Hints to lecturers

A lesson or lecture consists of a series of thoughts, each thought must be clothed in appropriate language, voice, and gesture; the series should be arranged in good order. The teacher must feel the sentiment himself, and must use the proper methods to impart it; the scholars responding by their interest and attention give back to the teacher fresh inspiration. A sentiment inappropriately clothed is suggestive of insincerity and fails in its object. (H.H.Hulbert, 1910)

F. Helmore, Speakers, Singers, Stammerers, 1874

While I’m still safely ensconced in a largely zoom-dominated bubble, September has come for many of my international colleagues with the half-forgotten dangers of fresher’s flu and the difficulties of using vocal organs that have not had any real exercise in over a year – oh, and a still circulating virus, that too. Although I can do little about the first and last of those problems, the middle one is somewhat within my purview. Others may have dr. Google to shore up their half-baked opinions about their own and others’ health, I ‘do my own research’ by other means. That is, by diving into my trusty 19th century manuals. True to form, they have not only already diagnosed the vocal problems so many lecturers returning to the classroom are now struggling to define…they have some excellent solutions too! So strap in for some blinding insights from educators, scientists, and even the great Caruso himself (or at least his ghostwriter)


If you are in a profession that relies on public speaking (such as lecturing, or preaching) and are struggling to do so especially after a period of silence, you may be suffering from dysphonia clericorum. You are not alone in this, it is a very common illness. As James Mackness reliably informs us

Most physicians have, at one time or other, had under their care some of those numerous affections of the throat to which public speakers and singers are liable, and which interfere materially with the exercise of their respective professions, depriving at one time the public of a favorite vocalist, at another, the bar and the senate of an able orator, and more frequently yet Religion of a faithful minister.

While commonly known as dysphonia clericorum or clergyman’s sore throat, it really applies to anyone who is in a profession where they are likely to overextend their voice, and should therefore perhaps be termed “Voice-user’s Throat” (H.H. Hulbert, 1910)

Main symptoms:

sore throat


a voice that “sounds muffled, as if speaking through a flannel” (a propos of which, don’t forget to mask up when lecturing)


The cause of dysphonia clericorum is deceptively simple: you talk too much

The reason why such a large percentage of teachers lose their voices is that, as they have so much voice work to do, any improper use of their vocal organ sooner or later damages its more delicate parts.

However, as H.H. Hulbert points out, more precise causes can be identified, and we can only conclude that if your lecturing is giving you a sore throat, it must be because you’re the kind of dull lecturer who keeps droning on without much style or consideration for aesthetics. The most common ways to catch this illness is by

Ponderous speech. The drawl, so noticeable in clergymen, is due to a somewhat ponderous sustaining of the voice upon vowel-sounds, which are not too well moulded, and to a slurring of the consonants. Teachers are often guilty of the opposite fault, for in their endeavour to be distinct they so laboriously articulate their consonants, that the unvoiced sounds predominate and give an unmusical quality to their speech.

Monotonous speech. Another very objectionable fault in speaking is to let a regular cadence fall upon the end of each phrase, and to emphasize this by a restless swaying of the body in perfect time with the monotonous inflection of the voice.

How to treat your dysphonia yourself:

Prevention, all experts agree, is the best cure. However, since it is presumably already too late for that, here are some easy home-remedies to alleviate the worst symptoms

1. Exercise

There must, as all experts agree, be daily exercise. Ideally in the open air, either on foot or on horseback (Mackness, 1848). If you lead a particularly busy life, you can take a cue from E. Caruso and consider any acting you do on stage as exercise, or take an occasional automobile ride.

2. Diet

Here, too, the great Caruso has some excellent hints on avoiding excessive embonpoint for good vocal health.

In Italy we habitually drink the light wines of the country with our meals, and surely are never the worse for it.

If you find that light wines don’t quite hit the spot, you might consider the method of the great Maria Calibran, and down a large glass of porter before every performance.

3. Rest

Or rather, avoid becoming too popular. Having friends will only force you to talk to people outside of working hours, which is terrible for your vocal cords, and they might ruin your diet.

