Introducing Visualising Voice

At the beginning of 2017, I started a new project: Visualising Voice. It works alongside my research on The Baudelaire Song Project, but also as a standalone research project. And I’m very excited about it.

It all came about when I applied for a Europeana Research Grant, back in September, when I’d only just started at The University of Birmingham. The call for applications was looking for researchers working in / with Digital Humanities tools, who could make use of resources held in the Europeana Collections, a digital platform for cultural heritage, funded by the European Commission.

I have to admit that, when I applied, I hadn’t really got to grips with Europeana Collections, though I’d used a number of the resources which are held under their umbrella. Mainly, I was familiar with Gallica – digitized resources from the Bibliothèque national de la France (BnF), and had, on occasion made use of online resources from other national libraries – notably, of course, the British Library (BL) in London, but using Europeana opened up a wealth of new resources to me.

So, I was delighted – and a bit daunted, I’ll confess – to find out, just before Christmas, that I had been awarded one of three Europeana Research Awards.

I hadn’t expected to gain the funding. When I applied, I wondered whether my project was too derivative, in that it closely follows methodologies developed within the Baudelaire Song Project Team. I also wondered whether it was too ambitious, as I was going to be working with Software Developer, Tom Cowley, to create a new interface, allowing users to get involved in Digital Humanities. However, Europeana seemed to like both of these aspects of my project – it’s collaborative, digitally ambitious, but also rooted in tried and tested methodologies which fit well when applied to materials in the Europeana Collections.

I realise that I haven’t actually explained what the project aims to do. So, I’ll backtrack a little bit. Visualising Voice aims to look at what happens when we perform poetry aloud. The project works on the premise that poetry is an inherently oral form of writing – it is meant to be heard – or, at least, some of the different features of poetry, such as rhythm, rhyme are best understood aurally, rather than by looking at a piece of paper. The Europeana Collections hold quite a lot of spoken word recordings of poems by Baudelaire. Working on the Baudelaire Song Project, I was already comfortable enough working with Baudelaire to know that this was something I could happily take on.

I could never get bored of Baudelaire, nor of Mallarmé, whose work formed the basis of my thesis, though I am wary of becoming a “one-trick pony”, and I was definitely ready to branch out and expand the scope of my research. Visualising Voice gave me the perfect opportunity to continue my research, whilst looking at new texts and broadening the extent of my research output. Working with the website and development also gave me a chance of develop my tech skills, most notably working with html and javascript. While the development of the song analysis interface is very much down to Tom, and his developer associates, I have been hands-on in building the website and it’s really opened my eyes to using the web to share my research.

We know why Baudelaire had to be in the list of poets to study, but why Verlaine and Rimbaud? Verlaine featured in the corpus for a number of reasons. First and foremost, he is very frequently set to music (though arguably not as frequently as Baudelaire). The large number of song settings of Verlaine’s poetry hint at an inherent orality, at something in his work which invites performance. Secondly, recordings of Verlaine’s poetry feature heavily in the Europeana Collections, supporting my view that his work has an important performative element, and making it an easily-accessible focus for the study. Alongside Verlaine, I chose Rimbaud. Recordings of Rimbaud’s poetry often feature alongside those of Verlaine and I was surprised to find that recordings of his work featured almost as much in the Europeana Collections as Verlaine’s. Historically, the two poets have been seen as a double-act, on account of their close but often turbulent personal relationship, so it made sense, in my study, to consider both poets. Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud together are bastions of nineteenth-century French poetry, with unique and pioneering elements to their poetic output – this made them ideal candidates for study in Visualising Voice.

Looking at the work of three poets together offered an opportunity to test the methodologies developed within the Baudelaire Song Project on the work of other poets, as well as exploring how we examine and talk about features of speech, as opposed to song. I think that analysing speech brings new challenges. While setting words to music adds an additional dimension to analysis, in some ways I this is easier to analyse, as there are more layers and more obvious variations in performance. In the case of speech, the differences between performances of poetry are more subtle and, as a result, bring a different angle to our research.

So far, I have firmed up the corpus for the project, which involves looking at three different performances of the same poem. There are three poems each by Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud, so initially, we’ll be looking at nine poems, though we hope to expand this to eighteen over time. Because of the nature of the resources in the Europeana Collections, most of the recordings used are from the 1950s or early 1960s. This limitation brings both advantages and challenges. In the first instance, we’ll need to assess how much variation there is between the different performances and what the nature of those variations are. If there is little variation, then we might see this as a generational style of performance. The real challenge is that, within the Europeana Collections, at least, we don’t have access to any more modern recordings: this is why we decided to add a crowdsourcing element into the project. In the latter phases of the project, we’ll be inviting users to record and analyse their own performances – either snippets or whole poems, as they wish, in French or in English. These can either be deleted or, if users are interested in contributing further to the research, uploaded privately to the project team. Of course, we hope that some users will be feeling brave enough to share their recordings publicly.

The Visualising Voice project home page should be appearing online over the next few weeks, when we’ll share a bit more about the project. For now, watch this space…!

How healthy is #ECRchat?

