This essay explores a recent cross-disciplinary project aimed at bridging courses in English and Electrical Engineering at Union College. We conducted a dual exploration of the role of sound in Romantic literature, culture, and technology by the incorporation of Electrical Engineering practices and technologies into a Romanticism course, on the one hand, and, on the other, the introduction of Romantic poetry, theory, and technology into a course on digital signal processing. More specifically, we devised an interdisciplinary team experience bringing humanities and engineering approaches to the analysis of the phenomenon of sound as represented in poetry and technology of the Romantic period and used contemporary technology to measure poetic sound with scientific instrumentation. This trans-disciplinary lab required literature students to work in conjunction with their peers who specialize in signal processing for a dual investigation of the conceptual, aesthetic, and technological contexts of Romantic sound—not only of the poetry but also the age’s beloved Aeolian harp.
A “sound but half its own”: A Collaborative Exploration of Poetic Sounds in Literature and Electrical Engineering Classrooms
Overview of the Project
1. In a recent cross-disciplinary project aimed at bridging courses in English and Electrical Engineering at Union College, we conducted a dual exploration of the role of sound in Romantic literature, culture, and technology by the incorporation of Electrical Engineering practices and technologies into a Romanticism course, on the one hand, and, on the other, the introduction of Romantic poetry, theory, and technology into a course on digital signal processing. The collaboration brought together two intermediate-level courses: “The Romantic Revolution” and “Discrete Systems.” More specifically, we devised an interdisciplinary team experience bringing humanities and engineering approaches to the analysis of the phenomenon of sound as represented in poetry and technology of the Romantic period. We used contemporary technology from Phasor Lab (a state-of-the-art facility located at Union College’s Peter Irving Wold Center for Science and Engineering) to measure poetic sound with scientific instrumentation. This trans-disciplinary lab required English students to work in conjunction with their peers who specialize in signal processing for a dual investigation of the conceptual, aesthetic, and technological contexts of Romantic sound—not only of the poetry but also the age’s beloved Aeolian lyre.
2. Students first examined the spectral content of an Aeolian harp, an instrument that fascinated Romantic-period poets and inspired many lyrical poems, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Effusion 35” (1795) (later titled “The Eolian Harp” [p. 1796]) as well as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni” (1817). In addition, engineering students recorded, processed, and analyzed student recitations of Romantic poetry related to the Aeolian harp; these students then collaborated with their peers from the Romanticism course to label formal aspects of the poetry (e.g., assonance, alliteration, rhyme, meter, poetic feet, etc.), using forms specific to each discipline. Student teams from the two courses offered simultaneously by the English and Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Departments ultimately produced co-authored term papers in the style of IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) conference papers (intended for an engineering audience). While writing the reports, engineering students focused on composing the technical aspects of the project, while literature students provided prose related to literary and historical aspects of Romanticism. The literature students took the lead in the peer-editing process and also became familiar with aspects of technical writing.
3. In this essay, we detail the various technologies and techniques—including binaural recording and the Short-time Fourier Transform—that we have employed in this collaboration, as well as the vital functions that Romantic poetic and sound technologies played in the classroom and lab environments at our liberal arts institution during this multi-year project. We focus on the role of Romanticism in the hybrid humanities-engineering classroom at a small undergraduate college and foreground the value of contemporary technologies in the study of historical understandings of sound.
Introduction: Interdisciplinary Collaborations
4. This collaboration began as a result of several boot camps that occurred at the 2013 The Humanities and Technology Camp (THATCamp), “Humanities + Engineering” at Union College. We required students from our respective core sophomore-level courses in British Romantic studies and ECE to attend a session on “Music + Engineering,” where the engineering students delivered an interactive demonstration on signal processing techniques to a diverse group of non-experts from various disciplines and fields. As an example, the students described the concepts of time and frequency domain analysis and the use of the Fourier Transform to decompose sound into its composite frequencies. The student populations enrolled in these two courses spanned several majors and minors including English, Art History, Bioengineering, and Music. The ECE course on digital signal processing, for example, is required by three engineering programs at Union College (Electrical, Computer, and Bioengineering), and all majors and minors at our academic institution enroll in sophomore-level courses offered by the English Department.
