Reflections on a Half-Semester of Teaching Online

As I noted in last week’s post, this past semester was easily the strangest in my 20+ years in higher education. The shift to all online teaching and learning was a shock to everyone, and with so little time to prepare there were certainly “bumps in the road.” While in some respects the experience was less-than-satisfactory, in others it was helpful. Here are a few thoughts after a couple of weeks’ reflection.

The Bad

Let’s start with what didn’t work so well. Depending on the class, online education could not replicate the in-person experience. The majority of my teaching load is in one-on-one applied music lessons. When both student and teacher had a quality microphone, an audio interface, and a fast internet connection, things worked reasonably well; the absence of any of these factors caused problems. Certainly any reader will be able to see that teaching and learning becomes challenging if the student’s equipment cannot record and transmit sound in a truly representative fashion. And even in situations where all of those factors were present, the inability to play along with the student was a significant loss, as were the absence of live piano accompaniment, chamber music, and live performances. Internet technology will have to develop much further before those factors can be replicated in the online environment.

My low brass methods class was even more problematic. This is a lab course for aspiring band directors where students—regardless of major instrument—learn to teach trombone, euphonium, and tuba, and develop at least rudimentary playing skills on those instruments. In a normal semester, the vast majority of our class time is spent playing, but the students did not have access to their “methods” instruments while quarantined at home. Playing labs and tests were therefore replaced with Zoom lectures and papers. While I think I am able to competently discuss and explain the finer points of low brass pedagogy, at some point “talking about playing” is not a sufficient replacement for “playing.” Happily, we were at least able to spend the first half of the semester playing trombone, so students can figure out euphonium and tuba by analogy to trombone. Even so, it would have been better for them to do that “figuring out” in class with me.

The other class I was responsible for teaching this semester was a graduate brass pedagogy course, a quasi-directed study with only two students. The vast majority of this class consists of discussion, writing, and revision, all of which were able to continue reasonably well via Zoom. However, students teaching lessons in class with various levels of players was also supposed to be a part of this course, and in the end we were able to complete only a third of the planned teaching sessions.

I have (as a student) taken asynchronous lecture courses online in the past and found that to be more or less satisfactory. The only real loss was the informal interactions between professor and students and between the students themselves before and after class times, in the library, in the hallways, etc. In some ways these informal experiences are as important as the lectures themselves, and can only be somewhat replicated online. Thus, while a lecture course or seminar might be able to function almost normally online, even then something is lost. Add to that difficulties with online testing platforms that students have reported to me, and maybe even this mode of online instruction remains in need of improvement.

The Good

While I am critical of teaching music online for the reasons discussed above, it was not an entirely bad experience. I have for some time “put off” developing greater online teaching skills, and this experience forced me to rectify this. I clearly do not think that online music teaching can entirely replace in-person instruction, but it is a nice tool to have in the bag, allowing for continued instruction while I am traveling, additional engagement with high school students too distant for in-person lessons, etc. Additionally, as I’ve noted several times in passing and hopefully will discuss at length next week, I have used the time to improve my understanding and proficiency with audio and video recording and editing technology. These are increasingly necessary skills even for those of us that play acoustic instruments.

Perhaps the most successful educational initiative during the “quarantine time” was having discussions with “virtual guest artists” from other universities. My students greatly appreciated hearing the perspectives of my colleagues in other states, and I enjoyed visiting with students elsewhere, as well. I actually hope to continue this practice even after in-person instruction resumes, as it is a great way to have students work with other performers and pedagogues without the expense of having those guests actually travel to Oxford to teach and perform.

Conclusions

As even the most cursory reader will be able to tell, I am very much ready to resume in-person instruction. While I am thankful for the new skills developed while working from home, these technologies do not yet offer a fully satisfactory replacement for live, in-person instruction. At the same time, I do believe that online education is with us to stay. The technologies will continue to evolve and develop, and perhaps one day we’ll truly be able to say that the online teaching and learning experience is very nearly equivalent to the in-person one. It certainly behooves us to develop and maintain skills in this realm so that we are ready to adjust to new developments—or even emergencies like the COVID-19 event.

