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Nonsense Teaching: Autonomy Curriculum

I did a lot of nonsense teaching things last semester. Or rather, things that seem like nonsense, but that are grounded in my composition/creative and programmer/system-building tendencies. Some of these things worked. This is part 2 in a multi-part series I have thus far not forgotten about. (part 1: Late Work Passes)

MUSC 385: Music Entrepreneurship

When I started teaching at NDSU, I inherited a class entitled Music Entrepreneurship. It’s always one of my favorites, and each class is its own unique collection of weirdness. But I’ve never quite been content with the curriculum.

The class started as an upper-division elective for our performance and general music students (excluding music education majors, since their schedule doesn’t normally allow for electives). However, at some point before I got here, it became a required class in the music curriculum. As in, all of the music majors.

I should stop here for a moment and point out how great this is–when I go to conferences and we talk about our teaching loads, everyone wants a required music entrepreneurship course. (They also want a required freshman “how to be a music major” class, but we’ll get to that in a second). But the projects, initially designed for final-year or last-semester enrichment, eventually became a part of a mandatory course that students take as early as their third semester. Building a website is a terrific skill for a motivated young performer about to enter grad school or the job market, but the battle with younger students (especially of the music ed variety) is that they don’t see the immediate relevance or utility of the project. Which is too bad, because *looks around* I have strong opinions on web design.

That’s one example–several other projects resulted the same way. Some I inherited with the course, and some I invented. A feature of the original class was a substantial (~40%) final project of the student’s choosing, which again worked great for motivated students, but less so for our less experienced ones.

For fall 2020, I decided to change up the class. I’d keep the successful projects that were immediately relevant, and I’d make the other projects optional. Out of 10,000 points, half would be required, and the other half would be up to the student, picking from a smorgasbord of options.

For required projects, I had the following:

1. Semester Plan–Map out your optional projects, and pick your due dates. That’s right–you get to pick when you’re submitting your optional projects.
2. Job Search–Find three job postings that you’d apply for.
3. Job Interview–Create your job materials (CV, Cover Letter, and Bio) and participate in a mock job interview.
4. Taxes (Schedule C)–Calculate your self-employed musician income and expenses
5. Travel Funding–Plan a trip to a conference or performance, make a budget, and fill out a funding request form.
6. Recording–Record an excerpt three times in different ways.

These were the most successful required projects from earlier semesters, paired with a Semester Plan project. Then, I gave them some options for optional projects:

A. Written Review of Chapter, Guest Speaker, or Podcast episode (repeatable) 100pts

B. Cold Call (repeatable) 100pts

C. Return an unused Late Work Pass (repeatable) 250pts

D. Apply to a Competition or Contest (repeatable) 500pts

E. Start or Invest in an IRA 500pts

F. Apply for a grant (repeatable) 750pts

G. Create a Website 750pts

H. Volunteer with a nonprofit (repeatable) 1,000pts

I. Be a freshman mentor (Fall terms, Juniors and below) 1,000pts

J. Find a professional mentor 1,500pts

K. Create a comprehensive recruitment plan (band, choir, studio) 2,000pts

L. Create a Teaching Portfolio w/video 2,000pts

M. Create a Composition Portfolio w/performances 2,000pts

N. Record a CD or Album (repeatable) 3,500pts

O. Crowdfunding/Patreon 3,500pts

P. Execute an Outreach Performance (repeatable) 4,000pts

Q. Start a teaching studio with >2 students 4,000pts

R. Create Video/Audio/Print resources for future students (proposal req.) 1,000-4,000pts

S. Student-directed Project (proposal req.) Variable pts

Some notes:

Required projects across my classes are given numbers, while optional projects are given letters. We’ll see this again for 189 shortly.

Some projects are repeatable, meaning you can do them as many times as you like. For example, C-Return a LWP worked great this semester since I instituted “Covid Tests for LWPs” halfway through the semester. Or if they found them in the trash.

I totally messed up Project F (never writing the actual “apply for a grant” instructions, and instead just copying the Project A instructions). This gave some students a point boost, since I felt I needed to conform to the published version.

It feels like I’ve been writing a while. Here’s a cat picture:

If students found themselves to be completely overwhelmed or uncreative, they could also choose from a number of pre-formed Assignment Slates:

Custom
Choose 5,000 points from the above projects.

