Sound in the Digital Humanities: my time at DHSI

[Editor’s Note: the ACH awarded Penny Johnston a student travel bursary to attend this summer’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute. The award came with an invitation to reflect on the experience in our blog.]

I came to DHSI this year hoping to learn a little about manipulating digital sounds and to network with others who might be interested in similar digital endeavours, particularly those related to oral history. I wanted to learn about using Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) because I am embarking on a series of ethnographic interviews as part of my PhD research (funded by the Irish Research Council). I was interested in learning two things in particular; the first about how to ensure high quality audio recordings suitable for deposition in an oral history archive, the second about how to disseminate those recordings so that members of the public have appropriate access to the research.

The class covered useful topics such as equipment, and the best ways to match this to requirements and budgets. This was really useful as I am about to buy microphones and recorders; the new tips should make it a smaller spending spree than it would otherwise have been.

We also spent a lot of time discussing some issues pertinent to everyone working in DH (e.g. copyright) and other issues that are particularly relevant for those who are actively collecting material for archive (e.g. ethics).

And of course we spent quite a bit of time working on our computers. I came away from these sessions with a much better understanding and knowledge of Audacity, an open source DAW. I’m hoping to use these skills as I put together material for public engagement projects in the future. At the moment I’m considering podcasts and we discussed how to go about setting these up in class.

I also attended an unconference session – my first. I went to an informal tutorial about working from the command line, and came away with a useful reference resource for those who want to teach themselves code, Learn Code The Hard Way. I’ll be starting to work with Linux in August, I suspect that I’ll be using this resource a lot.

But DHSI is not just about class and unconferences, there were other events such as the colloquium, demonstrations of electronic literature and current debates/provocations in the Birds of a Feather sessions. Each one of these elements are impressive in their own, but combined they make up a week that is more than just the sum of its parts.

Throughout the week we were visited in class by people participating in the DH for Departmental Chairs and Deans. On Thursday (Day 4) one of these administrators visited and chatted to me about my experience of the class. She asked me to sum up three lessons that I would take away after my experience of DHSI. At the time. I could only come up with two (in my defence, it was Thursday, Day 4 and I was exhausted!). I’ve been thinking hard about it since, so here are my conclusions:

1. Pace yourself

Ray Siemens said this in the opening lecture and people laughed. Now I know that it isn’t a joke. There are so many things to attend. After trying the colloquium, an unconference and a Birds of a Feather session (as well as class) in one day, my brain was fried. Sadly, it just wasn’t possible to attend everything.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask the person next to you for help

I got a lot of handy tips (like how to cross-fade in Audacity) from asking those around me about how to do things, and sometimes from just watching them as they worked.

3. Collaborate

One of the really exciting things about our class was meeting the range of different people with a wide variety of interests. There were other oral historians, but also people working on poetry archives, and teachers interested in how sound could be incorporated into their pedagogy. Despite the diversity of our interests we all managed to collaborate on one five-minute sound piece that was performed during the DHSI colloquium on Friday. It’s also available on the DHSI Sound of the Digital Humanities page on Radio Nouspace if you’d like to have a listen. Not only was this great fun to work on, it was a good way of learning about the importance of the listening experience as a whole, instead of simply concentrating on the factual information that is held within audio recording such as oral history interviews.

My first trip to DHSI was an enriching experience, thank you so much to the Association of Computing in the Humanities for the financial help that made it happen.

By Penny Johnston

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