I just returned home from the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show this evening before sitting down to write this post.  It’s one of several conferences that I try to attend every year (although the Audio Engineering Society conference is the most relevant to my field).  Anyway, in spite of the usual long-haired metal heads that seem to be living in a 1980s, Sunset Strip time bubble, there were actually several new trends at the show.  One of those trends was definitely a greater emphasis on education.

The influence of video training sites like YouTube, Groove3, and is starting to have a noticeable impact on the audio engineering industry (and on the media production industry in general).  You can see it in many of the booths at NAMM.  Traditionally, manufacturers would present a well-choreographed demonstration that made their product look fast and powerful, but was very difficult for novices to follow.  These days, manufacturers are actually presenting meaningful tutorials that are slower-paced and accessible to everyone.  They take the time to explain concepts, and they may even have the camera zoom in on elements of the software or hardware interface to make sure everyone can see what’s going on.  And the crowds are eating it up.  Don’t get me wrong, their primary goal is to sell product.  But the focus on education through accessible demos is a clear sign that the industry has shifted its focus to the current generation of autodidacts that make up their growing customer base.

And I chalk it all up to a generation of musicians and audio engineers that have learned most (perhaps all?) of their skills from online videos.  The value of video-based training is something that I recognized several years ago.  As a result, I’ve been making YouTube videos for my students for some time now.  And I just completed a game audio tutorial series for Groove3, a subscription-based video training site that specifically caters to musicians and audio engineers.  I personally believe that these videos are essential for my online course sections, and are also a nice “value add” for students in my brick and mortar courses.

I try not to duplicate course materials in my online lessons, and the videos are a perfect to way to expand upon the concepts presented in the course textbooks without simply writing a bunch more text.  It’s also a way for me to inject something of my personal take on various topics; this permits me to offer the online students an experience that is more similar to attending my classroom lectures.  I try to make the videos as concise as possible, with a quick pace and tight editing.  This may seem to contradict my previous statement about accessibility,  but you have to remember that viewers can pause, rewind, and replay videos at their leisure.  Also, cutting out the pauses and “ums” and “uhs” makes me seem smarter that I really am.  So that’s good…

Overall, I think the videos are some of the best and most meaningful work I’ve done in the last couple of years.  And recently I’ve stated asking students to create their own videos as a means for submitting class assignments.  It’s actually very helpful and enjoyable to see students visually present and verbally describe their work.  In addition, the skills they are developing by producing the videos will be useful not matter what they do down the road.


So Many Hats

3f73cfd153c420195053f3a09f833e03My wife offers zero sympathy whenever I’m stressed-out about my job. She loves to quote some unnamed study that (she says) scientifically determined that being a “college professor” is the least stressful job in the universe. My usual response, borrowed from a fellow music department colleague, is “not if you’re doing it right.” Still she remains non-plussed.

But in all seriousness, I do find my job to be somewhat stressful. Certainly more stressful than it may appear from the outside. And here I’m defining “outside” to mean anyone who has never taught at a community college. You see, we have a lot of friends who are tenured faculty at four-year colleges. And I guess they do seem pretty relaxed about their job. (The only time they ever expressed concern about their job was when the topic of tenure review came up.) Which is not to say that teaching at a four-year college is easy, but it certainly appears to be less stressful than what I do.

So, this week I’m trying to take a critical look at what I do on a day-to-day basis and figure out why I feel a lot of stress. And what I’ve realized is that we community college faculty wear many more hats (so to speak) than other individuals that work in education. There’s the obvious stuff like teaching classes, developing curriculum, and working on committees. Many if not all educators have to deal with that stuff. But show me a full-time instructor in any other segment of education that has to deal with the range of issues that we confront at community colleges on a daily basis.

For example, every quarter I’m in a state of sheer terror as I watch the enrollment numbers for my classes. Like most community colleges, we have an enrollment minimum of 20 per class, and it’s not always easy to hit that number.  I have some classes that do blockbuster enrollment, which makes my life a bit easier.  But several of my classes are either new or more specialized and struggle to hit 20.  As a result, I do a lot of marketing for those classes: Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, an email list, and good old-fashioned networking. You can probably guess that I don’t really want to be doing all that stuff. But I feel that it reflects poorly on myself and my program if a class is canceled.  That fear of embarrassment is a pretty strong motivator.  At least for me.  It’s a bit frustrating to hear my colleagues at four-year universities discuss their upper-division classes that run with single-digit enrollment (not to mentioned graduate-level courses).  There are no upper-division classes in community college (with a few exceptions), so I simply don’t have that luxury.  Perhaps some day I’ll be able to run classes based on the average enrollment across all of my courses, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Another hat I wear is to develop online curriculum for almost all of my classes. Even the classes I teach on-campus typically have an online-only section that requires a huge amount of time to design and manage. I don’t personally know any other educators (at least in the public sphere) who even teach online classes. When I mention it to my colleagues at four-year colleges they give me this dumb look that says “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to teach online.” The thing is that I’m proud of the fact the we offer classes (and even some degrees) online at Foothill. When you combine that kind of access with our extremely affordable tuition, you’re truly opening doors for a lot of underserved students to pursue a meaningful education. To make matters worse, we’re moving to a new online learning management system over the next year and I’m going to have to port about fifteen classes. Fun.

