A Digital End-Run around Musicology

I’ve been struggling for quite some time as to how to proceed with a combination of music scholarship and information technology. I have a Ph.D. and work experience in musicology (including research and courses taught on popular music and film & TV music), but I also have a Certificate and work experience in software development (including a web database project for the American Musicological Society).

My first attempt at a Digital Public Music History & Culture, the Music Discussion Network (MDN), would have resulted in a member-based community open to the public to post links to pieces of music, fill in relevant information fields, and participate in discussions about that music. It would have been paid for through annual fees of $40 per member (a cart mechanism was incorporated into the site), and I also experimented with on-site ad placements (i.e., about music, but it never worked very well). The first incarnation of MDN, however, never made it past its beta-testing stage in the summer of 2011.

My second attempt, the Music Discussion Network mark II (MDN2, now at http://music-scholars.net/mdn), was inspired by the Khan Academy (instructional materials for high-school students in math, science, etc., at http://khanacademy.org) and its humanities sub-site Smarthistory (an art history web-book mostly used by university students, at http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org). The Khan Academy is free, public, and funded by multi-million-dollar educational-foundation support from the Gates Foundation, Google, and so on. It has delivered 225 million lessons to people all over the world (including discussions, etc.), and even Smarthistory (which was originally developed at other institutions) has had 5 million visits. For MDN2, in late 2011 and early 2012 I made eleven music instructional videos of about 10-15 minutes, but each of those took about 20-25 hours create. Without institutional affiliation (i.e., unemployed), it seemed extremely unlikely that I would be able to (1) build a full system without getting other scholars to collaborate on it with me or (2) monetize my efforts, such as by making its materials available for purchase by students enrolled in specific courses at colleges and universities.

My third attempt, the Music Scholars Network (MuSNet, http://music-scholars.net), tried to combine MDN and MDN2, but according to a member-contributed subscription model geared specifically towards music academics, including adjunct instructors and graduate students. The site thus included job postings, calls for papers, teaching materials (such as my instructional videos from MDN2), conference information, research activities, and so on, and discussions possible for all posted items. MuSNet had a substantial portion of its materials available to the public, but only its members would be allowed to add or discuss things. It offered a 1-2 month free trial, then a modest membership fee of $30 per year (incorporated via PayPal). A web survey suggested that some music scholars would be willing to pay a small amount for such a thing, but it was never clear that this could become a viable business that would grow beyond more than a few hundred members. Very few music scholars have the time or energy to participate in such a thing and it is also not how they expect to do things, so it actually makes much more sense to focus instead on building something useful for interested members from within the vastly larger public of music aficionados.

MuSNet2 will focus once again on instructional materials, but it will be free, public, and with discussion capabilities available to any registered member. It will retain the name “Music Scholars Network,” but with the significant change in emphasis that anyone who studies music is a “music scholar.” The site will initially be built by me, including at least a few new instructional videos each month, but it will also be “collaborative” in the sense of including links to many existing music instructional videos already made publicly available by others but also fully researched and tested by me. I will thus endeavour to have the site become similar in scope to the Khan Academy’s Smarthistory web-book within about six months and with a large-scale, public, promotional undertaking through YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. This renewed focus would potentially reach hundred of thousands (or even millions) of people, as opposed to a few hundred music academics. The site would then become part of—and paid for through—an existing system of educational materials, such as the Khan Academy (free and public) or a college or university that offers online arts and humanities courses for money (increasingly the case in the UK) or Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs, which are free and typically have thousands of students for each course). Once MuSNet2 is part of a larger system, it could then also begin to include contributions by specialists covering additional areas of music history & culture. That is what Smarthistory was able to do to expand its art-history offerings once it became part of the Khan Academy.

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The Music Scholars Network, the Public, etc.

I created and developed the Music Scholars Network (MuSNet) to enable a professional, interdisciplinary, member-contributed community.  Of the respondents to my October 2012 Music Scholars Web Survey, 69% felt that the conferences, journals, and websites of music academic societies are not always efficient enough.  In fact, 62% of them said they would be willing to pay between $10 and $50 per year for a membership in a network that allowed them to post, tag, find, share, and discuss such things as conference information, calls for papers, teaching materials, job postings, and research.

Most music academic societies, however, have ignored or refused my requests to distribute an email announcement inviting people to join MuSNet.  Getting the word out and encouraging people to add things to the website (even through free trial memberships) are thus turning out to be much more difficult than I had imagined.  Tenure-track academics (even people I consider to be friends and/or close colleagues) and academic societies (even ones to which I belong and/or for which I have worked) are not used to being second-guessed by so-called “independent scholars.”  I suppose it is also possible, though, that they are all just too busy.

Amazingly, members cannot directly add things to the websites of music academic societies.  Everything is channelled through executive directors, webmasters, moderators, and various sub-committees on specific topics, issues, etc.  The American Musicological Society’s (AMS’s) plan for “public musicology” (a vague and far too patronizing plan) is likely to take years to unfold, and it will undoubtedly prove to be highly unsatisfactory.  Another difficulty is that music academia is plagued by the problem of “silos” that consistently separate musicologists from ethnomusicologists and music theorists, academics from composers and performers, classical “snobs” from jazz and popular music “believers,” and so on.  It is not at all a healthy situation!

