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Nonsense Teaching: Due Dates

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. Probably the last part of a 3-part series that I thought I’d forget about but somehow didn’t.
Part 1: Late Work Passes
Part 2: Choose-your-own-adventure Projects

I read somewhere (if I had to guess, it was in A Perfect Mess) about how the most efficient use of crosswalks is when about half of pedestrians waited for the lights to change, and about half of pedestrians dart across the street to dodge traffic. If everyone were to wait, it would be terribly congested. If everyone were to ignore the signals, it would be chaos.

This semester I let my students pick their own due dates. Which sounds like madness. Here’s why it wasn’t.

I got this idea originally from Sanna Pederson at OU, who used to let us turn in our graduate musicology term papers whenever we wanted to. This worked fine for grad students, or at least it worked fine for me. Presumably if it didn’t work, she wouldn’t have done it.

For Entrepreneurship and Skills for Academic Success, students picked their own due dates, with some restrictions. In Entrepreneurship, required projects had set due dates, while optional projects were left to student discretion. For Skills for Academic Success, students could choose their own due dates, but one project had to be completed each week. (More information on the curriculum in Part 2).

In both classes, the first project is a “semester plan” where students plot their assignments for the semester. They get credit for schedule management, which is exactly what I want them to do as part of these classes. If they need to update their semester plan, they can do so via letter.

I kept track of all this in Excel, because Blackboard was no help.

As I mentioned in part 1 when talking about Late Work Passes, my late work policy is that all work is accepted in the week that it’s due. So if students pick a due date of Monday, I’ll accept that work through Saturday.

In Excel, I had a column for student name, class, and project. Next, I had the student’s due date, followed by a column showing the weekday of the due date (=WEEKDAY(D2)). This allowed me to calculate the late-work deadline with the formula (=D3+(7-E3)), or (=Due_date+(7-(Weekday of Due Date))).

When a student submitted an assignment, I just cross-referenced my spreadsheet to see if the assignment was valid. Like with the Late Work Passes, students basically took care of this and I could have ignored my spreadsheet. But I didn’t. And I won’t.

Grading

I figured that this would take up a lot of time, and to offset that I changed up my grading policy. I don’t necessarily need 100 points of gradation to give feedback for creative work, so I moved to check-grading, which looks like this:

Check-Plus: Acceptable; Needs no further work
The submitted assignment is polished, professional, and indicative of the level of work expected from a professional musician. Any improvements to the project would only add to the level of professionalism of the assignment. Receives: 100% of points.

Check: Acceptable; Could improve
The submitted assignment is acceptable and meets the purpose as requested, however, it still leaves some things to be desired such as additional information, formatting, word usage, etc. Receives: 80% of points.

X: Try Again
The submitted assignment is rejected for one or more of the following reasons:

  • It is not formatted in a conventional, useful, or ergonomic way.
  • The information it contains is lacking or false.
  • It is not presented in a manner that represents your work as a professional musician.

Receives: 60% of points

X-Minus: No apparent effort
The assignment was either not submitted, or the material submitted was so lacking that detailed feedback would be a monologue rather than a dialogue. Receives: 0% of points

Basically, for every assignment you submit, you can get an F, D, B, or A. But because I’m interested in feedback and iterative change, any check-graded assignment can be corrected and resubmitted for a newer grade, as long as it’s resubmitted by the end of the week it’s returned. Which is nice because it forces me to return work on Monday or Tuesday.

It also works recursively. Turn in an assignment, get it returned. Correct the assignment, get it returned. Correct the assignment, get it returned. It’s not only choose-your-own-due-date, but choose-your-own-grade, since you can keep submitting a project until your grade is where you want it.

How’d it all work?

In short, like it was supposed to, mostly. Let’s break it down into the due dates and the grading.

For the due dates, there was some legwork to get everything set up in Excel. But students who would normally follow due dates followed their own due dates, and students who have trouble with due dates had trouble with due dates. I think that fewer students had trouble following the due dates this semester, but I’m not quite sure. Students who totally missed due dates who came to me during the last weeks of the semester were given (or rather, just had) the opportunity to edit their semester plan, so nothing was technically late.

Some of the Skills for Academic Success students were pretty lackadaisical about due dates–they were close, -ish. I’m chalking that up to COVID.

My intention this semester was to have sample due dates available as part of the assignment slates in Entrepreneurship (for those students not wanting to pick their projects a la carte). I didn’t get to that for the fall, but I’ve updated that for the spring.

The big thing that comes up when I tell people I let students pick their own due dates is that everyone will just pick the end of the semester. They really don’t. Maybe they’ll pick the end of the semester for a major project, but otherwise they’ll pick reasonable due dates.

Due dates didn’t surprise me too much. I’d do it again.

Grading, on the other hand, that kind of surprised me.

