Interview with Joanna Swafford of Augmented Notes

Songs of the Victorians
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Songs of the Victorians

I became aware of the up-and-coming scholar Joanna Swafford (@annieswafford) via a tweet about her website, Songs of the Victorians. I have always loved the music of Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) and so was delighted to read that the song for which he composed the music, “The Lost Chord,” was one of the songs she has slated for analysis.

I began to follow her on Twitter and was impressed by her work on 19th century literature and music, and especially by her work in the digital humanities. I read the superb interview with her at Onward and F-Word and was intrigued by the discussion there about her project, Augmented Notes. I wanted to follow up with her about to find out more about augmented notes and her work in the digital humanities.

First of all, I should ask: do you go by Joanna or Annie?

I generally go by Annie (my nickname) for personal interactions and Joanna for publications and conferences.

When I asked you for this interview, I mentioned that I was especially interested in Augmented Notes. You suggested the blog post, “Announcing Augmented Notes!” as an introduction, where you write, “I’m developing a tool that will help scholars build their own sites like Songs of the Victorians! Users will upload jpegs of the scores they want to use, an audio file (in mp3 and ogg formats), and an mei file (an xml markup for music, rather akin to tei) that records the measure bounds of the song in question … I hope this tool will help other scholars work on the interdisciplinary projects they have in mind.”

Could you please tell us why you decided to create Augmented Notes? Did scholars in your own field of 19th century literature and music write you and say they were working on similar projects but lacked the expertise to create sites like Songs of the Victorians?

When I started presenting on Songs of the Victorians at conferences, I received a number of requests to help collaborate on other people’s projects.  The Performing Romantic Lyric project wanted me to build them a platform based on my site, as did the Poetess Archive, and other scholars expressed interest as well, including Yopie Prins, who imagined future use cases for my project, such as a sound studies journal for nineteenth century literature, and Alisa Clapp-Itnyre, who wants to use my framework for her project on children’s hymns.  I’ve also heard from some musicologists that they would like to use it as a pedagogical tool, and I’m in communication with Nick Patterson at Columbia University’s music library and with Anna Kijas at the University of Connecticut music library.

Although I would love to help with all of these projects, I don’t have the time to work on all of them simultaneously while also doing my own work, so I wanted to build a tool that will help further interdisciplinary scholarship by enabling scholars without technical training build the sites they need to make their arguments.  Because users can input any type of image or music file, Augmented Notes can be used for any type of music from any time period, and, once it goes live by the end of the summer, I hope we’ll see that variety.

Are there comparable projects to Augmented Notes? Is it an Open Source project? Do you own the rights to it?

There’s not really anything like it. There are tools that let users incorporate audio files into websites (like SoundCite) and great new web publishing platforms like Scalar, but none of them include or support the framework that integrates audio and score so that each measure is highlighted in time with the music, and none of them will produce all the files for a website like Songs of the Victorians.

It will be Open Source, and I do own the rights to it.  It has a creative commons license (CCBY), which means that people can share and remix it as long as they cite my project by including the Augmented Notes logo.

In the post, “Designing Augmented Notes” you write, “I also wanted to use a similar layout to Songs of the Victorians as an implicit way of branding my work and reminding users that Songs of the Victorians is made through Augmented Notes.” Could you please elaborate a bit on the idea of an early career scholar branding her work? Could you talk about the logo you designed?

I think that as more emerging scholars are expected to produce digital work, branding our work will become increasingly important.  Since our digital presence is often so disorganized and diffuse (a google search for an individual might turn up as many wedding photos as links to conference programs), it’s helpful to find a way to create a more unified version, whether that’s accomplished through logos, website colors and designs, or even through registering one’s own name as a domain name.

