I want to teach All the Technology Thingsā€¦

but since that is not possible at the moment, I might need to start a bit smaller.

Certainly this institute has made me appreciate the importance of sound to our understanding of the world.  I think this was something I already knew from previous experience, but sometimes you need people to tell you the things you already know so that you can remember.

As we discussed the silence of early American life, I thought back to a story a college friend relayed about her experience of silence during a solo camping trip.  At first, it was oppressive and overwhelming; but as time progressed, she embraced the silence and wrapped it around her.  Upon her return, the noisiness of modern society was jarring and disconcerting.  Increasing my students’ awareness of the impact of sound on daily life could help them to relate to people from different historical periods in new ways.

At the very least, I want to remember to incorporate more music into my courses.  In the past, I had used music fairly regularly to set the tone of different periods, but this practice fell away as my attention became pulled in too many directions.

I liked the idea of incorporating podcasts into class projects.  A podcasting assignment would force students to embrace the elements of good writing practice AND force them to revise–something they seem increasingly reluctant to do in their written work.  I think a podcasting assignment might be appropriate for one of my 200- or 300-level courses, where I have a bit more flexibility in terms of learning goals.  Or perhaps it might be best to run an experimental course to test out some of these digital techniques without needing to live up to established expectations.  Either way, I believe that a podcasting assignment (with or without video) could provide a powerful platform for student development and outreach.

Yes, I must teach All the Technology Things (a little bit at a time).


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Day Eight —

A day about sound.  Although I use sound-based sources all the time as someone who works in oral history, I don’t always think about them as sound, but as sources that, like other sources, can be crafted or manipulated to convey different meanings.  Thus, I mostly disagreed with O’Malley’s assertion that sound sources are somehow more easily manipulated than other, particularly text-based sources.  Still, the session did make me think a lot about how manipulating sound (removing background noise, reducing highs & lows in interviews–all of which I’ve done …) can indeed change the way people perceive oral histories when they listen to them.  So, I will definitely be more mindful when I start manipulating the sound of interviews in the future.

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Doing Digital History, Thoughts On Sound and Public History

As part of our discussion today, we learned how to pull looped sound into Audacity and to lay down tracks for a podcast. (AKA: The “promiscuous and lazy” way to make music.) Mike O’Malley, who was our residential instructor for the day, noted that there was a minstrel show-like element to some of the tracks. Indeed, as I looked through a sound archive, I found beats with racialized names like “ghetto taunt.” When juxtaposed with archival mp3 files like a clip of one of FDR’s Fireside Chat, the resulting sound file is loaded with (as O’Malley noted) implications about race and class.

During class today, we were asked to consider mp3 as cultural artifact. And more generally, how sound can be a cultural artifact. It made me think about the Race and Ethnicity course I teach from time to time, and also about my Issues in Public History class. Part of my professional goals from this institute is not only to enhance my DH skills generally, but also to think about how I can bring digital methods into mainstream classes. In my public history class this past spring, I brought in Beyonce’s Formation video as a means of discussing pop culture in history. Anyone who follows social media knows that the video was a big topic of conversation from the controversial sampling of Messy Mya, the implications of “creole” and colorism, the reference to Vodou loa Maman Brigitte, and the police shootings of African-Americans. More broadly, Formation and Lemonade have provoked lively discussions about black womanhood.

That sound and music more specifically can be a tool of discussion about race is not new to me. Yet, O’Malley’s focus on acoustics, the creation of sound, and encouragement to think about sound as a cultural artifact does suggest new ways of teaching about race and cultural appropriation. Having students think more specifically about layers of sound, as they might closely read documents, and maybe even getting their heads dirty as we did today would undoubtedly push them to think more critically about sound as a historical source.

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If a tree falls in a website, how do we filter that out?

Thinking about our session today, I came away thinking about how to approach sound in my teaching in a variety of ways. For my New York City seminar, I think the Roaring Twenties website that we looked at would be a great way to help students think about the city and urban space in a way that might be difficult to achieve just using text. I’m also excited about using SoundCite as a resource for student projects that they can create on their own and share with their classmates. I’m not sure about how to implement it exactly but working with Audacity to help students present a podcast as a class seems like it could have a lot of possibilities.


Of course, the thing I’m most excited about is laying down some more sick, fat beats on FDR speeches…

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The Sound of Learning

Recently, my college added public speaking as a required skill for leadership classes. Digital sound tools are a perfect way to incorporate the goals of public speaking without taking class time for traditional (and often tedious) class presentations.

This fall, when I have students read a couple of chapters for homework, I’d like to assign 1-2 students per chapter to produce a 1-2 minute podcast to introduce the chapter. Instead of saying “Everything is important,” they’ll have to identify the argument, themes, and evidence in a concise manner. I can begin each class with these sound recordings to kick off conversation.

Another assignment I’d like to consider owes a debt to the “Memory Palace” podcast. In upper level courses, students produce 8-11 page research papers– traditional history papers, footnotes, primary sources, blah blah blah. I already have them write a twesis statement– a thesis in 140 characters or fewer– to make sure they are not cluttering their ideas with flowery language. For a sound component, I want them to produce a 3-4 minute podcast that tells the story of their research. This will emphasize writing a narrative. Then, the recording requires public speaking skills including tone, inflection, and speed. They can include ambient sounds or music for effect.

I’m also excited to begin using OHMS to preserve an archive of student oral histories. I would like to continue with the podcasting project in Oral History, but I’m learning more about how to manage the timelines and how to manage the archive. I’ll try to keep my sites tidy.

Generally, though, as someone who HATES being the only voice in a classroom, I’m so excited about the possibilities of digital sound in teaching. I cannot wait to play. But for now, play ball!

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Quiet Classrooms and Noisy Plantations

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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What is your theme song?

Tonight while attending the Nationals game with the #doingdh16 crew, we discussed sounds. The conversation moved from scholarly to popular culture and the question arose: what is your theme song? I went with a classic. Feel the grove and join in by dancing. While I tend to ramble, I do eventually get around to my point which is actually another question: how does sound influence us and our classrooms?

My guess is that we all incorporate sound in diverse and complex ways. I would like to start to intentionally add this element into my classes. I have two assignments in my mind that I will revise utilizing the tools that we learned today: Ballads – Narrative and Themes and as a option for the service learning project. Since it is late, I am signing off, but am happy to share them in person.

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My Hero

We’re playing with SoundCite today.  It allows you to embed inline audio files.  No better use than celebrating my favorite flatfoot…


He’s a semi-aquatic egg-laying mammal of act-ion,
He’s a furry little flatfoot who’ll never flinch from a fra-ee-ay-ee-ay.
He’s got more than just mad skill,
He’s got a beaver tail and bill,
And the women swoon whenever they hear him say…
(Female singers audibly “swoon”)

He’s Pe-err-ry, Perry the Platypus!
Pe-err-ry, Perry the Platypus!

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Episode 5, in which Tammy enjoys the sound of (f)art

American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland

Bob Benson is a reflective glass artist. I met him at the American Visionary Art Museum and asked him if I could have my picture taken with him near his work “The Flatulence Post.” Instead of the photo, he offered this, teaching me about the power of sound in museums. As you can see, I was thrilled to hear what he had to say.

You can read more about Mr. Benson in the Huffington Post.

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