The continual effort of loud talking in a throng would be extremely bad for the sensitive musical instrument that the vocalist carries in his throat, and the various beverages offered at one of your afternoon teas it would be too difficult to refuse (Caruso, 1910)

4. Under-the-counter treatments

There’s nothing wrong, at least where Morrell Mackenzie is concerned, with a bit of light self-medication for a tickle in the throat

Cocaine in the form of lozenges is sometimes a useful aid to singers and speakers, especially where vocal effort gives rise to a pricking or stabbing sensation in the throat.

Why diversity statements are stupid

I’ll let you in on a secret. When I first started writing this post, it got very snarky…mimicking the tone of the various self-declared ‘rational thinkers’ who look for odd-sounding research projects to scoff at (usually unhindered by any knowledge of the field of research in question). Here’s the thing though, when it comes to the kind of diversity statements that are now increasingly part of funding applications, us woke lefties and the liberals who laugh at them are very much in agreement. We all hate to write them: we’d much rather focus on the content of our research (that’s why we’re applying for funding after all), and  whether it’s because we think of them as exaggerate identity politics or because we’re tired of having to fight for diversity, still, in the 21st century, we all resent having to spend time on these issues instead of our actual jobs. We also both think that the make-up of research teams should be based on merit, skill and fit: we want the best person to drive a project forward, not pick someone based on progressive politics, or because they happen to look the way academics have always looked.

But giving it some thought, writing the blasted things should not be too hard. Here’s what I’ve come up with, in response to our most exasperated thoughts

  1. I don’t want to hire people based on their gender, I want to have the best people. Measuring out percentages based on gender ruins my team

Hurray, we’re all in agreement here. And in fact, demands for gender equity (including those set out by the Academy of Finland, which seems to be under some scrutiny at the moment) don’t set actual numerical goals. They ask for a balanced make-up of your team. This makes sense: if you really just judge people on merit, and not on whether they happen to be your drinking buddies, you should end up with a team that reflects, more or less, the population in which this research takes place. In a country like Finland, in which women make up 50% of the PhD holders, that should mean that any team of more than a handful of people should contain at least two genders. If you really, really can’t find anyone qualified in your field of another gender than the dominant one in your team that can be

  • because you haven’t looked hard enough. Most of us tend to socialize with people who are ‘like us’, and senior academics tend to hire junior researchers who remind them of themselves in their youth. Women do this just as much as men do, but since 70% of the professoriate is made up of men, the result tends to be male-dominated teams. So what should you do? Talk to people! Maybe ask people of the other gender in adjacent fields (members of underrepresented minorities are generally aware of this predicament, and of each other), ask your junior colleagues (who may remember people from their graduate programs), pay explicit attention to who has co-published the latest papers in your field. Is this ‘positive’ discrimination? Nope. It means that you are effectively looking for the most qualified person in the whole field, not just in your immediate vicinity.
  • because your field is excessively dominated by one gender. If you find that there really is no-one of the non-dominant gender in your field qualified to do the job you need doing, that’s a broader problem of the field…and it means the field (and you!) are missing out on a lot of potential colleagues. Nobody (assessors of grant applications included) will expect you to single-handedly conjure up perfectly qualified researchers where they don’t exist. However, the diversity plan does demand you to come up with a plan. So, write how you will contribute to fixing this problem of your field: how will you mentor youngsters of all genders to become the qualified researchers of the future? What practices will you engage in in your project to encourage young PhD’s to stick with the field, how will you make it feasible and attractive to members of ‘other’ genders to be part of your world? (This is an excellent opportunity to shine as an innovator and mentor in your field, use it!)

