My SMT 2018 Activities

SMT is just around the corner! I hope to see many friends in San Antonio. I’m having a particularly busy SMT this season with four different activities.

A study in timbre narratives and instrumentation in 1980s pop

I’m giving a presentation drawn from my dissertation on using timbre to construct musical narratives. In this paper, I categorize sounds used in a given track into three groups, or instrumentational categories: a) core sounds, which articulate structural aspects of pitch and rhythm of the song, b) melody sounds, which are the voice and any instrument replacing the voice, or c) novelty sounds, used primarily for coloristic effects. This paper focuses on 1980s popular music, specifically, on the use of the factory presets of the Yamaha DX7, the most widely-used synthesizer of the 1980s; my categorization therefore was determined by analysis of many 1980s singles. The results of this process suggest that within mainstream 1980s pop, certain Yamaha DX7 presets were consistently paired with a specific instrumentational category. Furthermore, a correlation arises between the timbral characteristics of these presets and their instrumentational category.

xmas bells annotated.png
Spectrogram of TUB BELLS, a DX7 preset.

My paper focuses on “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid (1984) as its main analytical case study—something I wrote a post about here once a while ago. Essentially I argue that this song demonstrates a subversion of timbral norms, which in turn generates musical meaning, when the novelty sound TUBULAR BELLS becomes a melody sound. Though TUB BELLS is typically too noisy to function as a melody sound, this chorus’s communal mantra works especially well with a synthesis of two opposed textural functions.

The Dynamics of the Job Interview

My post reviewing my experience interviewing for a tenure-track position as a music theory professor is by far the most-trafficked post on my blog. While it might seem weird to take job-seeking advice from someone as new as I am to the “other side” of the PhD, I think there’s value in the fact that I just did this.

So I’m presenting from this perspective in a special session put together by the SMT’s Professional Development committee. I’m going to be focusing on the teaching demonstration, giving tips for how to succeed well. I’m going to focus on the following points:

  • reaching out to friends and colleagues for help
  • embracing the awkwardness
  • making music
  • varying activities
  • reflecting your teaching statement
  • using writing

Pop Music Interest Group meeting: small-group breakout sessions

I’m chair of the Pop Music Interest Group now! One of the most demanding duties that gives me is having to read a lot of articles and books, in order to determine who will be the winners of our two publication prizes. I read 13 new articles and (parts of) 2 new books as part of this. While it was a very demanding task, it felt great to read that much again, and to be exposed to the newest research in our corner of the field.

I’m also setting aside a large chunk of our time to break down into small groups by research interest. Tentatively, the groups I’ve chosen are lyrics, timbre, cognition, performance, tonality/modality, topic theory, corpus study, and rhythm/meter; but, these may change depending on how the groups end up looking at the meeting. I like this idea because I think it will be nice to spend unstructured time together (although I will be projecting discussion prompts so nothing gets too awkward). Many people have commented on PMIG’s occasional cliquishness; I think the small group activities will break up some of the cliques and get more different kinds of people talking with each other.

Webmasterly duties

Somehow, I’ve tripped backwards from a humble role as the operator of the SMT Twitter account into the position of Assistant Webmaster for the society. I haven’t done much yet to earn this title, but as time goes on my duties are going to increase until I fully take over as webmaster in 2020 or so. So, it looks like my time spent making Geocities and Angelfire websites, customizing my Xangas and Livejournals, and building this whole website were not all complete wastes of time!

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Using scheduling software for better boundaries in office hours

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I always have my schedule posted on my office door. This year, I also added a QR code and Calendly URL.

Like many classroom faculty, I love teaching and helping students. It’s one of the most satisfying components of my job. Because of that, I really struggle to set boundaries with my students when it comes to scheduling appointments. If a student emails me to ask for a special appointment, I can usually stick to my schedule when offering times, but if a student actually comes to my office and looks at me and asks if they can chat with me about something, I have a very hard time telling them to make an appointment to come back later. Because of this, I started using scheduling software to avoid a lot of the back-and-forth of scheduling. (There’s lots of options for scheduling software out there, but I ended up settling on Calendly—the minimalist interface appeals to my aesthetic, and it does everything I need to do.

