Grad School Confidential: In Conversation with Steph Ceraso – Andrea Zeffiro

Full disclosure: I have spent the last 30 years within an educational institution. This is by no means an impressive number. My mother spent 40 years as an educator. But what if I were to tell you that I’ve spent the last 30 years out of a total of 34 within an educational institution. What does this equation suggest? I have my own theories about my pursuits of education, including a subtly engrained first-generation Canadian mentality, to the pursuit of a proverbial pink rabbit. And yet, I find myself at an impasse: restless and impatient with the contemporary climate of academia, yet still gripping onto the ideals of ‘the University.’ Even the thought of articulating my ‘whoa-is-me-ism’ is rather nauseating given that such problems – my problems – are the problems of the overly educated. And it is within such a (head) space (or, head case) that this interview materialized. That said, what follows is void of any negativity. If anything, it conjures optimism. For anyone who has had the privilege to attend graduate school – and I mean this without an iota of sarcasm –understands that being a graduate student is a double-edged sword: one exists in a safe space looking onto the world, and yet, one’s identity is still very much entangled within one’s research agenda. It’s a wonderful but demented space to occupy, and it can leave many graduate students (i.e. people) feeling misaligned with the ‘real’ world, or perhaps simply out of touch. If you’re reading this and have felt this way, or if you’re reading this and currently feel this way, then I encourage you to read on…

Andrea Zeffiro: Steph, thanks for taking the time to talk, and for allowing NMP readers to learn more about you, and your research and artistic inquiries.

Before we begin, allow me to disclose how I came across your work. Mél Hogan – co-founder and content curator of NMP – alerted me to your work. Mél and I had just co-authored a chapter addressing feminism within academia, and the perils associated with the graduate student experience. In turn, she drew my attention to your more recent project – the audio confessional project – that solicits graduate student confessions.

I’d like to begin by discussing your conceptualization of this particular piece. I think it’s a fabulous concept, because materializing graduate student experiences in this way will enable other graduate students to comprehend how their fears, concerns, and discontents are shared realities. Additionally, it would allow interested parties – individuals contemplating graduate studies, senior academics, and the administration of post-secondary institutions – to address the changing conditions of the graduate student experience under the auspices of the neo-liberal university.

I’m really curious as to how you came to this project, or what led you toward such a focus. Can you speak to it in general or specific terms?

Steph Ceraso: Well, I’m currently near the end stage of my dissertation the culmination of my grad student experience and so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how I got to where I am right now and about the process of becoming an academic. When I started reflecting on my 7+ years as a grad student (I did a separate Masters program), I was most struck by how much of this experience has been colored by fear and anxiety. It’s not that I don’t enjoy grad school. I love a lot about it. But the amount of sometimes crippling anxiety involved in the process of pursuing a graduate degree is very real, and I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. I’ve talked with so many grad students from different disciplines who have expressed similar concerns. While most grad students commiserate with their peers, a lot of what we worry about most, which may seem embarrassing or ridiculous, remains unspoken. I think one reason for that is because people just assume that it’s a part of the game. Being stressed and scared is portrayed (often by professors and/or grad students who are further along than you) as a rite of passage of sorts everyone has to go through it. You just have to suck it up and keep working.

This project serves as a way to expose some of the silent but powerful things that make us question ourselves and question academia (its function, its purpose, its effects on individuals, etc.). One of the aims of this project is also to amplify the unspoken shared experience of grad students, which I hope will be a source of comfort for those going through it, and perhaps a way to start a broader institutional conversation about how grad school might be re-imagined to actually reduce fear and anxiety.

AZ: You articulate one of the aims of the project as ‘amplifying’ the unspoken and shared experiences of graduate students. This amplification is figurative – enabling graduate students to share what is otherwise unsaid – and very much literal –  through the practice of recording and listening. And it makes sense for this project to take the form of audio, given that you work within that domain. Can talk about the relationship between the form and the topic. In other words, why sound?