2. What’s this business about ‘furthering women’s careers’? Shouldn’t we think of everybody’s careers?

Yes we should! But in reality, research points out that, overwhelmingly, well-intentioned mentors fail to apply the methods and advice they dole out to the men in their team, to those of other genders (this, again, is true for senior academics of all genders). We know, for example, that reference letters written for women – the kind of texts that without a doubt are meant to help them – end up hindering their career path because they unthinkingly use gendered language. We also know that women (and WOC in particular) tend to end up shouldering much more administrative and pastoral tasks than men, which slows their career paths as it means they don’t spend as much time on their research. So, ‘furthering women’s careers’ is not a matter of unfairly advantaging them, it’s about making sure your team can do its central task (research) as well as possible. After all, if you don’t pay attention and fall into the gender biased traps we all do, the women on your team will end up making the website, teaching more than they should, making coffee for everyone in the building, and doing a lot of unpaid emotional labour…which pulls them away from the goals of your project (and you have effectively hired an overqualified and overpaid devil-do-all). What this part of the diversity statement asks you to do is not to centre women, it’s to have an actual plan in place to make sure that you don’t inadvertently hinder them, and they are actually given the space to do their job. (And yes, of course that’s true for the men on the team too…but that’s probably already the case). Want to dazzle the committee? Show that you have done the reading, that you’ve thought about how you will assign tasks within the team, how you will advise your mentees, and that you will do so – as befits an academic – based on solid research. (Don’t know where to start? I highly recommend Marieke Van den Brink’s work)

3. All this focus on gender is ridiculous, why aren’t they talking about POC, disabled or neurodiverse researchers, people of disadvantaged class backgrounds?

Absolutely! As mentioned above, if we want education to be equitable, and academia to be meritocratic, we should end up with an academic workforce that reflects the population as a whole. It’s quite hard to judge that in the context of one research team – within a group of 5 or 6 people, there is simply not the space to reflect the population as a whole every time. (For gender, you can of course…remember, 50% of PhD’s are women) But you can be the person to tip the balance here! Hire that brilliant immigrant, the excellent disabled scientist, the amazing young researcher who got their PhD despite their low-education background. Not only will this do wonders for the overall make-up of academia, it will encourage other young people of ‘different’ backgrounds to join your field. It may or may not end up in the statistics…but hey, we weren’t doing this to score points in identity politics, right? We were just looking for the best person.

So that’s the simple reality of a diversity statement: if we want a meritocratic hiring practice in research we have to first identify and actually hire people based on their skills rather than irrational feelings of sympathy or familiarity, and then give them the chance to build a career. Now, if we all get on with that, we can stop writing these damn statements and get on with what we really want to do.

Just another Bloch post

As the semester draws near and the nights are getting longer again, I have been turning my mind to craft. Something about the colder season always compels me to seek out my kitchen, my yarns, my fountainpen. I’m one of those people that often get called ‘creative’ and it always makes me very uncomfortable. I am no artist. Sure, I can painstakingly stitch together a serviceable sweater, but I have no flair for design. I lack the talent to ever be a soloist, but if you need vaguely mellow tones to balance out your choir, I’m your gal.

And this is, perhaps, why – despite its obvious and continuous problems – I feel so at home in the discipline of history. It lays no claim to beauty, pretends neither to create nor to understand it. It is not an art, it’s a craft. Or it is, at least, in the hands of the historians I most admire…writers like Carolyn Steedman, whose books always evoke the relentless, sometimes embarrassing, struggle of both the historical subjects she brings to the fore, and those of herself as a researcher. Or Arlette Farge, who writes narratives as if they’re fishnets, with big gaping holes where forgotten and disregarded lives should have been, precariously held together through a fine thread of obstinate archival work.

And Marc Bloch, who I had forgotten for a while. His big sweeping histories seem so far away from the kind of research I engage in. But recently, as I was trying – and failing – to explain what history is and what sets it apart from other disciplines in the humanities, I found myself gravitating back toward his moving explanation of the craft. And much like I need my time with the needles and in the kitchen to empty my head and get away from ‘work’, I also need these writings to fill it up again, and remember how I got myself into this pickle in the first place.

Voilà donc l’historien appelé à rendre ses comptes. Il ne s’y hasardera
qu’avec un peu de tremblement intérieur : quel artisan, vieilli dans le métier,
s’est jamais demandé, sans un pincement de cœur, s’il a fait de sa vie un sage
emploi ?

