An Amateur’s Guide to Creating Audio Projects in Audacity (captured by Camtasia) – Part I

Hello, my name is Josh and I’m an addict of public radio. I get my morning fix from the BBC. When I ride the subway, I keep my dosage steady with podcasts from the CBC. Over lunch and in the evenings, it’s news and talk from WNYC. Weekends, I binge on flagship programming from NPR and PRI.

I’ve tried to infect my students with this affliction by replacing at least one reading assignment every semester with take-home listening questions on a particularly good radio program relating to the topic we’re studying. While I don’t think I’ve attracted many converts, many students have at the very least said: “I thought it was going to be really boring… but it wasn’t.”

I think there’s plenty of pedagogical value to be harnessed from listening to public radio, but students could also benefit from creating their own audio projects modeled on public radio formats. A few years ago, I enjoyed having the opportunity to present my research for a graduate course in public anthropology in the format of a radio documentary. I’d done a bit of audio editing using the digital recording software ProTools before, but for that project I used GarageBand, which comes with every Mac and is much more user friendly.

Since I’ve mainly computed on PCs for a few years now, I figured it was time to try out Audacity, the free audio editing software for PC (and Mac) I’ve often heard about. After the workshop on Camtasia screen capture software at the BLSCI a few weeks ago, I decided to try to make a little video with some ideas about making audio projects using Audacity. You can watch it below.


  1. As per the title of the video, I am a TOTAL AMATEUR at audio and video editing. I embarked on this project in the spirit of play mentioned by Suzanne at the last BLSCI meeting. I would feel vindicated if this prompted some of the experts in our midst to share some of their ideas about creating audio projects (and, ahem, what I could do better)!
  2. Yes, that’s right, there’s several shots of me surfing the web in there. Have you ever watched the linkbait videos on Filming the internet is totally legit.


Features a cameo from a true expert in communications!

The Soundtrack to Productivity

Stop and Listen. What do you hear? Music coming through your earphones? The chatter of a coffee shop? The car horn-punctuated midtown din, filtered through library windows? The hum of your computer in an otherwise silent, isolated space?

It would seem prosaic to state that sound is a key aspect of our immediate environments, and that different tasks are best accompanied by different kinds of aural stimuli. A radio show on the most appropriate music for exercise and athletics got me thinking about this again recently. The expert interviewed on the program conveys some rather unsurprising findings: Music can have a positive stimulative effect on people seeking to get the most of their workout; songs with relatively fast tempos are optimal as background music to exercise—125-140 beats per minutes is ideal; changing the tracks in your playlists frequently will maximize the music’s motivational potential by reducing the risk of boredom. On the other hand, music can play a distracting role for elite athletes engaged in intense competition.

On the other end of the spectrum from workout music, pieces with slower tempos and softer sounds can help people fall asleep. What, then, is the ideal sound for that middle ground of activity between heart-pumping exercise and tranquil sleep that most of us are immersed in during the bulk of our waking hours? For the many folks I see with earphones on while ostensibly doing work in libraries and coffee shops, I assume that music is a motivational force. There seems to be a smidgen of scientific evidence out there indicating that listening to music can boost productivity for some people in some settings, and no shortage of advice on what tunes will help you get work done. Of course, workers in many cultures sing and/or use work implements in a musical fashion to coordinate complex tasks and to make boring or repetitive work more interesting. One of my favorite examples of work music is a recording that was made of postal workers at the University of Accra, Ghana in the 1970s:

But there are those of us who can’t envision getting much work done if we tried to type every letter on our computer keyboard in rhythm. (Or, if we broke into office supply-accompanied song. Just couldn’t resist!)

