Dunn’s unorthodox seminar on silence makes noise

by Palak Patel
by Palak Patel
by Palak Patel

In the library seminar room, the students are asked to lie down on the floor, slowly close their eyes, try to shut their ears and listen to the sound of their inner body. Then they gradually open their ears, welcoming the cacophonous sound of footsteps, key chains and little conversations in the building into their consciousness, practicing what is termed “inclusive” and “exclusive” listening. This exercise happened on the first Friday workshop of Media Studies 382 The Arts of Silence.

While the college is getting excited with “Creative Arts Across Disciplines,” a three-year initiative funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Media Studies Department cannot remain a bystander. Professor Leslie Dunn came up with a 300-level seminar called “The Arts of Silence,” which fits well within the topic for the 2015/16 academic year: Sound/Silence/ Hearing. The class is an open space in which both Dunn and her students discuss the meaning of silence and its role in arts and life.

Describing her new seminar, Dunn said, “The course meets for two hours twice a week so that we have time to do that [thinking and practicing of silence] both intellectually and experientially. While studying the meanings and uses of silence in rhetoric, literature, film, drama, comics, music and contemplative traditions, we will develop our own practices of silence through weekly exercises, keeping a silence journal and experimenting with silence in the classroom.” Some questions Dunn proposes to class discussions are “Is silence the opposite of sound? Is it the space between sounds? Does silence signify absence? Does it require presence? Is it audible, visible, palpable?”

Different practices will also be experimented in the course. Dunn plans to include deep listening, meditation, the yoga of sound and several field trips in the seminar. Students will have to get off their feet and complete different tasks besides reading and writing assignments. There will also be a wide range of guest lecturers from other departments that will join the class. Dunn noted, “The seminar is designed as an inter-disciplinary and inter-art conversation: I’ve invited colleagues from English, Film, Music, and Physics to teach guest classes. I’m excited that our group includes majors in studio art, media studies, etc.”

In addition to guest lecturers from the college, in November, “The Arts of Silence” also welcomes special guests from the field. Dunn introduced, “A highlight of the course will be a workshop with Peter Cook, an internationally renowned deaf poet and storyteller, who will be coming to campus in early November for an artists’ residency. Peter and his hearing partner, Kenny Lerner, will also give a public performance (as The Flying Words Project) on Saturday, Nov. 7th.” Another special guest is Annea Lockwood, composer and Professor Emerita of Music, who will be coming on Oct. 28 to give a talk about “Wild Energy,” a sonic installation she created that embraces infra and ultra sound worlds.

A member of the seminar, Mallory Tyler ’16 commented, “This class is not your standard seminar. We’ve discussed art, shared stories about our childhoods, meditated and walked in silence to seek out sound. The group dynamic is intimate and collaborative and the seminar feels experimental and exciting.”

Another student in “The Arts of Silence,” Elizabeth Dean ’17 [full disclosure: Elizabeth is the Online Editor for the Miscellany News], shared her motivation for taking the class, “I took the class because it was unlike most other classes offered here; the opportunity to explore a complex concept in an open, interdisciplinary way isn’t one to pass up. I think classes have gone great so far, we have developed a good classroom environment and are already having interesting conversations.”

This is not the first time Dunn’s work involves sound and silence. Dunn said, “I have been deeply involved with sound all my life, particularly through music: my academic research focuses on music and sound in early modern England, and I have been a practicing musician. More recently, for my courses in disability studies I’ve been learning about deaf culture and ASL poetry.”

Dunn continued: “It’s possible that my deepest knowledge of silence comes through music. When I was an undergraduate I was a very serious pianist. Knowing that I needed a place to practice, the master of my residential college gave me the key to the dining hall so that I could come in after dinner every night and use the piano there. It was a Bechstein grand, the most beautiful instrument I’ve ever played on; in the resonant high-ceilinged dining hall it made a limpid sound, like clear flowing water…I can still hear that stillness, and feel it under my hands.”

One of Dunn’s most vivid memories of silence at Vassar College was in 2001. “On the afternoon of 9/11, I went to the Vassar Farm because I was scheduled to work there. The Farm is a haven of quiet at all times, but that afternoon the silence seemed profound, absolute; we all felt it. A colleague who had taken his class on a field trip that day told me that they had felt the silence, too, and realized only later that it was partly because there were no planes flying overhead.”

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