Musings of a domesticated scholar

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Teaching Sound at UNC

It has been a while, dear readers! Thanks for returning. I had the great fortune of receiving one of UNC’s Digital Humanities Curricular Development Fellowships, and wanted to share what I learned.

The following is an adapted excerpt from the teaching resource I designed for the Fellowship, so feel free to hop over for details on lesson plans, assignment sequences and technology reviews 

Hearing Heels: Thoughts on an Aural Archive

In the fall of 2016 I taught a specialized 105 course called Writing in the Humanities. I chose “Stories of Chapel Hill” as my theme, and taught museum studies, oral history, and literature as our three disciplines.

I began thinking about sound in literature last year, when I decided to work from my office on campus instead of at home.  I noticed that sounds were helping me feel a part of the community; the background noise of chatter and elevator dings, of squeaking footsteps and the shuffle of books made me feel good. They signaled that I was surrounded by others, and I fed off that energy as I researched and wrote the second chapter of my dissertation.

Sound studies are also becoming more important to medieval studies (especially in art history). We are thinking about sounds beyond the orality of a book read aloud; we are thinking about music (even without notation), and the reverberation of certain spaces, and how daily life was affected by birdsong. My own work is secondarily interested in the power of sound to affect people’s moods, and having experienced this myself, I thought it would be worth exploring in the classroom.

When we got to unit 2, I asked students to consider basic distinctions between human and non-human noise [more about this on Assignment Sequence page]. After introducing historical linguistics and oral history, we debated how the human voice alters our expectations of people and events. Students conducted oral history interviews of people on campus who experienced sound differently than they did. I used these interviews to pair students by theme, and from their they created podcasts based on the mission and format of a StoryCorps series. As a result, the class created an archive of Tar Heel stories that proclaims the depth of diversity in our faculty, staff, and students.

The original assignment series was successful because it is inherently multimodal, so students could work on different stages of composition (collecting data, conducting research, combining findings, collaborating with peers, composing a script) in an organic sequence of discrete tasks. Course evaluations reveal that the podcast was uniquely responsible for increasing students’ confidence in learning new technologies and in writing across unfamiliar genres. Students began the unit as learners, asking questions of their interview subjects, but finished as experts, adapting the content of the interview to fit a broader, thematic whole. This podcasting unit helped me achieve my most fundamental goal as an instructor: to teach students how to teach themselves.

Until next time, wishing everyone a happy start to summer.

Consolations of sound: echoes of medieval peregrinatio in modern-day parenthood

At a little over 20 months, our toddler is a constant source of chatter and chirps. He “talks” through his meals, “reads” aloud, and blows bubbles in the bathtub.


What’s this? A shameless plug? YEP. See you at session 1302.

And now that I’m spending longer days on campus, I’m noticing how much sound matters to my work. I love the humming of the elevator and the beeps that echo from the floors below. The rustle of paperwork, the clanking of office keys, the squeak of wet shoes on the linoleum floors– they’re all important markers of company, if not fellowship. Yet when I check my monitor app on the nights I’m not home, it’s the sound– or more precisely, the voice– of my son that evokes equally powerful but seemingly conflicting feelings of gratitude and longing. I love being a working mom; I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. And yet this Schrodinger-like situation, in which I miss him and am happy to be back at work, is sometimes difficult to understand.

So I can’t imagine what it must have been like for those early medieval monks who, leaving their homes and relatives, set off for a life of isolation and prayer. For these peregrini, or pilgrims, turning away from the world to face God was an act that affected all senses. And to me, the full experience of the sacrifice is beautifully expressed in the literary longing for sound. Anglo-Saxon poetry famously romanticizes the man adrift in a piece we call The Seafarer (here excerpted from Sian Echard’s translation) :

There I heard nothing but the roaring sea,
the ice-cold wave. Sometimes the wild swan’s song

cheered me [?], the cry of the gannet
and the sound of the curlew, in place of the laughter of men,
the singing mew instead of mead-drink.

þær ic ne gehyrde butan hlimman sæ,
iscaldne wæg. Hwilum ylfete song

dyde ic me to gomene, ganetes hleoþor
ond huilpan sweg fore hleahtor wera,
mæw singende fore medodrince.

Yet sonic solace and solitude are not limited to poetry, or the vernacular, or even proper peregrini. In the Anglo-Latin lives of island hermit-saints Cuthbert and Guthlac, boating visitors often “sound the signal at the landing-place” to announce their arrival to their hosts, who cannot see the beach from their isolated enclosures. Nowhere is sound more evidently vital to the isolated men than in the closing scenes of the Life of St Cuthbert, when the aging monk has hobbled out of his monastery and down to the shore so that his visitors will be sure to see him. Even to the committed solitary, the sound and sight of others was a welcome reprieve from the torments of earthly existence.