Personally, I can’t even listen to music while doing any work that requires the slightest bit of concentration. The fact that my field of study involves analyzing music in its minute details makes it too difficult to ignore the sounds unfolding around me. But I know that I’m also probably more sensitive to aural stimuli than lots of other people. I’ve never understood how people can concentrate in busy coffee shops, even if there is no background music playing. So imagine my surprise when I learned the other day that there’s a website that will bring the sounds of a coffee shop to your home or office. The Coffitivity site and its related smartphone and tablet apps were apparently inspired by research indicating that the moderate levels of ambient noise typical of coffee shops are optimal for creative thinking. Maybe I’m not a very creative person, since I couldn’t stand more than a few seconds of “morning murmur”—one of Coffitivity’s three coffee shop sound options—streaming through my speakers!

Please Open (Your) Textbooks…

Seems that at the beginning of every semester, I see another blog post or news story about the skyrocketing prices of textbooks and how renting or subscription textbooks are the answer.

There have even been studies that show students are refusing to buy textbooks (whether because they can’t afford them or because they think the prices are outrageous), despite the inevitable hit to their grades.

just the ones i'm getting rid of

A pile of expensive paper, never to be read again (image by plutor CC BY)

In my class, I decided to confront this problem by matching my practice to my subject. I teach a section of a class called “Principles of New Media.” One of the topics we cover is Creative Commons licensing.

I decided to choose all of my required readings from those available under Creative Commons licenses.

The basic tenet of Creative Commons is that the default license should be permissive of sharing, rather than restrictive. Of course, there are different levels of permission. At the core, all CC licenses require attribution. This is the most permissive license, known as CC BY. As we tell our students: you must cite your sources.

But different CC licenses also permit or restrict various forms of reuse.

“No Derivatives”, or ND, restricts the creation of works based on a CC-licensed work. Therefore, the work can only be reused as-is.

“NonCommercial”, or NC, means that you cannot charge for reusing the work.

“Share Alike”, or SA, requires that any work derived from the licensed work must be released under the same licensing terms.

These four attributes can be combined in any form to arrive at the six possible Creative Commons licenses: CC BY, CC BY-SA, CC BY-ND, CC BY-NC, CC BY-NC-SA, or CC BY-NC-ND.

For the texts in my class, I start with the CC BY-NC-SA text The Social Media Reader, edited by Michael Mandiberg and published by NYU Press.
I then add readings individual readings that are available under various CC licenses, like Lev Manovich’s new book Software Takes Command (ironically, at the time of writing this post, the book is currently unavailable at that official address due to a software problem) and whitepapers by Tim O’Reilly and others.

And if students want to buy a copy of any of the books, they are available in physical copies. Most of my students, however, read on their tablets, computers, or print out their own copies.

Another pile of (potential) textbooks (by IntelFreePress CC BY-SA)

Another pile of (potential) textbooks (image by IntelFreePress CC BY-SA)

And if I continue teaching this class, my choice to use CC licensed texts will allow me to remix and add to the texts. I can find and incorporate newer articles by the books contributors, like Jay Rosen, danah boyd, Lawrence Lessig, or Clay Shirky, among others–as long as the newer writings are also CC licensed.

I cannot prove that students are more likely to do their readings than if they had to buy a textbook for my class. But at least now if they do decide not to do the reading, I know it is not because of the outrageous price of textbooks.

There’s a NAP for that….

I have always enjoyed my routine of reading in bed before I got to sleep.   When I was a teenager, I often would get so engrossed in the book I was reading, I would sometimes read for hours into the morning without noticing the time go by.  This has not happened to me for quite a long time.  Nowadays, as a busy Ph.D student, by the time I go to bed I am usually too tired to reach for a novel.   However, sometimes I do end up reading the New York Times on my iPhone.  And more often than not, a dozen articles later, I realize that an hour just went by without me noticing.  Of course, when the alarm goes off the next morning, I immediately notice that missing hour of sleep.  However, I’ve now come to learn that I may be missing more than just that hour of rest.

According to a 2014 study by Lanaj, Johnson and Barnes, smartphone use after 9 p.m. is associated with decreased sleep quantity.  What is more, nighttime smartphone use disrupts sleep and increases depletion the next morning.  This, in turn, diminishes work engagement during the day.  During the study, 82 upper level managers and 161 employees working in a variety of occupations, had to fill out multiple surveys every day for two weeks.  The questionnaires examined their daily use of smartphones, sleep quantity, sleep quality and their state of depletion.  The study further found that smartphones had a bigger depletion effect than using a laptop or tablet or watching TV.

