Death rattles: Sound in journal articles; sounds in a dying building

A few years ago I wrote a blog detailing a new research group here at Hallam, the Space/Place research group. I don’t do a great deal to do with space or place, but new shiny things attract me, and the group was an interesting bunch of interdisciplinary academics, from education, law, planning, cultural studies, art, architecture, sociology, performance studies, and geography. What we did initially was to study a building at our Collegiate Campus – the Southbourne Building – a rather dilapidated crumbling wreck where our department used to be housed. The group’s initial day was to each study the building, test different methods and theories, and come together to share ideas about how space and place can be thought about. It was meant to be light, introductory, welcoming, and gently innovative, and it was.

And the small study I did that day has now been published in Qualitative Inquiry. Entitled “Submitting, love?” A sensory sociology of Southbourne it reports on the ‘fieldwork’ I did, a one day observation project of the Helpdesk area in the building, where, on the busiest day for students handing in work that term, I sat in the Helpdesk area and watched them hand their work in. I also recorded the day (quite badly) on my digital recorder, and the data is presented as both an auditory soundscape, an audio collage of the general hum of the day (printers whirring, doors slamming, machines beeping) and a literary collage of events that happened during the eight hours I sat there watching. (The soundscape can be found on Youtube here; the idea being you listen and read at the same time). The narrative is semi-fictionalised, as stories are merged and blended just to give a sense of what went on. The abstract is thus:

This article seeks to remember the Southbourne building of Sheffield Hallam University, UK, which housed students, academics, and administrative staff until August 2014. Data was collected from an ethnographic observation study of students handing in completed coursework. Findings are presented in the form of an audio ‘soundscape’ and a literary narrative. It is argued that these hypermodal tools should form a growing part of qualitative inquiry as sensory social research. The historic application and practical impediments of such sensorial and aural techniques are discussed, alongside the challenge they provide to the received practices concerning how journal articles can be experienced.

The reasons for doing this are several-fold. I wanted to do something quick and about students; I’d been loosely interested in how we think about sound in academic work; I wanted to flex my literary muscle a bit as sometimes I’ve felt quite stymied by my sociological policy analysis output; and I wanted to do something to remember the building as it dies. I’m not going to be nostalgic about Southbourne – I (unlike many of my colleagues) prefer our new, modern open plan office environment to work in, and it also happens to be much better for the student experience. But I did end up being nostalgic about the process of handing in coursework to a person, a process which is dying given the move towards Blackboard, Moodle, and the MOOC.

I like the final product. It’s fun, it’s different, it tests an idea which we should do more of, and ties into the work of people I really admire (Les Back, Alex Rhys-Taylor, Dawn Lyon). I also like it because of the responses to it. At Christmas we have a departmental conference where we meet up and present research to each other and then get drunk socialize. It’s a neat idea and keeps us up to date with what’s happening in the department. Last year I presented this on Southbourne, including acting out the literary narrative in my best am-dram way, with the soundscape playing in the background. Watching were some of our admin team, and our technicians. These are the guys who are the backbone to the department. Lee especially in technical resources has been here a long time and knows the student mind better than anyone: he, when setting up labs, or lending students Dictaphones, or binding their theses, acts as mentor and support worker, particularly around handing in dissertations. After I had presented, Lee told me the work was great – because it faithfully reproduced the student’s behaviours, of being nervous to hand in their work. It spoke to his experience of the department and what we do, especially when much of the research we do seems, he cheekily implied, out of touch and pointless (Academics? Never!). It’s the most valued comment I’ve ever had on a piece of work.

Finally, I want to think about Stuart Hall’s famous dictum: ‘The university is critical, or it is nothing’. While I and any rightminded person agrees with this statement, there is more to it. I don’t see any danger of the university losing its critical edge. Yes, management and admin and bureaucracy can be a pain, and we all must take guard against neoliberal…yaddah yaddah etc snore. But I don’t see a major loss of critical thinking; of more concern are the changes which atomise us, and give us less need to interact.

The Helpdesk staff in my study, on seeing a student unsure of the process and nervous about handing work in, would call out ‘Submitting, love?’ in that sing-song Northern way to put them at ease. When you submit an essay through Blackboard, the computer doesn’t offer a sympathetic and welcoming ‘Submitting, love?’ We are moving towards a world where you can do a degree from your bedroom. But what has struck me when doing this work is the importance of the university as a place where we meet like-minded and different people – people who are engaged and engaging. Reading this blog back it is about collective work and support: the diverse Space/Place study group, the students, the departmental research conference, and our technicians.

Maybe Hall’s dictum should be rethought: ‘The University is collegial, or a collective, or a community, or it is nothing.’

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