Although I wanted the layout of the Augmented Notes site to resemble Songs of the Victorians as a way to preserve my brand, I wanted the logo to be very different.  I knew that I wanted to emphasize the pun of the title: the scholarly portion of my project “augments” the analytical text with musical excerpts (or notes), and in music, the term “augmented” refers both to major or perfect intervals raised by a half-step and to a note whose value is lengthened (as with a dotted quarter note).  I tried to make this pun visually as well in two ways: first, by augmenting, or making bigger, the first letter of each word, and second, by placing the project’s title on a musical staff and by representing two of the letters as musical notes, as you can see:

Augmented Notes I don’t think I’d use it on my twitter page because it’s a logo for just one project rather than for my whole identity, but I will definitely use it if I ever make a twitter account for Augmented Notes.  In terms of the question of a domain name for my digital profile, I don’t yet have or, mainly because I use sites like to distribute my CV and other such things, but also because I’m already paying for and, and I didn’t want to pay for a third account.  I would like to make my own personal webpage some time, since I think Ryan Cordell and Patrick C. Fleming have used that technique to such great effect.

Your mentors seem to be excellent examples of advisors employing social media to alert the scholarly community to the projects of their students. I was impressed by the blog post “Getting Victorian: Poetry, Song…and a Few Bugs” by Bruce Holsinger, who writes, “You really have to see and hear Songs of the Victorians to believe it. The site will be a real model for innovative integration of multiple media in the study of the literary and musical past.” Pretty neat to be praised so publicly by one’s own professor. Is that common in academia these days?

I was honored that Bruce spoke so highly of my project on his blog.  I feel very fortunate to be in the English department at UVa where professors are especially invested in the success of their graduate students and in publicly demonstrating their support.  Academic blogs are comparatively new, and I hope that as they increase in popularity, other professors will also consider showcasing the work and research of their graduate students.

You seem to excel at explaining clearly to mixed audiences the purposes of your research. Your work certainly does draw on a range of disciplines and skill sets. Is that range of abilities getting to be de rigueur in the humanities these days?

Thanks! I think that humanities scholars are being increasingly encouraged to do interdisciplinary work, and such work is increasingly taking place digitally, so, although it’s not required to program while also working on a dissertation that spans two disciplines, it is certainly getting more common.  In fact, the digital humanities are actively helping scholars present interdisciplinary arguments, so I’d expect interdisciplinary work to increase over the next few years.  It’s also becoming increasingly important to be involved in “public humanities,” or public engagement with the humanities.

We need to be able to explain why our work is valuable to people from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests, not just to convince universities that the humanities are valuable to ensure that we get continued financial support, but also to show people from outside of the academy that our work is not overly specialized or cut off from the world, but actually relevant and engaging.

Could you discuss your use of Twitter? How long have you been on it? Whom do you recommend as must follows and why? How much time do you think you spend on Twitter each week?

I think I’ve been on Twitter since 2011, although I only started using it consistently in January.  I joined because Twitter is such a vibrant part of the digital humanities community, and it’s a great way to learn about new digital projects, blog entries, or issues that face the field.  It’s also a great way to meet people:  I’ve had lots of people introduce themselves to me at conferences because they follow me on Twitter.  Bethany Nowviskie (@nowviskie ), Ryan Cordell (@ryancordell), Natalie Houston (@nmhouston) and Paul Fyfe (@pfyfe) are just a few of my favorite people to follow for digital humanities and English.  I probably spend about two to three hours on twitter a week, but it varies depending on the conversations that I’m involved with.

What projects in the digital humanities have you been most impressed by?

The Rossetti Archive first introduced me to the world of digital humanities when I was an undergrad:  I loved the way it combined literary analysis with art history and bibliography through its archival format. I also really like The Yellow Nineties Online, a site that provides facsimile editions of aesthetic periodicals and relevant historical background.

For projects that focus on mapping, I’ve been very impressed by Neatline, a plugin for the content management service Omeka that enables users to map objects in an archive.  I was also very impressed by the Online Chopin Variorum Edition, which includes manuscripts and first editions of many of the composer Frederick Chopin’s piano compositions and with the Global Shakespeares project, which compiles videos of Shakespeare productions from around the world.

Who are your heroes in music, poetry, academia and the digital humanities or any other sphere?

