Sustainable pedagogy

Ever since a Twitter discussion a couple weeks ago, I’ve been mulling over the idea of sustainability in education. In contrast to expansion-oriented or profit-driven “business” models, what would a focus on sustainability look like in the academy? I offered the following ideas on Twitter last night.

I’ve been increasingly frustrated when new ideas are quickly interrogated with the question, “but can you do it at scale?” While “at scale” can mean a number of things, it usually means doing it big.

My thoughts here are that often we come up with a good idea, and maybe even implement it with success, but because it cannot be done big—or as big as the things it might “compete” with—it is dismissed by some in power. For example, this past summer, some colleagues from FlipCamp Music Theory and I published a peer-reviewed ebook, Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy. We collected short essays, performed non-blind peer review in Google Drive, and used command-line utilities to convert the essays to MarkDown format, then published them on GitHub Pages using a (slightly tweaked) stock template. This cost us nothing (except $6/year for the domain—which we use for more than the book). The authors, reviewers, and editors were volunteers (as is the case with most academic music journals), the publication tools were all open-source, and the online hosts (Google and GitHub) were free to use.

This project took a form that I would call sustainable: unpaid labor that minimizes the strain on the volunteers, free tools, and a free publishing platform. However, when sharing this model in discussions with established publishers (or, rather, debates—such as one I got into with representatives from Springer and Sage at CU’s “Open Access Week”), I often get the reaction, “That’s great if you can do that for your small project, but it doesn’t scale. That’s why you need us, and that’s why we charge authors for open-access publishing.”

If the “scale” of which they speak means the administrative work of handling hundreds or thousands of submissions and the requisite review work that some larger academic fields deal with, then perhaps they’re right. However, what if more academics figured out how to go small? In the case of publishing, keep the administrative load low so that volunteers can handle it without being overworked, publish on a simple, no-frills platform (which the big publishers usually give academic journals anyway), accept and distribute no money, rinse, repeat. Don’t take over the world. Just be a good journal, operating a sustainable model, and let others replicate your success.

(I should point out that I’m not at all opposed to academic publishing where money changes hands. However, I would then consider a model sustainable when the money that comes in pays authors, reviewers, and editors a reasonable fee for their work—not one where revenue pays the publisher and not the academic labor. If the creative labor is free, there’s no reason in today’s technological world that access to the publication shouldn’t be free as well.)

In other words, we don’t have to figure out the single best way to do something big and profitable. We can “go big” by doing something small and sustainable many times over.

The big difference, as I see it, between going big and doing something small many times is one of control and profit. This is particularly important for pedagogy. The business of the university is not profit. It is not our job to make our university the one place that everyone goes for the best instruction in [academic field of choice]. We need to live within our means, yes, but increasing profit is not (and should not) be part of the mission of an institution of higher education.

Similarly, control of the scholarly ecology is not (and should not be) part of our mission. One-size-fits-all education rarely fits anyone well, and the world would be all the poorer for only having a small number of elite institutions to go to for massive, “at scale” education. Just as biodiversity is good for a species’ long-term survival, intellectual and ideological diversity is good for society, and a diversity of pedagogical approaches is good for our diverse students. Further, doing it small in many different places means doing it under many authority structures. Given the severe threats to academic freedom and integrity of late, distributing authority in education is our best chance at holding our ground (or at least losing ground more slowly). And, of course, doing it sustainably means ensuring that we can continue to do it into the future.

(It turns out the term is actually xeriscaping—this is what happens when you learn a new term from the radio!)

So what does sustainable pedagogy look like? What would a xeriscaped class look like? A xeriscaped department? degree program? college? university?

Or, turning the tables (scales?), how can we do intellectual and pedagogical diversity “at scale”?

These are things that I’m mulling over now, and I’d love to hear thoughts on them. Is your department sustainable? What issues are the most important when considering sustainability in the academy? How can we stop doing content at scale and, instead, do academic diversity at scale?