“Very nearly equivalent,” but only that much. There still is that impossible-to-fully-articulate element of human interaction that can’t be fully replicated with cameras, microphones, and fast internet. At some point we need and long for real, personal human interaction, and the arts foster that in a very special way. Let’s by all means learn the computer skills, but let’s also remain cognizant of what the limitations of technology are…and always will be.

Posted in COVID-19, Digital Revolution, Distance Education, Education, Higher Education, Music, Music Education, Pedagogy, Teaching Low Brass, Technology, Videoconferencing, Zoom

Figure it Out!

Today marks the end of the strangest semester in my 23 years in academia (four as a student, four as both student and teacher simultaneously, and fifteen as a tenure-track or tenured faculty member). Having been forced into distance education due to the restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, both teacher and students had to adapt quickly to teaching and learning music entirely remotely. While I am thankful for the familiarity with new technologies that this experience has engendered, overall my opinion of teaching music online is a mixed one at best. I hope to write about that in the coming weeks.

The ways in which my students responded to the sudden challenge of online music education were mixed also. Those possessing fast internet connections and at least some consumer audio equipment beyond the standard microphones in smartphones and laptops transitioned in to online lessons relatively smoothly. Those lacking one or both of these conditions had a harder time. Unfortunately, those living in large cities and university towns do not always remember that the availability of fast internet connections is limited in rural areas and among those with limited financial resources. Students in these situations struggled to thrive in online music lessons, the reliable streaming of complex audio and video signals requiring far more bandwidth than online courses consisting primarily of reading and writing, or even lectures.

There were other difficulties, of course. Some students found themselves being required to care for young siblings or cousins who were sent home from school despite their parents still needing to work in “essential” businesses. Others were themselves employed in such businesses, and were asked to work longer than usual hours, including during scheduled class times. All found themselves in situations where tests were replaced with papers, the usual rhythms and resources of university life disrupted, and, in the case of applied music students, being asked to prepare their end-of-semester juries, which are usually performed with a live pianist, by recording themselves with a prerecorded accompaniment. The latter change might sound easy to the uninitiated, but live accompanists have a way of making subtle microadjustments that both compensate for students’ inaccuracies (particularly rhythmic ones) while also helping students to find their next entrances. The absence of this was troubling for many students.

The psychological effect of these changes was notable for both teacher and students, and more than one person voiced to me a dissatisfaction with the entire situation. Although there were times that I became frustrated with the volume of panicked, worried, and even angry calls, texts, and emails, for the most part I was and am honored that my students feel comfortable voicing their concerns to me. In some cases I was able to find ways to help students along or to mitigate their concerns, but I did not except in one minor instance lower expectations. Instead, my admonition to students was essentially “figure it out.”

That might sound short and unfeeling, but I assure you that this is not the case. Instead, it is an idea that I picked up from my trombone teacher and dissertation advisor at UNCG, Dr. Randy Kohlenberg. I wrote about him in a post a few years ago, after he had me return to UNCG as a guest artist at the North Carolina Trombone Festival. Dr. Kohlenberg had a way of being both exceedingly kind and inexorably demanding at the same time, and I wish that I was a better imitator of his character in this way. But one of his most annoying habits to me—at first—is that he would tell us to undertake some complex or important task with absolutely no guidance regarding how to complete the task. Sometimes he did this in trombone lessons, but more often it was in administrative and practical tasks, like organizing the NCTF or preparing for the massive Summer Music Camp held on campus every summer. The way things generally went was that he would give me a task, then evade my questions asking for clarification or direction. I would eventually attempt the task on my own, and afterwards Dr. Kohlenberg would correct the things I did not do correctly or efficiently. I actually learned a lot about the practical side of music education through trying things, making mistakes, and correcting those mistakes. As it turns out, that was the point.