A third hat that we in the CTE (career and technical education) sector wear is to keep pace with our industry. I try to keep my finger on the pulse on what’s happening in the audio engineering, audio post-production, and game audio worlds. And in a CTE program I’m also tasked with steering our curriculum to keep it relevant in the industry. That means not just personally following trends (like in a traditional academic program), but modifying our courses and degrees to reflect those trends as quickly as possible. One reason I’ve been buried in work for the last two years is that I’ve written six new classes during that time. And to make matters worse, because I’m so dedicated (or crazy), I’ve had academic terms where I’ve taught TWO of those new classes for the first time.

Geez, writing all this down is really not helping my stress level.  But you can start to see why my wife thinks I make this job much harder than it needs to be. And she’s probably correct. But I love my job and I wouldn’t want to do it any other way.  Now if I could just get a couple of teaching assistants…

Electroacoustica Recap

Electroacoustica 2015 wrapped up last week, and it was a real success. The quality and diversity of the performances was really great. And the audience was just as engaged and appreciative as I’d hoped it would be.

Here are a couple of images from my set, including my collaboration with Ed Goldfarb on piano and my solo LinnStrument piece.




I’ll post some more images and video as it becomes available.

We’ve already booked April 1st & 2nd for next year’s festival. So, save the date!

Electroacoustica 2015

I’m happy to announce that Foothill College will be presenting its first electronic music festival, Electroacoustica.

I’ve been working to put this together for the last year, and it’s super exciting to see the plan come together. Here’s the little press blurb for the concert:

An impressive lineup of experimental electronic composers will perform their own work over two nights of diverse concert programs. Concert One (April 3rd – 8PM) features Pamela Z, Matt Davignon, and Tom Dambly performing a variety of compositions for voice and electronics, drum machine, and processed trumpet. Concert Two (April 4th – 8PM) is dedicated to the memory of composer Mark Trayle, who had been scheduled to perform on the festival, but recently lost a year-long battle with cancer. The second concert also includes new works by Eric Kuehnl featuring piano with live electronics and the LinnStrument performance controller. The festival will conclude with two compositions by Matt Ingalls mixed live through an eight-speaker sound diffusion system.

Tickets are available now: $10 Students & Seniors/$15 General

Get your tickets soon before they’re gone! (Hopefully…)

That’s Mark Trayle in the photo above, performing Capital Magnetic for credit card reader and musical saws. Mark was my primary composition mentor at CalArts, and chaired the comp department there for many years. He had a huge influence on the next generation of electro-acoustic composers. He will be missed.

Showing Up Is Half The Battle

I’ve been teaching full time for almost three academic years now. In that time, I’ve learned some valuable lessons about myself, my students, and my field. One thing that has become very clear is the difference in student success between those students who participate every week, and those who do not. I just finished grading midterm exams for one of my online music history classes, and the grades were quite predictable. Students who log in every week almost always get an “A” on the midterm or perhaps a “B”, while students who only occasionally log in achieve much lower grades. And I mean MUCH LOWER. There’s a crazy inverted bell curve that occurs in many of my classes, and this class is no different:

50 Students Total

(21) A
(12) B
(4) C
(3) D
(10) F

So, if we correlate those grades to online class participation we can see a clear connection. The “A” and “B” students log in every week without exception. The “C,” “D,” and “F” students log in with less frequency. The sad part (for me) is that I can look at the login stats and know that most of those “C” and “D” grades will become an “F” by the end of the class. But the inverse is also true; many of the “B” students will achieve an “A” by the end of the class (they probably just got off to a slow start and are just getting things figured out). Oh, and almost every student with an “A” at the midterm will finish with an “A.”

I’ve tried a lot of strategies to bring the low-performing students up, but they almost never seem to work. I send reminders, and even occasionally personal notes. I ask them to contact me if they need assistance. It’s very different from a face-to-face class where I can see significant improvement from just one small intervention. But the face-to-face students are a different bunch, especially considering that they are choosing to come to class over taking the class online. (All of my face-to-face classes have a corresponding online-only section.)

Anyway, this is something that I think about at midterm time every term. It kind of gets me down, but after three years I’ve been forced to accept that an (unacceptably) large percentage of my online students will not be successful. But it also creates a talking point for my face-to-face students. In some ways (not all), success in school is similar to success in life; showing up is half the battle.