20 July 2022

MDOH: The Forward-View with Sharon Webb and Tara Brabazon

The fifth in the Multimodal Digital Oral History seminar series welcomed Sharon Webb from the University of Sussex, UK, and Tara Brabazon from Flinders University, Australia.

The recording of the seminar can be accessed here: Multimodal Digital Oral History: The Forward-View Seminar – 5

Firstly, Sharon’s paper, titled Streams of data: methods for distant and close listening for oral histories, was a think-piece bringing together her previous work with oral histories as ‘a means to articulate the ways in which oral history curates cultural objects as data…and how the production of this data is a unifying force for identity politics, community engagement, and community cohesion’ and a reflection on the tensions between distant reading or listening and certain methodological approaches and value systems informed by feminist and queer theory. Sharon discussed two major projects that she has been involved in: an experimental project on Music Information Retrieval (MIR), and community archive project Queer in Brighton. She framed this discussion around the work of Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned, which she described as a manifesto of feminist listening, collaboration, learning, remembering and dealing with conflict, with lessons on practice from the natural world, and focused on two aspects of this text, which are ‘collaborate’ and ‘listen’. The experimental MIR project used the virtual environment Jupyter Notebooks to analyse spoken word using the testimonies from the Resistance Archive as a training dataset using MIR techniques. This raised questions of encoded bias and the replication of bias in open source software and code and how this may have influenced the results of their analysis. Sharon further discussed the rebuilding of access to the Queer in Brighton digital archive following a previous takedown request, and the methods, such as collaborative metadata and writing events and a co-produced exhibition, that they used to enhance and create new forms of community access. Across the two studies, Sharon reflected on ‘listening to audio as audio files’, reading waveforms, collective listening, listening at different scales, and finally, asking what we lose when we listen at a distance and how we avoid drowning in an ocean of data.

Secondly, in her paper titled The auditory academic: transforming the soundscape of scholarship, Tara probed the soundscapes of scholarship asked ‘what is the soundscape of the neoliberal university?’ and whether there are ‘alternative soundscapes within our failed and failing higher education system’. She framed this around fours aspects: [Raymond] Schafer and the soundscape, education for the ear, sonic resistance through narrowcasting/podcasting, and our multimodal future. She drew on Schafer’s ideas of ‘the listening ear’, that we are all ‘ear witnesses’ to what is going on around us, and ‘sounds that matter’ to reflect on the sound of silence and institutional inaction as much as the stories of fear, redundancy, loss, and marginalisation. She discussed the dominance of visuality in the hierarchy of our senses and in our current media and communication context - or communication bias - reflecting on the recent exacerbation of this during cycles of pandemic lockdowns that shifted work and education predominantly online. Contrary to the neoliberal university - focused on speed, efficiency, productivity, and metrics - and the visual literacies that underpin it, sonic literacies are about slowing down, reflecting, and deeper learning. Next she advocated for podcasting for scholarship as a sound-only medium for academics to work through ideas and theory, and reach new publics, as well operating outside of the structures of university platforms. Throughout the paper Tara emphasised that sound is undertheorized and thus negates our ability ‘to live a more sonically conscious life’, but equally that silence is a form of power and resistance. She finished by looking towards multimodal literacies to transform citizenship and the relationships between citizens and the contemporary university.

Questions that followed concerned what precipitated the takedown request for the Queer in Brighton digital archive and the risks and sensitivities that surround doing queer digital oral histories; toxic cultures in coding communities and how to move beyond this and create inclusive and intersectional coding communities and practices; the business-as-usual approach that many universities took to moving teaching online using visual media during the Covid-19 pandemic and the silences this created; the power and limits of the subversive nature of silence; the idea of using the unfamiliar rather than familiar in distant listening or reading; the choice of dataset used for the experimental MIR project; and whether we should eschew the ‘clean’ interview recording and include environmental sounds.

- Hannah K. Smyth, 1 August 2022

20 July 2022