Worse, a recent article in the New York Times (which I read at 1:42 a.m.) reported a link between nighttime smartphone use and insomnia.  This was due not only to the fact that users becomes engaged by the content on their phone, but also due to exposure to the blue light emitted by smartphone and tablet screens.  A 2012 study from the Lighting Research Center (LRC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute showed that a 2-hour exposure to electronic devices with backlit displays causes melatonin suppression which may lead to delayed bedtimes, especially in teens and young adults.

This is unwelcome news to the growing number of the device owners.  A new report compiled by Pew Research found that, 58% of American adults own a smartphone, 32% of American adults own an e-reader and 42% of American adults own a tablet computer.  The study further found that 44% of cell phone owners have slept with their phone next to their bed because they wanted to make sure they didn’t miss any calls, text messages, or other updates during the night.  As a nation, we are likely losing countless hours of sleep.

Fortunately, the solution to this particular problem is simple and obvious, but perhaps difficult to execute, as those of you who reading this in bed right can attest…

On gravitating and levitating (part one)

I’ll begin with a passage from James Joyce’s “The Dead” to illustrate reading as  an embodied experience in movement:

“Her voice strong and clear in tone attacked with great spirit that runs which embellish the air and, though she sang very rapidly, she did not miss even the smallest of the grace notes. To follow the voice, without looking at the singer’s face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight.”

I gravitate to the text’s directive “to follow the voice.” I repeat the passage aloud and experience the accumulative effects of soft, sinuous sounds that bring the words “attacked” and “rapidly” into sharp focus. At first it seems like an attack, a forced act, to merge my voice with the text. Oh, but those quickened syllables–rapidly–that delicately punctuate the legato of “embellish” and “grace notes”! The pitter patter of saying “rapidly” out loud makes me realize that my reading is a kind of running: my voice chases after my sprinting eyes. I jump in; the text springs. “Her voice” is faceless because it becomes “the voice,” our voice. Together, the text and I, we “feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight.”


I frequently feel and share texts, as many of us do, on and through the internet. If an article, image, or video is moving–if it’s infuriating, amusing, or inspiring–you and I engage by commenting, upvoting, and reposting: we share. This all happens, rapidly, at speeds that make it easy to forget that reading and writing are embodied movements, activities of relating.



What I learned in my international archival research

This break, I spent time in Moscow, conducting dissertation research. This archival trip has been useful, not only for my dissertation research, but in a way I never expected: helping my pedagogy seemingly unrelated to my research topic.

(requisite image of St. Basil's for any post about Moscow)

(requisite image of St. Basil’s for any post about Moscow)

As a foreigner in Russian archives and libraries, I expected some bureaucratic red tape, therefore I planned ahead. However, no matter how much you try, bureaucracy will always find a way. Even with very helpful librarians and archival specialists, I faced multiple forms, access requests, and unexpected hurdles. This post is an attempt to record my experience.

I won’t go into the forms needed just to enter Russia, as there are many websites dedicated to helping with that. But I will just say that you must begin preparations months—six months would be ideal—in advance. Once you arrive, make sure that you have all of your documentation: Passport, Visa, Migration card, Visa registration, Letter of introduction from your home institution, Russian phone number, Russian address where you are staying. Got all of those? Good, you are ready to head out to your research site.

Beloved Dostoevsky guarding the entrance to the main Lenin Library in Moscow.

Beloved Dostoevsky guarding the entrance to the main Lenin Library in Moscow.

In a nice bit of Gogolesquery, in order to enter most libraries and archives you will need your propusk [pass]. In order to get this propusk, you have to register with the library past the guard’s station where you need to show this propusk. For some libraries, the process is simple as telling them that you are a new reader and going to register. Other places require calling the librarian on duty to come and escort you to the office where you apply for the propusk. The good news is that the librarians in charge of issuing these propuski are generally very helpful and quick. So it shouldn’t take more than an hour or so to get your privledges.