What to use Calendly for

I usually set aside a two-hour time block in the week for office hours where students may drop in without any appointment of any kind. This year, I’ve said that students may also optionally schedule a particular appointment time within office hours by using my Calendly link. Additionally, I made another “event type” in Calendly for special appointments. I always have a little extra time set aside for possible student appointments outside of office hours, for students who cannot make the regular office hour time. (You do need a paid plan to have two event types active; it’s free to have just one event type.)

If students use Calendly to set up an appointment with me, the student only sees the available times as options. For example, if Student A scheduled an appointment with me for 10:30–11 in my 10–12 office hours, then when Student B goes to schedule their appointment, they’ll only see 10–10:30 and 11–12 as options for when to come.

 

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Calendly features that I use

1. Calendar integration

Calendly automatically syncs back and forth with my calendar software (I use iCal). So, student appointments are automatically added to my calendar once they’re scheduled. (If the student cancels the appointment, the calendar updates to re-title the event to say “canceled”.) Of course, these updates are also emailed to you, but I appreciate not having to take an extra step and put it in my calendar.

2. Good automated scheduling

When you create an “event type” in Calendly, several prompts are given to you to answer the question “When can people book this event?”. You can choose the event duration, of course. But, you can also add a window of time—for example, my window is 14 rolling days. This means that students can always schedule with me up to  two weeks out from the present day, and Calendly updates this window on its own. Then, you can indicate which hours within those days are available for appointments. Calendly lets you schedule things both based on day of the week, and on individual dates.

But wait, there’s more! Calendly also will check against your integrated calendar for conflicts. For example, I usually have my special appointments with students on Mondays. But last Monday was Labor Day, so I wasn’t in. Because Calendly has access to my calendar, which has Labor Day as an all-day event, Calendly knew that I was not available that Monday, even though I have set myself to have the same hours on all Mondays! Likewise, today is Monday, and I have an appointment at 4:30 to meet with someone outside of my office; Calendly has removed today at 4:30 as a scheduling option.

You can also close off signups within a certain window of time, to prevent last-minute signups. For my regularly-scheduled office hours, students can sign up until one hour beforehand. But for special appointments, I require a 12-hour notice.

3. Automated reminders

Screen Shot 2018-09-10 at 1.56.54 PMI have also set up Calendly to email event reminders to students one day before their scheduled appointment. The email reminds them where my office is and when they signed up for. I imagine this saves a lot of last-minute “where is your office again??” emails, or worse, the “I’m so sorry, I forgot we were meeting!” email! Likewise, this will email students if I have to cancel the appointment, and I can add a custom message onto the stock cancellation message.

Better boundaries and organization

I’ve found that so far, Calendly has made a lot of my boundary problems into non-issues. If I direct students to my Calendly link, they usually can just find a time that works for them, rather than turning that into a negotiation. I think the half-hour timeslot defaults also help students have reasonable expectations for what they can ask during office hours.

This isn’t a Calendly ad. Besides Calendly, there are tons of apps out there that will manage this for you, at various price points—I also briefly looked at SignUpGenius (thought this was a bit ugly), 10to8 (too business-/transaction-oriented), and Calendr (actually I didn’t look that closely at this). Shopping around, I found that for what I need to do, most software will charge me around $10/mo. Calendly is free for most of its functions, but to have two “event types,” like I have both special appointments and office hours appointments, you have to pay that $10/mo fee. But Calendly offloads a lot of responsibility from my brain to my computer, and as my brain becomes more and more overloaded with different kinds of administrative work, I really feel that is money well spent.

