(Scroll to end of post for 6 minute audio documentary)
In the middle of the woods in Durham, North Carolina there is an abandoned dinosaur. It remains one of the greatest curiosities I’ve stumbled on in my life, and it got me thinking about how we can tell history through objects.
One of my great pleasures over the course of this semester was being able to introduce undergraduates in my Filming the Past class to the amazing work of graduates in the Humanities Department’s Technical Communication program within the Program in Technology and the Humanities. My class not only teaches students through the medium of oral history and documentary film, but asks them to actively engage the public by creating in these mediums and sharing the products of their intellectual development. In that spirit, I’d like to highlight two “podcast-style” interviews students did with young faculty in the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Humanities Department.
One group of students interviewed recent Ph.D. and current Visiting Assistant Professor, Halcyon Lawrence, who works on speech intelligibility. Specifically, Prof. Lawrence asks the question: why do so many of our new, convenience-enabling technologies make life harder for the majority of English speakers? Speech recognition systems deployed worldwide, from Siri to your credit card’s voice prompts, are modeled on, and take for granted, American English or British accents as “standard English”–despite the fact that most English speakers today do not learn English in America or the UK. As English becomes our economic and technological “lingua franca,” how can we solve problems of speech intelligibility that are increasingly becoming embedded in our global technological infrastructure? Prof. Lawrence’s work offers a window into this fascinating problem and potential solutions:
Graduate Student Andrew Roback focuses on a different kind of speech: political speech on twitter. In particular, he asks, how do organizations wield 140 characters and what do they expect to get out of social networking? Though much lauded in the popular press for being a political game changer (cf. the conversations about Twitter in the “Arab Spring”), what exactly do we know about political influence on Twitter and about who has control and who doesn’t?
Last week, students in the Filming the Past class read articles written by members of the Illinois Tech Humanities Department. This week, each group of students interviewed a one professor of Humanities in order to create an audio documentary about that person’s work, and its larger impact and importance.
Students: Please post a link to your podcast (host it on Youtube) in a comment, along with a synopsis that briefly describes the subject matter and tells us the larger point or insight your podcast is trying to make. Also feel free to share your work with the rest of the class using #filmpast on twitter.
This is a list of resources and guidelines for students that will supplement our class work. It may be added to and updated throughout the semester. Students (and others!) please feel free to leave suggestions for additional resources in the comments, particularly open source or public domain resources.
So the spring term is in full swing and I’m excited to be teaching a new course called “Filming the Past” in addition to my usual STS offerings. Here’s the syllabus, if you’re interested. Filming the Past is a history and digital humanities course that tries to help students understand the process by which history is written and then disseminated to wider, “popular” audiences. In addition to talking about traditional historiography, the course asks how certain historical accounts become popularized as the truth or “common knowledge?” What role do visual media, particularly films and documentaries, play in the process of creating and understanding the past? How can film be a force for uncovering and popularizing “hidden” histories that upset our assumptions about the past?
This course tries to change things up a bit by focusing on less well-known chapters in history, looking at how films and documentaries can be tools for disseminating historical knowledge and how they can also be activist interventions in how we understand the past and its relationship to the society we live in today. Students will learn how to write a short history from primary documents, conduct interviews, and create their own podcasts and short video documentaries on a historical topic.
In today’s class we’re going to be talking about the Magdalene Laundries, and the unusual ways in which their history was kept hidden, and later, the unusual ways in which it started to become common knowledge. We’re going to try to do an in-class audio recording exercise that will hopefully become a class-wide collaborative podcast episode. You can listen to our introductory episode here. It explains why our podcast is called “20/40 vision.” I’m still getting the hang of how to make these audio files–if anyone knows clever ways to amplify Audacity-generated mp3s, I’d love to hear.
If you’re interested in following along with what the class does in real time (or almost real time), check out the class twitter hashtag: #filmpast. We’re using twitter to talk about history since engaging in public conversations about history is part and parcel of this course. Students are setting up their accounts tomorrow and should be tweeting soon thereafter. We also have a list of useful twitter feeds for documentary studies to which we’ll be adding over the course of the semester.