SC: I think sound is an ideal medium for a project that features confessions. Unlike video, it enables the confessors to hide their identities to an extent. In my instructions to participants, I even give them the option of manipulating the sound of their voice in case they are worried about being identified (by increasing or decreasing the pitch, etc.). They also have the option of remaining anonymous or providing their names as collaborators/co-authors on the project. Because participants are discussing sensitive issues about their graduate student experiences while they are still in graduate school, I wanted to take extra measures to protect them if they did not feel comfortable being identified. I think that recording one’s voice in private (without me there asking questions) puts people at ease, and they are more likely to speak honestly for however long they desire.

Additionally, amplifying people’s voices is much more powerful than say, written confessions, because of the affective affordances of sound. Hearing the grain of people’s voices especially when they are discussing stressful or emotional topics helps listeners to empathize with confessors and their experiences. Because there is no visual information, listeners’ sole focus is on the sound of the voices. And that can be an intense experience. When I listened to the first submission someone I’ve never met or seen a picture of before I felt like that person was in the room with me. Unlike other modes, I think sound has a very here and now quality; it’s a kind of presence that fills the room. Listening to someone confess something is a very intimate act, and I chose to do a sonic project because sound is the most intimate medium I can imagine.

AZ: How do you anticipate showcasing the piece? Will it be web-based, or do you envision the potential for an installation or immersive sound piece? I think there are many ways in which you can re-present what you collect. And to tack on an additional question at this point, could you talk about how you are soliciting submissions?

SC: I am definitely planning to do at least some version of this piece as a web-based project. However, I want to wait to make decisions about presentation until I get a sense of how the project will take shape. For instance, if there are a lot of overlapping themes in the confessions, I may do a layered mash-up to emphasize certain patterns. Or, I could imagine doing a more straightforward version with distinct confessions separated by silences. It will really depend on how I hear the material fitting together. That said, I don’t yet have enough material to work with! I have advertised the project on Twitter several times and on my personal website (www.stephceraso.com). Though many people have expressed interest, very few submissions have rolled in so far. So, if there are grad students reading this who are interested in the project, please contact me via email (stephceraso@gmail.com) or Twitter (@stephceraso) and I will send you the details. I don’t need your submissions immediately. At this point I just need more people to commit to the project. I am hoping to have enough material to work with by mid-summer so I can begin piecing everything together.

AZ: In some ways, the project could take on a life of its own, in the sense that it could be an ongoing project and working process for you. In fact, it could be bracketed by your own personal experiences, specifically, as a graduate student, and then, life post-PhD. It’s hard to imagine, but life actually exists beyond one’s identity as a graduate student! I think it would be worthwhile to consider the potential transmutations of the project once you have breathing room from your own immersiveness within graduate student life. What do you think?

SC: Absolutely. I think doing a web-based version of the project lends itself to that kind of ongoingness. For instance, this project might end up taking the form of an ever-expanding archive of confessions. If people continued to contribute, it would be interesting to hear how the confessions changed or stayed the same through the years. In terms of my own participation, I do intend to contribute a confession as well. But at least in the first iteration of the project, I don’t want my experiences to stand out any more than the other voices. I’d really like this to be a collaborative sort of situation where all of the confessions get equal weight.

AZ: I’m really excited to track the materialization of the project. Speaking from experience, I think it’s such a worthwhile endeavour. It’s taken me two years and a lot of airing of grievances to climb out of a certain mindset. In fact, it was only in sharing that I discovered how many others shared my feelings.

What else are you working on at the moment?