There are many scholars and digital humanists whose works I admire, so I’ll just list a few.  I’m grateful to have Herbert Tucker, Andrew Stauffer, and Bruce Holsinger on my dissertation committee, as their books and advice have greatly influenced my thinking.  Also at UVa, I’m always amazed at Bethany Nowviskie’s abilities as both a digital humanist and as an administrator.  Phyllis Weliver’s influential work on the connections between music and poetry has helped galvanize the field, and Yopie Prins’ work is always a model of interdisciplinarity and attention to poetic and historical detail.

What is your single favorite line of poetry?

It’s hard to choose just one, since so much of what I love about poetry is the intricate meter or rhyme scheme of a work and how the content of the lines interacts with the form, so I’m more intrigued by stanzas or entire poems than I am in individual lines.  I do, however, have a favorite stanza of a poem, primarily because of my wonderful undergraduate advisor, Alison Hickey.

I remember I was in her Romantic poetry class when we read Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” When we started discussing the final stanza, she asked us to identify the rhyme scheme of the poem, and she showed us how it was a combination of two poetic forms: terza rima and the Shakespearean sonnet.  When she showed us how this combination of old forms to make something new enacts the content of the stanza itself—the speaker wishes the wind to “Drive my dead thoughts over the universe, / Like wither’d leaves, to quicken a new birth” (63-64). I was amazed! In that moment, I decided that I wanted to go to graduate school in English rather than music.

What is your favorite song of the Victorian era and of the modern one?

Although I love all the Victorian songs I’m writing about for Songs of the Victorians for different reasons, I think my favorite is Sullivan’s “The Lost Chord.”  I’m fascinated by how he uses modulations and chromaticism to enact the search for the chord and how he’s able to preserve both the poem’s feminist and religiously questioning ideas.

My favorite modern song changes almost every day and depends a lot on what I feel like listening to at the time.  Sometimes it’s Patrick Wolf’s “The Hazelwood” or “Thickets,” other times it’s Florence + the Machine’s “All this and Heaven” or Janelle Monáe’s “Many Moons.”  If the “modern” era includes music since the 60s, I’d have even more trouble choosing my favorites.  In general, I’m interested in songs that pay particular attention to the connections between music and poetry, and if they have interesting harmony or political or social import, then I’ll enjoy them even more.

What academic book or article has most shaped your thinking?

My thinking has been shaped by lots of different works:  Phyllis Weliver’s edited collection The Figure of Music in Nineteenth Century Britain reinvigorated the study of the connections between Victorian poetry and music and helped me prove to resistant scholars that my project had merit and an audience, and Yopie Prins’ Victorian Sappho masterfully discusses representations of Sappho throughout Victorian poetry and taught me how to trace a little-examined themes throughout a corpus while attending both to the individual poem and the larger narrative.

Derek Scott’s many books on popular music in the Victorian period influenced my discussion of musical settings of poems, and Paula Gillett’s Musical Women in England, 1870-1914: “Encroaching on All Man’s Privileges inspired my interest in the gendering of instruments and music more generally.

Do you think that in the next five years digital projects will count as much as books or articles in traditional journals in the tenure process?  What can universities do to attract digital savvy scholars like you?

I certainly hope that colleges and universities will begin to consider digital projects in the tenure review process, since these projects take as much time, research, and serious scholarly work as articles and books, and they can help us reach a wider audience than traditional periodicals and monographs can.  I think it might take closer to a decade for us to see such large-scale changes, since it would probably also involve lengthy conversations with academic publishers.

I’m very fortunate that UVa has such strengths in digital humanities and that the community is so open and welcoming.  Thanks to fellowship programs through NINES and the Scholars’ Lab, I got a crash-course in digital humanities.

In the Scholars’ Lab’s Praxis Program in particular, we covered everything from web design and programming to project management, budgets, and how to collaborate and share credit, and we also received hands-on training to help us build our own projects.  As a result of the success of the Praxis Program, a group of seven colleges and universities have formed the Praxis Network to further rethink graduate training and pedagogy in light of digital innovations, so I hope that this new model will continue to spread and to influence digital scholarship worldwide.

Thank you for your time.


Hope LemanHope Leman is a research information technologist and a 2009 graduate of the Master of Library and Information Science program at the University of Pittsburgh. She is extremely interested in the subjects of crowdfunding, publishing and all things digital. She can be followed on Twitter.