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Listening for Zora: Merging Sonic Archives with the Digital Humanities

What happens when a group of students participates in a collective from a range of disciplines? How do a premed student, historian, neuroscience major, and English scholar seek to parse out the life and work of anthropologist, folklorist, and novelist Zora Neale Hurston? How can the digital humanities aid our understanding of sound? How does a team made of half undergraduates and half doctoral students unify to engage in research methods in a humanities seminar?

This fall, Professor Tsitsi Jaji collaborated with the Bass Digital Education Fellowship program and 2019-2020 Fellow Hannah Rogers to incorporate the digital humanities into the classroom. Our collective focused on Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological work in Florida and the Caribbean (Haiti and Jamaica) with particular attention paid to the text Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1938). Most people have heard of Zora Neale Hurston and recognize her for her popular literature. Yet few are aware of the contributions that she made to sound studies and ethnography.

We paused to reflect on the experiences of working across methods, areas of expertise, schedules, and interests.

Chloe McGlynn, Senior, Neuroscience and English

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Working on a team is easiest when there are clear goals set and it can be difficult when people are coming from different academic backgrounds or people lack experience with digital projects. Further, we all had different schedules and different levels of responsibilities.

So, it became important for us to define our goals, to be clear, communication [had] to be good, and everyone [had] to be equally invested in the project. Sometimes we spent a lot of time catching each other up. People are busy. Also, conflicting visions can be hard on a project. And people work at different speeds.

Ayanna Legros, Ph.D. Student, History

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One challenge that our group came across was that we wanted to create a mixtape yet were made aware that rights may be an issue. Do we speak to a lawyer? Do seek out resources at Duke? We referred to Hannah Rogers and requested a handout with clearer guidelines for rights. In my experience, obtaining rights for digital projects is not always standardized so it was a great learning moment to have to pause and request help and support. What came to fruition was an in-depth discussion between the whole team alongside Professor Jaji.

Finally, another thing I learned from this experience is that faculty must request permission to publish from students. This is a great thing to keep in mind as I pursue my teaching career.

Luoshu Zhang, Ph.D. Student, English

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For me the most interesting thing about doing this project is that because we had so much time to work on it, and we all come from different academic backgrounds with different insights and approaches, we often had too many ideas, too many things we wanted to cover.

So trying to narrow down the scope of our research was a real challenge. Yet it was always in the process of making choices that we found our most creative ideas.

Janel Ramkalawan, Senior, English and Premed

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The preliminary planning stages of the project (selecting our topic, scope, content, and creative angle) were, in my opinion, the most challenging aspects of our process. Flexible project requirements, a wealth of possible directions, and our lack of exposure to the broader digital humanities landscape made it challenging to decide upon and flesh out a targeted approach. We wondered how about legality of digitizing archival materials and the originality of creating digital historical maps.

I think during this phase, it would have been beneficial for us to have sought out greater librarian/technologist/scholar support as the realm of digital humanities is new to us, and evidently necessitates sustained and collaborative engagement. I think our team did a great job of working together in a nonhierarchical and communicative way.

Creativity and flexibility were key to making this project a success! For more information about collaborative projects in the humanities at Duke University, check out the Bass Connections program, Humanities Unbounded Labs, Humanities Labs in the Franklin Humanities Institute, and the Story+ summer program, to name just a few.

Caption for main image: Images from the timeline created by the authors