Classroom Education:
Teaching Portfolio (2,000)
Comprehensive Recruitment Plan (2,000)
Seven Written Reviews (100 x 7)
Three Cold Calls (100 x 3)

Studio Education:
Start a teaching studio (4,000)
Create a website (750)
Three Cold Calls (100 x 3)

Composition:
Composition Portfolio (2,000)
Create a Website (750)
Two Competition Submissions (500 x 2)
Volunteer with a Nonprofit (1,000)
Three Written Reviews (100 x 3)

Arts Administration:
Three Volunteer Nonprofits (1,000 x 3)
Find a Professional Mentor (1,500)
Five Written Reviews (100 x 5)

Performance:
Website (750)
Outreach (4,000)
Three Written Reviews (100 x 3)

They still needed to pick their due dates, though, since time management is such an important skill as a musician.

Some of these projects are all-or-nothing projects: Plan an outreach performance (P) and bomb it, that’s 40% of your grade right there. Some projects are small, like cold calls (B) and chapter reviews (A). And if students are particularly creative, they can propose their own projects.

I played around with the idea of having points gain interest, so that projects done at the beginning of the semester would be worth more. I still like the idea (it’ll help with my end-of-semester grading) but I can barely get Blackboard to work with this grading scheme as it is, much less if I were to try to use Grade Center to compound interest. I’d have to build my own Learning Management System for that.

And I still might.

Oh, and I should mention that while optional projects can enrich things going on in other classes, I avoid things counting double. For example, you can’t count your recital as an outreach performance. You can record your recital repertoire in album form and release it online, because that’s not a requirement of the recital experience.

So how’d this thing work? Overall, really well.

The majority of students picked their projects, executed them, and turned them in with the due dates they created. Their projects and experiences were relevant to their career goals and experiences.

Some students got to the end of the semester and realized that they had done nothing, and it was here that I had to tell them about a rather brilliant loophole built into the system: Once you file your semester plan (1), it can be changed at any time in writing, no LWP required. So if you were planning on doing an outreach performance, and it falls through at the last minute, you can file a new semester plan with new projects. This changed the conversation at the end of the semester to “Well, you gotta have 9000 points for an A, 8000 for a B, and so on…You have the list of optional projects, make a plan and file it and I’ll grade what you submit.”

Some project observations:

  • Grant Applications didn’t really happen this year, partially due to COVID–that project may also need some revision.
  • Nonprofit volunteering–ditto.
  • Several students picked professional mentors, and some of them had some rude awakenings about being a professional musician–things we tell them, but it finally hits them when a professional they seek out tells them. Things about practice and networking, etc.
  • I insist on proper copyright clearances for the album creation project, which in my mind indicates that students should record works in the public domain. Students this semester misunderstood, and just created all their own music. Which is way more work.

For next semester, I think the only thing I’m going to tweak is going back to making part of the book required–possibly having an extra 1000 mandatory points through 10 book chapters from Beeching’s Beyond Talent.

Meanwhile, this sort of structure wouldn’t work well for 189.

MUSC 189: Skills for Academic Success.

Another class I inherited at NDSU is our “welcome to being a music major” class. Sometime before I came north, the class was required of all NDSU freshman as UNIV 189, and when it was discontinued university-wide we decided to keep it in music. The first two years I used Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, a great book but not quite well-formatted for our purposes. And the assignments were generally chapter reviews, which aren’t necessarily the most interesting.

I’d already thought of the Entrepreneurship curriculum, and I knew I definitely didn’t want students picking their own projects, that would be madness. But I did want them to have some form of autonomy. So I picked the following projects:

1. Create a Semester Plan (required first project)

B. Submit the Musician Personality Inventory

C. Create a Weekly Plan/Schedule

D. Read and Review Klickstein Chapter 1: Getting Organized

E. Assemble Your Personal Cabinet

F. Read and Review Klickstein Chapter 2: Practicing Deeply 1

G. Create a Practice Plan/Log

H. Interview an Upperclassman/Mentorship

I. Read and Review Klickstein Chapter 7: Unmasking Performance Anxiety

J. Music Website Scavenger Hunt

K. Read and Review Klickstein Chapter 12: Injury Prevention 1

L. Visit Resources across Campus

M. Have an Advising Meeting for the Spring Semester

N. Read and Review Klickstein Chapter 14: Succeeding as a Student

15. Submit an end-of-semester review

Each project is worth 100 points, and the class is made up of 2000 points total. The remaining 500 points are attendance-based.

All projects are mandatory, but the lettered projects are optional in their order. Students will (or should) complete all 15 projects, but weeks 2-14 are up to them. Like Entrepreneurship, the first project is writing a semester plan to pick due dates. Students are gently reminded that they should look at their other class schedules, and maybe do some of the easier projects during weeks where they have other assignments due.

Oh, and one project is due per week. This was obvious in the course materials. It will need to be obviouser.

What I like about this project is that it combines things they should already be doing (creating a schedule, a practice plan, talking with upperclassmen) with things they might not do on their own (Creating a personal cabinet [their “academic success team”], visiting resources on campus, finding stuff on the music website). It also ties in with several chapters from The Musician’s Way by Gerald Klickstein.