5. During the dynamic and engaging question-and-answer session that followed this THATCamp event, we began discussing the possibilities of recording and analyzing natural sounds occurring outside of human structures and institutions. For instance, we pondered the differences between environmental and musical sounds as well as the types of sounds created during the recitation of poetry. This conversation led us to think about the nature and function of the Aeolian harp, a wind harp placed outside in fields but most often during the Romantic period in open window casements or in other domestic settings in which natural breezes impact the tuned strings of the harp, thus setting them harmonically into motion. While the Aeolian harp was invented in an earlier period, it is well known that the device became an absolute fascination during the Romantic era, and poets such as Coleridge and Shelley often employed the trope of the harp in both poetry and prose. In fact, Timothy Morton has noted that the Aeolian harp “became a household item as popular and familiar in the long eighteenth century as sound systems are today” (313). “The Aeolian harp is an environmental instrument,” writes Morton, “[o]ne places the harp in a window, so that it will catch the undulations of wind” (313). As “a form of recording or monitoring” of the environment, the Aeolian harp is actually closer
6. Despite the fact that the Romantics are often perceived as critiquing rampant industrialization, technological questions and concerns can be found throughout even the most celebrated and foundational texts of the period. Shelley, for instance, compared the human body—and especially the human sensorium—to something like a radically complex machine akin to the Aeolian harp. He famously writes in the opening paragraphs of his “A Defence of Poetry” (c. 1821) that
7. Reconsidering his earlier statement in this poem that the “everlasting universe of things / Flows through the mind” (1-2), Shelley suggests in the lines above that human cognitive functions might very well “passively . . . receiv[e] fast influencings” from external environments, but cognitive functions also very much render their environments as well. According to Shelley, minds and worlds thus exist in reciprocal relationships akin to what William Wordsworth famously describes as that “mighty world / Of eye and ear, both what they half-create, / And what perceive” (106-108).
8. Extending Shelley’s Romantic-era understanding of the human-environment dialectic to the technological, John Tresch contrasts the “classical machine,” “[e]xemplified by the clock, the lever, or the balance” and “seen as a passive transmitter of external forces, as a symbol of balance and eternal order” representative of “a stable, determinist nature and . . . associated with an epistemology of rational, unfeeling detachment” (12), with what he terms the “Romantic machine,” epitomized by, for example, the Aeolian harp:
Data Acquisition and Analysis: Binaural Recordings
9. Inspired by not only the Romantic preoccupation with this “recording” device but also by contemporary investigations of the Aeolian harp as both technological instrument and literary trope in recent Romantic criticism and theory, students in the Romanticism course studied the basic elements of poetic rhyme and meter as well as other related matters pertaining to the study of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century poetics (e.g., assonance, consonance, enjambment, varieties of poetic feet, etc.) in poems such as “The Eolian Harp,” “Mutability,” and “Mont Blanc.” A unique setup awaited the English students in the ECE Department’s laboratory, where poetic readings were recorded binaurally so that the recordings would reproduce an uncanny, three-dimensional sense of sound directionality as perceived by a listener at a particular position. In order to prepare to collaborate during our cross-disciplinary laboratory investigation, we selected “Mont Blanc” as our focus text due to the poem’s emphasis on the nature and function of sound as well as its various engagements with themes and concepts related to the Aeolian lyre. During the first three weeks of the course in Romanticism, students were introduced to a range of basic poetic devices, techniques, and terms studied during close readings and critical investigations of a range of other canonical Romantic-era texts (e.g., Wordsworth’s 1799 edition of The Prelude). In addition to the formal aspects of poetry, students in the English course simultaneously explored the conceptual and historical foundations of Romanticism.
10. Meanwhile across campus, engineering students learned fundamentals of digital signal processing, including sampling and quantization, the Nyquist Theorem, the concepts of time and frequency domain, the Fourier Transform, as well as spectrogram and digital filtering techniques. The Nyquist Theorem provides guidance on how to acquire a signal (such as a recorded sound) without artifacts, and the time and frequency domain, the Fourier Transform, and spectrogram and digital filtering permit the study and processing of the signal’s spectral content. Students also learned a technique for filtering signals to remove selected frequency components, which can potentially separate a signal with two or more simultaneously occurring contributions into independent components. In order to emphasize to the students that the signal processing techniques are general and can be applied to the investigation of signals acquired from a range of sources—poetic, musical, environmental, and otherwise—the students performed a blind analysis of data from a “mystery source.” Only after completing the assignment was it revealed that a neurobiologist had provided the data.
