my theme, and taught museum studies, oral history, and literature as our three disciplines.

I began thinking about sound in literature last year, when I decided to work from my office on campus instead of at home. As I wrote on my personal blog, I noticed that sounds were helping me feel a part of the community; the background noise of chatter and elevator dings, of squeaking footsteps and the shuffle of books made me feel good. They signaled that I was surrounded by others, and I fed off that energy as I researched and wrote the second chapter of my dissertation.

Sound studies are also becoming more important to medieval studies (especially in art history). We are thinking about sounds beyond the orality of a book read aloud; we are thinking about music (even without notation), and the reverberation of certain spaces, and how daily life was affected by birdsong. My own work is secondarily interested in the power of sound to affect people’s moods, and having experienced this myself, I thought it would be worth exploring in the classroom.

When we got to unit 2, I asked students to consider basic distinctions between human and non-human noise [more about this on Assignment Sequence page]. After introducing historical linguistics and oral history, we debated how the human voice alters our expectations of people and events. Students conducted oral history interviews of people on campus who experienced sound differently than they did. I used these interviews to pair students by theme, and from their they created podcasts based on the mission and format of a StoryCorps series. As a result, the class created an archive of Tar Heel stories that proclaims the depth of diversity in our faculty, staff, and students.

The material on this website is designed to document my teaching process and offer suggestions for those interested in sound studies into the composition classroom. The original assignment series was successful because it is inherently multimodal, so students could work on different stages of composition (collecting data, conducting research, combining findings, collaborating with peers, composing a script) in an organic sequence of discrete tasks. Course evaluations reveal that the podcast was uniquely responsible for increasing students’ confidence in learning new technologies and in writing across unfamiliar genres. Students began the unit as learners, asking questions of their interview subjects, but finished as experts, adapting the content of the interview to fit a broader, thematic whole. This podcasting unit helped me achieve my most fundamental goal as an instructor: to teach students how to teach themselves.

Still, the process was not without its many frustrations, some of which I’m still dealing with.

Tools and Trials

One of my goals of this fellowship was to create an interactive archive of campus sounds, music clips, and oral history interviews to be used by students as a set of primary texts. Ultimately, though, curating sounds was problematic. It’s important to me that students are always in control of their finished work, so I encouraged them to share their audio assignments as private users. Moreover, I asked them to bring contracts to their interview subjects to ensure that the materials would not be shared beyond the scope of the Writing Program. So I have two problems– the technological, which prevents me from even downloading student work, and the logistical, which demands that I track down each student *and* each interview subject to request permission to share. As a result, the student work I’ve shared with the Fellowship committee will not appear on this page, but will instead be transmitted separately.

Issues of permission not withstanding, finding a place to host, annotate, and organize so many kinds of noise was prohibitive. Soundcloud made it easy for me to listen to the interviews and podcasts that students submitted via private links., but I was unable to gather all of their work together. That made grading difficult, but I was even more disappointed that they couldn’t listen to one another’s work. SoundCloud is still not very good at groups, but if I could do it over again, I would subscribe to each student’s playlist, which would host their interviews and podcasts. During a period of open-access, I would transfer all podcasts onto my playlist, to which they would in turn subscribe.

VoiceThread was wonderful because students could annotate their recordings. A feature I loved is that I could respond on the same page, so I could listen to the recording, read my students’ words, and provide feedback in the same place. To our great frustration, UNC/Sakai services sometimes got confused with independent VoiceThread. Considerable sign-in issues (which included unexpected logging off) kept me from using this platform more, or endorsing it as a teaching tool to my peers. Perhaps I should have asked everyone to create logins outside of Sakai, but I don’t know how that would affect group capabilities.

Despite all of the frustrations, this has been one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever taught.

For more information on sound studies, see the resources below.


The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (R.M. Schafer)

The Sound Studies Reader (J. Sterne)

Online Resources:

Amplifon: The Emotions of Sound http://www.amplifon.com/web/uk/hearing-health/emotions-of-sound [no longer available]

Global Sound Map: http://citiesandmemory.com/sound-map/

The Hearing Show: RE:Sound #189: http://www.thirdcoastfestival.org/explore/feature/hearing-show

Academics of Interest:

Casey Boyle (University of Texas): http://caseyboyle.net

Robin Smith (UNC): http://englishcomplit.unc.edu/people/robin-r-smith

Robin James (UNC-C): https://clas-pages.uncc.edu/robin-james/

Andrea Bohlman (UNC): http://music.unc.edu/people/musicfaculty/andrea-f-bohlman/


*This website was created with the support of UNC’s Digital Humanities Curricular Development Fellowship.