Jay-Z and Kanye West – a response to Ethan Hein

After my blog post response to Ethan Hein (republished on Hybrid Pedagogy), Ethan left a lengthy comment, to which I replied, which led to more discussion on Twitter (with others joining in, as well). Several of us have claimed that the skills learned in the core music theory curriculum transfer well to other genres—even to things like hip-hop, and even when those skills were cultivated in the context of 18th-century classical music. Hein continued to express disbelief of our claims and examples. So I asked him to provide an example about which he thought the typical core music theory curriculum had little to say. He answered with Jay-Z’s and Kanye West’s “Otis,” which heavily samples from Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” Videos of each song and a Storify of my Twitter response are below. This is, of course, not an extensive analysis, but enough to show how knowledge of tonal theory and classic song forms can be (in this case, I think, must be) employed to make a satisfactory interpretation of the meaning and structure of this song.

Harmony and Form in Pop/Rock Music: A Computational Approach

I’m excited about a new course that I’m slated to teach this Maymester (pending a final approval from my dean—it’s passed all the other bureaucracy and is on the summer course calendar). It is a project-based course that will use computational tools to study how pop/rock music is put together. It will also be a hybrid (in-person and online) course that involves collaborating on a project that lives online—a project that will outlive the class and hopefully involve people from outside CU. It will be cross-listed between music and computer science, and offered to both graduate and undergraduate students.

I’m starting to get inquiries from students interested in the course, so I thought I would describe it here. Those interested in taking it can find more info here than in the catalog. And those interested in joining the project before/after/during the course will also find preliminary information here about the project (with more detail coming in future posts).

Prospective students, please note that the information below is subject to change as more detailed plans are made in advance of the class.


Harmony and Form in Pop/Rock Music is a hybrid (in-person and online), interdisciplinary, project-based course. The course centers around a corpus study: an analysis of a large collection of pop/rock songs simultaneously. That study explores harmonic and formal structures in pop/rock music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and provides supporting instruction in identifying harmonic and formal structures by ear, representing those structures using the standard symbols and terms of music theory, encoding those structures digitally, performing computational analysis of those digitally encoded structures, and using digital tools for online collaboration. The course project will be a single collaborative project, though individual students or small groups of students may work on sub-projects. Students will contribute to an existing, open project (which I am currently forming in collaboration with researchers outside CU, including Duke University, the University of Miami, and the University of Virginia) and build on work already done in the field of computational musicology.

The course will focus on the following five conceptual areas:

  • Musical theories of harmony and form
  • Recognition of musical structures by ear (transcription/analysis of recordings)
  • Computational analysis/digital humanities research methods
  • Online research collaboration
  • Writing about music (for a popular audience)

The research project

The specific project this course will engage is one which I am currently building in collaboration with researchers outside CU. The project involves the creation of a giant corpus of pop/rock songs, analyzed for their harmonic and/or formal content, using existing, publicly available corpora as the starting point. All students in the course will gain experience transcribing the harmonic and formal structures of songs, and music students will be able to bring their expertise to ensuring the corpus contains a large volume of accurate transcriptions.

The project also involves the curation and creation of a collection of software applications and scripts for the computational analysis of the songs in the corpus. Currently existing scripts involve transitional probability and cluster analysis—looking at harmonic progressions, formal functional progressions, and the relationship between the two. Students from computer science and related fields will be able to bring their expertise to improving, integrating, and extending these scripts.

The goal of the collaborative student project is the creation of an ebook or website, aimed at a popular audience, explaining significant aspects of the harmonic and formal structures of modern, Western popular music. Thus, students will also be involved in the creation of a collection of open-access writings explaining and interpreting the findings of the computational analysis project.

Credit and assessment

This course will be offered for credit to both undergraduate and graduate students at CU–Boulder. Because the course project is at the intersection of a number of different, but related, fields of study, assessment of student work will use contract grading, tailored to individual students’ levels (undergraduate or graduate) and disciplines.

To earn a C in the course, all students will be required to perform the same core work. This core will involve engagement with each of the above five conceptual areas, and students must demonstrate some basic working knowledge/skills in each area to earn the C.

Students who wish to earn a higher grade in the course will propose a course contract approximately one-third of the way through the course. This contract will articulate the grade desired and layout a work plan that is appropriate for their interests, field, level (grad/undergrad), and desired grade. That work should demonstrate substantial mastery over two or more of the five conceptual areas to merit the higher grade. Once approved by the instructor, these contracts will bind students to the work laid out. However, amendments to the contracts, if necessary, can be requested in writing well in advance of the relevant course deadlines. Students who fail to meet the requirements of their contract will receive a C if core requirements are met, or a D or F, if core requirements are not met. Students who meet the requirements of their contract will receive the grade listed on the contract.

