University of Rochester

10 Questions with John Covach

Professor John Covach's course History of Rock, Part I, begins on Monday, May 13, on Coursera.

John Covach

With the launch of Professor John Covach’s History of Rock course today, the University of Rochester makes it first foray into Massive Open Online Courses. We caught up with Covach to find out how he went about creating the course, what it’s like to prepare for a virtual classroom, and how he plans to share the American perspective of rock ‘n’ roll with more than 30,000 students from around the world.

How is teaching an online course different than teaching a classroom course?
Online teaching is different because it’s pre-recorded. You’re able to present the lecture as good as you possibly can make it, but you don’t have the spontaneity of seeing the students as you lecture.

What are some of the benefits of MOOCs?
The best thing about MOOCs is that we’re able to share some of the rich research and teaching that we do at Rochester with the widest possible audience. Many times when we think about sharing research and work, we think about sharing it with other people in our profession or area of specialty or with students enrolled in courses. Coursera gives us the opportunity to share it with anyone with an internet connection, and it’s a fantastic method of outreach in those terms.

What are some of the challenges associated with teaching an online course?
When teaching, you like to have as much direct contact with students as you can because teaching is most exciting when you have personal contact; there’s a certain energy with live lectures. Online courses are not able to have that energy; they can’t replace the classroom experience, so you have to get over the non-face-to-face environment.

How did you prepare for the course? What did you learn along the way?
You have to be very careful to have the facts that you need at your fingertips as you lecture because there is no opportunity to go back and change things. In a classroom, you can stop and say, “check me on that date” because students “Google” things live in the classroom. In the video, you have to get everything right—there can be no glaring errors. It’s a lot more like editing a textbook.

On the unknown audience Coursera brings.
When you sign up for a Coursera course, you don’t have to have anything other than an email address. So I don’t know much about the students. But I’ve seen people signing up from all over the world—Europe, South America, Africa. One thing I was forced to put into the course description that I’ve never had to do: I had to say 'history of rock as seen from the American perspective.' The history of rock music could look much different in Italy and Spain. So, having to cast the course as being from the American experience was a new experience.

“They come to popular music because they love it, but when they study it they can’t study it as fans. They can’t look for evidence that their favorite bands are the best bands in the world.”

On the class size.
I’m excited that it hasn’t been a flop! We were told that the numbers would be high, but still, when it starts to happen, every time I refreshed and saw an additional 50 to 100 people enrolled—there’s a point where you start saying, 'holy cow, what if all these people actually watch these videos? 30,000 people will see that I had a bad hair day.'

On building the course.
I’ve taught this course for more than 20 years now, and I have tons of material, quizzes, and lectures. I’ve written a textbook on the topic. Even with that, I spent about three to four hours prepping for filming, two hours filming each week’s lectures, and spent another two hours preparing quiz material. So, there’s been substantial effort to create the course. Once the course gets underway, I will be moderating the discussion forums. I plan to check in a couple of times a day and chime in when I can. I’ll be scanning these discussions seven days a week.

What do you hope students of History of Rock walk away with?
I hope to teach people about the history of rock music and ignite in them a passion to look into things that we covered in more detail. The most important thing is seeing how scholars deal with historical repertory in a critical way. I’d like them to get beyond the fan mentality and address critical questions about musical history and influence, things we would consider no matter what the style the music is. It’s not just about the music, but the way we think about the music and intellectual problems that it presents to us.

On the ‘fan mentality’ in the classroom
One of the biggest issues that students deal with in learning about popular music is trying to set aside fan mentality. They come to popular music because they love it, but when they study it, they can’t study it as fans. They can’t look for evidence that their favorite bands are the best bands in the world. They have to get over the idea of rejecting music they don’t like. For example, most students are not emotionally invested in classical music. I could tell them anything about Beethoven and they’d believe it. I have to be careful what I say about Eric Clapton, because then they get interested. All of a sudden, you have a war on your hands. You have to keep the fan mentality at bay. You can’t write off artists that you don’t like, you have to take into account who they are, what their part in the music business was, and how they changed history.

How do you listen to music? What’s on your playlist?
I still live with most of the music that was important to me when I was first becoming a musician. I’m a 70s kind of guy, so I listen to a lot of YES, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Birds, classic 60s and 70s stuff. I have every Apple product: the iPad, iPod, iPhone, and Powerbook. In the car, I listen to music on my iPod and also listen to a station on XM Radio called Deep Tracks. The station plays a lot of music from the 60s and 70s, but it’s music you don’t often hear. I’m an expert on the history of rock and they play songs that I’m constantly looking up to see what they are. At home, I have the vinyl, but mostly listen to CDs.