Sound and Video: Dreaming of Future Work in Digital History

“Sound day” at Doing Digital History 2016 made me realize that as a historian, I privilege words over sound. Let me explain this with an example from the classroom. In the U.S. History survey course, I find it important for students to engage with historical speeches. In the past few years, I have moved toward showing video or audio clips of these speeches while students follow along with a transcript. These clips are fairly easy to find for the twentieth century, but (as we noted earlier today) a bit difficult to find for earlier periods. To solve this problem, I sometimes use recitations of historical speeches by actors. Mark Ruffalo reading Eugene V. Debs “Canton Speech” is one of my current favorites. This practice has its advantages and disadvantages, to be sure, and I am certain that if you are reading this, you can voice concerns about this practice with greater nuance than I can express in this brief post. I had never thought of it in the context of sound, though. With Ruffalo reading Debs, students get the words, but not the sounds. They hear Debs’ 20th-century speech, but with 21st-century inflections and a 21st-century audience. (I had thought of this point before, of course, and perhaps that isn’t so bad, considering that concerns about war and capitalism loomed large in the minds of both audiences, but this raises the question of how to bring sound from the past, not just words, into the classroom.) What follows are some ideas for integrating sound and video into teaching and perhaps even some public history.

  • The sounds of the factory, the street, the dance hall, the political rally.  One of my colleagues today mentioned that they do this, so I apologize for lifting my first point from them (maybe I should have buried this later in the list), but it is a great idea to integrate the sounds of life into material I already use.  I often use the film below of the steam hammer at the Westinghouse Works, shot in 1904, to show students factory work in this period, and it is extremely effective.  The film doesn’t have audio, though, which I have come to like because we can talk through it and the students can discuss the work while they watch.  Again, privileging words over sound.  I’m going to look for some factory audio from the period, so I can introduce students to the historical experience in greater detail.  Perhaps we will begin with the silent film, discuss a bit, and then I’ll add the sound–something they may not have anticipated.
  • Music.  Of course, I use music in my classes, but we talk about the lyrics, not the melody or the beat, or the process of making the songs.  Now that I have heard Michael O’Malley talk about Frank Sinatra, I can’t go back to handing out my sheet of Woody Guthrie lyrics, analyzing a verse of “If you ain’t got that Do-Re-Mi” and calling it a day.  I don’t know much about music at all, but I didn’t know much about labor unions or hardtack before I started teaching, and I made the effort to learn.  Perhaps the sound deserves some of the attention I have been paying to the words all of these years.
  • Oral history.  I have always used oral history in the classroom.  Students read or listen to oral histories in my courses quite a bit.  I use oral history in my research.  I never considered myself a public historian, but I’ve been inspired by Preserve the Baltimore Uprising and NC HB 2: A Citizens’ History to try something new.  It will take some planning, but I’d like to assemble a group of interested partners to collect oral histories of the Topeka public school system.  As you may know, public schools are pretty controversial in Kansas, and before we lose sight of the stakes of this particular debate, we might want to explore public school history a bit more and let the people speak.  My son is a student in this school district, and I want him to be able to hear this history–words, voices, sound–so that he knows we understand it is important.

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