I forward this curriculum to the music faculty, so they can be involved in this process if they’d like. Since we only get to five chapters in The Musician’s Way, there are plenty more to cover in lessons, studio classes, or future semesters (including in Music Entrepreneurship).

Some reflections on this setup:

Student choice either led to drastically improved investment in the class, or the usual inaction. Most students who would be kind of “meh” about the class ended up being more invested.

There’s enough to say about “choose your own deadlines” that I’ll write an entire other post about that.

Given that everyone is doing their own thing, lecture planning is, simply, hard. Entrepreneurship works alright, since there’s enough required projects to keep structure. For 189 though, everyone was doing their own thing, so much of what we discussed in class was centered around what was going on at NDSU or in the Challey School of Music, and answering questions that came up.

Overall, I plan to keep it in the Spring for Entrepreneurship, and maybe tweaking it for 189.

Some supplementary materials:

Entrepreneurship Syllabus: https://ip.kv.fyi/files/document/4312F1C1-3EE3-4A5F-B0DD-3C6AB6C8463D/

Entrepreneurship Course Pack: https://ip.kv.fyi/files/document/24A65DB2-333C-403F-A214-6E1543FAFFAC/

189 Syllabus: https://ip.kv.fyi/files/document/78D666B7-93D6-4A9A-8932-A41823A2C167/

189 Course Pack: https://ip.kv.fyi/files/document/E7C9FF51-8423-4110-8F6D-6B2B8907D139/

Nonsense Teaching: Late Work Passes

I did a lot of nonsense teaching things this semester. Or rather, things that seem like nonsense, but that are grounded in my composition/creative and programmer/system-building tendencies. Some of these things worked. Part 1 in a multi-part series I will probably forget to update in about January.

I hate late work, but I’m no good at being mean. So I decided I needed to figure out some sort of system to get around both those things.

While I was in Oklahoma, I heard of a class–I think it was a gen-ed class, and I think it was economics, or poly sci, or some such thing–where you had to have something outrageous like 10,000 points worth of participation. Rather than keep track of this, the instructor would come to class every day with a fat stack of printed-off participation points in 100-point notes. He’d ask who had insights on the chapter, students would crawl over each other to answer the question, and he’d make it rain. Students then just had to turn in enough points they had gained through the semester.

As it turns out, people like stuff.

For the spring, I made two changes to my late work policy. The first was that most of my due dates were early in the week–Monday or Tuesday. But my late work policy was that I would accept all work through the end of the calendar week. If students wanted to think of the assignment as being due on Monday/Tuesday, that was fine, and that’s what Blackboard showed as the due date. If students wanted to think of the due date as being Saturday at 11:59, that’s fine too. Blackboard would show it as being late, but whatever; Blackboard has a tendency to do whatever it wants anyway.

The idea was and is that there’s a built-in cushion in case things come up. Because as music majors, things always come up.

The other thing I did was create physical late work passes (LWPs). Here’s what they look like.

I designed the front and back in Paint.net and had them printed up by Moo, using their Luxe business card template–32pt weight with a forest green color seam on the edge and rounded corners.

I designed the LWPs to be bearer instruments–I don’t track them, there are no serial numbers. If you physically have one, you can use it. The rules are pretty simple.

  • I can only say they’re usable in my classes.
  • It’s only good for one assignment.
  • You can’t use it outside of an academic term*
  • And some other stuff that might be on the syllabus (but currently isn’t).

I starred the academic term requirement. What I wanted to avoid is having students try to turn in late work after the end of the semester, so they go invalid at the end of finals week. But they reactivate at the beginning of the next term. Technically speaking, there’s no reason you couldn’t stockpile them.

I give one out to each student at the beginning of each course I teach. What I found myself doing in the Fall of 2020 was making the announcement that for every four COVID tests that students take, I would award them one LWP.

For Music Entrepreneurship in the Fall, I also included an optional project (more on the curriculum for that class later, it’s more nonsense) that was essentially an LWP buy-back. Turn in an LWP, get 250 points (repeatable).

What I expected to happen was that it would make my conversation with students easier–“Oh, you don’t have a late work pass? You can’t turn that in late.” What happened instead is far more interesting.

By and large, students just took ownership of keeping track of late work. Although I keep detailed records, it doesn’t really matter. Students didn’t even consider asking for an extension or if I’d accept late work. Although, this fell apart late in the Fall 2020 semester due to COVID and being online (especially with the freshmen), but in person, it has worked great.

If I were to do it again, I might go with wooden nickels–I think they’d be more durable, and in some cases, they’d also be cheaper.