If you ask most Early Career Researchers how it feels to get out into the academic world, with a PhD in hand and an impressive new title on their e-mail signatures, they’ll tell you that life is tough. With tens, sometimes, hundreds of applicants for one permanent job, lots of fixed-term contacts, and the need to keep lots of balls in the air including teaching, research, finishing a PhD, having a life, it’s not easy starting out in academia.

However, I’m not here to write about the downsides of academia – you can find enough of that on The Guardian’s “Academics Anoymous” feature, in which the trials, tribulations and triumphs (but mostly the trials and tribulations) of academic life are documented in a blog-style comment piece. In AA, scholars allow their spleen to flow onto the page, under the safe guise of anonymity, in a manner similar to the equally, if not more choleric “Secret Teacher” (of which I was once a regular reader and sympathiser).

I’m convinced, however, that despite the challenges, an academic career is still a privilege (as my sympathy with the Guardian’s “secret teacher” suggests, I feel that the grass is far greener for staff in HE than in secondary education). Naturally, just because we are lucky enough to work in an industry which allows us to pursue our intellectual passions doesn’t mean that the willingness and enthusiasm of Early Career Researchers should be abused by short-term contracts or low-paid teaching positions. However, I do feel that many of us Early Career Researchers (myself included) are too quick to become caught up in the negative side of the job and fail to see the many benefits of academic life.

For all the hard work that Early Career Researchers do – teaching, writing, publishing and living a life beholden to the job market – there’s still one thing that ECRs just aren’t doing enough of: positive thinking. To get ahead, we all need to embrace the kind of solutions-focussed thinking our academic training should have fostered within us. So often, I go to Early Career events – disciplinary and general, institutional or further afield – and the mood is the same. It’s one of “my university doesn’t offer X”, “I’m too busy to get training in this area”. This kind of approach is stopping us from getting ahead. If you think your university doesn’t offer the training you want, then ask about bringing it on board. Want more writing events? Ask your research office / your department etc. If what you’re looking for isn’t out there then why not see about kick-starting it yourself? Naturally, some things are easier to get going than others – a writing group for ECRs is probably easier to launch by yourself than an accredited mentoring programme or a teacher training qualification, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t lobby for the things that are important to your professional and personal development.

Some months ago, I was lucky enough to spend a week curating the @WeTheHumanities twitter account. It was fascinating to hear the testimonies of people in academic circles – not only those starting out, but those in established careers.  However, I was saddened by just how dejected some of my contemporaries felt. I decided to use my curatorship to (attempt to) focus on the many great things which make us want to a career in academia. I invited ECRs and more established academics to talk about the positive aspects of their work. My plan fell flat – especially as far as Early Career Researchers were concerned. In fact, I felt that I had been totally shot down, because – for many – it was impossible to think positively after the rejections began to pile up, after trying to break into a career which didn’t support mental wellbeing and exacerbated existing health issues. Interestingly, too, people assumed that because I wanted to celebrate the good things in academia, that I must be in a permanent post, that I must be convinced that I couldn’t be touched by the problems of getting a permanent job, faced by most ECRs.

I have to admit, that in many ways, my week curating the WeTheHumanities twitter account really brought me down – firstly, knowing that my contemporaries felt bad about their situation, secondly feeling that they thought I was some kind of Pollyanna for wanting to focus on the good parts of the job (and for me, these outweigh any negatives). I absolutely love what I do – I work on a research project I believe in, and after only 18 months in the job, I have already benefitted from some amazing opportunities which I have really enjoyed and will be of real benefit to my career. I’ve done public engagement events, teaching and lecturing, taster sessions for sixth-formers and even given a lecture at 5 in the morning (for 24-Hour Inspire). I’m not saying it’s been easy – I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words and put in many hours in and outside the office. It’s all been worth it, because I’ve enjoyed it and because it’ll stand me in good stead for the future.

One of the things I felt that I came under fire for when curating the @WeTheHumanities accounts was my suggestion that we might have ‘fall-back careers’. I’m not sure how I feel about this myself, but it’s an idea I have to entertain. With an awareness that I might not get my dream lectureship immediately after my current post comes to an end, I know there may come a point where I have to do something different. On the one hand, this idea that I won’t be a lecturer in five years time is terribly disappointing, on the other hand, I sometimes wonder what I might do instead. I’m not sure, because an academic career is the one I want. But I do know that I have a PhD – hell, I’ve got three degrees! – I have experience of teaching. I’m a fast reader and a quick typist. I am pretty good at critical thinking and I’m quite creative. If I sound like I’m boasting, then, I’m sorry – but I’m not in the minority. Every Early Career Researcher should be able to boast these skills, and if they don’t make you a hot contender on any job market – academic or otherwise – then I don’t know what will.

Where do I see that future? I’d like to say in academia. Much as I love what I do, I know that it’s a fixed-term project and that it won’t last forever. I’ll do everything I can to secure an academic job. And if I can’t? Part of me says I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it; the other part of me says that I’m already a writer, teacher, mentor with gradually growing tech skills. Do I feel hard-done by that I don’t have a permanent job? Absolutely not – I’m happy in what I’m doing now and excited to see where the future will take me.

