Rock ’n’ Roll, Information Abundance, and Teaching Today

I wrote a music column for my high school newspaper.  I scoured a half dozen music magazines for ideas (anyone remember Circus? Crawdaddy? Creem?) and reviewed albums I liked (Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, the Clash, Patti Smith, and a number of bands I’m less willing to admit to now).  Being a music fan with no money in a small town a couple of hours away from the nearest major concert venue, I also operated an informal ticket service. Place your order with me (and a friend who had a car) and for a reasonable fee we’d periodically take a road trip to pick up tickets for upcoming shows.  The fees we charged paid for our gas, our tickets, and some of the vinyl I bought.

This was the late 70s in the pre-Internet world.  Information was scarce, Ticketmaster was a fledgling phone-based startup with limited reach, and someone as ridiculously unqualified as I was could play the role of a de facto local music expert.  (One regionally popular band even hired me to write their publicity material; my first paid writing gig.) The places to learn about music were very limited.  Didn’t understand a lyric?  There were no lyric websites; you just argued it out with friends…endlessly. There was no MTV, YouTube, or Pandora.  There was Soul Train, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, and the Midnight Special (look ‘em up) but those usually catered to pop tastes and bands appearing on television were often seen–at least by my friends–as  “selling out.”  The most exotic source of music info I had access to was a subscription to Britain’s New Music Express I’d convinced our local librarian to acquire.

I was reminded of all this recently as I listened (for free) to Spotify.  I played various music, skimming each artist’s “biography” page, exploring the convenient links to “related artists,” checking out Spotify’s built-in lyrics feature, sometimes jumping to an artist’s Wikipedia discography to learn about the critical reception of their work over time.  I started with classic blues (Howlin’ Wolf, Alberta Hunter, Billie Holiday, John Lee Hooker), which reminded me of Mali’s Ali Farka Toure which led to Tinariwen and got me thinking about Algeria’s Khaled (not to be confused with DJ Khaled)…and on and on.  These were long-time favorites of mine but at each step I ventured off to learn a bit about related folks I’d never heard of and listen to some of their work.

A world of music vastly more diverse than my narrow high school play list was at my fingertips.  With a click of the mouse I could instantly listen to artists, access background information, learn about musical influences and cultural references, read critical reviews, and more.  I was swimming in an ocean of information–audio, images, videos, text–that would have been completely unimaginable to my laughably parochial teenage self, who considered AC/DC an exotic discovery because they were–gasp–from Australia!  How I envy young people growing up in this cornucopia of music!  Had I been able to travel forward in time, I suspect I’d see the magical music machine that sits on my desk (or in my hand) as heaven itself.

This is one aspect of what we mean when we say information is no longer scarce. The Internet has facilitated the emergence of a new world of information at our fingertips.  The way we hear, experience, learn about, share, and create music is vastly different than what those of us of a certain age did growing up.

And yet, when I look around my campus, most of the classes I see are organized in a way that is remarkably similar to those I experienced in high school and college.  It’s as if time has stood still in parts of higher education. We work in educational museums with life-sized dioramas.

I don’t argue for change for change’s sake; some things continue because they are valuable and work.  But in a world that’s been transformed, those of us helping students prepare for their future need to adapt.  We need to be helping students get ready for the world they will live in, not the world we grew up in.  In an era of information abundance–not scarcity–we have the opportunity to help students learn about, navigate, sort through, think critically about, and put in context the ocean of information in which they live.  That involves experimenting with new ways to harness the potentials of digital technology and to tap into the vast collective knowledge that is available online.  It involves unleashing students so they can investigate these boundless resources and learn to use them to construct their own creations and analyses.

This simple notion of information abundance is well-worn stuff but somehow my little musical journey brought the lesson home again for me.

Enough of that.  Turn up the volume and enjoy.