11. Having briefly introduced both groups of students to Coleridge’s representation of the Aeolian harp as “that simplest lute” which “by the desultory breeze caressed” produces “long sequacious notes / [that] [o]ver delicious surges sink and rise” and which create, in effect, “a soft floating witchery of sound” (13, 15, 19-20, 21), we chose to auralize (and therefore literalize) for the group during laboratory time the sound that, in part, evoked Romantic poets’ imaginative literary descriptions of this device’s sounds. We first sampled a recording made from a contemporary, commercially manufactured wind harp. This modern interpretation of the Aeolian harp is shown below (Figure 1) against an ominous, late-October Schenectady sky, and a recording of it being played by the wind (audible as background noise underneath the sustained, eerie sounds of the harp) can be heard through the following link.
12. This recording was then contrasted with one made available from a period-specific casement harp, which was crafted for us by a luthier specializing in the reproduction of nineteenth-century wind instruments (Figure 2). Listening to the type of technology that excited the imaginations of several Romantic poets added a new dimension to the students’ exposure to this work. We then asked the engineering students to use their repertoire of digital signal processing techniques to add yet another dimension to the group’s collective understanding of the harp and its significance.
13. During the next phase of collaboration, students from the English course were asked to recite for the engineering students previously assigned lines from Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” a poem that, as noted earlier, grapples in part with conceptual concerns related to the Aeolian harp and its functions. Engineering students recorded the recited poetry with binaural technology in Phasor Lab, a specialized, soundproof laboratory equipped for experiments at the intersections of Electrical Engineering and Music. Binaural recordings rely on a pair of microphones embedded within realistically shaped ears mounted on the head of a mannequin and differ from conventional recordings in that they reproduce (when listened to through headphones) a sense of directionality as it would be perceived by a person seated at the position of the mannequin (Figure 3).
14. In order to achieve a realistic sense of sound directionality, the listener must play back a binaural recording while wearing a set of headphones. This ensures that the sound waveforms impinge on the human ear close to the relative position at which the microphones detected the original, incident sound with respect to the head. The results can be dramatic (to experience an example, please listen to the file below while wearing headphones), and such technical setups offer rich possibilities for the artistic exploration of poetic performance.
15. Before the binaural recording activity, we paired up students in the Romanticism course, assigned roughly ten lines from “Mont Blanc,” and required them to practice together to improve poetic recitation techniques taught in class and through assignments. To improve recitation of their assigned sections of verse, we asked students to separate out each line of poetry into its five feet by identifying a given line’s ten syllables of iambic pentameter and to divide those syllables into pairs of two. Once students divided the assigned lines into feet, they then marked up lines for patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables (please click here for an example of this type of marking assignment). These traditional forms of poetic scansion and marking techniques greatly assisted these students in better understanding the rhythm and meter of assigned lines and allowed them to sound out the poetry when practicing recitations. During the lab day recording, one individual from each pair of students volunteered to recite aloud assigned selections of Shelley’s verse.
16. Following these activities, the engineering students returned to the ECE Department with the recordings of both the Aeolian harp and poetry and plotted their recordings in the time and frequency domain (using Short-time Fourier Transform, or spectrogram) (Proakis and Menolakis). They compared and contrasted the wind-excited harp data with the data collected from the recited poetry. To analyze the harp data further, the students also considered possible algorithms for separating the sound of the wind from that of the harp. Moving on to the recited poetry, once students identified the onset of words and/or specific syllables within the spectrogram, they entered the next phase of the interdisciplinary collaboration, which required the expertise of their peers from the Romantic poetry class.
17. We arranged a meeting between the two classes, with each group of students arriving with their respective forms of individually prepared data analysis (e.g., marked, prepared lines; spectrograms, etc.). In order to obtain insight into the interpretation of spectrograms, the students listened to an audio recording of an Aeolian harp (included at the end of this paragraph) and identified the signature of various aural features as they appear within the spectrogram (shown in Figure 4). By listening to the audio of the harp excited by the wind, one hears the harp’s overtones sustained in time (which correspond to the long, horizontal lines in the spectrogram in Figure 4) and abrupt flapping of the wind (which corresponds to the vertical lines in the spectrogram, because the duration of the wind’s noise is short in time). The harp is initially excited in the lower portion of the frequency range, and a burst of higher frequency overtones begins about halfway through the sample, rising briefly to frequencies above 1,500 Hz in the upper portion of the figure.
18. While students in the English course guided engineering students in understanding the range of poetic devices under consideration in Shelley’s verse, students from the ECE course guided their peers studying literature in interpreting the technical visualizations. In effect, each group’s respective expertise fused to produce interdisciplinary interpretations of the figures for the results sections of their collaboratively produced papers.
