NEH Backs ‘Texts-in-Performance’ Studies, Book on Islam

Alumna Wins Grant for Animated Atlas of California Farming History

Orson Welles at radio microphone
Marit MacArthur, who researches performative speech, is co-leader of a project to develop tools to analyze sound recordings by, among others, Orson Welles, pictured here in CBS Radio Studio, broadcasting “War of the Worlds,” Oct. 31, 1938.

The National Endowment for the Humanities recently awarded more than $125,000 in two grants to faculty members in the College of Letters and Science, and a $30,000 grant to an alumna of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

  • A $75,000 Digital Humanities Advancement Grant went to an international team co-led by Marit MacArthur, a lecturer in the University Writing Program and a research associate in the Department of Cinema and Digital Media, in support of developing tools to analyze sound recordings by Orson Welles and other performers.

  • A $50,400 fellowship went to Baki Tezcan, an associate professor in the Department of History, in support of his writing a history of six centuries of Islam.

  • A $30,000 grant went to Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, M.S. ’13, director of the Cal Ag Roots Project at the Davis-based nonprofit California Institute for Rural Studies, in support of creating an animated atlas of California farming history.

Tools for Listening to Texts-in-Perfomance The digital tools will be open-source for scholars to mine new knowledge from archives of sound recordings, including Welles’ radio plays, the 75-year Talking Book Collection for the blind, and thousands of hours of poets’ reading their works.

Marit MacArthur mugshot

“We all have strong responses to people’s manner of speaking, to the qualities of their voices, from film and television actors, to radio and TV personalities, to politicians and poets,” MacArthur said. “Yet speech perception is highly subjective, inflected by all sorts of biases, expectations and preferences. Why do we like the voices we like? What turns us off about others?

“A primary goal is to enable scholars across the humanities disciplines to study speech recordings in new ways, and to promote interdisciplinary collaboration in what I might call the empirical study of performative speech,” she said.

“We humanists have tremendous cultural and historical knowledge and intuitions, for instance, about the evolution of performance styles and their reception in particular contexts. But the available linguistic tools and methods for analyzing speech recordings just aren’t made for us. They aren’t easy to use, and they aren’t adapted for the noisier and longer recordings we want to study. The tools our team has developed so far, which the project will refine and disseminate, should make this sort of scholarship much easier to do, and make the results more understandable to wider audiences.”

MacArthur leads the project with Neil Verman, an assistant professor of radio/TV/film at Northwestern University. The project also involves a large team of scholars around the world as consultants, advisers and user-testers. Four team members are from UC Davis: Lee Miller, associate professor of neurobiology and the technical director for the Center for Mind and Brain; Lynette Hunter, professor of the history of rhetoric and performance; Cindy Shen, assistant professor of communication; and Owen Marshall, a postdoctoral fellow in Science and Technology Studies.

Islam in the Ottoman Empire — With his yearlong fellowship, Tezcan, an expert on the histories of Ottoman politics and Islamic thought, hopes to finish writing his book, The Other Reformation: The Transformation of Islam in the Ottoman Empire, by mid-2019.

Baki Tezcan mugshot

In his proposal to the NEH, Tezcan said the book will make the case that Islam went through a populist reformation much like Christianity did in the 16th and 17th centuries, discarding certain practices from medieval times and going back to scriptural sources to rationalize the faith.

“I argue that modernity was not thrusted upon Muslims by the sheer force of European colonialism but rather produced by (Muslims) … as a result of upward social mobility and the political transformation this mobility brought about by expanding the ruling class in the early modern era.”

The NEH funded just 8 percent of the fellowship proposals it received this cycle, Jon Parrish Peede, acting chair of the agency, said in notifying Tezcan of his award. He was one of 74 scholars nationwide to receive a total of  $3.5 million in NEH fellowships for advanced research.

Tezcan said his proposal would not have succeeded without the help of UC Davis colleagues. He developed his proposal during leaves provided in winter 2016 by a faculty development award from Academic Affairs and, in spring 2016, by a fellowship from the UC Davis Humanities Institute and the support of the Department of History.

Tezcan is the author of A Short History of the Ottoman Empire and The Second Ottoman Empire: Political and Social Transformation in the Early Modern World.

Atlas of California Farm History — A project proposal by Carlisle-Cu, who earned her master’s degree in community development from UC Davis, was among eight NEH grants for digital projects for the public. She will use the grant to develop an interactive, multimedia atlas exploring the people, places, and events that shaped key moments in California agriculture.

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