What good are the digital humanities?

I have a fundamental problem with the digital humanities: I’m not really sure what they are. I probably shouldn’t admit that given that I work with digital humanities tools every day. I also feel that I shouldn’t admit that I’m still trying to work out what DH really is, because I am working to build my career around using digital tools to studying nineteenth-century French poetry.

There are a few issues I have with DH. First of all, I wonder whether there will really be a need for the digital humanities in ten, fifteen, twenty years time? The humanities themselves have stood the test of time very well, dating back – I suppose – to Ancient Rome and / or Ancient Greece. The “digital” part, however, is a relatively new addition to our arsenal: there’s a perception that students love it, funding councils love it, and people on interview panels love it. I love it, too, but cautiously, as I’m wary of the desire to shoe-horn DH in at every opportunity. Doing so, I think, undermines the value of DH and of the research we’re already doing.

The digital humanities have already undergone a major rebranding, shifting from their old identity as the computational humanities, before it was decided that computational humanities was a bit last century, a bit computer-speak for humanists, and it should be rebranded as the digital. My issue is this: we live in a digital age, but very seldom in life do we flag up when things are digital as opposed to analogue. Most of us nowadays have smart phones, but mostly, they’re just referred to (in the UK at least) as “phones”. Nobody ever gets in their car and thinks: should I use analogue navigation (a map?) or digital navigation (Google Maps?) – they just do it. And this is precisely how I feel about the digital humanities: rather than trying to decide whether what we do is digital or not, and spend time situating ourselves within a digital culture, can’t we just accept our identity as humanists, from various disciplines and various methodological approaches?

After all, digital humanities is not a methodology in itself: those of us who approach our work digitally, using digital tools still have to decide what those tools are and how to implement them. Often this means devising the tools ourselves, working with someone else to devise the tools or using tools which are not actually designed for that purpose, appropriating them in ways which fit the job. This is all very productive. But this is still just doing our research in the twenty-first century. I’m sure – and part of me kind of hopes – that the digital humanities will fizzle out as a term. I don’t feel that it needs another new look, a PR overhaul, which is what so often happens with ways of doing things in university departments (e.g. “it’s not a research cluster it’s a strand / stream / insert other appropriate term for separating researchers out into useful groups” / “we need to give this course a more appealing title”). Instead of rebranding us, lumping us all together, giving us a new identity as digital humanities, it would be quite nice sometimes just to get on with what we do best (research / teaching / all the jazz that comes with being an academic) without having to work out where we fit in. That is as much a question of modern life as it is a question of asserting an identity within the academic community – where do I fit in and who am I?

Ultimately, it’s not productive to try and pigeon-hole ourselves, and we shouldn’t have to worry that we’re “not digital humanities enough”, that we’re too old-fashioned when applying for jobs or developing our CVs. That sends out the message that the kind of high-level, old school criticism done in the past in literary circles is not good enough. Yes, as critical individuals we can see the flaws in the approaches taken by our predecessors. I admit, also, that it’s important to be doing things properly, to be doing things well, and re-hashing old ideas in old ways does not constitute progress. Nor, however, does re-hashing old ideas in new ways. So, what I want to take away from these reflections is the idea that it’s OK to be a twenty-first century citizen in academia, to use the modern tools we have available to us in creative new ways. But, that it’s also OK to keep doing what you’re doing and doing it well, if you don’t feel that digital tools add anything to your research.

After all, it’s questionable how much digitization and e-books can really be said to innovative digital humanities methodologies in a world where many have been using Kindles for fifteen years or more and students and academics alike rely on tablets and laptops for information on the go. Much as I hate the term, I am a millennial. Since my early teens I’ve used computers for some kind of research, for communication and for learning (albeit, an unreliable dial-up connection in my school days) – much of what is commonly thought of as digital humanities is just second nature to me. But there’s another side to what is commonly thought of as digital humanities which is out of my reach – big data handling (I’m talking MATLAB and SPSS and other high-level tools which, as a modern linguist working on poetry I just haven’t had cause to use). I’m also talking programming. In the past few years, I’ve learnt a bit of code – I’ve progressed from creating the kind of homepage you might see in the Hampster (sic) Dance days, to something which looks fairly decent even by today’s standards. But I’ve worked hard to make even these baby steps, and I’ve had a lot of help. And that’s what we need to make digital humanities different – help. It’s OK to be proud of being specialists in our field, rather than trying desperately to edge into a different field. But let’s use the gaps in our knowledge to team up with other people. I think this is the goal for humanists – whether they consider themselves digital or not – to talk to the specialists in technology. I think they could tell us a few home truths about the level of forward-thinking tech which is actually at the core of much of what we consider to be digital humanities, but – perhaps more than that – they have much to offer in helping us to think differently about our research, enabling us to approach what we do in new, exciting and creative ways.

* Title with a nod to John Carey’s 2005 book What Good Are the Artswhich provoked a lot of thoughts in me as a first-year undergrad and which I now want to re-read.