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teaching in an emergency

You should not take my advice! Let’s say that up front. Or, rather: what I talk about here in this newsletter — about teaching, about book-writing — is less about “best practices,” than my practices, which are occasionally based on something I read somewhere (“best practices”), something someone told me (“someone else’s practices”) or something I figured out that seems to work (“stuff”). But I do think it’s worth talking about what I’m planning to do now that UMD is going to go online due to COVID-19 — we’re taking an extra week of spring break (classes cancelled), but when we resume on March 30 we’re online-only until April 10, and possibly until the end of the semester.

And I’ve had a lot of thoughts about this, that I thought it would be useful to share. But with a caveat: these are just my random thoughts and ideas, which I hope are useful, but which may be totally wrongheaded in all kinds of ways. Call me out on it, please. Drag me on Twitter if you must. I’d like to learn about what I’m doing wrong, too.

So what I talk about here reflects some of what I’ve been learning in various places — UMD’s Keep Teaching resource, twitter threads, Chronicle articles, and conversations with my colleagues — and what I’m specifically figuring out for me to get through the rest of the semester and for students to learn something. And what I’m talking about here is going to be primarily relevant to music history classes specifically (music theory, for example, is going to have to do things totally differently).

I’ve decided to rush this one out because I’m seeing a lot of conversations online about what folks are doing to reimagine their work in new spaces, and have a lot of thoughts, and didn’t feel like writing a 40-tweet-thread.


First, a few basic things I’ve been thinking a lot about:

We have an obligation to make it as easy on students as possible.

I have to assume, amidst the chaos that is unfolding right now, and will likely only increase, “learning about opera” is not first on my students’ minds, nor should it be. They are traveling, worried about themselves and their families, and may be returning to homes that can not easily accommodate what they will need to continue their studies. I don’t want to overburden anyone with elaborate tech needs, new assignments or learning objectives, or anything else. I’ll be sending out a survey to establish a sense for what students have available to them (what tech they have, what time zone they’re in, etc); make communication as clear as possible; and be very clear that I will be accommodating to whatever circumstances students find themselves in and whatever exceptions or exemptions they may need.

We have an obligation to make it as easy on ourselves as possible.

No one is prepared for this; my colleagues who are not as tech-savvy as I am are going to have a lot of work to do to even get fully set up on Canvas (our online learning platform). “Doing a crap-ton more extra work midsemester to make my course online” was not on my To-Do list for this spring. I don’t anticipate faculty getting end-of-the-year bonuses for the extra work we’re going to be putting in. People have articles due, books due, lives to live.

I’m in an extraordinarily fortunate and privileged position as faculty to make this transition: I’m tenure-track, I have an easy teaching load, I’m young and healthy, I don’t have childcare needs, I have a home that will be extremely easy to teach-from-home in. Getting everything online will be additional work and mean additional frustrations, but it does not mean a massive change in lifestyle that more contingent workers, many of whom have children who are now also at home, are going to have to reckon with.

We all have many, many obligations that we have to attend to outside of our coursework. So whatever we do as faculty, whatever our position is, we should work to minimize the amount of additional labor that this will require; this is not the time to innovate, but the time to compromise.

We have an obligation to make this as easy on graduate student workers as possible.

I’m in an extraordinarily lucky position to have amazing graduate student teaching assistants for my lecture courses. They, too, now have unanticipated additional work to balance alongside coursework, dissertations and theses, research projects, personal lives, etc; they may also have just had conferences that were crucial for their professional development cancelled (and may also be suddenly losing hundreds of dollars because of that).

My goal in making this transition is to assign to TAs as little additional work as possible. We need to be honest: most of our work as faculty, and most of the work of graduate student workers, for the rest of the semester is going to be acting as glorified tech support, facilitating students to be able to use the online tools we’re setting up for them. That’s going to mean a lot more emailing, which is more hours of work, and TAs are often the first point-of-contact for this kind of communication from students. As such I’m going to strive to add no additional grading to my TA’s workload as we make the transition to online, and try to lighten the load as much as possible.

Our teaching, and students’ learning, is inherently compromised by this.

I think online teaching is pedagogically viable and can be great; I have no problem with online coursework being part of the modern university, although I do have qualms with its potential to eclipse in-person teaching in the (inevitable?) dystopian future. BUT we are in an emergency situation, and whatever we all end up doing will not be “online teaching” as it has been done by those who fully imagine a course online and have many weeks to prepare and execute it. Instead, it will be a compromise that cannot but make our teaching and our students’ learning lesser than it would be if we were not disrupted. This is not a model for the future: it is fundamentally inadequate, and we are inherently not serving our students as we should be under normal circumstances. We need to studiously document these inadequacies. At the end of this little awful experiment, as faculty we need to assert to administration that this cannot happen again, and that this will not be the future of the university.


