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Mix Blog Live: Which Group Am I In?

Steve La Cerra returned to school last week, and everything you've been reading about education during the pandemic is true; but he's making it work for the students.

It’s back-to-school week, and this is without a doubt the most bizarre return to campus I’ve ever experienced. This year there are as many different versions of “back-to-school” as there are educational institutions, with arrangements varying from full in-person instruction to online-only—and any combination in-between that you can imagine.

The campus where I teach (Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.) is fully open and is offering a mixture of in-person and online education. At the request of the Provost, most classes—including those in the Music Production and Recording Arts department—are holding the initial class meetings online-only, with instructors conducting those classes from on-campus.

At first, I thought this was an odd request, but it makes sense when you consider the inevitability that some students won’t get the memo (i.e., they won’t pay attention to their emails) and will show up in person for the first day of class. In spite of the fact that I emailed my students with links to Zoom sessions for meetings that took place last Wednesday, one of them showed up in person. I imagine that he would have been rather upset if he had arrived to a deserted campus.

Two of my courses are morning and afternoon sections of Recording Workshop I, wherein students dive into the operation of our studios and learn techniques such as using multichannel headphone systems, mic placement for a variety of instruments, running sessions, and operating an assortment of gear. Some of this does not translate well (if at all) to remote learning, but thankfully the facilities are available for in-person education as long as social distancing guidelines are followed.

Compliance means dividing the classes into groups of five students, which is the maximum permitted in our Control Room A. I have 14 students registered for the morning section and six registered for the afternoon section; some of the morning students agreed to shift to the afternoon, allowing us to comply with State guidelines.

If you’ve looked at the numbers and find a problem with my math, you’re correct: I have ten morning and ten afternoon students, numbers which exceed the limitations of the space under Covid-19 protocol. The uncomfortable solution was to split the classes into four groups of five and alternate weeks that they attend class in person. We considered having each group come to the studio every week for half of the class time, but that’s an inefficient use of resources. It increases student exposure, we’d need to allow time for sanitization in between groups, and we’d have a traffic jam in the hall while students cued up for class. A written exam for the midterm will probably happen online, but the practical portion of the final exam will require scheduled appointments.

Read more Mix Blog Live: Surviving Sturgis.

The catch with this arrangement is that each student is required to receive three hours of instruction per week. If they meet with me every second week, they’re missing three hours of curriculum during their “week off.” First and foremost, I made it very clear to them that there is no such thing as a week off (welcome to the entertainment biz!), and they’ll have asynchronous online material to complete each week.

Some of this material was easily removed from the control room. For example, they can learn about studio and session documentation on their own time by working through assigned readings, videos or projects. Ditto for some of the other content, so I’m removing as much of the “talk” from the studio as possible and treating class time more like lab time—with the caveat that they will still be responsible for the asynchronous content. We’ll see how that goes.

My other class, Audio Systems Design and Installation, will follow a slightly more traditional classroom model. I plan to meet with them every week, though we may have to split the class into two separate rooms on occasion, with either audio and video link or a teaching assistant.

In the interest of making sure my students get as much hands-on time as possible, I’m front-loading the first few weeks of the semester with stuff like soldering, building a microphone from a kit, and comparing an assortment of studio monitors. My hope is that we can at least get through those topics before a rise in Covid-19 cases forces us out of the facilities and onto the web. Ever the cynic, I have a bet on the over/under for the date when that happens (I won’t tell you what it is), but deep down I’m hoping that somehow we’ll make it through the entire semester without incident.

I’ll keep you posted.