Despite a national set of “Rules for the Reader,” (a multipaged set of bureaucratic rights and privledges that you either are asked to read or given a copy of at each location), every library or archive has its own system for carrying out those rights, registering its readers, requesting materials, and requesting copies. Since you will be asked to read over these rules so quickly, best to familiarize yourself with them well ahead of time.

Hand over your letter of introduction, printed on official letterhead and specifically stating the subject and dates of your research topic. Turn in your passport, visa, migration card, and visa registration. Fill in the registration form, which could be as simple as a notecard or as long as a couple pages and require an attached photo. And hope you filled everything in correctly. You will then, if all goes well, receive your official propusk with a blue official stamp.

Good to go!
(image by Damian Yerrick cc-by-sa)

Next comes the request for materials. While collections are starting to be indexed on computers, the main way to find documents is still an extensive collection of handwritten and typed (but not digital) indexes (putivoditeli). These are similar to finding aids you will find in US archives, but the yellowing pages and corrections entered in pencil cultivate a sense of history I have rarely felt when working with the more familiar MS Word docs and slick websites or even the physical card catalogues. Each collection (fond) has its own putivoditel or shelf of putivoditeli that indexes the sub-collections (opisi), files (dela), date of deposit (data), and number of pages (listi) in the delo. Some archives vary slightly in what these elements are called, but these are the elements you will need to request a file. Depending on the archive, you may also need the (very lengthy) description of the delo. (In my research, many of the descriptions would not fit in the space provided on the requisition form. We will see if my attempts to abbreviate worked.) Be prepared to fill out the forms multiple times. The smallest mistake can cause you to have to fill out the whole form again. But the archivists are very helpful in checking for you and will let you know if anything is out of order on your request. Turn in your requisition form, and then wait. Anywhere from one to three days. According to law, they aren’t supposed to make you wait longer than three days, but I have heard stories of requests that took longer because the files had been sent into storage outside of the city.

Remember how I mentioned the date of deposit? This seemingly unimportant piece of archival trivia is indispensable for researchers hoping to access “personal files” (lichniye dela). Personal files and files containing potential state secrets have been sealed for a period of 75 years from the date of deposit. This is something that is not well publicized on the websites of the collections, but which the archivist at RGALI was very helpful in pointing out. Supposedly, you can request access earlier than this date with the permission of the subject or the subject’s family.

When you finally receive the files, personal photography (a real time- and money-saver in my previous archival research) is usually prohibited. So be prepared to take your copious and extremely detailed notes or cough up for the $1-$3 per page copying service.

No cameras

After this experience, I definitely have a greater understanding of what my students must feel going through a completely new bureaucratic system like our libraries here in the US. I knew that I needed to provide support to my students when requiring research for class projects, otherwise I would just get a lot of Google-search-based papers. But I thought providing links to the helpful guides already provided by our libraries would be sufficient. However, my experience attempting to navigate an unfamiliar library system showed me how beguiling (and contradictory) mere documentation can be when encountering a new library for the first time. My contextual knowledge of how to navigate US libraries and archives was of limited use. My ability to “speak library” stopped at the border, and I had to learn a new way of maneuvering through these collections.

[Navigating library catalogues doesn't have to be scary]

Rather than merely pointing my students to online resources that outline what services our libraries provide, scheduling a class period to meet with the subject area librarian no longer seemed like pedantic overkill. For students who are not used to navigating the idiosyncrasies of multiple databases, physical and digital collections, as well as the technology resources available in our libraries, just learning where to start can be confusing. And this is without the hurdles due to class, linguistic, and past educational background biases faced by many of our students.

Power Pointers

Power Point slides are omnipresent in today’s college classroom. Most textbooks in my field – I have been teaching introductory economics and finance – come with a set of PowerPoint slides prepared by the textbook publisher that feature content, examples and graphs from the textbook. These ready-made slides save a ton of time. Many instructors use them as they are, others personalize them to a varying degree. Instead of having to plan the class one can conveniently follow the slides along. However, although slides make teaching easier, they do not necessarily make it better.