You see, what I thought at first was an unconscious oddity in Dr. Kohlenberg’s character—the first summer working for the music camp I wondered if he had simply forgotten that I was new—was actually very purposeful. He knew that we students would forget much of what he simply told us, but that we would remember what we figured out on our own, and we would really remember the things that we had to correct after “figuring them out” incorrectly the first time. This was true in trombone lessons, but it was, like I said, especially true with practical tasks like organizing a “trombone day,” or preparing rehearsal sites and folders for a massive summer music camp…..or maybe even retooling the teaching and learning environments for online instruction.

You see, dear students, I don’t want to tell you every little thing you have to do all the time. Not because I don’t want to share knowledge with you, but because you will retain more of what you figure out on your own. This is why I ask you questions in your lessons so often rather than simply giving you the answers. Yes, I’m trying to guide you to the right conclusions, but retention improves when you have to think and reason and discover for yourself. The same is especially true for the practical business of being a musician and teacher. The truth is, online teaching and learning is not going away. While I don’t think it can ever fully replace face-to-face music instruction, the ways in which we deliver and receive instruction are evolving and will continue to do so. I have tried to use this experience—this unexpected, frustrating, and often stressful experience—to develop new skills, master new technologies, and develop new ideas. I hope you have done the same and will continue to do so. Keep trying to “figure it out.” Try things. Experiment. Learn. Grow.

And don’t worry: when you really mess up I’ll still be there to correct you.


Speaking of learning new things, the CoronaTunes playlist is still growing, and I am still getting a little better each time at recording, mixing, and mastering. I still have a lot to learn, but recording these tunes has been fun. Enjoy.

Posted in Alto Trombone, Audio Interfaces, Baritone Horn, Bass Trombone, Contrabass Trombone, COVID-19, Digital Revolution, Distance Education, Education, Euphonium, Higher Education, Microphones, Mixing Boards, Music, Music Education, North Carolina Trombone Festival, Pedagogy, Quarantine, Randy Kohlenberg, Teachers, Teaching Low Brass, Tenor Trombone, Trombone, Tuba, University of Mississippi, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

We Were Not Made for This

The last eight weeks have been a rollercoaster ride, for sure. Before spring break we had only begun to hear the faintest whispers of a new virus that had originated in China and “might” pose a threat elsewhere. By the end of that week we were told that shelter-in-place orders of varying degrees of severity would take effect, educators were ordered to shift to online instruction…and anxiety over the situation triggered muscle spasms in my low back that left me bedridden with sciatica for several days. The economic effects of all of this are by all accounts severe, yet the extent of the economic fallout remains unknown and is in any case beyond my competency as a commentator. The effects on education, particularly music education? There I do have some expertise, but I will withhold writing about that for a little longer so that I can do so with a bit of distance from what has been a very unusual spring semester. For today, I’d like to speak on how all of this affects ecclesiastical life, since that is an area where I have very much interest and at least a very small amount of study sufficient to yield some hopefully useful observations.

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My family worshiping at “Quarantine Presbyterian Church.”

First of all, I think it right to be thankful for the technology that enables churches and related organizations to maintain a ministry presence of some kind during this time. Who would have imagined just a generation ago that even the smallest churches would be able to livestream Sunday school lessons and have viewers interact via written if not spoken comments? Likewise, the way in which ministers, musicians, and others can now collaborate remotely to assemble something approaching the format and liturgy of regular worship was unheard of within the lifetimes of practically everyone reading this. Now nearly everyone in the industrialized world—and even large numbers of people in the developing world—has internet access sufficient to permit them to remotely participate to some degree in the communal life of God’s people. For this, we can and should be thankful.

Thankful, yes, but not satisfied. For one thing, even the most casual observation of and reflection on humanity will reveal that we are by nature social creatures. We not only simply enjoy being together, but our societies depend upon millions of daily mutually beneficial interactions for economic development, the increase of knowledge and technology, and overall mutual wellbeing. Conversely, extended social isolation is associated with all manner of individual and collective dysfunction. While certainly there are variances in the amount of social interaction needed or desired by specific individuals, even the most introverted amongst us eventually reaches the point of yearning for human contact. In our family my son is the more sociable one, my wife is the confirmed introvert, and I occupy a middle ground characterized by the desire to have conversation but little willingness to initiate it. While my son has been anxious to get out of the house from the very beginning of this event, even my wife is yearning to interact with people at this point. We humans really do need each other.

