Saturday, August 23, 2014

College Is Dead; Long Live Education

The first attempt at higher education I experienced was a disaster. The school was Dodge City Community College and my first major was Music. I had been, intermittently, a fairly successful rock and roll musician for a few years and wanted to extend my musical knowledge to theory. DCCC wanted to teach me how to teach K-12 music, a career path that was dying in 1966. I learned quickly that my school’s music department had damn few actual musicians as instructors. After a wasted semester, I moved to Business and a few weeks later, left that school for good. My first attempt at college was a bust and I was convinced I’d never set a wasted foot in an institution of “higher learning” again.

A few years later, I was working part-time and getting paid full time in Dallas, Texas and with some spare afternoons available I reconsidered my education. Junior colleges were still cheap and so was my time. Right in downtown Dallas was a school several of my friends recommended, El Centro College. I signed up for a couple of the classes I’d flunked in Kansas by dropping out unannounced and stumbled into an unexpected bonus: high quality teachers who cared about their students. In my K-12 and partial college experience, I had no more than three instructors who gave a flying damn about providing value to their students. The overwhelming attitude of my first years’ instructors was that of a pissed off babysitter. At El Centro, I had excellent instructors who cared about their students, knew their subjects, and taught their classes like professionals.

Unfortunately, I went back to the Midwest and suffered the usual crap-for-brains characters who “teach” at a variety of institutions from western Kansas to Texas to Nebraska. Since I’d experience real instruction as an adult, I at least knew when I was in a mediocre situation. California took the whole education experience up several notches. Even in the state’s community colleges, the majority of instructors were not only PhD’s, they were brilliant. The only place I experienced less-than-excellent instructors was in my CSULB minor; technical writing. My Creative Writing and English instructors in that program were as excellent as I’d come to expect from California’s higher education system.

Where’s this all going? I’m glad you asked.

In my experience, the excellence I’ve enjoyed in my education has all been in practical, technical, and vocational training. I include Creative Writing in that group. When the education system is focused on providing value to students, it works. When it is misdirected toward theoretical educational philosophic goals, it becomes pointless and aimless. 50 years later, if you look at the schools I’ve mentioned (and linked) you’ll see some warning flags and some encouraging signs. My first school, DCCC, appears to believe it’s primary purpose is to entertain the local public. If the website is any indicator the school’s focus, sports and cheerleading are the primary activities of its students. El Centro has focused on a few practical vocational specialties and created programs that are economically practical and valuable to their students. The same applies to CSULB’s engineering, design, and even the more traditional programs.

For-profit institutions are getting their asses handed to them in the current economic environment. I recently visited with some of the administrative people at Southeast Technical Community College and they, too, are experiencing a slow-down in enrollment. Unlike other schools, they are not in a panic mode. They’ve been through this before and realize that college enrollment often goes down the when economy is strong. People are less likely to work on improving their skills if their skills are marketable. That’s not smart, but it is human nature. STCC makes a big deal, internally and externally, of their 80% graduate employment rate (a number for-profits only wish they could emulate). Their business model is to provide marketable skills to their graduates along with a reasonable dose of traditional liberal arts education. In my experience, that provides a much more focused goal for the teachers, which provides more value to students. In a decent economy, what we usually call “higher education” is nearly useless. It is an unfocused, disconnected-from-reality waste of time and money that provides value to such a tiny portion of students that intelligent parents should avoid any contribution to that sort of system. If kids want to flush their future into the toilet of general liberal arts, they should after being honestly counseled to the fact that any job they could get after that education could be obtained without it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

When the Only Information You Have is Disinformation

Mostly, I like TapeOp Magazine a lot. The interviews are interesting and, sometimes, educational and the profiles of people who make the tools of the pro audio industry are rare opportunities to read something about how designers think. However, I do not care much for TapeOp’s product reviews. In fact, I only read them for the humor factor. This month’s magazine has a review with a product type that I think has to be about 90% bullshit: high end “monitor controllers.” If there is any product that makes more claims with less evidence than $1,000+ “monitor controllers,” I do not know what it is.

Way back in the early 1980’s, pro audio went the same route as the audiophile market; all bullshit and no meat. When Mix Magazine, the fluffiest of all audio magazines on either side of the high-buck carousel, bought the last technical holdout in the audio publishing world, Recording Engineer/Producer (RE/P), and closed down the competition in 1992, that was pretty much the end of pro audio being a reality-based industry. From then on, reviews have been test equipment-free and full of biased and unfounded fantasies. “The Audio Precision distortion test” was replaced by “I feel the music more in my soul” sorts of bullshit. We haven’t recovered since.

A friend and I used to argue about publishing’s lack of credibility. This friend, Mark Amundson (past Technical Editor for FOH Magazine), used to agree that even his own reviews were pretty fluffy. In two month’s worth of magazines, he had reviewed a total POS Peavey mixer and a Midas mid-priced mixer using almost identical language. When I pointed that out, he said, “Tom, you have to learn to read between the lines.”

I replied, “White space is what’s between the lines.”

I think my next Wirebender rant is going to be about bullshit terms used to describe magical audio qualities. The phrase that fired up this rant was in that bullshit monitor controller review, “The feeling of this unit is immersive; even at these low levels, I felt the music was all around me, and it made the sweet spot wider.” Sounds like phase problems to me.

Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.