Spring is here!

The rain isn’t quite as piercingly icy anymore, crocuses are appearing, Vappu approaches … spring is coming! In my case, it came with a loud thud through the front door as some lovely new books arrived, some of which, rather fittingly, sport some very colourful birds.

I’ve written about the importance of birds in vocal science before – comparative biologists, in particular, had rather grandiose ideas about the similarities between rituals of mating and nest building in birds and humans (and seem to have been disproportionately prone to have pet parrots).

Judging by the covers of these books, very little seems to have changed – parrots are still front and center, and birds’ social lives, punctuated by communicative song, still hold considerable attraction for those interested in human practices of cohabitation and belonging. And yet, one searches in vain for a clever parrot to take the stage in these books (although Alex makes an appearance). Instead, I’m learning a lot about the territorial and expansionist qualities of avian vocal sounds.

As the blackbird starts singing outside of Vinciane Despret’s window (and therefore also in my life), questions about ownership, individuality and the self emerge. “Et tout ce que le merle avait pu, au cours de ces derniers mois, éprouver, sentir, tout ce quit connait jusque-là leur sens aux choses et aux autres s’agence à présent à une tout autre importance, impérieuse, exigeante, qui modifiera complètement sa manière d’être: il est devenu territorial”.

As it happens, I’m currently writing about the role of vocality and voices in nineteenth-century imperialism, and a lot of cheap conclusions could be drawn about cross-species vocal expansionism and territorialism (and who am I to resist a good metaphor?). Sadly, however, it doesn’t seem to be quite so simple, and so I will be delving into the murky pasts of ornithology for the time being, before I accuse birds of something terrible. Nevertheless, it’s good to keep in mind that biologists, ornithologists and us historians can agree on some things

“le ‘territoire’ est un terme qui n’a rien d’innocent et dont je ne dois pas oublier les violences appropriatives et les destructions quit ont configuré certaines de ses significations actuelles”.

The ambulatory scholar: research mobility in times of lockdown

I spent the past five months abroad. You might think that such a thing would be impossible, given current events, but it takes a greater force than a global pandemic to remove the demands of mobility for junior scholars. Besides, the trip was all planned, and funded, and my calendar cleared for it…so off I went.

Mostly, I am a great proponent of scholarly mobility. Despite the exhaustion, difficulties and the (sometimes outsized) effects extensive professional nomadism has had on my life, on the whole I think it has made me a more curious, better networked and more broadly informed scholar. Travel has taught me about research traditions and pedagogical methods I would not have known otherwise, it has encouraged me to become truly fluent in the languages I knew and even to pick up an entirely new one, it has forced me to be more sociable than I am by default and taught me to find well hidden reserves of confidence (or perhaps sheer bloody mindedness) to stand up in front of rooms full of strangers or (worse) attend many a reception where I felt thoroughly out of place. All in all, I love travelling. I’ve learned to embrace the slight discomfort of being a stranger and to wield that as an instrument for learning, and I owe so, so many of my best friends to the chance encounters mobility has afforded me. My tribe is a geographically dispersed one, and there is enormous joy in having the kind of social network on which the sun never sets.

Travelling in times of lockdown, however, has rather put my enthusiasm for mobility to the test. Without seminars to attend, lectures to go to, coffee breaks in which to meet colleagues or even the dreaded receptions to show up for, very little seemed to be left of university life when I arrived in Cambridge in September last year. (And let’s not even mention the damage the pandemic has done to any kind of social life outside of work).

and yet…

  • chance encounters somehow still happen. Reduced to a walkable radius around my house (and desperation for human contact can widen such a radius considerably) I ended up spending most of my time with scholars not in my field of research, but close to the fields I walked. People I would not have sought out otherwise, but who enriched my thinking precisely because their approach was so different and foreign.
  • scholarly exchange still happens, and without the ability to take notes (or to even sit down) conversations would turn, much more quickly, to the heart of the matter, to the stakes of our work, to why we are doing it all – even, especially, in the midst of a global crisis
  • change still happens. What I feared most, perhaps, as I saw my opportunities to visit archives, lecture halls and seminar rooms go up in smoke, is that I would miss out on what all my other research trips have always achieved: a change in how I look at my own research through a thorough engagement with ‘other’ modes of thinking, speaking and doing scholarship. But sometimes, it seems, a change of scenery and a healthy dose of good will is all that is needed to make that happen. (And for the archives…well, I’ll just have to go back)