19. For reference, Figures 5 and 6 below present sample analyses of excerpts from “Mont Blanc” showing the capacity for the spectrogram to reveal both structural features of the poem and nuances of interpretation. A recording of a selection from the first stanza of “Mont Blanc” can be found at the end of this paragraph, and the spectrogram of a short excerpt is provided in Figure 5, along with a guide to its interpretation. The technical visualization also permits personal interpretations to be compared side by side (Figure 6), revealing differences in recitational tempo, caesura, stress placement within poetic feet, and features of the natural timbre of each reader’s voice.
20. Pedagogically speaking, having students perform analyses such as those shown in the figures above and build such evidence into technical papers provided another opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration. The students in the English course had writing-based techniques to share with the engineering students, but these humanities students were generally unfamiliar with the constraints of writing for a professional technical journal. Starting the first week of the term, the engineering students prepared for this aspect of the collaboration by performing a detailed analysis of several representative technical papers in professional engineering journals—stripping content until the papers were distilled into skeletal forms. In one exercise, the students analyzed high-impact papers for language usage and style, including variation in sentence length and structure. In another, they focused on how the authors of transformative papers incorporated engaging language into objective descriptions of material not typically intended to evoke the kind of visceral response that lends itself perhaps more naturally to imaginative prose. The resulting templates included such information as the core elements of an abstract, typical structure for an introduction, efficient presentation techniques for the results of a literature search, and interesting ways to present a slew of mathematical equations. Armed with these skeletal templates by the end of the term’s first week, the engineering students prepared to flesh out their templates with prose, section by section, as relevant materials were learned during class time (e.g., mathematical theory, data, etc.). By the time that the interdisciplinary group meeting on data analysis occurred, the engineering students were able to prepare a draft of the theory, experimental setup, and results sections of their papers, which they then sent to their peers in the Romanticism course.
21. Having received their collaborators’ drafts, students in the English course began the peer-editing process with the goal of helping their collaborators to articulate and explain in greater detail the results of their experiments. For example, students focused on inserting a range of appositive phrases to qualify such things as definitions for consonance, iambic pentameter, the different forms of poetic feet found in “Mont Blanc,” caesura, alliteration, assonance, and so on. Using Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” function, these students were asked to focus their editorial attention on matters related to the engineering student’s rhetoric and logic as well as their articulation of ideas in sentence form (e.g., language, diction, structure, etc.). The engineering students were not often familiar with poetic terminology. In effect, students in the Romanticism course helped their peers to qualify and expand upon definitions and explanations of such things as depictions of Shelley’s biography, lyric poetry, and the Aeolian harp. Each editing process was unique and depended on what each engineering student found in his or her results, and so these student collaborators could not fully predict what would become the focus of an individual argument or set of evidence. In this way, students studying English literature provided something like a real-world example of collaborative, technical editing. Additionally, students in the Romanticism course faced unfamiliar language, ideas, and results from a discipline far removed from their own and to which they were assigned to add their own knowledge about and expertise in Romantic-era poetry in order to help their peers explain experimental results and articulate arguments in the form of term papers.
22. Upon return of the peer-edited papers, the engineering students analyzed their revised texts (using the template shown at the following link) and checked editorial changes for technical accuracy, accepting or rejecting edits and suggestions as needed. However, it was found in a number of cases that suggested changes, although often beautifully written, had to be set aside because they introduced technical inaccuracies—from the engineering perspective—into the final report. As a final class-time exercise, the engineering students participated in a contest focused on the production of pithy writing. The winning entry consisted of the sentence reduced by the largest percentage in word count without changing its informational content or meaning. We read aloud to the class both the initial and the revised versions of the five entries that had claimed the largest percentage reductions in word count, and our students voted on whether each improved sentence retained all of the original information, disqualifying those that did not.
23. We have aimed with this collaborative project to achieve a high level of clearly interdisciplinary synthesis that bridges the departments of English and Electrical and Computer Engineering at Union College. In doing so, we follow Alan Bewell’s recent call for collaborations that go beyond single author or disciplinary boundaries. “Nowadays, one would be hard-pressed to find a term that is more frequently espoused and valued in the humanities than ‘interdisciplinarity.’ These days, it seems that everybody does interdisciplinary work,” writes Bewell,
24. This cross-disciplinary investigation showed all involved in the collaboration the ways that contemporary technologies can assist in seeing anew what were already Romantic forms and formulations of technology. Ultimately, modern technology enabled historical recovery. Listening to the Aeolian harp excited our imaginations to ask new questions about Shelley’s poetry in particular and, more generally, about a previous historical epoch often perceived as far removed from our own. The act of listening to the sounds of this Romantic device served as a gateway into investigation of the dramatic variety of sounds found in Shelley’s poetry in its historical context. Furthermore, the recordings of “Mont Blanc” made in Phasor Lab allowed students to practice a host of recitational techniques important for understanding further English Romantic verse, and the three-dimensional nature of the binaural recordings (as opposed to, say, recordings made via smartphones) prompted students to recite Shelley’s poetry to the binaural head as if they were communicating with a placeholder for a future audience to listen to these lines of verse. In this way, the harp directed us to a set of Romantic poetic concerns (both formal and conceptual) that assisted our students in their literary as well as media archaeological reconstructions of an open range of potential ways in which, on the one hand, “Mont Blanc” might have been intended by Shelley to be sounded out while also exploring, on the other hand, how contemporary recitations of the poem might be inherently delimited by Shelley’s original poetic devices.