My impression is that the seventh and eighth centuries saw the peregrinatio pro Christo (pilgrimage) become a kind of holiness-marker for clerical and episcopal travel undertaken neither alone, nor with the intention of sustained isolation.

In Huneberc’s Hodoeporicon, for instance, the intrepid St Willibald sails (with this brother and father) on a hired ship from Southampton to the mouth of the Seine, “with the west wind blowing and a high sea running, amidst the shouting of sailors and the creaking of oars” (Talbot, 157).

Stephanus  writes that Bishop Wilfrid, who died when Willibald was still a child, had narrowly escaped persecution in the east because he was a transmarinus de Anglorum gente ex Britannia— a foreigner of the English race from Britain. As he and his companions travelled west across the British sea, they sang “psalms and hymns, giving the time to the oarsmen” until a storm chased them off course (Colgrave, 27). In both these examples, the sound of sailing is explicitly positive, when in the former two it is anxiously bittersweet.

I found this small detail of the priests keeping time for their rowers remarkable– what did these psalms sound like? To find out, I spoke with Samantha Arten, who put me in touch with a specialist, who recommended 30:30-36:40 of this Gregorian chant performed by Cistercian monks. It’s no wonder that the regularity of this calming rhythm kept the crew in synch.

Still, I’m not the only one wondering about the sounds of ancient worship. Just last week The Atlantic published an article on the recent scholarly collaboration among an art historian-archaeologist, a music producer-engineer, and the founder of the USC Immersive Audio Laboratory (yes, it’s a real thing). This super-interdisciplinary team was able to “map the acoustic fingerprint of several [Byzantine] churches,” which were shown to have been deliberately “designed to shift a person’s sensory experience”(Lafrance). Now, the USC member explains, they can record a chant, “process it … and all of the sudden we have performances happening in medieval structures”(Kyriakakis, in Lafrance). They can actually rebuild the sounds of our ancient past.

But could this work in an open space? Or at sea? Just how different was sound across the cooler, wetter climate of the early Middle Ages? Were the hearers’ auditory contexts drastically different in a pre-modern world? To what effect?

I think the stakes of these questions are rather high, since the poignancy of sound is often imbedded in its transitory nature. After all, aren’t we more accurately captured in our selfies than in our voicemails? When my son grows up to watch– and hear– the baby videos we’ve taken, will our old voices sound new to him? Or will he be used to hearing the past in the present?


A ReIntroduction

Welcome back, patient readers! Thanks very much for returning after such a long hiatus.

I had an exciting but difficult summer, which lead to inner-ear surgery in October. With the help of colleagues, the department, and a great husband/nurse, I was able to finish off the fall semester and get some rest.

Here’s what’s happening this term:

  1. I’m teaching my first literature course: Introduction to Drama. After an inauspicious start the class has turned itself around, and I’m beginning to regain my confidence.
  2. I’m taking my first of three courses for a certificate in the Digital Humanities. Taught by the impressively experienced and endlessly patient Dan Anderson and Joe Viscomi, Digital Editing and Curation has been quite an eye-opener.
  3. Research for my dissertation on ships in Anglo-Saxon literature has begun more slowly than I’d like, but that’s because of a fourth development:
  4. We’re expecting our first baby in late June (surprise!)

So, do check back here for (at least) monthly writings about teaching drama, digital projects, early medieval ships, and an occasional reflection on pregnancy in academia.

Until soon, wishing you all warmth and wellness.

"I am an Anglo-Saxonist" or, What a Medievalist Looks Like

I’d like to begin this blog post with a long, very important quote from an even longer, more important article.
Within the world of higher education, we are all working at a time when the value of academic knowledge is under attack. Every few weeks, another round of essays about the decline and fall of the humanities circulates through the media. Congress increasingly demands practical outcomes from government-supported scientific research, an attitude that, while appearing reasonable, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of basic science. The demand for explicitly vocational training threatens disciplines that offer knowledge over skills, creating a false dichotomy that sets academic programs at odds with one another… Meanwhile, the general public perceives faculty members as isolated from reality, holding cushy jobs, and uninterested in open communication. The public has little access to the broad diversity of knowledge, experience, and background inside higher education, because those academics who do achieve broader platforms generally come from only the most elite universities. Although many of those public intellectuals are brilliant writers and speakers, they represent only a tiny percentage of the expertise available in the academic world. That expertise lies not just in our subject fields but also in the habits of mind we bring to bear on countless other kinds of issues.   – D Perry’s “My Initial Public Offering,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 22, 2013.

