A Web-Based System for Music History & Culture (paper)

(See also the paper’s Handout.)

A Web-Based System for Teaching, Learning, and Discussing Music History and Culture
Durrell Bowman (The Music Discussion Network – MDN)

As a so-called “independent scholar,” I am quite interested in what would be entailed by a “public musicology.”  Merriam-Webster includes in its definition of “public” such ideas as:  open, well-known, universally relating to people, popular, community-oriented, social, accessible, and shared.  However, almost all musicology takes place in post-secondary institutional contexts, often as music history courses for relatively small numbers of students.  In addition, very little musicological research is ever encountered by more than a few thousand people.  So, how often is the field legitimately “public?”  There are compelling reasons to address these issues, and one area that might provide a productive solution resides at the intersection of open content and alternative career paths.

In 2009-10, I went back to school to study software development.  I had earlier been merely a moderately-advanced user of computers, but did well in my program. [BIMF]  In the summer of 2010, I spent six weeks developing web-based program notes for the Bowdoin International Music Festival, including hyper-links to further information, timelines, works lists, and recordings. [Example]  [DDM] I then spent six weeks developing the AMS’s new version of Doctoral Dissertations in Musicology.  [“Durrell Bowman”  – then advanced-2003/completed]  In the fall of 2011, I decided to develop a system that combines “public musicology” with web software and web content development.  I called it the Music Discussion Network—or “MDN.”  [Note: MDN has since been replaced by OurMus.Net.]

I built MDN with the web-development environment and content-management framework called Drupal.  As I explained:

The Music Discussion Network makes it easy for students, teachers, musicians, and enthusiasts to explore music history and culture.  MDN features a wide variety of music:  popular, jazz, blues, world, theatre, film, TV, and classical.  MDN offers instructional videos (informed by various ideas), complete pieces (as streaming media), other resources (such as lyrics, reviews, and sheet music), and additional information (about recordings, etc.) – and you can contribute to discussions (by opening a free account).

Other than discussion-contributors requiring free accounts, everything provided in MDN’s Phase 1
was public and open.  Anyone with access to the web could use it.

MDN’s home page included links to the system’s most recently-added topics.  Some I taught in university courses, such as on popular music, film music, jazz, and classical music.  Other topics I had researched and written about in book chapters, conference papers, program notes, reference articles, and/or my dissertation.  Still others related to my recent reading, concert attendance, and (in one case) performing. My list of MDN’s topics showed the 120 I initially had in mind, spread evenly across four categories.  However, the list was subject to revision, based on the input of certain, projected users.  In each category, I first listed topics with completed instructional videos, followed by ones with some resources in place, and then forthcoming ones.

The most time-consuming part of building MDN was the instructional videos.  Apart from any specialized research I did on a particular topic, to make a 12-15 minute video took between 16 and 24 hours.  [The videos are now on OurMus.Net.]  Each video focuses on a specific person or group and on selected music.  It features concise, foundational knowledge of hows and whys for the topic’s historical context, stylistic influences, biographical highlights, and music features.  I considered the material to be touchstone examples suitable for many categories of users—non-music majors, music majors, faculty members, and so on.  I wrote a lecture, selected media excerpts, prepared summary slides, integrated suitable images, recorded my narration sequences, put all of that together as a movie, published it, and tagged it.  Capping media excerpts at 30 seconds usually prevented my videos from being blocked by YouTube.  [Channel] The channel for these is youtube.com/musicdiscussionnet, and the videos also work well on smart phones.  Here are some excerpts.  [To Chopin, 0:00-1:20/7:58/8:55—go full-screen]

It is on MDN, though, where I organized everything as dynamic, data-driven content.  [This is also still the case on OurMus.Net.]  On MDN, each topic had one page, but the amount of data provided varied flexibly from topic to topic.  At the top of a topic’s centre column was the instructional video, embedded from YouTube.  The left-hand column comprised “internal” information about the topic’s whos, whats, wheres, and whens.  The top of the right-hand column contained a topic’s “external” content, including an embedded piece-recording—such as from YouTube or materials streamed from the holdings of a library.  Embedded pieces could also be opened up to full-screen.  Words could be similarly embedded, such as from LyricsMode.com. The links below could be for opening up an official website, purchasing recordings, finding sheet music, reading articles (such as on AllMusic.com or a course website), or seeing a list of references to works consulted in making the topic’s instructional video.  Links could also be provided to related recordings.  At the bottom of the centre column was the discussion area, which was topic-specific and threaded—but it was also right there with everything else provided for the topic.