Tietämätön mestari – or the art of not being fluent

Once upon a time, when training for my teacher education, I was made to read a number of pedagogy books. Most of them were pretty dull, to be honest, but one did capture my attention. Le maître ignorant, by Jacques Rancière, which tells the story of a late 18th century French professor who comes to teach Flemish students in Leuven, without sharing a language with them. The story has Joseph Jacotot and his students stumbling, feeling, probing, at times quite clumsily, into each others’ worlds. Learning occurs, but slowly, seemingly without plan or direction, and whether any teaching is involved remains unclear.

The past couple of weeks have reminded me of Rancière’s ignorant ‘master’ quite a bit, as I started participating in (and, nominally at least, ‘co-teaching’) an MA research seminar in Finnish – a language I don’t master nearly well enough to have a reasonable conversation in. And so what I do in the seminar cannot be called teaching by any stretch of the imagination, But I’m finding it a highly useful exercise in so many ways (quite apart from the obvious value it has in exposing me to a language I’m trying to learn).

  • every week, I’m forced to read something slowly, methodically, halted by frequent consultation of the dictionary. This is far removed from my usual practice: I’m a pretty fast reader, and reading with focus and efficiency is one of the skills I’ve developed most over the last decade or so. It’s what has kept me afloat in what can sometimes be a quite frantic life as a researcher. As a result, I’ve also gotten quite good at recognizing (and producing or improving) textual structure and tone. But none of that is available to me in Finnish. Unable to grasp subtleties, I am left with only content. It provides me with an odd sense of focus. “What is this text about?” is no longer a pedantic question about clarity or style. It’s a genuine problem to be solved.
  • It may be the only conversation in my life I actually give my full attention to. There is simply no room to multitask. In fact, I can’t let my attention slip even for a moment, because more than my lack of vocabulary, my inability to predict where any sentence will go, forces me to be completely invested in the present moment. This, I have learned (or perhaps remembered) is what fluency brings above all. Not so much the ability to express oneself without trouble, but rather to anticipate what others may say or do. When speaking a language I ‘know’, I’m formulating answers in my head as I listen to others, I quickly look up a reference whilst keeping half an ear tuned to the ongoing discussion, I balance the value of what I think I have to say against its potential damage to the natural flow of the conversation. There are no such niceties when I intervene in a Finnish conversation. I can’t tell when a sentence will end before it does – and I usually only figure out what it means when it has already become irrelevant in the conversation. Every statement I make becomes portentous – and therefore much more vulnerable.

It’s conversational role, I realized, I am no longer used to. Balances of power and comfort in academic conversations are complicated, and I’m rarely confident going into them. But I had forgotten what it’s like to be the least fluent person in the room. It’s a good reminder to get, once in a while.

I am speaking

“Mister Vice-President, I am speaking”

It is not surprising, perhaps, that the only words of Kamala Harris’ participation in a vice-presidential debate that we all heard, referred to the impossibility for her to do so unimpeded. Others have made and will make excellent contributions to conversations about the various difficulties of speaking while Black, mansplaining, the absence of women’s voices in politics and how all of these difficulties intersected for Harris during the debate (I for one will continue to listen to prof. Brittney Cooper)

Harris: Nationwide Mask Mandate Wouldn't Carry Punishment | Voice of  America - English

What struck me in the phrase, is the degree to which it spoke to modern feminist concerns – concerns that are deeply implicated in philosophies of individuality and a politics of institutionalized democracy.

The personal is political / I am speaking

One man, one vote / I am speaking

Can the subaltern speak? / I am speaking

Somehow, this phrase begs for repetition in a political climate in which getting one’s voice heard is considered so important.