SC: My biggest project right now is my dissertation “Sounding Composition, Composing Sound: Multimodal Listening, Bodily Pedagogies, and Everyday Experience” which offers a more expansive, multisensory approach to the teaching of listening and sonic composing practices. The listening pedagogy I offer is based on my concept of multimodal listening, a practice that involves attending to the full range of sensory, material, and environmental aspects that shape a sonic event. Unlike ear-centric listening practices where listeners’ main goal is to hear and interpret audible sound (often language), multimodal listening practices move beyond the audible by emphasizing the ecological relationship between sound, bodies, and environments. Each of my chapters examines multimodal listening in a different context. This was the most fun part of the project learning about listening and sonic composing practices in areas that I previously knew nothing about. For instance, I got to interview deaf percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie about her full-bodied listening practices. I also interviewed acoustic designers about their approach to designing sound for various spaces, and I did a chapter on the significance of listening and sound in automotive engineering. These areas seem totally disconnected from the field I work in (rhetoric and composition), but I discovered that they serve as really productive models for how to train students to be more sensitive, engaged, holistic listeners, which can ultimately expand and enrich their sonic composing practices.

The other project that I have been absorbed in lately is co-editing a special issue on “Sonic Rhetorics” for Harlot of the Arts. I am guest editing this issue with Jon Stone, a grad student from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Jon’s scholarship focuses on rhetoric and folk music, and he is a killer banjo player. We put out a call that asked people to consider: “How does sound natural or artificial, made or heard, deliberate or unconscious figure into everyday persuasion? In turn, how might a rhetorical perspective help us think through everyday interactions with sound?” And we got some amazing work in response. What’s cool about this issue is that it is meant to be listened to and played with rather than just read. The full issue is available to the public, and I think anyone interested in sound will find something that they can geek out about. It’s been a fun experience working with Jon and the rest of the Harlot team (especially editors Tim Jensen and Kate Comer). I wish more publications were so open to experimental forms of academic work.

AZ: Your dissertation and scope of research pursuits intersect sound studies. What led you to pursue this domain? Do you have a background in music?

SC: I don’t have a background in music, but I’ve always been a major music nerd. I collect vinyl, go to shows, follow music blogs that sort of thing. And around the time I started grad school, sound studies research was beginning to crop up everywhere. I was hooked immediately (Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past and some of Michael Bull’s work on mobile music technologies were among the first texts that sucked me in). Rhetoric and composition is already a very interdisciplinary field, so incorporating sound studies research into my project wasn’t that far of a stretch.

AZ: Actually, I have a few colleagues who focused in and around sound studies – at the intersection of communication studies – and a few had a background in music but the common thread was that they’re all self-identified music nerds.

Do you think you will pursue academia following the completion of your dissertation? It’s a bit of a loaded and troubling question. It’s one that I ask myself almost daily. There is a whole crop of folks with PhDs but very few non-adjunct academic jobs to fill. I think it’s a really important question to consider even if it’s not a question with a simple answer because it demands that we think of, and perhaps even carve out, possibilities outside of academia. Personally, my sense of ‘what’s next’ changes continuously, even as I’m living it.

SC: I do plan to apply to academic jobs in the fall. While I worry like everyone else about the uncertainty of the academic job market (and all of those other fears and anxieties that come with being an academic), I really love teaching at the college level. Designing classes and projects is an intellectual and creative challenge that I truly enjoy, so having the opportunity to teach kind of balances out the negative stuff for me. But I do think a lot of graduate students feel pressured to stay in academia even if they don’t necessarily want to because it seems like there aren’t any other options. We are trained to do academic work and it’s hard to imagine what else we might be qualified to do. I think conversations about careers outside of academia are (slowly) starting to play a more important role in graduate programs, which is a move in the right direction. In the end, I think you just have to ask yourself what you love to do and go for it.

Andrea Zeffiro is a researcher and writer whose work intersects the political economy of emerging technologies, contemporary media histories, and feminist visual cultures. She teaches in the Faculty of Culture + Community at Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

Steph Ceraso is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pittsburgh specializing in rhetoric, composition, and digital media. Her work explores how understanding more embodied modes of listening might deepen our knowledge of multimodal engagement and production. You can find out more about Ceraso’s ongoing scholarship and media work at www.stephceraso.com.