In the Making: Transmedia and Sounding Publics, Refugee Stories in Pittsburgh

As I was placing a face mask on my son in the car outside his daycare center on the morning of 31 August 2021 and went through my daily thought process of weighing his possible exposure to COVID-19 against my need to work, I heard a story on WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR news station, that announced Pittsburgh had been recommended as a resettlement destination for Afghan refugees fleeing Afghanistan due to the Taliban’s takeover. The current unprecedented intersections of contentious world politics and the continuing public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic have demonstrated to me that interdisciplinarity, community outreach, and humanitarian compassion are all the more urgent in our local and global habitus. 

The course that I have developed with support from Humanities Engage’s Summer Stipend for Curricular Innovation could not be timelier for Pitt’s Humanities graduate students, my teaching trajectory and research agenda, and Pitt’s focus on community outreach and forward-facing scholarship. This new graduate seminar aims to draw Humanities Ph.D. students from diverse backgrounds and disciplinary homes to participate in engagement, collaboration, and service with Pittsburgh-based non-profit organizations and local refugee communities. The course will shift the graduate seminar output focus from individual expression and final projects to collaboration and continuing processual engagement. As a course listed through the Department of Music, emphasis will be placed on sound as a medium for communication, and the ways music, spoken communication, and everyday sound create relationships, contest meaning, and build cultural memory. However, after spending a summer working on the syllabus, conducting ethnographic research in Pittsburgh, and making connections with local non-profit organizations, the scope of the course has changed drastically.

In early 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I applied for a summer stipend to take the time and energy needed over the summer to design a new course whose topical engagements are near and dear to my heart — refugee studies, ethnographic fieldwork, and multimedia engagement. I hoped to think through the ways relationships could be initiated and nurtured between the Department of Music's Public Ethnomusicology Initiative and non-profit organizations in Pittsburgh. I quickly realized that the most important part of this course would be the relationships that students will build with resettled refugees as new Pittsburgh community members. Keeping this in mind, I crafted the syllabus so that, while students will be working through Pittsburgh-based organizations, the bulk of their coursework will constitute collaboration with people through personal engagement and working together to craft meaningful art, sound, and music that documents and engages with the refugee experience.

Another turn that this course has taken since my initial proposal has to do with the course structure. Central to this course is the idea of publics, socially organized groups, performers/audiences, and communities that come into being in relation to texts and their circulation in lived experience. I initially proposed to teach this course during the 2022-23 academic year, thinking I would be able to avoid teaching such a community-focused course during a global pandemic. However, as I planned the course this past summer, the Delta variant of COVID-19 raged around the world. I quickly realized that COVID-19 would not be going away any time soon. I realized that I need to be prepared for anything and everything. While I teach this mantra of preparedness to Ethnomusicology Ph.D. students in my Field and Laboratory Methods graduate seminar, I had never taken it to heart in my pedagogy before! This has meant that the syllabus allows the course to be flexible with both in-person and virtual components. Throughout the course, I will ask students to interrogate the questions, what constitutes a public and how can we use transmedia to mediate between publics? The COVID-19 pandemic has forced me to think more innovatively about virtual interaction and possible ways to enhance humanity through virtual experiences.

Central to the course’s virtual experience is transmedia as a methodology. My interest in transmedia stems from my own ethnographic research in the Thar Desert of northwestern India, where I work with a community of hereditary musicians. Part of my research looks at musicians engaging with multiple forms of technology and mediation at the same time, crafting their public personas and music to fit diverse audiences. These musicians were engaging in transmediated practices. Transmedia is a perforative methodology that involves the creation, sharing, and ongoing engagement with content by using technologies across multiple platforms that already permeate our everyday lives. While developing this course, I realized that, while transmedia storytelling is inherently participatory and collaborative, there are diverse and intertextual ways for students do transmediated research and collaboration remotely and virtually that can still spur community outreach and engagement. 

I developed a course syllabus that I will continue to refine throughout this academic year, in conversation with the University Center for Teaching and Learning, key interlocutors, and local non-profit organizations. I plan to continue to be flexible in its development, changing it to engage with the current COVID-19 pandemic and worldwide political shifts that are constantly changing the ways we connect, listen, and center the arts as locally community activated practice.

Syllabus for Transmedia and Sounding Publics: Refugee Stories in Pittsburgh (PDF)

Shalini R. Ayyagari
Assistant Professor, Department of Music
September 2021
Learn about all the courses faculty developed with Faculty Summer Stipends for Curricular Innovation.