Sample contracts will be distributed to students—an undergraduate and a graduate version for each field represented in the makeup of the class. Students will be allowed to choose one of the sample contracts, or propose their own contract that is tailored more specifically to their background skills and/or research interests.

Before and after the course

Because this course will involve joining an existing research project, the start and end dates for the course need not constrain the research. Students introduced to the project are able, and encouraged, to continue their participation in the research project after the end of the course, as well as to continue to develop the collaborative relationships formed during the course. Also, since this is an existing, continuous project, interested individuals not taking the course can participate in the project, giving CU students an opportunity to collaborate with professional (and amateur) researchers outside the university. Only registered students will be admitted to class meetings and receive formal feedback from the instructor.

Resources on contract grading

What is music theory?

Music theory is making the rounds lately. It seems to have started with Ethan Hein’s post on Quora, and subsequently on Slate, “How Can Traditional Music Theory Mesh With Modern Pop Music?”. It’s not a very flattering piece about the discipline that I call my professional home. Unfortunately, Heim’s post, as Bryn Hughes points out, contains straw-man arguments, misinformation, and generalizations, but it’s received wide publicity. Of course, there are a number of things—some of them big things—that Anglo-American music theorists need to do better. However, it is clear both from Heim’s post and from the ease with which it circulated that most people simply don’t know what music theory is and what music theorists do. That, of course, is largely the fault of music theorists. On the whole, we tend to be a fairly insular bunch. Following Bryn’s lead, I hope to do my part to correct that a bit by offering as concise a summary I can of what music theory is, and (in light of Heim’s specific critiques) what college music theory courses are about.

What is music theory?

Music theory is a discipline, in which we study multiple theories about multiple musics. Individual pieces of music cluster together into styles, and each style has a diversity of theories around it. There is no one way to make music, and there certainly isn’t one theory about how to make and understand music.

What is a musical theory?

In the sciences, a theory is an explanation of observed phenomena. That explanation makes predictions about future observations, and where those explanations fail to make accurate predictions, the theory is (or should be) revised or replaced to account for new information.

A musical theory is similar. Given a repertoire, what traits define that repertoire and to what degree? What is essential, common, rare, or absent in the style? What do the characteristics of that repertoire predict about other pieces in the same style? These characteristics can include notes, rhythms, chords, phrases, instrumentation, typical performance venue, presence/absence of lyrics/drama, language of text, etc.

A musical theory is not at its core a prescriptive set of rules for composers to follow. Musical theories almost always follow practice and seek to represent with a few basic principles a diversity of practices from creative individuals. A musician can use these principles to guide them in composing according to a particular style (what we call “model composition”), and occassionally composers set out to create a set of rules and adhere to them. But theories are generally descriptive representations of a style, not prescriptive principles to guide creative compositional work.

If a musical theory typically does not guide one in creative composition, what is it good for? Theories are most helpful for guiding creative and critical analysis of musical works. They provide a set of norms against which we can interpret the meaning of the ways in which specific composers or songwriters follow or deviate from those norms. In a sense, then, a musical theory is a simplified, expedient, and usually preliminary step in intertextual analysis.

It is important to keep in mind that while musical theories are representations of stylistic norms, the norms and the practices from which they are extracted are fluid. A good musical theory is flexible. That is not to say that it is wishy-washy. The mathematical concept of fuzzy sets and the scientific concept of cognitive schemata both provide a rigorous way to work with fluid, flexible categories, and both form the core of many modern theories of music.

What happens in the core music theory curriculum?

The discipline of music theory is vast and diverse. There is no way to plumb the depths even in four semesters of college-level courses. The role of the core curriculum (usually 3–5 semesters of music theory, aural skills, and keyboard skills) is to give students a solid foundation of musical fluency. This fluency is something they began pursuing prior to music school, something they cultivate in other areas of musical study while at school, and something they continue to cultivate in their personal and professional lives beyond school.