Say their names / I am speaking

It has always intrigued me that this declaratory function of speech, its ability to make the speaker present

I am speaking / I am speaking

has to such a large degree been the terrain of female thinkers. From Hanna Arendt’s politicization of speech, over Gayatri Spivak’s concern for subaltern silence, to Judith Butler’s impassioned encouragement to give an account of one’s self. The reason is, perhaps, that such questions are infinitely more fraught, and the results more precarious, when public speech is launched from a female body. The woman who speaks knows that she might encounter, in debate and in life, an interlocutor so intent on not hearing her that she needs to identify her utterances as speech

I am speaking / I am speaking

these aren’t just random sounds, no matter how much, to you, it may seem like the buzzing of a fly you’d dearly like to swat.

A fly at the Harris, Pence debate has internet buzzing

Having to claim space for speech is hardly new for women, and particularly for WOC. That Harris’ ‘I am speaking’ struck such a cord now is perhaps due to the fact that neo-liberal ‘it girl’ feminist discourses are so explicitly built around women’s voices.

Following a long history of moral panic and sensuous discomfort over women’s voices – in which nymphs, mermaids and scolds have all been equally likely to be forcibly silenced – popular culture has now elected to celebrate female voices. Or has decided, at least, that they can be palatable enough to sell products.

Mike Pence may not be aware of it, but a lot of money can be made from declaring women’s voices powerful, valuable and beautiful. (The value of listening to them is a bit harder to calculate). A recently launched perfume even “invites each woman to celebrate her voice”.

I am slightly weary of such hot pink (and ableist) re-iterations of the equation between one’s voice and notions of an individual self. They are very firmly rooted in a political and philosophical traditions that has served women and POC very badly in the past. But I will happily celebrate the ubiquity of Lady Gaga from politics to perfume. She speaks to me.

The siren song of ‘giving voice’

“Listen as the past comes to life”, “Actors give life to figures from the past”, “with our research, we want to give a voice to the people history has forgotten”.

File:Marie-François Firmin-Girard - Ulysses and the Sirens, 1868.jpg
Ulysses and the Sirens (Girard, 1868)

When I tell people that I’m interested in the history of voice, I often have to immediately disappoint them. No, I can’t (and won’t) reconstruct speeches from the past, I can’t tell you what Napoleon sounded like, and I don’t have any historical sounds I can play for you so you can imagine you’re in Ancient Rome.

That’s partly because, the history of acoustic recording being what it is, we simply have not ‘sounding’ documents from this period, and ‘reconstructing’ the materialities and experiences of the past is impossible, But part of my firm negative answer to all these hopeful questions about reviving the sounds of the past is ethical as well. Recreating these sounds for the consumption of modern ears, I feel, would not only be inauthentic but also strip these voices from the important cultural, emotional and moral meanings they carried in the context in which they were uttered. My objection is somewhat similar to the ones numerous historians of photography have offered of the practice of colorizing. Sure, seeing historical pictures in colour makes them seem more familiar and seems to give us a more immediate access to the past – but only at the cost of ignoring a large part of the cultural, technological and aesthetic realities of that past.

How Amazing Colorization Of Black And White Photos Are Done
The relatable colorized president

Black and white pictures not only show us their subjects, but also a whole range of practices of photography, of seeing, of memorializing, of aesthetic choices and authorship. The same goes for non acoustic records of sounds and vocal utterances of the past. To suggest that those are merely inferior ways of representing sound disregards their value: their ability to also convey to us how sounds were heard, remembered, represented and given meaning in the past – to also hold the virtuosity of historical actors in their use of language across different media, revealing a rich tapestry of rhetoric, reported speech, literary beauty, creative spelling, unruly grammar,…on paper.

