By Emily Dolan and Jonathan Sterne
We knew we would encounter a few technical difficulties when we decided to teach an interdisciplinary, interuniversity, international graduate seminar. That was a given. But the biggest hurdle, it turned out, was a sonic one.
Inspired by our mutual interests in instruments, sound, media, and music, the two of us (one in music at Harvard University, the other in communication studies at McGill University) offered a co-taught graduate seminar, "Instruments and Instrumentalities," in the winter/spring term of 2016. The course redefined how we both thought about digital collaboration.
By the time we started prepping the course, FemTechNet had already been promoting its Distributed Open Collaborative Course model as an alternative to lecture-based MOOCs. We borrowed some of its ideas while advancing our own as well. Ultimately, we had 26 students in the course from all sorts of majors — including musicology, music theory, media studies, East Asian studies, and Italian literature. We even had several students enroll from the humanities program at a third institution, Concordia University in Montreal.
We spent the summer and fall of 2015 cooking up a spectacular syllabus with original ideas for assignments, as well as a great collection of readings.
Working together proved easy. Arranging the actual seminar meetings was much more difficult. We secured grants from our deans to cover the costs of moving our students back and forth twice during the semester — a visit to Montreal in March, and a visit to Cambridge in April. But the rest of the meetings involved electronically connected classrooms.
Very quickly, we discovered that the biggest challenge we would face involved the most basic aspect of a graduate seminar: conversation. Some of the things you’d think would hold us back — (a) three institutions on three schedules, (b) students with a host of different disciplinary backgrounds and levels of preparation, and (c) our own different teaching styles — proved easy enough to resolve. It was free-flowing discussion that was hardest to pull off.
To be fair, Laura Winer, the head of teaching and learning services at McGill, had warned Jonathan — a scholar who has spent his career thinking about sound and media, and who had recently published a history of a compression algorithm (i.e., someone who should have known better) — that hearing one another would be a major challenge.
The first few seminar meetings were conducted with a kludge. We had wanted the course to feel like a seminar, which meant meeting in a seminar room. Jonathan came to class outfitted with an omnidirectional microphone and a rotating, spherical camera mounted on a stick that the students quickly dubbed the "Eye of Sauron." The first two weeks, before the Harvard semester had begun, Emily Skyped in, but even with only one person on the other end, it was clear that the Eye of Sauron was not going to work. It had to be manually adjusted every time one of us wanted to speak, and the sound just wasn’t good — Skype is not meant to relay conversations in that way.
By Week 3, we’d worked out a different kludge. Jonathan secured a more modern classroom for half of the seminar time. Designed as a lecture hall that could hold about 80 people and could also bring in a remote guest, it had long tables with small push-button microphones every two seats, and cameras that would automatically zoom in on the speaker when a button was pushed.
The students dubbed this second room "The United Nations." We also switched our platform from Skype to Bluejeans. Emily, as it turned out, did not have access to a United Nations Room.
Harvard has various rooms configured for digital conferencing, but most were in use and none of those available were large enough. In the end, the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning purchased a kit that included an omnidirectional microphone and a remote-controlled video camera. The smaller size of the Harvard seminar (eight students, plus the professor) meant that the class could just about gather around the microphone. (Using the camera effectively was nearly impossible. But video, it turns out, is far less important in a graduate seminar than audio.)
For us, the second most-demanding aspect of the seminar was the strangeness of addressing two classrooms at once. Any time either of us wanted to speak, we were divided between facing the students in front of us or looking at the camera to address the students on the other campus.
The biggest challenge of all was getting students to speak to each other. In every graduate seminar, students need to learn how to talk to one another. The screens and compromised audio on Bluejeans made that more difficult. When each seminar met solo (which we did for the first half of each class period), conversation flowed freely. But when the two seminars came together digitally, the discussion was halting. Unfamiliar accents were nearly impossible to understand.
In late March — two months into the semester — we brought our seminars together for an all-day, in-person meeting in Montreal. It was easier and cheaper than one might expect: The Harvard students carpooled up and stayed at a large, inexpensive bed and breakfast.
The impact of this trip was profound. Students who had gotten to know each other looking through a screen and listening to glitchy audio were packed into a single room for the first time — and the discussion was electric.
One might be tempted to take that as a lesson on the superior value of face-to-face communication, but that’s not actually our point. The following week, when we were back on our respective campuses, the cross-university interactions unfolded much more fluidly. Students from both institutions were much more comfortable addressing each other directly, despite dealing with the very same technological quirks and challenges as before.
We realized something that perhaps should have been obvious: The two classes should have been brought together at the beginning of the semester. Spending a day together — and perhaps even more important, spending an evening eating together and playing with instruments at Jonathan’s home — gave the students ample time to get to know one another.
Once we accepted that free-flowing, open conversation between the two halves of the seminar was going to be difficult, we turned to other modes of collaboration. At the suggestion of William O’Hara, then a Ph.D. candidate in music theory and a Bok Center Fellow who assisted with technology, we began using Google Docs in our seminar.
At the beginnings of class, we asked students to work in small groups to tease out particular themes and ideas from the assigned readings. They would collectively populate a Google Doc with their notes, relevant quotations, and questions, which we then used as a springboard for discussion. That had several advantages:
- Working in small groups assured that every student spent some time talking during seminar.
- It provided a structure that allowed 26 students and two professors to have a productive discussion.
- It ensured a kind of thoroughness in the analysis of the readings that is sometimes lost in free and open-ended discussions around a seminar table.
- Finally, it became a source of humor. Amid the students’ choice quotations and well-articulated questions, each week’s Google Doc was also populated with relevant memes and cat pictures. We dubbed these the weekly "catuments." Now, a year after the seminar is over, our collection of catuments remains accessible to all members of the seminar, providing a valuable record of our discussions.
While the main story here is about overcoming the obstacles of the digitally linked classroom, many of the techniques we deployed could just as easily be used in more traditional graduate seminars. The collaborative documents and small group work — and balancing open-ended discussion with structured exercises — would work well for almost any seminar.
There were even lessons to be learned from the glitches: Those awkward pauses that we worked to overcome during the beginning of the semester remained throughout. By the end, however, students remarked that those pauses had become integral. They provided moments for reflection where students did not feel the need to rush to speak: It was impossible to fill the silence.
Technologically-forced pauses eventually became comfortable, thoughtful moments of reflection. And perhaps that is one of the most valuable lessons to bring into any classroom.
As instructors, we benefited, too. In graduate school, one gets exposed to new minds each term through coursework with different professors. Once you’re teaching, that kind of sustained exposure to new ways of thinking is harder to keep up. Our seminar gave us the benefit of weekly, hourlong phone calls with each other before class (almost exclusively devoted to discussing the readings). Those conversations became a highlight for both of us.
As for broader lessons, we don’t want to assume too much. We write from two well-resourced universities in a moment of a funding crisis for higher education in many countries around the world. Not everyone has the flexibility — or deans willing to offer some money — to even try the experiment we undertook.
Still we hope our experience is instructive. Once our students met, they made the effort to engage one another, even with the bad connections.
And it is certainly poignant that — with all the advanced technology and resources at our disposal, and all the money our universities have been spending on it — the biggest challenge in the end was facilitating a comprehendable conversation among our students. If our universities could achieve the stability and speech quality of late 20th-century landline telephony with whatever digital platform their tech offices adopt next, we will be delighted.
In the meantime, sound remains one of the greatest barriers to good, networked pedagogy.
Emily Dolan is an associate professor of music at Harvard University and Jonathan Sterne is a professor of communication studies at McGill University. Sterne maintains a website with useful professional resources for early-career researchers in the humanities.