Over the next several decades, the various MBAs who now run most universities (and have been hired at a rate ten times that of tenured academics) will find ways to shut down or otherwise mess with numerous music departments.  They will reasonably ask:  Is music a part of the humanities, or is it a part of the fine and performing arts?  It will make no difference that music is obviously both of those things.  Many more music scholars than currently do so will end up having to do their work in places other than university music departments, but, in fact, a lot of us already do.

With MuSNet, I am developing an “alternative academic” venue for music scholars of various sorts to accomplish things efficiently, quickly, and affordably.  However, I am also very keen on the idea that the majority of materials posted and discussed by the site’s members should be made available to the public, used directly by students, consulted by journalists and music enthusiasts, and so on.  I hope to administer and maintain the network on a part-time basis, I’ve been enrolled in a self-employment (small business) program since September, and part of the goal of the business is to get myself off of social assistance.

The people who would probably be able to make the best use of MuSNet are current Ph.D. students and adjunct (a.k.a. sessional) instructors, including the many who work only part-time, as I often did from 2001 to 2008.  In 2012, more than 70% of US university courses are being taught by non-permanent faculty.  However, the American Musicological Society, for example, will not release the names and email addresses of its graduate student members, even to me: a long-time AMS member who worked at its office in 2010 to redevelop the successful new version of its Doctoral Dissertations in Musicology web index (which is, in fact, the AMS website’s most popular function).  Even worse, the AMS does not know how many of its members have non-permanent teaching positions.  It does not track its members’ “career stages” (as it calls such information), because it wants to believe that every Ph.D. eventually lands in a tenure-track position.  In what I take to be a related issue, there was some discussion at the AMS in 2010 about having a member-portfolio system, but the society wasn’t willing to commit to the cost of the 200 hours (e.g. $5000) I felt that it would take to develop it.

My research (more to come later) shows that two-thirds of music academic Ph.D.s since the early 1990s have NOT landed in tenure-track positions.  Even those among the fortunate one-third have referred to the past two or three decades as having produced a “lost generation,” but some of us still manage (despite being “lost” and even with the odds stacked against us) to publish books and articles, present conferences papers, teach part-time, and so on.  Music academia (unlike history, English, and other larger fields) has not prepared the majority of its members for the reality of needing to establish other types of career pathsFor example, the American Musicological Society’s official “alternative academic” career advice comprises only a few scant pages, which are lifted almost entirely from publications addressing non-music fields and are, quite frankly, almost completely useless.  MuSNet, on the other hand, provides an innovative, dynamic, networking context precisely so we can (among other things) help ourselves navigate some of these difficulties.

Digital Humanities and/or Music

The 2012 Canadian Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences took place at Waterloo, Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University and University of Waterloo from May 26 to June 3.  In the past, I would have exclusively attended music society sessions, but this time about two-thirds of what I attended had to do with the digital humanities.  I have very good reasons for that!

For my ongoing attempts to find the correct path forward for http://music-discussion.net (free/open/public vs. partially monetized vs. closed/publisher-based, etc.), the Society for Digital Humanities (SDH) does quite useful work.  So, from May 28-29 I attended various SDH papers and events (including a paper on MOOCs: massive open online courses; and several papers on copyright issues), and on June 1 I mostly attended inter-society, panel-like symposiums about public knowledge and open-access.  The June 1 meetings largely involved new methodologies and infrastructure concepts being explored for research projects, scholarly societies and journals, academic publishing, and (to a lesser extent) teaching.

On June 1 and 3, I attended some sessions of the Canadian University Music Society (CUMS), especially ones involving film music, Canadian music, and jazz (and even papers involving Canadian jazz film music), plus a symposium on the future of music in the academy.  Music is still trying to break down traditional music-department silos, such as achieving a balance among such things as performance, theory, and history; classical, popular, jazz, and world music; majors and minors; and core requirements, electives, and general education courses.  However, it is my impression that it would be at least as useful to break down the silos separating music itself from the wider humanities, such as history, art history, and English.

Although the theme of the Congress was “Crossroads: Scholarship for an Uncertain World,” it is rather telling that I (developing an independent project and currently without an institutional home) was the only person in evidence both at SDH and CUMS.  So, for 2013’s Congress at the University of Victoria, I will propose a music-related joint session between SDH and CUMS, and I may also participate in UVic’s annual summer digital humanities workshop.  A leader in the field is Ray Siemens, who is a professor at UVic and also an old undergrad friend of mine.  He and his wife Lynne (also an old friend) introduced me to a lot of people, and I look forward to building a greater level of understanding and collaboration between the digital humanities and music–especially music history and culture involving a wide spectrum of 20th-century music.