We have all sat through countless lectures where the instructor merely displayed dense slides and even read their content out loud word for word. This is exactly the opposite of what we are trying to teach the students in presentation rehearsals at the Schwartz Institute. We encourage students to keep their slides brief and deliver the bulk of the information verbally.
I feel that slides tend to bore the students, and merely encourage them to copy and memorize as opposed to understand and analyze. Some students actually love the detailed, overloaded slides because they feel like they do not have to take any (or many) notes. However, as research suggests, this does not help their learning process. At the Schwartz Institute, we also encourage presenters to try to limit the number of slides in their presentations.

Excessive use of slides turns the attention away from the speaker and makes it harder to create an active interaction with students. Therefore, in my own teaching, I tend to use PowerPoint sparingly. Teaching microeconomics which is very graph-intensive, I have found that graphs are much better understood by students if I draw them on the board myself, as opposed to using the publisher’s animated slides that show the graphing procedure step by step. Slides also make it harder to pace yourself, and you are more likely to present faster than you probably should be when you are using slides.

However, the problem is not the tool itself, it is how you use it. Power Point can be an immensely useful tool in teaching, if used properly and limited to situations where the visual representation of an idea or concept increases comprehension. Here are a few ideas of how to avoid boring students to death with the slides.

  1.  Use the slide as a prompt, to bring focus to a discussion of the information. Go light on text, use images, statistics or charts.
  2.  Use the slide as the vehicle to deliver a question, problem, or example, not as a tool to deliver information.
  3. Consider not handing out print-outs of your slides. By summarizing the slides in their notes the students’ comprehension and retention may be enhanced. Writing things down facilitates learning.
  4. Turn off the projector to focus attention back on you, when necessary. Alternatively, if you press the letter B on your keyboard, it makes the screen go black. Pressing it again brings the screen back. Similarly, pressing W will make the screen white.
  5. Finally, when using a screen, if possible, try to position yourself near the screen, so you keep the focus on people’s attention and eyes in the same place. This also allows you to quickly place yourself in front of the screen during discussion when the screen may be black or white. Positioning yourself too far from the screen is distracting and force you to compete with the screen for the audience’s attention. In other words, do not make your listeners feeling like they are watching a tennis match.

Once Upon a Time: Web-based Timelines in the Classroom

Last week, Dana Milstein and I led a faculty-development roundtable on the online timeline design app Tiki-Toki. The app has become popular in academia over the past year or two because it provides a simple, user-friendly way to create professional-looking, interactive timelines. While a timeline-building app might have obvious applications for a history class, we used the roundtable to explore ways to adapt it to literature and writing classes. I’ll explore some of those here.

First, a bit on how it works. A free Tiki-Toki account allows you to create one timeline site (though there’s nothing stopping you from creating multiple accounts with different email addresses). You set the time scale for your timeline — which, depending on your topic, could be centuries, years, days, hours. You populate the timeline with “stories,” which are essentially micro blog posts that you identify with a time marker, placing them chronologically on your timeline. These stories can contain a range of multimedia including text, images, video, PDFs, and hyperlinks to external websites. They can also be sorted into various categories you invent for your timeline. So, if you’re creating a timeline of — say — the Harlem Renaissance, you might have different category tags for key people, works of visual art, music, literature, or political events.

This screenshot comes from one of the model timelines Tiki-Toki provides on their website. Moments from 2010 - 2011 political uprisings in the Middle East are sorted into categories by country. The bottom shows the slider bar that allows users to scroll chronologically through the timeline. Full timeline:

This screenshot comes from one of the model timelines Tiki-Toki provides on their website. The background image shows a political rally. Five text boxed show stories on the timeline. Moments from 2010 – 2011 political uprisings in the Middle East are sorted into categories by country. The bottom shows the slider bar that allows users to scroll chronologically through the timeline. Full timeline:

There are a few clear reasons why Tiki-Toki has caught on in the academy over the past few years. For one, it provides a dynamic alternative for assignments that ask students to represent historical research. Unlike a static, text-based researched report, the digital timelines students design allow users to explore the content in a way better suited to the digital age: while users might choose to move through the timeline chronologically, they also have the option to jump around, to navigate by theme or category, to interact with the content in original ways. Likewise, because the multimedia format allows for hyperlinking and embedding multimedia in the stories, users can dive deep into the moments that interest them most, leading outward into further resources on the web.