What surprised me in one sense is that it removed the middle from my classes. There were students who did nothing, and there were students with full credit, and almost nobody in the middle. Then I realized that with the resubmission process, this is how it should look. Then it corrected itself as the semester went on, which was even more surprising. The occasional student took advantage of grade re-submission, but not as many as should have. The class probably should have generated a bunch of As and Fs. There was a bit of a middle.

Students generally turn in acceptable work or none at all. This is probably due in part to the fact that I only used this grading scheme for creative classes, i.e., there are no wrong answers. But if asked to write a bio for the first time, or write up a travel budget, they do satisfactory work. Or none.

The idea of doing no work baffles me, and I have no correction for it.

I’ll probably keep the grading scheme for this spring too, but I’m not totally convinced of it yet.

Inertia

I spent the beginning of the year planning to write a small blog post every day. Well, at least every weekday. I had a backlog of blog ideas, and I posted one every day. Trying to channel my inner Seth Godin. And then I got to January 29.

What happened on January 29 was that I had a grant application due on February 1, and I desperately needed to finish it, having never written a grant application before. So the 29th of January came and went with no post.

And then January 30.

And January 31

And the weekend of February 1st and 2nd.

And so on.

I did post on February 5 about booking travel, written more for my music entrepreneurship than for anyone else, but since then: crickets.

I attribute all of this to inertia: we do the things we’ve been doing. Despite a month of writing short posts, it took one day to derail, because I’ve not been writing a blog for far longer than I have been.

I could connect this to my students, and how they practice.

Or I could look at my own composing.

I took a break during spring break to make sure I could get all my classes online. And that break, combined with several of the projects I mentioned earlier being put on the back burner, my output the past couple of weeks has been slim, and the only thing that has kept me from transitioning from “composer” to “guy who checks his email” has been that the first three hours of my day, every day, are cordoned off as Dedicated Creative Time. Scheduling inertia.

Thinking about my own inertia, paired with teaching fully online for the rest of the semester, has led me to think about the inertia in our music curriculum: What sorts of things are we doing because we’ve always done them that way? Music doesn’t change quickly, but the technology with which we can teach does.

There’s a semi-rant in here about the number of schools wanting to something Eric-Whitacre’s-virtual-choir based, despite the fact that the idea itself is a decade old. A more useful question is “what can I do to escape inertia in how I teach composition in North Dakota and promote new music.”

That’s a separate blog post, which by this rate, I’ll post around July.

Irons in the Fire

As the semester started, I hoped that things would be calmer than the fall, and thankfully in most ways they are. In some ways, however, there’s more work. Here’s a list of some of the things on my radar this spring, some moving into next fall and further.

  • At NDSU: I’m part of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences Course Curation Committee, which is looking at how to update/streamline some college requirements.
  • At NDSU: I’m continuing as a member of the NICE Faculty Fellows, which promotes and explores Entrepreneurship.
  • At NDSU: As part of the NICE center, I’m also helping out with the Civic Innovation Force, which will pair students with the City of Fargo to solve problems.
  • Through NICE I’ve happened to get involved with a project to promote nanotechnology by writing music about nanotechnology. It’s supported by an NSF grant.
    • To Do: Learn how nanotechnology works.
  • NASA is interested in linking to Calibrating the Moon on the Arcstone project website.
  • I have two recording projects in the works.
  • I’m negotiating a commission of a new large ensemble piece–details forthcoming.
  • I’m negotiating a consortium for a second piece very similar to the first one, and writing a grant.
    • To Do: Learn to write a grant. Before Friday.
  • I had these grand plans to start work on an opera this year, and I still might.
  • Then there’s that clarinet choir piece.
  • I’m giving a faculty recital in a week and a half.
  • The composition studio is giving a Student Composers Recital in March.
  • I’ll likely be doing some bassooning in Wind Symphony this semester.
  • Two CMS regional conferences, in Tennessee and Michigan (and a third performance in Arkansas)
  • SEAMUS National at the University of Virginia.

Oof.

On Music Entrepreneurship – 7

(Continued)

Perhaps all of this talk about our students knowing how to do something is moot–after all, I’ve heard the argument that “our students learn what they need to despite what we teach them,” and this is largely true. Most musicians I know (myself included) haven’t had much in terms of entrepreneurship training, and yet we figure out how to get our music performed or how to find performances.

An assignment I’ve put into my music entrepreneurship class is a travel funding assignment. It’s pretty open ended–Assume that you’re going to a professional conference and you’d like to ask for funding. How do you construct a budget, and how do you present a case for how much funding you need?

It’s a fairly straightforward assignment: Look up airfare or mileage, look up hotels, list your fixed costs like registration, and figure out a way to ask for per diem. These are all very obvious things–if you already know how to do them.

