GROUP PROJECT #1: audiobook version of Bartleby (due 9/24 in class)

Whether or not you prefer to, you will collaborate with peers in the production of an audiobook version of Melville’s enigmatic novella, Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street (1853). Each student will be assigned to a team, and each team will decide on how to divide up the work. I suggest that, at a minimum, each team have:

  • reader/s: readers will read/record the text (duh). Each team will decide whether to have one voice read the entire text (it should take about 1:20 of continuous reading, excluding breaks) or whether to assign parts in a “radio play” format. More experimentally, a team could deliberately shift the voice of the narrator, having numerous actors voice one character.
  • editor/s: editors will compile the audio files into a format that is listenable. This could involve a single long track or several chapters (though the original does not have chapters, you could create them); it could involve mixing in a soundtrack or sound effects as well. You could use Garage Band for Mac or the free/open Audacity; if you have the skills/software, you could use more sophisticated software. The key is not to have a product with high production values, however: I’m more interested in the process and how well you reflect on it.
  • presenter/s: each group will present its a-book to the class on the due date of 9/24. Presentations will be brief (max 15 mins) but focused. Presenters will play a sample of the a-book and walk us through the process and the product: how the team divided the work, what strategic/aesthetic decisions were made, what worked well and what didn’t, how the final product speaks to (sorry) the secondary readings we’ve been doing.

You may want to use Slack or Google Docs or something similar to manage the workflow. The groups are small enough where things shouldn’t get terribly complicated, but it’s helpful to think through how to communicate from the outset.

The last requirement is that you compose a brief post for the blog (500 words max) reflecting on a) the process/product as a whole and b) your specific role within it, with an emphasis on what the experience taught you that merely reading about audiobooks (or, of course, merely reading Bartleby!) would have missed. The post is due on 10/1.

You will be evaluated on the following criteria, which I will not boil down to a simple rubric, since they all interact with one another in subtle ways:

  • adventurousness: does the text take risks, or just play it safe? Is the audiobook a straight reading of the text, or does it do something strange/experimental in some way? Does the audiobook transform Bartleby radically or merely transpose it to a new medium?
  • quality: is the product accessible? Does it sound good? Did the voice actors review the text and look up the pronunciations of unfamiliar words? Did the editors smooth out problems with the files, maintain steady audio levels, reduce noise where feasible, etc.?
  • reflectiveness: does the presentation reflect the group’s careful thinking about the project? Did the secondary readings by Rubery, Allred, Benjamin, etc. feed into the conception of the project?

All group members will receive a collective grade for the group’s work. This can be unfair, I realize, and a given member can be uncooperative or unresponsive, but that’s also true in postgraduate life, so it’s good practice. Each of you will receive individual grades for your reflective post, as well. And all of the group projects will be folded into one grade (20% of total grade), so each project is “low stakes.” If your group is having problems (or has one problem member) you are encouraged to contact me privately for help.

As you plan your attack on this project, feel free to be a bit zany. It may be that “quality” and “adventurousness” are somewhat at odds (since it’s easier to have good quality if you know what you’re aiming for and easier to experiment if you’re not worried too much about quality), so consciously decide what you’re going for, go for it well, and have fun. I’d be tempted to play with the following (not a list for you to copy, necessarily, but a springboard for dreaming about it):

  • representing Bartleby’s famous silences and repetitions: what if you used a whispered second track mixed in to represent B’s inner thoughts? Or played with very different vocalizations of the “same” statement that haunts the book (“I prefer not to”)?
  • What about a crude video version, using photos or drawings or puppets along with the audio to capture the tensions at work in the text?
  • Since the Occupy movement very consciously drew from Bartleby for inspiration, what about a transposition of the tale to a more recent setting to capture this connection in some way? Or even a montage (drawing from the above idea) of imagery of Occupy to accompany the original text?

The overarching theme here is to embody the ethic of “serious play”: there is truly no wrong way to do this, and we will all learn from your efforts, very much including the mistakes or the parts you wish you’d done differently. And I don’t know whether this is an incentive or not, but I will post the finished products to the blog so future students (or anyone who is interested) can enjoy your work. And keep the workload manageable: if you need to perform only a part of the text, or abridge it in some way, or report on what you would have done with more time, please do that!

And here are the two resulting books from the above project from my 2018 class: enjoy and think about how you might approach things. Group one used some echo effects to capture some of the derangement produced by Bartleby in the text’s narrator. Group two rather cheekily had the text-to-speech interface read the text and used that shortcut as a springboard to present to us Bartleby’s place in narratives of automation in cultural work.

You might also enjoy checking out an undergraduate effort: a wonderful Occupy Wall Street themed performance with amazing ambient sound.

Finally, here are the completed projects:

  • the Ginger Nuts’ pandemic-themed version, which plays extensively with noise and distraction as a compositional principle.
  • the Office Crew’s version draws out the text’s emphasis on the interplay between the mechanical and the biological, processing voices in various ways to underscore this theme.

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