higher ed,  Music

Yankee Shed Foxtrot

Partly in response to the existential implications of AI, I have been pondering aspects of what humans are good at recently, and then how our society, institutions and infrastructure need to facilitate these. In essence, getting humans to do repetitive, formulaic work is done for, AI will do that (whether we think that’s good or not is probably not going to stop it happening). Maybe that’s ok, we were forcing people to become more uniform in their outputs and that isn’t playing to our strengths.

Humans are messy, inefficient, unpredictable and often wrong. Well, at least this human is. But most of what we really value comes from this process (which is not to underestimate the need for rigour, hard work and practice). I think this boils down to some form of ‘constrained freedom’. Absolute freedom can be overwhelming, but we often see the bets artistic and creative endeavours arising within some form of constraint – compare your favourite musical artist’s output when they were up against early limitations to when they could indulge themselves in endless studio time and guests. Or even, remember how well we used to craft tweets when we only had 140 characters? That was art.

On this aspect of creative freedom then I’ve encountered two resources recently that set me thinking. The first was a book on shedworking. It’s a middle class fantasy I know, but I love the idea of a snug, outdoor space. In the book lots of people who write, run small businesses or create art talk about the importance of this separate space, separated from the house and sometimes offline also. It becomes a space devoted to the practice they pursue there, and usually in a nice garden setting. The idea of a domain of one’s own takes some of this notion for the digital space. But I wondered what it would mean from an administrative, educational perspective? I don’t mean providing academics with funky sheds (although I am up for that), but rather cognitively, how do we facilitate this thinking, creative space that is slightly remote from the institution, and yet still within reaching distance? It’s important that the shed is not a car drive away I think, you get to it via a short commute across your garden. It still feels part of home, but is distinct. Academics used to have more private research time but this has been encroached upon by targets, administrative duties, research funding needs, etc. And it doesn’t just apply to academics, all university staff need this kind of space to freely explore aspects that will often, not result in anything productive, but will occasionally produce magic.

Ours to destroy

Which brings me on to my second resource. I recently watched I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, the film about Wilco producing their historic album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Famously they made the album, handed it over to the record company (Warners), who gave them confused looks and passed on it, releasing them from contract and giving them the album to take elsewhere. They eventually got it released by another record company (who ironically turned out to be a subsidiary of Warners, meaning the company paid for the album twice). It went on to become one of the most influential albums of the 2000s.

All that is a fun tale of sticking it to the man and artistic integrity, but what struck me most was early on in the film, the band are deconstructing and experimenting with their songs. It was this layer of experimentation that both confused the record company and helped make the album so successful. There are some straightforward beautiful songs on YHF such as Jesus, Etc, but often the song emerges from beneath distortion and fracture and then the process feels more like you the listener have helped uncover it (I Am Trying To Break Your Heart is a good example). This was intentional, and during tis process Jeff Tweedy comments that “There’s no reason not to destroy it, we made it. It’s ours to destroy and that’s liberating and exciting”.

This seems to me the essence of some form of creative freedom and the type of thing AI isn’t very good at. Like the shedworking example, it also set me thinking about what does the equivalent of “ours to destroy” look like in educational terms? Should we allow educators to have one course that they completely mess with? That is unmade from the convention? Would students love or hate this? Do we have the infrastructure that would even allow that? Think of all the quality frameworks, commercial pressure, peer review, etc and you’d have to say no, at least in the UK. But if this process of unmaking is what drives forward creativity then maybe we need to allow that kind of space.

I think I’m mashing together two subjects here that don’t really mix, but as the lyrics to Jesus, Etc puts it “you can combine anything you want”. Anyway, all together now – “I am an America aquarium drinker…”


  • Stephen Downes

    > Should we allow educators to have one course that they completely mess with? That is unmade from the convention?

    They can already do this. I’ve been ddng t my entire career. You don’t need permission to offer a course.

    But if what is meant here is a course that students are required to take, the answer is no. You can’t experiment on people without their consent, and in many cases, consent is impossible or impractical to give, especially in a teacher-student power relation.