It seems obvious that a tool like this — and similar open-source apps — should find a natural home in the history classroom. But what about literature and writing classes? Dana and I asked the participants in our roundtable, who were all Great Works of Literature instructors, to imagine possible applications for timeline-building within their own contexts. We asked them to consider how timeline-ing could add to their classes. A few speculative answers:

  • Students could create timelines about characters in literary works to better understand their trajectory, especially in works that have non-linear chronology (i.e. a timeline of Odysseus’s journey or one character’s trajectory through the single-day novel Mrs Dalloway)
  • Students — or groups — could create timelines of cultural movements from which works emerged (i.e. timeline of the Harlem Renaissance or western Women’s Rights movements)
  • A whole class could create timelines tracking the influences of key ideas or key works up to the present day (i.e. a timeline of works responding to Sophocles’ Oedipus plays)

For those who are interested in getting students to represent their knowledge and analysis in ways that go beyond the straightforward prose essay, these kinds of projects offer something new and exciting. They lend themselves to extreme creativity, collaborative knowledge-making, and the incorporation of contemporary digital composing skills within the study of classic literary texts. Of course, they also raise new challenges for assessment, but that’s a topic for another post.

I want to close by speculating on a few possibilities for how Tiki-Toki could be used in a different context: self reflection on learning. In a history class or a literature class, timelines allow students to represent their research and analysis skills. What would happen if we asked students to timeline their own experiences as learners? How could they use their digital literacy skills and the adaptive possibilities of Tiki-Toki to better understand themselves as developing writers and learners?

Many freshman composition courses include some sort of literacy narrative assignment. Typically, these projects ask students to reflect on their past lives as a reader or a writer, often asking them to show through storytelling one important factor that has made them the literate person they are today. Many composition courses begin with such a project. At the beginning of a course in college-level reading and writing, a project like this allows students to gain confidence, both by asking them reflect on the complex literacy skills they already possess, and by allowing them permission to write confidently about something they know well, their own biography. 

Rather than asking students to reflect on a single moment from their literacy past, Dana and I have both started asking them to create digital projects that put these moments into the broader context of their literacy development. (Dana calls her version of this assignment a Literary Autobiography.) Some students choose to use the timeline to represent the various influences on their reading lives — everything from family influences to literature and pop culture touchstones. By contrast, some students use the timeline format to explore their lives as writers, presenting excerpts from important creative and school-sponsored writing projects they’ve done throughout their lives. For example, one student chose to reflect on her history writing and giving speeches, and using the multimedia capabilities of Tiki-Toki, was able to include actual video clips of her public speeches as the basis for her reflection.

Whenever I have my students create something experimental or creative like this, I always ask them to reflect on the experience in a more straightforward essay that accompanies the assignment. Since the overall project is about literacy, students often make compelling analogies between the digital literacy skills they had to employ in this project and the overall literacy history they were trying to represent. The experimentation, in essence, supports their discovery of what, exactly, literacy means to them.

The second example of a reflective timeline-based assignment comes out of my work this semester with George DeFeis’s Business Policy 5100 capstone course. All BPL5100 courses require students to work in groups on a large-scale business simulation called Glo-Bus. In the Glo-Bus simulation, students design a business strategy for a fictional company, and through the accelerated time of the simulation (1 week for the student equals one year of  the business), they compete with rival teams to see who can make the most profitable company through 15 years of business strategy.