I was therefore both delighted and disappointed by the ‘Workhouse Voices‘ that now resound on the National Archives website. In it, letters of individual paupers are reproduced as images, transcriptions and as sound-recordings. In making these documents available to a wider audience, the website contributes to a more diverse, and vastly more interesting, understanding of daily life and its material challenges for ‘ordinary’ (for lack of a better word) people, who are so often forgotten in historical narratives. But by ‘voicing’ these letters (by unnamed voice actors whose contemporary decisions on tone, accent, or timbre are not explained) it also obscures the very real practice these letter writers were engaged in: putting their claims into written words (possibly with the help of others wielding the pen). The sound files, whilst seemingly bringing the past to life, create a fiction of audible supplication which may pull at the heartstrings of a modern audience, but at the cost of denying these writers the right to define their own voice.

White Innocence: Once More With Feeling

One year ago today, I sat on a stage in Finland and tried to explain the phenomenon of ‘Black Pete’ to an astounded audience. It never fails to depress me, to see how we are all so capable of seeing the inherent racism in someone else’s society, yet keep completely missing our own (a phenomenon that seems sadly true for both Finland and Belgium). In the months between now and then, I’ve been trying to grapple with my own blind spots, and particularly with how they may influence my work. It’s an uncomfortable reflection, and I’m not quite sure what conclusions I can or should draw. But the last week has brought some clarity.

You see, yesterday I was approached by a journalist from ‘back home’, the home of Black Pete and also, as it transpired, the place where a children’s song littered with racist slurs has now surfaced in a blurry video shared on social media. It shows a group of teens, engaged (somewhat halfheartedly) in a call and answer song describing ten cruel deaths. (I won’t repeat its derogatory language here, most will know some version of the song. Who dies seems to depend a lot on the colonial history of where the translation is sung). Someone had taken it upon themselves to ‘call out’ this group, and share the video from the group’s channel on their own pages, exposing it to a new audience and their cries of horror and disgust.

What did I make of it, as ‘an expert on children’s songs’ and history?, the journalist wondered. It led to some hilarity among my closer friends (really? they needed an expert to point out that slurs don’t lose their meaning if you sing them?) but I was rather pleased: here was someone, it seemed, who was cutting through the usual narrative of ‘tradition’ versus new political correctness, and was creating a space for colonial history and its tenacity through cultural artefacts in our discourses about race. So I wrote what I hoped was a nuanced response about how songs carry historical meaning, and how vaudeville from the segregated US made it to Belgium, and how the Black Lives Matter movement was tied into a long global history of colonial connectedness. The role of this particular group of teens seemed rather unimportant to me: so many instances of latent racism occur everyday, often in the form of an ‘old’ song or poem – no need to particularly point at them.

It seems I had misunderstood, however. What was at issue, mostly, was the exact date of the recording: according to the group in question, they were the victim of a ‘fake news’ campaign. The recording was made about a decade ago, when things were, they said, different and the song was considered acceptable. (A decade seems long to a teenager, I guess). What the journalist was producing was a ‘factcheck’ – something that has become increasingly necessary in a world full of conspiracy theories and misattributed quotes and images – and she had found her fact: the video was older than this recent post seemed to suggest. And so my carefully crafted story of colonial networks and the subtleties of singing as community building was rather surplus to requirements.

This wasn’t about long processes of change, it was about news…and this unfortunate (and rather insensitive) group of youths had now become the news. The title of the ‘factcheck’ gleamed with clarity, and was primed to draw attention: No, it stated quite clearly, they were no longer singing about killing N*s (the title of the song was fully reproduced in the title, slur and all). This was an important point, she explained to me in response to my dumbfounded reaction, because the racist nature of the song did not justify the ‘false’ story of spreading the video as if it were more recent. And the lengthy justification, by the group’s leader, that had also been included verbatim in the text was there because ethics demanded it: they had a right to reply.