While human nature dictates that we are naturally social creatures, for Christians the desire for community runs deeper than that. Throughout scripture, God presents his plan for his people—for the redeemed humanity—as a largely corporate one. In the early chapters of Genesis this truth is presented negatively. Among the punishments visited upon Adam and Eve for their sin is being cast out of the Garden, that idyllic place where they formerly enjoyed communion with God (Genesis 3:23-24). While the relationship broken here was with God, just one chapter later Cain’s fellowship with humanity is severed when he is sentenced to become “a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12). The message here is clear: isolation is among the consequences of sinning against God and against each other, and it is not a happy situation.

The New Testament presents this more positively. In the early chapters of Acts we see the members of the young church not only gathering for worship but also actively seeing to one another’s practical, physical needs. In Colossians 3 Paul instructs the believers there to “[teach] and [admonish] one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (v. 16). The author to the Hebrews exhorts his readers, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Sure, we can pray for one another separately and encourage one another via phone call, text message, or letter, but that falls far short of the collective presence both commanded and encouraged in these and other passages, and the meeting of physical needs particularly requires real human interaction. Besides, we all know that there is something very important that one might call a “ministry of presence.” Sometimes it isn’t important that you say or do something for someone else. What is important is that you be there, and no amount of saying or doing can replace it. This is true not only in interactions between individuals (Christian or not), but also for the gathered church. Presence matters.

The apostle John wrote that “we know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers” (1 John 3:14). To love God’s people is an important confirmation of saving grace in one’s heart, and among other things makes a person long to be with his fellow Christians. While I am thankful for the ability to worship with my family (and my dogs) in my living room at Quarantine Presbyterian Church, this is but an imitation of the real thing, a substitute that sort of suffices but really doesn’t. My household may be 50% introvert (and I am the divided one among the three of us), but 100% of us are ready to resume the gathered worship of the people of God. May it come sooner rather than later.

Posted in Christian Formation, Christian Worldview, Church, College Hill Presbyterian Church, COVID-19, Digital Revolution, Liturgy, Lord's Day, Politics, Practical Christianity, Prayer, Preaching, Quarantine, Social Media, Society, Technology, Theology, Videoconferencing, Worship

A Curated Social Media Presence

22e6e223a65a3e58f0b17fd1b726a695_what-is-social-about-social-media-social-media-blog-lau-_1198-500Readers that also follow me on Facebook might remember that I deleted my social media accounts about ten years ago, and avoided social media entirely for over a year. While I enjoyed keeping in touch with friends and colleagues around the country and world and sharing things that I find interesting, I found both the privacy concerns and the potential for time wastage to be so great that I decided to walk away. I returned—reluctantly—largely because I concluded that marketing and recruiting for my university low brass studio demanded a social media presence. Similarly, promoting my blog posts here as well as my published writing and recording projects in the present milieu demands social media engagement. I still struggle to avoid wasting time online, though I share far fewer serious articles than in the past and do not engage in arguments with “anonymous internet people.” Most importantly, I have found a way to at least somewhat mitigate my privacy concerns, which is my topic for today.

Social media users know that the people they “meet” there generally fall into two broad camps: those who post and share almost nothing, and those who post and share frequently. A middle ground hardly exists. Yet upon returning to social media usage in 2011 I was determined to carve out such a middle ground, what I call a “curated” social media presence. Since most of my social media activity is on Facebook, allow me to describe a few principles that I use in managing my presence there.

1. Very little remains on my personal timeline more than seven days. I very much enjoy sharing things that I find humorous with my “friends.” (We all know what that word means on Facebook.) During times of particular social or political unrest such as the present COVID-19 pandemic and associated quarantines, I tend to think that intelligent humor both breaks up the intensity of the moment while occasionally providing insightful commentary. At the same time, I do not think that the internet needs a publicly accessible permanent record of the things that I find funny, so I delete these items from my timeline after the “likes” stop. While I largely refrain these days from posting very much serious material beyond my own writings, I also delete such posts after just a few days, and for similar reasons.