At the end of the semester, Professor DeFeis asks his students to prepare an oral presentation in which they explain how they approached the simulation, pointing out their key decisions as a company, and explaining what they ultimately learned about business in the “real world” through this experiment. As a teacher, I have a lot of respect for this kind of assignment. The simulation gives students a rich and complex experience that they can then analyze and synthesize in their final presentation. Unlike oral presentation projects that ask students to base their content purely on external research (say, a presentation on Dell Computers), this project asks them to present on their own experience over the semester — something about which we can reasonably expect them to have authentic expertise. To create a convincing presentation, students must take ownership of what they learned in the course by critically reflecting on both their successes and their mistakes.

This assignment seems perfectly suited to Tiki-Toki. Groups could construct timelines of their own business, making separate stories for the key decisions they made. In each story, they could embed images from the simulation interface to show the data they consulted, while in the text of the story itself they could reflect on the way they reasoned through the choice. Not only would building the timeline allow students to examine the decisions they made in more concrete detail than they usually achieve in the abstract through their oral presentations, they would also leave the project with a professional-quality archive of their simulated business experience.

Obviously, I see many intriguing possibilities for incorporating timeline-based projects into college classrooms. I could go on. Dana Milstein and I are hoping to host another roundtable workshop in the spring that would take a more interdisciplinary focus, including ways that the software could be used in non-humanities courses. Keep tuned to the Schwartz Institute workshop page for more details as they develop. To access the materials we distributed at the November 18 workshop, click here.

TLHUB: It’s Better When It’s Messy

If the world is becoming more and more dependent on technology it is imperative that we (read: intellectuals, scholars, academics, literary peoples, translators) create our own place in it; a place not dictated by the motivations of Silicone Valley.

That is a paraphrase of the words of French translator and member of the ESA (European Society of Authors) Camille de Toledo (otherwise known as Alexis Mital; heir to the Dannon Yogurt empire). I met de Toledo several weeks ago when he was presenting at the Walls and Bridges: Found In Translation conference at NYU. De Toledo was workshopping a new online platform called TLHUB (Translation and Literary HUB) that will go live in late fall. Initially the HUB will serve as a platform for translators or groups of translators to work together on various projects. They can work together to create drafts, comment on each other’s word choices, and access all the same material at the same time no matter where they are in the world.

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 4.56.48 PMIt will also allow Spanish, French, Arabic and even Yiddish translators to have access to the linguistic decisions of translators working on the same project but in other languages. While all of this is an important step in bursting open the humanness of literary translations, the part that got me most excited was the digital archive that will be created for each project. It will be an exportable archive of the methods of translation, linguistic decisions, and catalogue the etymological and social factors behind the cultural exchange of language and ideas. The notion of process is one that too often gets lost when people read translations or believe that translations can or should be done by computers; if we archive the steps of translation, the discussions, and the various versions of texts we can bring to light the sense of creation and continual becoming that is inherent not only in translation but in communication more generally.


In a previous panel during that same conference the presenters spoke about translation as a dangerous tool, one that has significant cultural and political residue both on the original language and on the language of translation. Many translators consider themselves writers as they engage in the critical, cultural and linguistic factors, the literary nuance and the close-reading investigations at play in their work. To translate is to communicate not just the words of the text but the emotion, tone, rhythm, structure, cultural history and class implications (… I could keep going) of a syllable, word, sentence, or work as a whole. To get it “wrong” can be trouble, but to get it “right” can be just as much trouble. Understanding the process of cultural exchange at play in the translation of a text is something that leads to a better understanding of the cultures on both sides of the translation coin. Isn’t really good communication about the messiness of it all, about the complicated and dynamic structures behind ideas?

When Howard M. Parshley, a retired zoologist was asked to translate The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir  he created a text that feminists and de Beauvoir scholars have been criticizing for the last sixty years. The new unabridged translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier in many ways revives the previously muffled voice of de Beauvoir. If Borde and Malovany-Chevallier had used TLHUB for their new translation we, as the English speaking public, would not only have a new de Beauvoir but new access into the subtleties at play in communicating ideas; we would see their process in deciding to change the quintessential phrase:“On ne naît pas femme: on le devient” from ”one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” to “one is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” It would create a transparency that renders the myth of transparency in translation obsolete.