Barnett, Suzanne L. “Staged Reading of Prometheus Unbound the First Since 1998.” Keats-Shelley Association of America Online. k-saa.org/staged-reading-of-prometheus-unbound-the-first-since-1998/. Accessed 25 Oct. 2016.
Bewell, Alan. “Romanticism and Colonial Environmental History.” European Romantic Review, vol. 23, no. 3, 2012, pp. 393-98.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Eolian Harp.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Major Works., edited by H. J. Jackson, Oxford UP, 2000, pp. 27-29.
Hutcheon, Linda and Michael Hutcheon. “A Convenience of Marriage: Collaboration and Interdisciplinarity.” PMLA, vol. 116, no.5, 2001, pp. 1364-76.
Morton, Timothy. “Of Matter and Meter: Environmental Form in Coleridge’s ‘Effusion 35’ and ‘The Eolian Harp.’” Literature Compass, vol. 5, no. 2, 2008, pp. 310-35.
Proakis, John G. and Dimitris G. Menolakis. Digital Signal Processing: Principles, Algorithms, and Applications. 4th ed., Prentice Hall, 2006.
Richardson, Alan. The Neural Sublime: Cognitive Theories and Romantic Texts. Johns Hopkins UP, 2010.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “A Defence of Poetry.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, Norton, 2002, pp. 509-35.
---. “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, Norton, 2002, pp. 96-101.
---. “Mutability (‘We are as clouds’).” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, Norton, 2002, pp. 91-92.
Tresch, John. The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon. U of Chicago P, 2012.
Tucker, Herbert. “Mont Blanc ll. 1-11 .” For Better for Verse. University of Virginia, prosody.lib.virginia.edu/prosody_poem/mount-blanc-1-11/. Accessed 1 Aug. 2015.
Wordsworth, William. “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798.” Wordsworth’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Nicholas Halmi, Norton, 2014, pp. 65-70.
 The authors would like to thank Union College for its generous funding of this project through both the Humanities Faculty Research Fund (HFRF) as well as the Internal Education Foundation (IEF) grants. The measurement instrumentation in Phasor Lab was supported through NSF-MRI grant #0923384. BACK
 To create this document for our students, we employed Herbert Tucker’s very helpful “Mont Blanc ll. 1-11” from his For Better for Verse project, hosted at the University of Virginia, http://staging.prosody.lib.virginia.edu/prosody_poem/mount-blanc-1-11/, accessed 1 Aug. 2015. BACK
 We furthermore follow Alan Bewell’s following clarification: “In saying that English interdisciplinarity is different from other forms of this activity at the university, I am not making a complaint, but instead stressing the limitations of what English interdisciplinarity usually entails” (394). That is, our lab-based, collective group investigation is not meant to be understood as undermining the relevance or importance of interdiscursive work but, rather, is enacted as a way of expanding research and teaching-based activities beyond traditional horizons. BACK
 In a related example, binaural recording has rich potential for both the study and performance of Romantic lyric falling under the category of closet drama. Dramatic works like Prometheus Unbound (1820), for instance, intentionally make use of the inner ear of the human imagination, given that Shelley’s lyrical drama was most likely intended for private recitation. As Suzanne L. Barnett has recently noted in her review of the 2013 “performance” of Prometheus Unbound as a staged reading at New York City’s Lucille Lortel Theatre, this generally “unstageable” work poses significant challenges when executed via stage performances (Barnett). Binaural technology may be uniquely suited for realizing and archiving such dramatic interpretations of ostensibly “unstageable” poetic dramas, given that audiences can actively experience the work largely devoid of physical forms. This technology provides opportunities to integrate the insights of scholarly work with creative impulses to produce dynamic performances touching both general audiences and research communities. BACK