Some assumptions we operate under, and some mistakes my students have made on this assignment:

  • Flights are usually listed round-trip, as a total. Hotels are usually listed per-night. I’ve had students not realize that they have a 5-day conference and they have a one-night hotel stay.
  • There is a federal mileage reimbursement rate that many organizations use. If you claim mileage, or if you estimate your gas costs, make sure you calculate mileage there AND back.
  • If your hotel doesn’t offer a shuttle, then you have to get from the airport to the hotel somehow.
  • If you have oversize luggage (say, an instrument) then that’s another cost.

Trivial mistakes to make on a class assignment. Disastrous if you’re on an actual trip. Compounded even more so if the trip is international.

Why the Clarinet Choir piece isn’t done yet.

I’m writing a piece for the NDSU Clarinet Choir, which they’ll perform at ClarinetFest 2020 in Reno, Nevada. Well, I mean, I’m not actually writing it this very minute, I’m writing this blog post. But I have been writing it. Except when I haven’t been. Which has been a lot.

This post isn’t so much a list of excuses so much as it is an exploration into the creative procrastination that goes into writing.

I didn’t want to start the piece until January–I finished the percussion quartet in mid-December, and wanted to take a break. By the time I ended up getting back to Fargo and got settled in, it was already the 10th, with classes starting the following Monday.

I had no idea what the clarinet choir piece was going to look like, so the first several days of writing were just bouncing ideas around. I ended up with this weird musical line in my head, which reminded me of some song I heard in college, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t ripping it off. That resulted in several days of trying to remember what that song was.

It ended up being Little Talks by Of Monsters and Men. And the line stuck in my head ended up resembling this not at all. Score one for me.

Also this video is trippy.

Of Monsters And Men – Little Talks (Official Video)

So that line I heard, I still haven’t worked into the piece, because every time I start thinking about where it could fit in, it merges with MacArthur Park. I had never actually listened to the lyrics of MacArthur park until I listened through trying to figure out where it fit in.

Also the lyrics are trippy.

Richard Harris   MacArthur Park

Part of this time has been spent looking for other clarinet choir pieces.

Crickets.

There’s a lot of transcriptions, but not a lot of pieces originally for clarinet choir. So inspiration is scarce. The NDSU Clarinet Choir will be playing Schickele’s Monochrome III and Curtis’s Klezmer Triptych, so I know what else is on the program.

And I almost know how this piece is going to go too.

Index Cards

All throughout my college career and the beginning of my teaching career, I never had a good system for keeping track of research–after all, my experience was in composing instead of research.

Within the past couple of years, I’ve finally figured out a system that works for me: Index cards.

As I read through books, I mark particularly interesting passages by earmarking pages and margin notes. Getting over the idea of writing in books took a while. When finished, I copy the passages onto index cards, note the author/title/page number, and give the card a sequential number.

I’ve scanned in the first hundred, mostly dealing with creative research, and they’re available at: https://ip.vanderburg.io/files/document/F7D4AAFB-6A53-4102-BF27-70392AFEBDAE/

First Faculty Recital

After two and a half years, I’m finally giving my first faculty recital at NDSU, featuring all music written in North Dakota.

The planned program is:

The Notes Between The Notes – My song cycle featuring poems by Jamie Parsley. Michelle Gelinske (who premiered the cycle nearly a year ago) wasn’t able to perform in February, so Dr. Kelly Burns, our new voice faculty member, will be performing the cycle with Dr. Amy Mercer.

Next up is the world premiere of Tape Piece, a tape piece featuring…tape sounds.

We’ll round out the evening with the world premiere of Calibrating the Moon, commissioned and premiered by Connor Challey, and featuring Dr. Tyler Wottrich on piano.

The recital poster also features North Dakota:

I hope to see you at Beckwith Recital Hall at NDSU, on February 10 at 7:30 PM!

Three New Pieces

Over the past month or so, three new pieces have shown up on the website. Together, they represent 40 minutes of new music.

So working backwards, Calibrating the Moon is a tuba sonata written for Connor Challey. No media or score (partially because it’s a commission, and partially because issuu has decided to start charging for embedded documents), but there’s a program note. This work will be premiered nearly next month at NDSU.

Also receiving its premiere next month is Tape Piece, which is a tape piece (like stereo fixed media) about and using tape (like scotch and duct). Unlike Calibrating the Moon it does have media. It’ll also receive its premiere next month, but given that it’s tape, you can hear it in all its glory right now if you’d like.

Finally comes Four Views of the Butterfly Effect, which is a commission from the MinusOne Quartet, and which was a pain to write. I’ll dive into an explanation of it a little later. No program note, score, OR media at the moment, because all I have are mock-ups.

Summer Travel, Creativity, and my Facebook News Feed

I realized in February or March of this year that I hadn’t been to any conferences during the 18-19 academic year. This bugged me. It’s hard to maintain a dialogue with other composers when you’re sitting in your office all the time. Of course, the Spring semester was filled with creating a composition lecture series for a class, so at least I wasn’t just watching Netflix.