2. Family/child pictures especially do not remain up for very long. My departure from social media was motivated in part for the desire for privacy for my then-infant son, who we had recently adopted. His privacy remains a primary concern of mine, but one that I balance against the legitimate desires of family and (actual) friends to keep up with the goings on in his life. Being especially diligent to remove posts about him not very long after posting lessens the possibility of embarrassing baby pictures showing up on the internet as he gets older. Additionally, we have a hidden Facebook group for family members where we share pictures and other updates that for whatever reason need to remain more private.

3. Professional activities are relegated primarily to separate pages. I maintain separate Facebook pages for both my low brass studio activities at Ole Miss, and even for this blog, which occupies an interesting sphere where my personal and professional interests intersect. Posts on those pages are limited to those relevant to those activities, are publicly accessible (in the case of the studio page, largely for marketing and outreach purposes), and remain up indefinitely. I sometimes share these posts to my personal timeline to generate additional attention, but later delete them following the broad guidelines above.

4. I try to avoid highly controversial postings, as well as arguing with “anonymous internet people.” Some of you might remember that a number of years ago I made a habit of sharing many serious articles that I found interesting, and engaging in greater or lesser amounts of discussion about them. Besides these posts undoubtedly leading to a lot of “unfollows,” there is usually little edification to be found in online arguments, so I now prefer to use my time otherwise. Contrary to the expectations of many in polite society, I actually enjoy serious discussions of politics and religion, but in person, and in a civil manner. I go to Facebook to look at memes.

5. My privacy settings for most posts are “friends only,” and I avoid platforms that do not allow that control. I am beginning to realize that some of the most interesting social media discussions are actually on Twitter these days, but I don’t find its free-for-all nature to suit me, nor do I think I can express myself in 140 characters. The ability to make the vast majority of my Facebook posts visible to “friends” only is greatly appealing to me. I am beginning to make use of my LinkedIn account a bit more, where there is some possibility of control similar to Facebook, and with a more professional ethos generally. I have an Instagram account, but have never posted anything on it and have only logged in once or twice to look at posts from others.


I suppose that’s a lot of words to say that “I delete most of my posts after a week or so.” Still, I think this can be an effective approach to balancing the desire for connection with others with concerns for privacy. I am not naïve about this—I am quite sure that even the posts that I delete are saved indefinitely somewhere in the bowels of Facebook, but that is different than having a complete, publicly accessible archive of my pictures, jokes, and comments. Mine is not a perfect system for navigating these sometimes opposing desires, but I am pleased with it thus far. If you are interested in trying it but are afraid that deleting old posts will take a long time, I have little reassurance for you—it does take a long time, but only initially. Once the initial “curating” work is done all it takes is removing a post or two every day or so.

Posted in Digital Revolution, Online Resources, Parenting, Privacy, Social Media, Society, Technology

Downhill Bible Reading

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPerhaps I’ve grabbed your attention with the weird title, but I should clarify that I’m not writing today to introduce you to some extreme sport that somehow combines rapid descending speeds with reading large books. The title is apt, but for reasons that will become clear over the course of this article. This is something of a follow-up to a piece I wrote last month called Tolle Lege!—or, “Pick Up and Read.”

I remember my first (failed) attempt to read the scriptures all the way through. I was fourteen, and eager to somehow prove to myself and others that I really was committed to knowing and understanding the Word of God. Perhaps that was not the greatest motivation, and like so many attempts to read the Bible it foundered before I even finished the Pentateuch, or the first five books. I actually soldiered on through Leviticus but finally could not make it through the seemingly endless worship regulations and, well, numbers in the book of Numbers. (It’s not just a clever name.) Maybe you have a similar story. Had I made it a little further I would have discovered that the narrative becomes considerably more interesting in the later chapters of Numbers, but it would be a few years later before that happened. I finally made it through the entire Bible at some point in college, and have held to a yearly reading plan since my mid-twenties. For a number of years I have also kept recordings of the Bible being read in my car, and listening to that—sometimes frequently, sometimes less so—has been a great supplement to the reading plan, but not a replacement for it.