Okay, enough with the moralizing. Another thing I’m thinking a lot about:

I’m minimizing “live” online instruction as much as possible. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect 50 students to be able to watch a lecture in real-time at 1pm on Mondays and Wednesdays (not to mention the 200 or 300 that some of my colleagues teach). Inevitably at least 20% will have tech issues, time zone issues, or other issues; I also don’t see a clear reason why me-speaking-live is better than me-speaking-pre-recorded. In-person, I do active learning exercises in lecture; these don’t translate easily to an online forum, and even if they did, it would take a significant amount of work to get them working well.

As such, I plan to record short-ish lecture segments (10–15 minutes) that will alternate with links to musical examples, readings, etc. These will be merged with the reading/listening that I already assign in advance of lectures, which were previously followed by a short multiple-choice quiz. So an online “lecture day” on Cunning Little Vixen might look like this chain of tasks available on Canvas:

  • Read a New York Times article on Janacek

  • Listen to the opening of Cunning Little Vixen and the Queen of the Night Aria, and think of how they are similar/different

  • Watch a PanOpto recording of Prof Robin speaking for 15 minutes, with slides, introducing Cunning Little Vixen (yes, our lecture recording system is called PanOpto, it’s hilarious)

  • Watch/listen to another musical example

  • Watch another PanOpto recording of Prof Robin

  • Take a 5–8 question multiple choice quiz (that will grade itself) based on everything covered in this

Given that it’s a music class and we do a lot of in-class listening, it makes more sense to me to record short segments so that they can alternate with listening examples rather than talk for 50 minutes; it will also hopefully minimize the amount of video editing I have to do, as if I talk for 50 minutes into a microphone I will inevitably curse and sweat a lot more.

This is the potential plan for Monday/Wednesday lectures. I’m still trying to figure out Friday discussions, which are run by a graduate student TA. But I don’t think it’s reasonable or productive to ask 10–20 students to be able to be active on Webex or Google Hangouts for 50 minute discussion sections; inevitably the TA would spent most of the time fielding tech issues from students who got kicked off the network, etc. So I’m thinking instead that each section will be divided up into 15 minute chunks, with 3–5 students who sign up for each chunk and then actively participate in a Webex/Google Hangout session for those 15 minutes. This will ideally also lessen the teaching burden for the TA — preparing for multiple 15-minute lessons rather than 50-minute lessons — and get everyone to actually participate, as opposed to 15 people sitting in silence while 3 people talked.


The real problem, for MUSC 130 (music appreciation), is that, if you’ve been reading the newsletter, you’ll recall that I totally redesigned the course to focus on active learning and activities and ways of thinking about music that are fundamentally about the in-class experience, in lecture and discussion. This was particularly going to be the case in the second half of the semester, literally beginning next week. Here’s what the rest of the semester was supposed to look like:

So: a lot of guest visits; a two-week focus on a live production of The Cunning Little Vixen; a large-scale unit on experimental music that revolved on in-class performances of post-Cagean scores and culminated in students workshopping and performing their own experimental scores. All of this is no longer viable.

For the opera, it’s not too difficult to reimagine: I’ll give my week of Vixen lectures, and the capstone project — in which students were supposed to write about seeing the Maryland Opera Studio’s production of the opera — will probably remain mostly the same, but they’ll write about a production of the opera they can watch at home streaming through our library databases.

I cannot do the experimental music unit anymore; it is not feasible to scale online given the time constraints. A lecture on Cage would have involved performing 4’33”; a lecture on Oliveros would have involved us all performing Sonic Meditations. We had a day on soundwalks! That does not work with COVID-19. Most of these lectures were, by the way, brand new to this semester, and I haven’t yet created them. If I had a summer and a grant to reimagine this online, sure, I could figure it out and make it amazing, but I don’t.

So, yes, I am going to compromise. My plan is to retain some of the guest stuff if possible, by recording Skype conversations that students can watch (I use Call Recorder for that). Otherwise, I am going to dip into my pool of preexisting lectures on modernism and the avant-garde, and retool Unit 3 to focus on contemporary music broadly considered: I’ll instead talk about Schoenberg and Stravinsky and Pamela Z in a more conventional lecture format. The capstone will likely be some kind of take-home exam, like it was for our first unit.

This is, for me, a HUGE bummer: I really put a lot of thought into how this unit would fit into the broader course goals and represent a creative culmination of what we had been learning. Instead, we’ll be doing some more basic (and, admittedly generic) kinds of learning about music.

It is what it is. We need to make this easy on everyone.

More soon, as I figure out whether anything that I’ve written above will actually work.


Her love of sticks knows no bounds.