In addition to exploring topic-specific media, links, and discussions, one could go to related material in several ways.  For example, you could click on any left-column linked-field.  Or, you could use the header-menu to search—on name, title, place, year, and/or anything else.  The header-menu also let you browse on the genres associated with the topics.  Such a data-driven link, search, or browse showed a results page containing the relevant topics.  Most topics were tagged with multiple genre categories.  So, Herrmann’s music for Psycho also shows up under “Film Music,” and Brahms’ Requiem additionally appears as “Choral” and “Classical.”  Once I would have added a lot more topics, a results page would usually have produced somewhere between several topics and several-dozen topics—depending on the narrowness of the selection or selections.

[Khan Academy] One inspiration for MDN is the Khan Academy, which provides more than 3100 free instructional videos about math, science, finance, and history.  Most of it is based around relatively informal presentations, featuring Salman Khan referencing materials on a digital blackboard and explaining things verbally.  The system has had more than 140 million video views, and it is mainly used by high school students. [Smarthistory] However, the Khan Academy also now includes a project on art history, called Smarthistory.  Its developers are a pair of formerly-institutionally-affiliated Ph.D.s, and they indicated to me that they aim their materials mainly at students taking introductory college courses—freshman and sophomore non-majors.  Smarthistory, though, is also used by Advanced Placement high school students (and their teachers)—and by graduate students and faculty members.  My user-base for MDN is thus likely to resemble Smarthistory more than the rest of the Khan Academy.  Another similarity is that I have experimented with—but ultimately rejected—the idea of incorporating semi-contextual banner-ads.

[Back to Khan] The idea behind this type of work is often called “classroom flipping.”  Instructional videos, podcasts, and/or text-based materials are provided for students to study on their own—and at their own pace.  Classroom time is spent at least partly in group discussions, individual mentoring, and other aspects of problem-based teaching and active learning—instead of just having lectures.  A number of school boards use the Khan Academy, and it has also gotten about two million dollars from each of the Gates Foundation and Google.  It has used that money to hire staff, create practice exercises, translate its materials into languages other than English, and so on.  My plan for MDN is to pursue similar types of interest not only from educational foundations and technology corporations, but also from government agencies and colleges and universities.

There should be a substantial demand for web-based music history, but no traditionally-employed musicologist is likely to be able to work on it more than occasionally.  For example, putting together six, 14-week courses, each with six, weekly instructional videos—at an average of twenty hours to make each video—would take just over 10,000 hours.  So, that task alone would be enough to fill a full-time job for about six years!  However, my impression from individual colleagues who have seen the initial MDN materials is that each of them would start by making use of only some of those topics.  Thus, a certain amount of building-to-order—for existing courses—also makes sense, even within the initial 120 topics.

Phase 2 of MDN (projected for 2013-14) will include closed, premium content—probably purchased.  I expect such elements to include example test questions, automated online tests and quizzes, ideas for essay subjects (to help students make connections across MDN topics), and course-specific blogs—including such things as idea-prompts from the instructor and inter-student reviews.  The premium content and certain related functions will be provided based on the permissions associated with specific roles—involving particular institutions, courses, semesters, instructors, and students.  It may also be possible to use the open-source, learning management system Moodle to build MDN’s paid, premium course modules.  Everything else, though, will remain public and free.

[CHNM] George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media also provides an inspiration for MDN.  CHNM launched a Ph.D. program in digital history in 2001, and it includes a support staff of several dozen information technology professionals and software developers.  They have been involved in over 100 web projects—used by 16 million people.  Musicology has a lot in common with history and art history.  However, it and teaching music history are absent from such existing, ambitious initiatives involving public digital humanities.  Musicology’s perceived ghettoization and “special skills and interests” would probably cause CHNM to doubt that MDN would be a good fit.  Two musicological initiatives in digital humanities appeared in early 2012, with ACLS innovation fellowships going to a project at Notre Dame on medieval composer Hildegard of Bingen and one at Stanford on Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez.  That’s encouraging, but a “digital musicology” might take some time to get to Wagner, Stravinsky, or Ruth Crawford Seeger—let alone Philip Glass, Metallica, or Lady Gaga.