    • mweller

      Of course, lots of courses that are for credit are not compulsory, so as long as the course description is transparent then it is the students choice to take a more radical offering. We have this to some extent with, say interdisciplinary modules, but it can be difficult to negotiate within the quality structures we have. Of course, if it’s free and not for credit, you can do what you want

  • Eric Likness

    Oh man, Heavy Metal Drummer sez’ it all, yo!

    “I miss the innocence I’ve known
    Playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned”

    The kind of in the moment thrill/nostalgia and energy. Full-on, full-up. But in a semester length course, absolutely yes.

  • Alan+Levine

    What you demonstrate in action here, oh ye faithful blogger, is something AI can’t- make connections between ideas and things that are statistically out of range. Yes, we have neural networks in our grey matter, but the computerized ones that borrow the name cannot (well Stephen will assert its eventually possible) to connect this way.

    What foir me your post does is trigger other connections. The idea of “shedworking” (the name new but the idea resonates) for some reason reminds me of a book Scott Leslie recommended (see how connections, work, I can remember it was on a camping trip where we canoed to an island in BC) a book called “Shop Class as Soulcraft” http://www.matthewbcrawford.com/new-page-1-1-2 that honors the value of work we do with our hands, it need not be mechanical, or done in a shed, but is a testimonial to the ideal of craftspersonship and what it does for us (I can extend it to creating web pages by hand 😉

    As far as an academic metaphor (you are cornering the market!) I love the idea of conceptually makeing space and time for crafting. And yes, institutions are not providing this per se, but there is a two way play here- us as individuals have some responsibility for also not making the time and place ourselves for doing this. People who design their shedworking places are not just given them by an organizational entity, they take it on themselves. We as individuals have a stake in this.

    And then for the music metaphor, I dont know if you are into the Song Exploder podcast https://songexploder.net/ It’s a brilliant concept where musicians break down a finished song into its origin story, how the tracks came together, layer by layer. It’s a fabulous metaphor (to me) of what we do little of in our work (outside thr last ferw bloggers standing) of not just pumping their finished work, but the craft of how it was made, how it emerged, if you will from their audio workshed.

    I wanted to launch an idea like “Course Exploder” where educators could break down a lesson or a OER or course design in the same way.

    What I enjoy about Sound Exploder is that I get these stories for songs and genres I never listen to (sort of like how university requirements had me take courses I would have never chosen on my own interests). I was just listening to the episode where Seal talked about the evolution of the mega pop hit “Kissed by the Wind” (heard the song plenty but cant say its in my listening queue). It’s rivetting to hear him talk about its origin, but there is a bit in the opening where he talks bout his start before being a mega star:

    “I was living in a squat. I didn’t have any money and I was just basically getting my act together, trying to figure out who I was musically. And “Kiss From A Rose” came out of that period, when you sort of do things not for any other purpose than because that’s what’s coming out of you. I had no experience in the studio, in a proper recording studio, at that point.”

    It’s that line– “when you sort of do things not for any other purpose than because that’s what’s coming out of you” that connects in my head back to Shopcraft and sheds and why we even bother trying to do stuff.


    • mweller

      Thanks for a great comment Alan and for the podcast recommendation. Incidentally, I read Trevor Horn’s autobiography recently and he had lots of good things to say about working with Seal.

  • David Cormier

    Great post Martin,

    This puts things nicely in perspective. If AI is good at repetitive things, and we’re not going to do them anymore, how are we going to design things that aren’t repetitive? (at least that’s how i read it). We have so many intersecting responsibilities. I’m responsible for preparing students for future learning, maybe? I’m responsible to my course description? to the department? To student expectation? I am looking for more of that YHF experience in my classrooms, and am always trying to walk the line between blowing the whole thing up and making it untenable for my students but still maintaining enough uncertainty that they can have a learning experience.

    • mweller

      Thanks Dave! Yes, you sum it up nicely, that is the challenge. And a challenge not just as individual educators but for administration, quality measures, society, students, etc. An education system that tries to do this would look quite different, and people would have to buy into that.

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