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2017 May 22 - 08:18 am

Hearing Sounds Above the Din

Filtering Out Unwanted Noises, Hearing Satisfying Sounds

 What is that noise? Shakespeare wrote. And wherefore that cry?

As the month of May approaches its end, when Memorial Day will herald the simultaneity of spring’s end and summer’s beginning for many of us partisans of the community college, and as I read students' audio, video, and old-fashioned written materials submitted for final analysis and grading, I am thinking about our multiply-mediated world, particularly its multiple, and multiply-affecting unwanted noises and satisfying sounds.

As a teacher of French language and culture in an area where that language is less often spoken than are many others, I listen for sounds of all kinds, often odd noises that attain serendipitous significance through my own interpretation.

As a part-time professional interpreter, I listen to voices. As a resident of a community lying beneath the flight path of numerous airplanes en route elsewhere, I listen to the sounds in the air above. As an open-water swimmer, I listen to the gurgles and swishes that surround me as I stroke through the sea.

The University of Texas Austin's Français Interactif Facebook pages posted a sound-and-text file recently from The Local France, which suggested that Paris —and every other human habitation — has eight “definitive sounds” that at once characterize it as being Paris and make visitors know exactly where they are. After I read the article and its attendant references to a massive sound-file collection made by an ex-pat resident of France, Des Coulam, I asked students to add their own sound descriptions and/or recordings, preferably of and from things French but also of and from other areas whose distinctiveness they have noticed in the form of sound.

And then, I listened.

And I continue to listen.

Yesterday, I swam in an open-water competition in a sometimes-wind-ruffled and all-the-time swimmer-disturbed lake, and then I sat in a hot jam of much less turbulent traffic en route home. At night, I heard the excited laughter of high-schoolers preparing their final sporting competitions of the spring season, I listened to the television hum as I tried to concentrate on the programs and upon my own students' final assignments, simultaneously. During the wee hours of night before dawn, I listened to the mid-1960's Simon and Garfunkel, who sang, "Hello, darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again," I read the news of numerous nations transmitted to me mostly-live online, and I thought again about sounds and silence.

How do we make our educational sounds rise above the unwanted noise that surrounds us all in this century of so much noise? How do we call attention to such things as Des Coulam's collection of definitive sounds, noises that attain significance and whose memory we will retain in the same way retain the notion of comfort foods?

How do we make the fury of noise without into sound that will signify something within?

We contextualize and we look beyond. We probe the memories of our students, many of whom come from faraway places and who have secreted away memories that can enrich, and we provoke them to share. We encourage them to listen to their own pasts, to their new present, and to attend.

Let us not let ourselves fall into what Simon and Garfunkel bemoaned about so many about us: People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening. Let us not permit our senses to conclude that they signify nothing, as Shakespeare wrote, but rather, as Coulam calls for us to do, translating a French writer of his ken, “capture the gratuitous, never-ending show for which no ticket is needed,” the show of distracting noise transformed into delightful sound.

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