As a professor, my personal goal for the core curriculum is to help students think critically and in detail about music, and to communicate clearly and persuasively about music. Since my students have a variety of different goals for their musical lives, and since the current musical landscape is so variegated—nevermind the fact that their musical lives will involve much more than what their first post-graduation job will require—we will not “cover” everything that they “need.” However, in these courses, we lay a foundation of things that are essential or beneficial to understanding, or to independently learning, a variety of musical styles. We will also walk through several different styles in detail. The goal is to help them develop knowledge and skills that will serve them broadly, and to give them enough exposure to the process of musical learning and theory building that they can teach themselves things that go beyond what we can cover in these courses—and even things that won’t come over the musical horizon for another 20 or 30 years. Teaching only job skills, on the other hand, ensures 1) an impoverished musical life, and 2) a lack of marketable skills the next time the industry changes. As educators, it is our ethical responsibility to do better.

Who teaches music theory?

The majority of university courses (some estimates place it at two-thirds or three-fourths) are taught by part-time, under-paid, overworked adjunct faculty or graduate students. And according to some estimates, over 70% of music theory and musicianship courses are taught by people who are neither theorists nor composers (Steven Laitz, keynote address at the Music Theory Society of New York State 2011 Annual Meeting). To be sure, if music theory truly ties to other musical activities, many kinds of musicians will be able to teach it well. Likewise, expertise in a discipline does not mean expert teaching. Many performers make better theory teachers than theorists! But the fact is that music theory—and especially aural skills/musicianship—is too often an extra, load-filling course for people who would rather be doing something else, and they are often underpaid and overstressed at the same time. They are dependent on textbooks and workbooks in order to prep and grade in a timely manner, and the textbook industry is moving more and more towards one-size-fits-all, and therefore one-size-fits-none, solutions. This is not a recipe for educational success.

It also does not fairly represent all that the field has to offer to musicians and music lovers. It is too easy for students, even faculty, to teach/study “by the book” and then come away with the idea that there is a “textbook” way to do things. Since the composers we care about most don’t follow the “rules,” or at least don’t follow the same rules, the rules are irrelevant.

Were theory a set of prescriptive rules, and were the most popular textbooks the best representation of those rules, I would wholeheartedly agree. Theory would be irrelevant. And so I unfortunately agree that theory, as many musicians know it, is irrelevant.

But composing “by the book” is not music theory. Explaining what the norms were when Brahms deviated from them, understanding what options he did (and didn’t) have at his disposal, helps us better understand why he deviated in the way he did, why it was received the way it was, and why it still has meaning for us today. Likewise, understanding the heavily contextual nature of musical styles helps us understand not only why Bach and Brahms are different, but also why some people who care deeply about music don’t give either Bach or Brahms a second thought. Those questions are not all answered in Freshman theory class. (In fact, some of them have answers as fluid as the practices that are being explored.) But these are the kinds of questions music theory equips people to engage.

The freelance university?

I pondered some things out loud on Twitter last week.

There were a few responses:

(That’s just an excerpt.)

I brought up the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, which is the closest thing I know to a “freelance university,” and they jumped in on the conversation a bit.

Of course, the nature of the Twitter medium is for things to fade into the ether rather quickly. But this is something I want to keep mulling over, with some help. I keep tossing around the idea of at least putting together a couple independent courses—maybe summer courses for college-bound homeschoolers, or for people who are done with their degree but interested in a one-off educational project. Perhaps even an independent online course, free to participate in but with crowdfunded development.

Mostly I’m just thinking out loud, but I’m interested in hearing other ideas on this and keeping a conversation going. In light of the current state of the academic job market and the invasive, pedagogically troubling role that the US Dept. of Education is playing in K–12 and university education lately, the idea of a small, inexpensive, independent, faculty-run university—or even simply a smattering of courses here and there—could be attractive for many, on the faculty side and the student side. But would employers accept a degree from such a place? Would accreditation be possible? If the education is good enough and cheap enough (not requiring federal financial aid, which requires accredited instutitions), would accreditation even be necessary? Could faculty scrape together a living from something like this, the way freelance musicians and journalists do?

I should emphasize that I’m very happy in my current job; I’m not disgruntled and looking to leave! But I do like thought experiments like this. And with Cathy Davidson’s MOOC on the future of higher education starting soon, it seems like an apropos time to discuss such a possibility.

So what do you think? In what situations would a freelance university be attractive to students? employers? faculty? Could it ever become a viable alternative to the modern university? How could one go about creating it? I don’t know the answers, but I enjoy thinking about the possibilities, so please feel free to leave a comment and get some discussion going.