Toward a Noisier Digital Humanities

July 18, 2013, 08:30 | Short Paper, Embassy Regents F

Soundbox, a graduate student-led project funded by the new PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge, part of the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University, explores new ways of incorporating sound into digital scholarly productions. It does so primarily by hosting a series of "provocations" — that is, essays, experiments and events both digital and local — that challenge those who experience them to imagine a noisier form of scholarship. In this presentation, we will discuss the theory behind Soundbox’s approach to Digital Humanities, as well as the transformative impact that de-centralized graduate co-learning structures have had on it.

Unlike many other Digital Humanities projects, Soundbox 1) has been conceived and implemented entirely by graduate students, and 2) does not intend to produce a tool but generate creative spaces that provoke new expressive forms. These spaces are by their nature hybrid, layering physical rooms (exhibit halls, museums, street corners) with digital connectivity in order to extend and expand what we imagine as possible fora for scholarly productions. They are also inherently multidisciplinary and inter-institutional, bringing together artists, audio engineers and scholars from universities, museums, public libraries and commercial studios. By fostering and encouraging these creative partnerships, Soundbox perceives its role primarily as facilitating and archiving sonic interventions in research and scholarship. That is, support for ideas comes before questions of technical implementation. While not all provocations may be fully implementable, we see the imaginative potential of digital media as one of its most transformative contributions to the humanities — perhaps more transformative than the production of platforms and tools that contain scholarship within certain product-oriented formats.

In addition to discussing the current and future work of Soundbox, this paper uses our experiences with Soundbox as a case study in how to incorporate Digital Humanities into the graduate curriculum. At an October 2012 meeting of the Scholarly Communication Institute (SCI) on “Rethinking Humanities Graduate Education,” Katina Rogers discussed results from a recent SCI survey on career preparation in humanities graduate programs, focusing on alt-ac training. While the sheer number of respondents proved the viability of and interest in alt-ac careers for recent PhDs, the survey’s data showed that there continues to be a significant gap between the expectations of students entering PhD programs in the humanities and the realities of the academic job market (Rogers 2012). Moreover, even those students who had successfully negotiated into alt-ac positions reported feeling under-trained and ill-prepared by their departments for the often collaborative managerial skills required in non-teaching positions. As one respondent noted, “by far my most valuable experiences were the jobs I held while in grad school (which I kept hidden from my advisers).”

The final report from the SCI’s meeting emphasized the need for centers to “work in concert with humanities departments to develop pilots of innovative research and pedagogy modes,” pointing to Duke’s PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge as a model (Rumsey 2012). As active graduate student members of the PhD Lab co-steering one of its current projects, Soundbox, we offer our honest, practical assessment of the promises and perils of such a model. On the one hand, it is difficult to underestimate the value of extra-curricular, extra-departmental collaborative learning environments. More than technical skills or the burden of more classroom instruction, students need flexible, unstructured spaces for learning from and collaborating with each other within and across institutions. Small seed grants and other untethered forms of funding, such as that which Soundbox has received through the PhD Lab at Duke, go a long way toward providing these opportunities by encouraging students to self-organize reading groups and field trips, or by allowing individual students to attend week-long gatherings like DHSI. On the other hand, by dissociating such activities from degree requirements set out by the student’s home department, these valuable learning opportunities become additional burdens that potentially lengthen the time to degree. Extra-departmental centers need to work closely with departments to ensure that the activities students pursue in these centers contribute in meaningful, tangible ways to completing their coursework, their comprehensive exams and their dissertations. Similarly, departments need to inscribe the value of students’ work in these centers into their degree requirements, especially for students who articulate a desire to pursue alt-ac careers.

Collaboration is a messy, even noisy process. As we cross disciplines and departments, the Soundbox collaboration has made visible for us the histories embedded within the institutional structures that define our roles within the university, and our progress toward earning a degree. It has also forced us to confront the cacophony of conversation in a way that puts pressure on what “interdiscipinarity” really means. In this way, the provocatively noisy product of Soundbox is inextricable from the processes of our collaboration. This paper addresses both of these topics.


Rogers, K. (2012). Outside the Pipeline: From Anecdote to Data. Scholarly Communication Institute blog. http://www.scholarslab.org/scholarly-communication-institute/outside-the-pipeline-from-anecdote-to-data/ (accessed 5 November 2012).
Rumsey, A. S. Rethinking Humanities Graduate Education. Final report of the Scholarly Communication Institute meeting, October 22-23, 2012. Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. http://uvasci.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/final-report.pdf