In a 2010 article, historian and CHNM director Dan Cohen discusses digital history’s issues of inclusivity vs. exclusivity (using the analogy of a “cave”), validation (or “tribe”), and sustainability (or “marketplace”).  For MDN, I have put a lot of thought into the “cave” and “marketplace” issues.  I devised it to be public and dynamic, but also to reflect aspects of my doctoral background at UCLA.  I have also considered how to make MDN sustainable and marketable—based on ideas for support mechanisms from a combination of public/institutional and private/foundational support and from a projected Phase 2 of premium/purchased content.  The “tribe” issue, though, is more problematic.  A tenure-track, university position has eluded me, but people who are in such positions seem to want what I’m doing.  So, do I need to validate what I’m doing through peer review, academic publishing, tenure-track contexts, and brick-and-mortar conferences?  Have I exited the “tribe” just as much as someone with a Ph.D. who now sells real estate or teaches elementary school?  Should I hold off on MDN until a particular music institution is willing to host it?  Are the fair use provisions of copyright law reasonably applied only to conventional classroom settings and the related use of library materials?  Is the arrival of common-licence and/or open-source recordings and scores (such as by MusOpen, IMSLP, and the Music Encoding Initiative) going to be of much use outside of the 1% of music that happens to be classical?  Is what I’m doing an avocation and/or hobby?  Does “independent scholar” really describe my intended position within the profession?  My answer to all of these questions is “No.”

This year’s musicology job wiki includes an unusually-open, tenure-track job at MIT that received over 200 applications.  After accounting for attempted lateral moves and an even larger number of non-applicants for the position, there still have to be more than 200 Ph.D.s without academic jobs competing for 68 viable, long-term positions.  My survey of completed Ph.D.s from 2006 reported on DDM finds nearly 30% of them working in early 2012 in such areas as performance, temporary research fellowships, visiting or part-time lectureships, and academic support.  A similar number did not seem to be working or couldn’t even be found.  I’m pleased that my new version of DDM is the AMS website’s most popular page, but my survey of RILM suggests that DDM (which is almost entirely self-reported) is missing an astonishing 80% of recent Ph.D. dissertations.  So, the hiring rate is certainly less than one-third, and some Ph.D.s in musicology are unemployed, bankrupt, living in poverty, and/or on welfare.  In other words, the “public” has lots of Ph.D.s available who could be doing actual “public musicology,” instead of the AMS tribe waiting around for the occasional music critic to pay attention to one of its conferences.

The AMS’s 2011 career guide lacks useful advice for so-called “non-academic” careers.  The section of the 195-page guide that supposedly covers this topic contains a little over two pages of prose, four sample resumes, and one cover letter.  None of it has to do with musicology, and all of it is nearly twenty years old.  It indicates that those outside of tenure-track positions would only fit in such research contexts as museums.  But how are such positions “non-academic,” exactly—and where would they even be in musicology?  One such context is the education department of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (with a pair of employees having music Ph.D.s), but shouldn’t there be more contexts like this?—way more?!

Interestingly, Dan Cohen ends the validation/“tribe” section of his digital history article by suggesting that:  “curation becomes more important than publication once publication ceases to be limited.”  His definition of “publication” is obviously a fairly broad one, but maybe ours should be also. Perhaps it should include more of what exists—or is possible—on the internet.  In a related vein, in a 2009 article Cohen conveys his colleague Tom Scheinfeldt’s sense that “digital history (and the digital humanities more broadly) requires more attention to methodology than theory.”  Music academia also needs to do much better in areas of curation and methodology; and graduate education, career-related issues, pedagogy, and truly-public initiatives ought to be considered deeply connected.

I have done a lot of academic research and adjunct course instruction—including selected uses of new media and instructional technology.  In addition, I have worked part-time as a choral singer, reference-article writer, technology consultant, music festival librarian, and program-notes writer.  Only some parts of my background would be considered conventionally “academic,” and I have now arrived at web software and web content development.  However, my situation seems to be off-the-radar for typically-understood jobs both in academia and in information technology.  It is only by putting all of these things together into the Music Discussion Network that I can see myself working in a full-time capacity that is related to—and informed by—my academic background.  I just have to figure out a way to make a living at it!

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