So the scene is set, is it not? Now, to the action.

I’ve been waiting to use this pic since December

This spring I presented the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Map (written about here and here, and presented at CUNY’s New Media in the Middle Ages) at the Medieval Academy of America, where I was one of three on a panel about medieval texts and mapping tools.
I was able to make some great connections, especially with the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and Brandon Hawk, who pretty much makes magic on his Studying Judith blog. Even more wonderful was the fact that my father had moved heaven and earth to fly in just for a few hours in order to see me. So as a whole it was a good time, but I was nagged by a feeling that I didn’t belong– a feeling that had not begun with, but was articulated by, an observation that an eminent,  male scholar had made to me when I first arrived: “You don’t look like a medievalist.” Perhaps he was right; I certainly didn’t feel like one, and I could only hope that he hadn’t been referring to something like this:

Iris Van Herpen 2012 collection

In late July I presented the Map at SHARP‘s conference on “Geographies of the Book, where I was one of 14 presenters at a Digital Projects Showcase.
During the three hour showcase, not one minute passed without someone asking great questions or offering truly helpful advice. This really surprised me; most at MAA hadn’t seemed curious about any digital work presented at the conference. But here I was, surrounded not by medievalists but by book historians, and their feedback was extraordinary. So what was going on? Was I in the wrong place after all, or for the first time in the perfect place?
Medievalists as a whole are awkwardly interdisciplinary. We deal with a range of 1000 years and literature that is, by design, always derived from earlier works. But in none of the conferences I’d attended had there been such a special interest in and performance of academic activism and outreach as there was at SHARP.
For the last day of the conference Ian Gadd invited twelve new scholars to participate in a new kind of plenary, whose aim was to “assess our own current conceptions of book history by mapping the newer, emerging geographies represented by the conference’s papers and participants” and consider “the potential new vistas and pathways that lie ahead.”
I was among the twelve who spoke for 5 minutes each; no one knew who was part of the plenary until the session itself, when we stood up from different points in the crowd (and could finally wear our name tag badges, seen below).

As planned, Ian Gadd thoroughly “eschew[ed] the traditional format of a small panel of very senior scholars for something more open, participatory, and dynamic” by speaking from the back of the room, leaving this rather stark scene at the front (though live twitter stream was projected).

I began my five minutes by boldly exclaiming, “I am Rebecca Shores, and I am an Anglo-Saxonist.” What had I done?! Did they know I still use cribs for my translations? Did they care that I’m still really confused by prepositions and complex constructions in the prose I study? Maybe, maybe not.
But I spoke expertly on my own reservations about attending such a conference and pointed out that, although I thought SHARP was a stretch for me to attend, it ended up giving me a 3-hour platform for my project and role as a plenary speaker. As an Anglo-Saxonist. At a book history conference. AMAZINGNESS.
I encouraged the audience to continue to reach out across disciplines, institutions, and platforms– sharing our own love for our fields is the only thing that will keep us afloat. And then I looked to the live twitter stream projected on the wall. Right in front of me, in the words of my new friends and colleagues, was the image I’d been seeking for so long: this is what a medievalist looks like:
photo from Nicholas Morris’s Twitter feed (@Nickmimic)
And it is this image I took with me when I flew to Dublin for the meeting of The International Society of Anglo-Saxonists– a conference that began with an eminent, male scholar raising his hand to say, “Everyone please, remember to turn off your phones.” But more on this soon.
So keep sharing, readers, lest we forget who (and what) we are.

Feedburner is a piece

Dear readers,
To those of you who subscribe to this blog, thanks and apologies are in order.
First, thanks for following. I can’t tell who you are, but I’m glad you’re out there.
Second, sorry for the fake-out this weekend. Apparently some of you received that really sad post I wrote a year ago.
Feedburner won’t give me any data whatsoever, and I can’t figure out how or why it sent that out again.
In any event, hope it won’t happen again!

Stages of grief

…or, how one room nearly ruined my life.

Stage 1: Denial 
Moving in, May 2011
Stage 2: Anger
Wood floors, June 2012
Stage 3: Bargaining
Selling the giant couch (for nothing, it turns out)
Stage 4: Depression
Removing chair rail, respackling x 3, and painting. Are we making it worse?
Stage 5: Acceptance

New things

Hi, readers! Thanks for coming back after all this time.
This is really more a teaser post than a real one; in the next weeks I’ll be writing about my trip to Oxford, our new hardwoods, and the doggie pool (among other fascinating topics). In the meantime, here are some fun photos.
Until soon, friends!

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