 

Planning for 2018–2019

So I’ve covered what I did last year, and what I’m gonna do now (I hope). Here’s an even more hopeful/ambitious post: my goals for the 2018–2019 school year.

Read through my course journals from Fall 2017 and make adjustments.

I’ve taught a lot of the classes I teach here at Mason before at Brooklyn College and Florida State, but last year was the first time I forced myself to keep course journals. After each class (well, almost every class), I wrote at least one sentence commenting on the vibe of the class, what went well, what didn’t go well. I want to make this a purposeful activity and incorporate those observations into my adjustments for next year’s courses.

Set up SignUpGenius to have even better boundaries with student meeting times.

So yeah, I made a schedule for myself last year, but I had trouble sticking to it because I have trouble saying “no” to students sometimes if my schedule doesn’t work ideally with theirs. A colleague of mine suggested SignUpGenius as a way to have like an online appointment booking service for my office hours, like you would use for your hair stylist or something.

I’ve tested this out here. Sign up for a fake appointment with me—seriously! I want to see how it works. Feel free to let me know what you think of the layout, etc.

Get a Renaissance singing club running.

In New York, I was in an amateur choir called the Renaissance Street Singers, which was an amazing experience and taught me so much about casual music-making and all the joy it brings. I want to try to recreate that experience here in Fairfax. My idea is basically that it’s not so much a choir per se as a singing club. We’ll gather, read music, eat and drink, chat, and have fun. No need for performances at all, but maybe they could be added at a later stage. I believe in this as a project because it teaches people to not be so shy about their singing voices, you learn to love Renaissance music, you get better at sight singing, and you make friends. It’s the best.

At the beginning of the year, I made this website and posted a thing about it on my office door, but got swamped and couldn’t follow through. Next year I hope to get students and faculty interested, and attempt to figure out a good meeting time for everyone.

Goals for Summer 2018

So this is the second installment of my 3-day blogathon thing (with a past/present/future theme). Today’s focus is summer goals. I have a lot of professional and personal goals to achieve this summer, some of which I’ve already knocked out—so I’m getting started on the right foot, at least. (The philosophy of goals is to have both achievable goals as well as stretch goals, after all!)

Writing goals

In a teaching-heavy position like mine, it’s very difficult to make substantial progress on writing during the semester, and nigh impossible to do so in the first year of a new job. So the summer is the time for me to reconnect with my researcher side and take care of all those creative tasks that require ample space for thinking.

  1. Today: I just today finished a complete draft of a book chapter for an edited collection, titled “Timbre, Genre, and Polystylism in Sonic the Hedgehog 3” and sent it off to the editor. I’m sure there’s more revising to be done, but it feels good to complete a draft.
  2. Sometime in June: I am collaborating with other authors on an article on another chapter in another edited collection, which analyzes “Partition” by Beyoncé—this is the followup project from a “summer school” I attended in Summer of 2015 (gosh, three years ago!). I promised my group members I’d respond to critique from editors in June, so I’d better keep my promise.
  3. By Early July: I’m presenting my dissertation research at a timbre conference in Montreal, hosted by McGill. It’s a poster presentation, so I need to design a pretty poster.
  4. July/August: I just heard back from a journal yesterday that I’ve gotten a revise (substantially) and resubmit on an article I’ve been kicking around for quite a while now. While I’m slightly bummed at the extent of the revisions that they want, the review I got was very thorough and had a lot for me to work with. Nevertheless, I’m gonna kick that can down the road a bit while I come to terms with all that.