I ramped up some submissions this summer, and I went to NYCEMF/ICMC in June, VU3 in Park City, UT in July, and the Aspen Composers Conference in August.

Considering Park City and Aspen were paper/presentation submissions, I spent most of June preparing for the July paper (Cloud Music: Audience Participation and Cloud Computing in Electroacoustic Music) and most of July preparing for the August paper (Inspiration/Perspiration: Creating a map of the music composition creative process). It was nice doing some word-thinking instead of note-thinking, but now I need to write something like 20 minutes of percussion quartet music by the end of the year. But that’s a different conversation.

NYCEMF/ICMC was a blast, as always. I spent a bunch of time with Josh and Ioannis, and worked several concerts as technical staff. OU had a good showing this year, I think five of us had works through the conference. We spent more time in Greenwich Village this year (the conference moved from the lower east side to NYU), so I got my bakery fix at Mille-Feuille and spent way too little time at Strand Bookstore (I bought a volume of Ginsberg poetry).

I spent part of July in the mountains of Utah. The VU 3 Symposium for experimental, electronic, and improvised music was hosted in Park City, and it was an incredible experience I might write more about later. It was chock full of weird technical stuff, presented in a non-judgmental and non-hierarchical way. Not that normal conferences are necessarily judgy, I think that’s just my insecurity coming out.

Anyway, it was a validating and supportive group (reminding me a lot of the last CFAMC conference I attended), and nearly immediately after I returned home, I dove into revising a paper on creativity that I presented the next month at the Aspen Composers’ Conference (which was well-received). Because of all that, this summer was a season of creativity, spending a bunch of time around creative people, thinking about the creative process, how we teach creativity, and so on.

And then I have airport downtime and I check Facebook. Jeez! Facebook! How little original content there is on Facebook. Aside from the Ads. Or from pages I like. So much of it is shared content. So little of it is thought-provoking.

I originally had a listing of the top thirty or so posts, categorized by original vs. shared content, if there was any commentary, things like that, but it just got to be tedious. The simple point is that there was/is a vivid discrepancy between the creativity at the conferences and the creativity (or lack thereof) in my browser.

This has caused me to look closer at the creative research I’m doing, and how I can better focus on 1) presenting it to a wider audience, and 2) integrating more of it in my own work.

And that’s the plan for this fall.

Spring 2019 Recap

It’s already July!? It’s already halfway through the summer semester!

The spring semester has been my busiest semester as a professor. Let’s recap:

At NDSU:

  • I had a studio of 6 composers, 4 undergrads and 2 grads.
  • I mentored the Freshman Theory II Composition Projects.
  • I oversaw the Sophomore Theory IV Composition Projects.
  • I taught the bassoon part of Woodwind Methods II.
  • I taught Music Entrepreneurship (and wrote a course pack)
  • I oversaw Grad Theory Pedagogy Practicum.
  • We took the wind symphony to Budapest, Bratislava, and Prague.
  • And I was asked to join the NDSU Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship (NICE) Faculty Fellowship.

At VCSU:

  • I had a studio of 3 students in Comp II and 2 students in Comp III.
  • I had one capstone advisee.
  • I taught Advanced Scoring and Arranging.
  • I turned Comp I into a lecture-based class, with 15 students.
  • I organized the 18th annual VCSU Composers Concert.

At NoteForge/As a Composer

  • I recorded and produced an album.
  • I wrote one and a half pieces.
  • I did some massive upgrades to Liszt.
  • I solved a lot of issues with NDSU’s livestreaming.

Some of these things were successful due to my hard work. Some of these things were successful due to my dumb luck. Some of these things could be greatly improved.

Turning Comp I at VCSU into a lecture class was a ton of work. It was fun, and I learned a great deal about video editing, but it took up way more time than I was expecting. Luckily, with those videos in “maintenance mode” now, I’ll have some tweaks but most of it can stand.

I built that class around my ideas about the creative process, which I’m beginning to codify into something tangible. I’m presenting a poster about the process at this year’s ATMI conference.

I didn’t do a bunch of conferences/festivals this year, mostly due to a focus on teaching since VCSU was a new thing. I’m ramping up those things this summer, with a piece at NYCEMF/ICMC last week and a presentation at the VU 3 Symposium in Park City, UT next week.

I wrote a piece for bass clarinet duet + piano, and I started on a tuba sonata that I’m really enjoying, though it’s taking a while trying to find time to write. Which reminds me–This semester I started booking dedicated creative time, so that I’m in the studio working on composition-related things every morning until 10. This worked…most of the time.

I picked up a faculty fellowship in Entrepreneurship, and as a part of that I’ve spent a bunch of time thinking about how to update NDSU’s Music Entrepreneurship class. That’ll be it’s own separate post I’m sure.