Dr. Seth Cluett, Ph.D.
Lecturer in Music, Computer Music and Sound Studies; Director of the Computer Music Center
Dr. Cluett teaches a diverse range of courses to undergraduate and graduate students on topics such as instrument building, sound, and digital music. During the 2020 lockdown in the earlier part of the pandemic, as the digital pedagogy mentor for faculty at the School of Arts and Sciences, he advised faculty on how to migrate to the digital platform and led workshops for the music department to support all faculty and graduate student instructors in their transition to remote teaching. In his narrative, he highlights the importance of using technology to create an inclusive and communal space in which all learners participate and establish connection with each other. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Cluett did in his courses, what lessons and experiences he’s carrying forward, and the advice he has for other instructors at Columbia.
Include All Learners to Participate in Class through Technology
One of the thrusts of our research at the center focuses on inclusivity, equity, and belonging, especially for marginalized communities and neurodiverse people. This has informed how we build studios and how we think about the courses.
Prior to the pandemic, we reviewed all of the syllabi and rewrote course descriptions to be more inclusive, and we redesigned the studios to make them feel more welcoming for people who didn’t have access to technology or the funds to engage with expensive equipment. CourseWorks pages also accommodated different types of learners and served as a way to level the playing field. They provided learners with pedagogical back-end resources like Coursera, CTL, and LinkedIn Learning. These were resources that served learners who were nervous asking questions, and we have carried them forward them beyond the pandemic and really doubled down on the model of providing expansive resources whenever necessary and relevant.
During the pandemic, Discord (instant messaging social platform) became an important avenue for including all learners and developing a sense of community as we toggled between different modalities of teaching and learning. We found that if we parallel streamed the chats in the Discord channel, it created a discussion space that resembled Zoom chat but one that is more robust and persistent beyond the class meeting. Students, particularly the introverted ones, who would have never participated otherwise were participating actively in class. They were responding to each other with chats like “+1” and arrows (^^) to show that their peers’ comments resonated with them. And as an instructor, I would know that a student has something to say about a topic and I could ask, “Could you say a little bit more about that?” The chat allowed students to think and type while I was talking, and they had a chance to follow up to add more thoughts in a way that substantially contributed to the conversation. This kind of dynamic discussion has been difficult to achieve in the physical classroom space, and I continue to ask, “How do we bring that back?”
Additionally, the University provided us with funds to send students in the recorded sound class hand-held recorders so that they could work on recording projects at home. Software companies like Ableton Live and Max MSP provided us with free licenses for all students in our center for 3 semesters in a row. Students were able to access and use thousands of dollars’ worth of software from their home machines. During Spring 2021 where we had a few remote students from other countries, we were able to send them a small kit containing the basics needed to execute the lessons on audio hardware design, an Arduino kit (a small circuit board that enables sensors to be connected to the computer), a soldering iron, a multimeter, and a basic set of electronic components, so that they could follow along with the projects at home.
Create a Community for Connection
At the time of lockdown in Spring 2020, we were all teaching in trauma. We had so many people who felt isolated and were deeply affected by the loss of a learning community. The computer music center is a 6,000 square foot facility where people make music with one another but also study next generation technologies. The community around the center is as important as the pedagogy, so when we went online, I tried to reconceptualize the way we taught courses and think about what was missing. We developed a tripartite schema, where Zoom provided a space for the live class meeting, Discord simulated a kind of a hallway space where people follow up from class and continue class discussion (students posted on Discord links to songs that were getting through each week, like a playlist; see Image A), and CourseWorks served as a space where all the course materials live so that students don’t have to hunt or find things in Google Drive or search through their inbox (see Image B).
In particular, while Zoom sessions became the normal synchronous class meeting, the Discord channel became a building where students could interact with each other in ways that were social and pedagogical. This communal space through Discord has continued on and has grown over time. We have migrated the Discord server up to the center level, and all of our courses now have subchannels on the main Discord (see Image C). In this way, we accumulate community in this virtual building over the number of times the courses run, and we have hundreds of students who are continuing to follow center events through Discord and get feedback from one another on projects that don’t relate to class.
Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia
Communicate clear and consistent information with students.
I would encourage instructors to make information persistent. Have your TA track everything you referenced in class and put it into CourseWorks under each week’s module so that students can follow up after class. Having an Internet version of the class is a backbone that supports everyone’s learning. You may not have time as the professor to follow up and put a link to every reading or video you mentioned in a class, but if you have TAs, they can create a running list of URLs and do a data dump at the end of the day. This way, students who don’t feel they know or understand something in a class or who want to review materials from a previous class can follow up on it and do due diligence. This shows students that the class is not about speeding past the information, and they do not have to pressure themselves and think that if they are not fast enough, because they can always get to the information.
Consider the physical architecture of the classroom and design for an engaging classroom experience.
Think about the architecture of the classroom. How do people sit in the classroom space? What is the dynamic of conversation in real life? If you are teaching online, what is a way to abstract the dynamic nature of a classroom conversation and help students feel like they are in a room? Find ways to compensate with a different energy to model the dynamism that would normally exist in the physical room.
While ideas like the parallel chat stream during a live class session could feel like a distraction, I have seen that it creates a real sense of belonging and dynamic energy among students. One way to manage the chat could be having a TA track the chat and then bring forward questions on behalf of the chat stream, similar to what session moderators would do at a conference. Students can also directly message the TA to ask an anonymous question which can minimize the distraction for you as the professor.
If you don’t have a TA, you can have an engaged undergraduate student be the chat monitor and have that one student be the conduit for asking questions. You do not have to manage the chats all by yourself.
Capturing that energy and encouraging students to express themselves in an inclusive space is absolutely crucial. We need to adapt and we cannot do what we did before. The sage-on-the-stage or the master-apprentice model is not viable in the future of teaching and learning.