As a teacher, I treat the classroom as a sacred space with only three participants: the student, the teacher, and the text. That I teach early American history and intellectual history makes this decision simpler than for scholars who teach, for example, modern history or cultural history. But it is also because I want to model for my students what it means to read closely—how to bring texts alive, and to see them as part of a shared conversation that connects us with the past. As a result, I aspire to create classrooms with minimal technological noise. As much as possible, I do not use Power Point. Educationalists speak of “flipping the classroom,” but we humanists have long worked in flipped classrooms anyway. Students read to prepare for class, and class is focused on making sense of the readings. The world is so noisy and distracting that students—and even I—have a harder and harder time focusing on reading for its own pleasure. It takes discipline, and I want students to learn to enjoy the fruits of that discipline.
Yet the question of sound is a tough one for early Americanists. For starters, it was an age before recordings. Recent works have sought to mine texts to re-create what early America might have sounded like. Historians of music have sought to understand how music functioned in a world before recording. But I think it matters most for public historians. The classroom is, by its very design, ideally a space apart from the world, a refuge for students and teachers to focus on reading and writing. But the world of public history is not—sites of public history bring visitors to real places, but those places are de-contextualized because the sounds and smells of the past are gone.
This strikes one most notably when visiting southern plantations. Today, plantation homes are sites of bucolic refuge. Trees sway by lazy rivers. One can imagine sitting on the porch, sweet tea and bourbon in hand, reading a novel. Again and again I hear tourists speaking of the beauty and peacefulness of southern plantations. This is true even when the sites go out of their way to remind visitors that plantations were working farms. We know that plantations were full of people, and the majority of them were enslaved. Plantations were crowded, loud, smelly, and violent places. But none of that comes through when one strolls the grounds of today’s beautifully restored southern manors. Indeed, it is the absence that brings present a different narrative of the South, a myth of the South that served the needs of white southerners after the Civil War. The loss of sound is the loss of truth.
Thus, to me, the question of sound is important—not in my classroom, where I seek to isolate my students from the noise of the world, but in places where the absence of sounds distorts the story of the past.
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