University Professor Leverages 78rpm Record Collection From the Internet Archive for Student Podcasts

Examples of music & musicians covered by The Phono Project include, from left: John Lee Hooker, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Johnny Cash

When professor Jason Luther wants students in his Intro to Writing Arts class to learn about multimodal composition, he has them go to the Internet Archive for inspiration.

Students peruse 78rpm records going back to the early 20th century to find just the right one for their assignment. There is no lack of material with more than 300,000 recordings  from 1898 through the 1950s preserved. They are available to the public because of the collaborative Great 78 Project.

Although the students are enrolled at Rowan University in New Jersey, many are participating remotely from their homes this year because of the pandemic, and the materials are conveniently available digitally to them from anywhere.

Professor Jason Luther of The Phono Project.

“If the [Great 78 Project] didn’t exist, I don’t think I would have this curriculum at all,” said Luther, assistant professor for Writing Arts in the Ric Edelman College of Communication & Creative Arts at Rowan. “What I really like is the research challenge. It’s really powerful. So many times students have recovered the lost histories of these songs.”

For The Phono Project, Rowan students create podcasts and social media posts about recordings in the Archive’s 78s collection. They also tap into primary sources on the Archive to write the history of the songs. They can write about the stories behind songs like the Billie Holiday classic “God Bless the Child,” or John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” from 1948. Many gravitate to artists like Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra, but Luther tries to get them to branch out—especially now that there are more than 200 stories in the project’s collection.

Luther developed the project in 2018 as part of the “Technologies and Future of Writing” module in the writing course. Students have just eight classes to complete the 1-3 minute podcasts, in which they learn to master a mix of audio tools and editing skills using Audacity and WordPress. The course covers issues of compatibility and ownership, along with instruction on the economy of writing like a critic about lyrics and culture. For one recent class session, he invited Liz Rosenberg of the Archive to be a guest speaker and talk about the organization’s work and the Great 78 Project.

In the future, Luther said he would like to find more ways to incorporate some of the Archive’s collection into his curriculum. For instance, he may have students use primary source documents from independent publishers over time to craft something tangible, such as an actual history from those materials that could be passed along. “That’s one of the neat things about accretion,” he said. “We have the creativity, but then there’s also documents on the Archive that are helping us understand the 78s themselves. It’s such a vast resource.”

Visit The Phono Project.

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Incorporating materials from the Internet Archive into your course curriculum is easy. Each semester we hear from instructors doing so worldwide. Let us know how you are weaving Internet Archive media into your classes by writing to us at info@archive.org.

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