The Music Discussion Network (paper summary)

On March 31, 2012 at Rider University in New Jersey, I presented a paper about the Music Discussion Network (and related issues) at the American Musicological Society’s annual Teaching Music History Day.  On April 21 at Hamilton College in upstate New York, I also presented an updated version of the paper at an AMS chapter meeting.

In the first part of the paper, I discuss the idea of public musicology (open, shared, etc.), my recent return to school to study software development, and my subsequent plan to combine public musicology with web software and web content development.  I include an overview of how the Music Discussion Network is structured to include a wide variety of music, instructional videos, piece recordings, lyrics, reviews, information fields, and areas for members to contribute to discussions of specific topics.  Then, I explain how I go about making the instructional videos (which are on MDN’s YouTube channel) and how things are organized as individual topics pages on MDN itself.  I play excerpts from the instructional videos about Bob Dylan and Chopin and a clip from the music video for Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman.”  In addition, I demonstrate how the dynamic, data-driven nature of MDN makes it easy to find related materials by clicking on links, searching, and browsing.

The second part of the paper covers several, non-music-related inspirations for MDN.  These include the Khan Academy, which provides over 3000 free instructional videos (mainly for high school students) on science, math, history, etc., but now also includes an art-history project (mainly for non-major undergraduates) called Smarthistory.  The Khan Academy’s videos have been viewed more than 130 million times (often as a part of “classroom flipping,” where students study such materials on their own), the system has significant financial support from the Gates Foundation and Google, it has grown to include a series of practice exercises, and it is used by a number of school boards.  Similarly, Stage 2 of MDN will include premium/paid content for university/college contexts, such as example test questions, automated online tests, ideas for essay subjects, and course-specific blogs.  Another inspiration for MDN is George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, which includes a digital history Ph.D. program, dozens of IT professionals, software tools, and involvement in more than 100 public digital history web projects, with over 13 million users per year.

Then, in the paper’s third and final part, I get into some broader issues and contexts.  For example, in his writings about digital history, CHNM’s director Dan Cohen has broached the issue of the “tribe” (validation, etc.), and I pose some related questions regarding MDN, such as whether I should concern myself with such things as conventional peer review and academic publishing.  I also address musicology’s little-discussed tenure-track (or similar) hiring rate of less than one-third and how the American Musicology Society’s new career-development guide is of almost no use in preparing for a “non-academic” career.  Cohen also discusses the importance of curation and methodology, and I argue that musicology, too, needs to start thinking about those things (for example, to develop a “digital musicology”) and about becoming more public.

Public Musicology – How to Get There

http://chronicle.com/article/Making-a-Public-PhD/130716


Highlights:
Yale University has a public humanities initiative. As one of its American Studies professors puts it: “Students have to invent their own jobs.” Similarly, a Yale historian says: “Historians have to get out and reach the broader public…the ultimate audience. … If academic historians don’t get involved, we have no right to complain about what we see at public historical sites.” A professor at another institution says: “I’m alarmed that there aren’t more people with strong history backgrounds actually doing public history.”



Followup: 
In a related vein, George Mason University has the Center for History and New Media, which has a Ph.D. program in digital history, dozens of IT professionals and developers, a number of original software tools, and over one hundred web-based projects with more than 16 million users annually.


“Public history” should certainly be expanded to include “public musicology” (public music history & culture, etc.). However, musicology presently exists almost exclusively within music departments, as one of a number of music sub-disciplines that focus mainly on “specialized knowledge” about classical music performance, music theory, and so on. Musicology thus almost never participates in such humanities’ contexts as Yale’s or even in what is arguably the ultimate public forum: the internet. However, it absolutely can and should!


The American Musicological Society’s brand-new professional development guide (188 pages) spends only two pages (i.e., that aren’t document samples) on the non-academic world, yet it exclusively seems to mean by that such contexts as museums. In addition, the document does not update the sample documents from the Harvard Arts & Sciences publication that it borrowed for this purpose. Those resumes and cover letter do not have anything to do with music or music graduate degrees, and they are also all nearly twenty years old.

The Music Discussion Network (MDN)

The YouTube Channel for the Instructional Videos of the Music Discussion Network (MDN) is http://youtube.com/MusicDiscussionNet. MDN’s website is http://Music-Discussion.Net/, which includes the same videos, but also Additional Information and Links, as well as Discussion Areas. So far, I have completed instructional videos on Bob Dylan, Josquin, Laurie Anderson, Handel, Rush, Chopin, and Music in The Simpsons.

Music Discussion Network – ROI (Return On Investment)

You know you’re in the bottom of the 99%, when you have to look up the acronym “ROI,” because you truly and honestly have no idea what it means in the thing to which you’ve just been invited: a debate called “Be it resolved: That social media initiatives must pass an ROI test to be worthwhile.”
I would agree that a return on investment is necessary once one gets past the development stage of a website and its related content. However, if you’re doing something comparatively specific (http://youtube.com/durbow, http://music-discussion.net) and you haven’t invested anything other than your time and expertise (because that’s what you have), the “return” would presumably involve other people participating in the website with their own time and interest, such as in discussions.