For the past couple of years I have managed not only to read the Bible through but to get somewhat ahead of schedule in my reading calendar, finishing well before the end of the year. This year I am even further ahead—I am writing this on April 5, yet I am somewhere in mid-June in the daily readings. It seems to be getting easier and easier for me to get ahead. Why is that, and is there a message that can be helpful to others in it?

Part of the answer no doubt lies in the present state of quarantine and social distancing relative to the COVID-19 pandemic. While I am keeping to most of my normal teaching schedule (albeit through correspondence and videoconferencing), I have no performing to do, I cannot go to the gym, and I am rarely out of the house generally. There is additional time to read. But I was ahead of schedule even before the stay-at-home orders came. Another partial answer might be that in the past 2-3 years I have taken to doing my regular Bible reading on an e-reader. That might sound sacrilegious to some, and I will admit that it lacks the gravitas of a leather-bound Bible, but I often have the e-reader with me so I can take in a few chapters away from home, or even at night with the lights out thanks to the backlight.

Those two contributing factors aside, though, I think the biggest contributor to the greater ease and speed with which I am reading the Bible is this: I am familiar with it. In that post a few weeks back I mentioned doubts about the Bible’s veracity or self-consistency as well of fear of conviction of sin as possible reasons why people—even professing Christians—do not read it. But perhaps the reason for some is that they find it simply daunting. The narrative structure is a little strange. It moves through multiple (human) authors and genres with an overall forward-moving chronology but numerous small moves forward and backward in time, especially when multiple authors visit the same events. The names and lives of the people and places can seem utterly unfamiliar. And it’s a big book, especially for a society in which fewer and fewer people read books at all.

So what is my answer to this? An exhortation and an assurance. The exhortation? Tolle lege. Pick up and read. The blessing is worth it. The assurance? Not only is it a blessing, but it also gets easier with each year, each successive reading. It really is “all downhill from here.” With repeated readings the narrative structure becomes more familiar, even second nature. The names of people and places might still be scary if you are asked to read them aloud, but they at least will not surprise you in print anymore. (Protip: listen to a recording of the Bible being read and copy the pronunciations. There is some variety between readers, but not much.) With each reading the lives, feelings, trials, temptations, successes, and failures of the people you meet in the pages of Scripture seem less foreign. Take away the façade of modern technology and the surface-level peculiarities of our time and place, and the people described in the Bible really are just like us, for good and for ill. Most importantly, and with the Spirit’s help, as growing familiarity allows you to use less mental effort just to keep up you are able to focus more on how a given passage applies to you, whether for warning or encouragement, conviction or assurance.

The old adage asks the question “How do you eat an elephant?” with the predictable answer “One bite at a time.” Reading through the Bible might seem to you like it might as well be eating an elephant. It did to me. But every year that elephant seems to get smaller. That does not mean that the scriptures become somehow less convicting—familiarity, happily, does not breed contempt. It just means that as the broad contours of the thing become more and more imprinted on my mind, as characters and places and events become less strange and their appearances even expected, I don’t have to work very hard to keep up with the gist of what is happening. This accelerates the reading process while simultaneously making it a more spiritually profitable exercise. I’m sure your experience will be similar.

Start reading. It is all downhill from here!


One additional note: I am here speaking of regular daily/yearly Bible reading as an exercise which builds a basic familiarity with the contents of Scripture and the truths contained in it. I do think that can become faster and easier over time. I am not suggesting that there is no place for deeper study and meditation on particular passages, processes that necessarily move slowly. Those are also valuable, but to my mind separate exercises from the practice of regularly reading through the scriptures in their entirety.

 

 

 

Posted in Assurance, Bible, Christian Formation, Practical Christianity, Reading and Study, Theology