Teaching goals

  1. By June 1: I am going to submit an application for a grant on behalf of a committee of people who are wanting to revise the theory curriculum. I am trying to do a modular (i.e., non-sequenced) theory curriculum that incorporates an entire semester focused on jazz and pop music, among other things. We are also working to bring performance experience into the classroom in more tangible ways, like including a playing component to the typical battery of timed quizzes in the Theory I class.
  2. By June 4: Redesign the DMA comprehensive exams.
  3. By mid-July: I will have completed a course through my university that teaches professors how to design an online course through Blackboard. I teach a graduate course required for all masters’ students, and because of differing scheduling needs (educators need night classes; performers need day classes), offering the course online is an ideal presentation for this course. But, I don’t currently know how I’m going to make it as discussion-based and interactive as my in-person class. Hopefully completing the course will inform me a bit better. I’m applying for funding for this activity too.
  4. By the start of next semester: Provided we’re awarded the grant, I will work with other members of the curriculum re-design team to develop new materials for the theory courses, particularly the jazz/pop course. We won’t implement anything til Fall 2019 probably but it’s still good to get this work done early.

Personal goals

(Not-so-)fun fact! I, like a lot of professors, don’t get paid over the summer. This is part of the motivation for trying to acquire some of this money for redesigns. So I’m going to really try to limit the work I try to do over the summer to these projects listed above (granted, that’s probably way too much unpaid work still). Here’s my plans for summer relaxation:

  • Several camping trips. I used to go camping when I lived in Florida, but (shocker) I sold all my camping goodies when I moved to New York City. Now that I’m back in the #suburblife, and I own a Subaru Forester, camping is a lot more attainable than it had been. I just went camping last weekend at a park 15 minutes from my apartment. It sounds like a silly thing to do, but it was actually amazing. I’m hoping to do this spontaneously any nice weekend that I can. I have two more camping trips already planned this summer, to Assateague and Chincoteague islands, where the wild horses roam on the beach.
  • Other non-camping trips. I’m going to New York City again and so thrilled to hang out with old friends and eat some decent food and get a decent haircut at my old place. I still miss Brooklyn terribly. I’m also going on a family vacation with my dad, both my brothers, and my brothers’ partners to West Virginia. It’s a lot to handle but should be good quality time.
  • Video gaaaames. I’m still obsessed with Crusader Kings 2, which I have been for, I’m guessing, 5 years at least. It’s still fun. I’ve also been playing a lot on the Nintendo Switch, like Mario Kart. Hopefully Smash Bros will come out soon too.
  • Singing! My church job recently decided to employ a quartet over the summer to sing some more polyphony in the summer Latin masses. While my church choir job has been stressing me out a bit lately, I’m definitely down for one-to-a-part singing, anytime, anywhere.

It’s a… erm… ambitious program I’ve laid out for myself here—it’ll be interesting to check in at the end of the summer and see how much of this I was able to follow through on.

First year on the job

My last post was Jan 5, 2018, which was during the winter break between the Fall and Spring semesters. Now almost five months later, I’ve finished the Spring semester and thus my first year in my tenure-track job at George Mason. As my decreased posting frequency should tell you, I’ve been extremely busy this year getting oriented to my 3/3 teaching load (3 courses in each semester, Fall and Spring) and my new environs.

These next three days, I’m participating in a lovely Faculty Writing Retreat that Mason has put on. After each day concludes at 5pm, I’ll write up a short blog post with my observations reflecting on the 2017–2018 school year (today’s topic), my goals for Summer 2018, and my goals for the next year. Which brings us to my current topic: how I’ve grown in my first year on the job. They’re all interrelated, and I think they all come from the kind of inevitable boost in maturity and confidence that your first big-time job can sometimes slap into you.

Continue reading “First year on the job”

The Tenure-Track Job Search in Music Theory

I was on the job market this past year for the first time. No one will be surprised to hear that it was quite arduous. I’m very pleased to say that I did win a job as an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at George Mason University, located in Fairfax, Virginia (in the Washington, D.C. metro area).

Now that it’s all over, but while it’s still fresh in my mind, I compiled statistics from my search and personal advice, which I hope will help other aspiring theorists in their own searches. I’ll provide:

  • statistics on the season
  • what goes into the application process
  • how long it takes to get results
  • recommendations for surviving/thriving.

Continue reading “The Tenure-Track Job Search in Music Theory”