She’s right of course…we can’t live in a world in which half-truths circulate, and long-forgotten youthful stupidity keeps haunting us after decades. But her insistence on the deontological code of her profession also brought home a sad reality: rules and regulations, and the best will in the world, do not magically produce valuable and truthful stories, and being conscientious about the rules does not turn us into fair arbiters of ‘fact’. (The conventions of the profession, it seems, had also trained her to value ‘catchy’ titles over avoiding hurtful language). And so there we were, two intelligent women, both beholden to the rules and demands of our respective crafts – frustrated at each other for being so stubbornly insistent on context, the fluidity of reality, and representation (me) and on fair and balanced research, distinguishing fact from fiction and showing ‘both sides’ of every story (her). Both, I think, invested in ethical behaviour within our professions and outside it, and yet so unable to come to an agreement on what that would look like. Unable to agree as well, I think, on exactly what the value and meaning is of a ‘fact’.

My mulish unwillingness to be part of what still strikes me as a pointless exercise in contrived ‘balance’ will mean, sadly, that I will be deprived of my five minutes of fame (I’m sure the nation will weep over this loss of opportunity to learn about 19th century song). However, the whole episode has crystallized for me what I am increasingly unwilling to do, even if the ‘rules’ of my profession often require it

  • I won’t reproduce language that has been used to intentionally demean, hurt and dehumanize historical actors, except in those instances were the argument is explicitly to deconstruct the terms. (Yes, this makes much of my work very difficult – the nineteenth century has produced a rather large number of very picturesquely unpleasant phrases).
  • I won’t take part in discussions on race, no matter how expertly and nuanced they are, in which white people argue about what is acceptable or what may cause offense among themselves. As a historian, and particularly one of the 19th century when so much of our ideas of ‘belonging’ and community were shaped, I believe I have valuable things to say about the contexts, trajectories and meanings of racialized power structures. Many of them will have to remain unsaid until the platform to have these discussions features more diverse voices.

Who knows, keeping my mouth shut may do me a world of good. I’m told it halts the spread of all kinds of nasty things.

I can see you, but I can’t hear you

As we are all going back to virtual school and the conference season is gearing up as well, my living room is once again full of echo’s of ‘can you hear me now?’, ‘you’re on mute!’ and more of such poetic interactions.

One would think that being a historian of sound is not particularly relevant to contemporary tech mishaps, but actually it turns out that some basic understandings of reverberation, vocal technique and sound reproduction, as articulated by Alexander Bell, Friedrich Helmholtz and Emma Seiler can come in quite handy in figuring out what the problem is. As a result, I now seem to have turned into the ‘sound girl’ on many a video call, instructing people to find a cushion or (amazingly) actually speak in the direction of their microphone.

My more tech-savvy colleagues in sound-studies and musicology are much better at these kinds of things, however, so for those who are still looking for advice on how to be audible, clear or perhaps even acoustically pleasant on zoom and in recordings, I’ve gathered some useful tips and tricks here:

  1. snuggle up with a blanket – it’ll do you a world of good, and avoid echo (check Jonathan Sterne’s excellent advice on reducing echo here: https://superbon.net/2020/06/17/recording-your-lectures-1-the-one-thing-your-can-do-to-improve-your-students-listening-experience/)
  2. keep everything brief – recording time, editing time, everything (https://superbon.net/2020/06/18/recording-your-lectures-2-the-one-thing-you-can-do-to-improve-your-recording-experience/)
  3. If you do commit to editing, figure out where all your audio and video input will be coming from (and check out Megan Lavengood’s advice on ensuring sound quality https://meganlavengood.com/2020/03/12/how-to-get-the-best-quality-audio-to-combine-with-your-voice-when-creating-video-or-video-chatting/)
  4. Use whatever technology you already have in your house, but use it well (check where your mic would like you to sit/stand). (If you feel you need to invest in more material, I direct you to Sterne again: https://superbon.net/2020/08/13/recording-your-lectures-3-gear-gear-gear/)
  5. If you are planning longer series of lectures, talks or stories, plan them well, and plan them as ‘spoken’ rather than written text (you can find some hints on how to do so on our podcourse-website: https://blogs.helsinki.fi/podcourse/)
  6. Speak clearly – and remember that speaking to a microphone is very, very different from speaking to a large room. Think more ‘telephone voice’ than ‘teacher voice’ (Jonathan Sterne has some hints on microphone technique https://superbon.net/2020/08/21/recording-your-lectures-4-techniques/)