Behind the Curtain: Pythagoras, Acousmatic Voices, and Online Appointments

The Greek philosopher, mathematician, and scientist Pythagoras had an unusual approach to teaching. Concerned that his physical presence and gestures would distract his students from the message of his lessons, Pythagoras taught from behind a curtain. While this approach no doubt challenged the efficacy of students raising their hands when they had questions, it did create the concept of the acousmatic voice, a voice that one hears without seeing its cause or source.

While Pythagoras is most famous for the mathematical theorem bearing the adjectival form of his name, I want to spend a moment considering his teaching style. This year’s Southeastern Writing Center Association (SWCA) conference declared, “Welcome to Today’s Multimodal Writing Center.” As I discussed in previous blog posts, the conference asked participants to consider the ways in which new and traditional, namely print, media interact in modern writing instruction. In addition to the conference, collections such as The Routledge Reader on Writing Centers and New Media and Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition ask us to mobilize the new media possibilities of the twenty-first century.

In this blog post, I want to consider what lesson the Pythagorean acousmatic voice can teach writing center practitioners in our current multimedia moment.

Pythagoras made a heuristic choice, a decision to change his approach in an attempt to convey his message more clearly. He sought to remove visual stimuli in order to have his students focus on his voice. I like to imagine him reflecting on a particular lesson and work-shopping teaching approaches with Hippocrates and Aristotle (please don’t Google to see whether or not Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Pythagoras were alive at the same time). After all, part of multimodal instruction should be discovering which modes are most effective. One could say that Pythagoras winnowed down his multimodal lessons in order to prioritize aural learning.

While the image of a instructor talking to his students from a behind a curtain might make one recall The Wizard of Oz, I could not help but think of the modern versions of his curtain. The challenge of finding successful modes of instruction and choosing the appropriate one to connect with a student or a group of students still remains today. To borrow language from Jay David Bolter and David Grusin, the curtain has not gone away, but rather has been remediated.

In our center, we use Writing Center Online appointment software. WC Online (that is what the cool kids call it) allows students to choose to work with a tutor in-person at the center or online. While WC Online supports audio and video streaming, technological limitations do not allow us to use these features. Instead of seeing and chatting with a tutor in a manner similar to a Skype chat, students upload a document and chat with their tutor in a window next to their document.

While online appointments allow students and tutors to collaborate on a piece of writing without being in the same room, these mediated appointments are not without their limitations. Naturally, breaking down the nuances of the dreaded comma splice or brainstorming ideas for a research paper is slightly trickier online than it is when two people are in the same room together.

However, Pythagoras’s curtain asks us to consider if online appointments run the risk of changing writing instruction in a more fundamental way. Like Pythagoras, my team and I speak from behind a curtain. While this curtain is digital and much snazzier than that of our Greek predecessor, it operates in a similar way by obscuring identity and privileging particular modes of learning.

Without the aid of audio and visual software, online appointments have the potential to make a piece of writing appear as a whole, discrete entity. When tutors and students communicate through the online “chat” window, they are acousmatic voices, discussing a text through text.

My current media research project will give me the chance to continue to think about how “chatting” through the online curtain may complicate the process of helping students discover and develop their unique voices.