I think that de Toledo is on to something when he says that we need to build technologies that center around our ideas of translation, communication and pedagogy because while effective communication is essential for product marketing (I still remember nearly all of the commercial jingles popular during my childhood) I don’t know that I can stand behind a marketing of communication-as-product.

On Haunting and Inhabiting

The Docks, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1921), NYPL Digital Collections

The Docks, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1921), NYPL Digital Collections

The past is present on the internet. Specters of the past, particularly those that are marginalized or ignored in traditional historical narratives, dwell in digitized open-access archives. Websites like The Public Archive: Black History in Dark Times, Digitizing “Chinese Englishmen,” and People of Color in European Art History curate texts that challenge conventional knowledge and reveal other contexts for understanding the world. By attending to difference and nuance, these archives bring obscured histories to the fore. Dissatisfied with the uneven production of knowledge and histories about certain regions and communities, individuals from within, and outside of, academia foster digital spaces for critical inquiry.

The accelerated speed of internet communication seems to encourage a tendency to reduce or compress information into smaller parts. Sound bites, gifs, images, and excerpts effectively draw attention and mobilize political sentiment. There is a risk, of course. This speed can reproduce damaging assumptions, for internet users might rely on old habits of thought in order to make sense of fragmentary information. But archival projects like the ones listed above enact a critical exercise that shatters any simplistic, one-dimensional representation of a community, region, or historical period. For example, The Public Archive was born out of a frustration with the mainstream media’s depiction of Haiti after the the earthquake in January 2010. Professor Peter James Hudson  explains the digital humanities initiative: “As professional historians with laymen’s interests in Haiti, we thought that we needed to make some small, however limited, intervention in the coverage of Haiti, and we agreed that the best way to do it was by mobilising the research skills we had as historians in an attempt to provide some context for understanding Haiti’s history, and how that history was constructed and represented in the media.”

In culling freely accessed texts, The Public Archive composes a fuller, more intricate, picture of Haiti. The Public Archive does history in a way that is legible for a wider audience without compromising the assertion that rigorous study is still necessary. Its entries oscillate between past and present, text and image, still photographs and videos. The website also offers extensive dossiers, interviews with scholars, and recommended reading lists. In this curatorial move, the archive allows visitors to briefly inhabit the grammar of places, historical periods, and connections that we may have not been conscious of before. Take, for instance, a published post entitled “The National City Bank of New York & Haiti” that sheds light on U.S. military occupation and corporate involvement in Haiti during the early twentieth century. Plural perspectives, multiple genres, and temporalities come together in one post: a Bloomberg blog entry from 2012, a Haitian newspaper printed in 1927 that announces the arrival of National City Bank’s president, an academic article published earlier this year, a pamphlet printed in 1920 that critiques U.S. presence in Haiti, the National City Bank’s rationale in 1920 for its ventures into Haiti.

Marketplace, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1919), NYPL Digital Collections

The critical attitude that is “discontent with reified objects” and “impatien[t] with guilds, special interests, imperialized fiefdoms, and orthodox habits of mind” can flourish in public, digital spaces. This critical attitude, exemplified by The Public Archive and other similar projects, invigorate the sense of a knowledge commons. It seems to me that while the internet may disorganize traditional approaches to acquiring information (i.e., the physical space of a classroom, a codex textbook), knowledge is being reorganized in emergent, sometimes unrecognizable, shapes on the internet. The process of disorganizing and reorganizing knowledge and its politics, I suspect, is activated by collective desires to dilate the space and time allotted to learning.


Note:  This  blog is, in part, inspired by the “Why the Research Block?” Faculty Roundtable discussion that I helped Senior BLSCI Fellow Meechal Hoffman organize earlier this month. Also, see this recent NYT Op-Ed piece by Laurent Dubois for a discussion on Haiti and economic history.