Cuyahoga Community College: Lessons Learned

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Process Lessons:

The community college environment was challenging.

All the things that we knew would be challenging going into the project did prove to be challenging: the geography of three, and then four, campuses that are 20 miles or more distant from each other; the heavy reliance on adjunct faculty who are paid for teaching classes and not for engaging outside the classroom; the heavy teaching schedules of full-time faculty who typically teach five classes (and different preparations) a semester; and a student body that typically has more work and family responsibilities than traditional age students might have.

To attempt to overcome those challenges, we presented many resources in a variety of formats, and we spent a lot of time helping individual faculty members think through how they might incorporate the Epic into their classes. We also made numerous presentations to faculty groups, large and small, and attempted to reach them through printed materials, electronically, and through banners and posters on campus. Despite the barriers, we were able to get students from the Western Campus Chorale to rehearse and record on Metro Campus on a regular basis; to get students, faculty, and staff from all campuses to converge on Metro Campus for Songbook Unbound I and II; to get students to come off-campus to the Cleveland Museum of Art; to recruit some motivated adjunct faculty members; and to persuade a number of already heavily committed and activated full-time faculty to make room for something new.

If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.

We learned to continually recalibrate and try another approach. When faculty weren’t “booking” guest artists and lecturers from our assembled roster, we decided to present a sampling of guest artists and lecturers ourselves in a Brownbag Lecture Series during Fall Semester 2011. A few of the lectures were sparsely attended (by two or three students or staff members), but we noticed that attendance was much higher when a faculty member required class attendance at a given lecture. Therefore, in Spring Semester 2012, we focused on actively matching individual faculty members with guest artists or lecturers.

Our unflagging attempts always brought us in touch with individuals who did have the openness and flexibility that we were looking for. We learned to be relentless. Some doors were “unlocked” when we decided to refocus the project as a recording project, and Music faculty member Kira Seaton and RAT faculty member Bill Hartzell, who had not come to the forefront during most of 2010-2011, became major participants in 2011-12. Other doors were opened when filmmaker Miriam Bennett returned from sabbatical to coordinate the Media Arts program in Spring Semester 2012.

We pursued a similarly “aggressive” strategy toward potential student participants in Songbook Unbound I and II. We tracked down students who had shown an interest while participating in “Symphony for the Dance Floor” or attending another program, and we actively offered to assist them in posting their submission videos on the project’s YouTube channel. We constantly talked with students and faculty members — in hallways, on the phone, in emails — to find out what the barriers to their participation might be and to help them surmount those barriers — whether it was a lack of confidence or a lack of technical knowledge. For every student or class group that we intersected with who did make a submission, there were three or four who did not, but the fact that we cast a wide net was important.

Partners partner successfully when it makes sense for both parties.

We already knew that we would have to make concessions and be flexible ourselves in meeting project partners half way, but the partnership process reinforced the understanding that a partnership has to be mutual. For instance, because of state funding requirements, both Great Lakes Theater and Cleveland Museum of Art had pre-existing obligations to provide some programming free of charge to Tri-C students and faculty. However, we had to be sensitive to the fact that we were asking both institutions to produce specialized programming. Both were intrigued by the opportunity to reach college audiences, but The Epic of Gilgamesh and Ancient Near Eastern culture could be seen as seldom-requested “niche” topics that required planning and research to fulfill. Therefore, even though a broader institutional partnership agreement was already in place between Tri-C and both organizations, we had to negotiate compensation for both institutions that all parties deemed to be appropriate.

Honor those who do respond.

We recognized that compensation was fundamentally a sign of respect for the extra effort we were asking for. So, for instance, we offered stipends to members of the Faculty Advisory Council. They would have preferred release time from their course load, and release time would have helped the project. If we had had the higher level funding required to obtain release time for key faculty members during Spring 2011, they could have prepared resources materials for teaching The Epic of Gilgamesh a semester earlier; instead they used their own free time during Summer 2011 to write lesson plans and assemble other resource materials.
In lieu of higher compensation or release time, we looked for other ways to credit the Faculty Advisory Council members among their peers. For instance, the Faculty Advisory Council members, not the project administrators, made the presentations at such high profile events as the annual campus-wide Faculty Convocation day. The Faculty Advisory Council members became the “public face” of the project among their peers. Their involvement helped us to some extent to counteract the perception that this was an administration-led project, but at the same time it helped these faculty members to gain the respect of their peers.
We always tried to “take care of” project participants — feeding the performers and crews during every meal-time rehearsal, offering boxed lunches to faculty members who attended the “creative conversations” with DBR. We tried very hard to acknowledge the contributions of all project participants in print and verbally during events. Most participants appreciated our “collegial” spirit and responded positively to the sense that we had all embarked on an ambitious undertaking together. They took the kind of ownership that DBR’s “democratic” approach to the project had envisioned and made possible.

Love what you do, and find people who share your passion.

All of us involved at the center of the project believe passionately in the power of the arts to touch, elevate, and transform people’s lives. That belief is what led us to keep trying new doors whenever we came up against one that seemed to be locked. When we found someone along the way who was also passionate about what they were doing, we tried to connect with them. We didn’t try to force them into our preconceived notion of how they might fit in. We were patient and open about finding ways to connect that allowed them to tap into and express their own passion. Dean Brian Bethune and DBR both modeled this patient openness for everyone, and though the process was sometimes nerve-wracking the results were always fantastic.
Here is a key example:
DBR proposed a songbook before choir director Kira Seaton had emerged as a prominent project participant. The Jazz Studies program is a high priority at Tri-C, in tandem with Tri-C’s 30+ years of commitment to jazz through the Tri-C JazzFest. We tried at first to work through the Jazz Studies program to identify musicians and vocalists who might be involved in recording the songbook, but DBR is not a jazz composer or performer, and the fit was never comfortable. At the same time, we were also looking for a faculty member to fill a replacement slot on the Faculty Advisory Council and Kira Seaton stepped forward as an interested party. Seaton’s passion for choral music, her wide-ranging musical interests, and her knowledge of singers and musicians in the Tri-C and broader community (through years of versatile experience as a musical theater and choir director) reinforced DBR’s interest in using a choir in the songbook recordings. When Seaton’s Fall 2011 Choral Ensemble class turned out to be an unusually cohesive and committed group, the choral element of the songbook moved more and more to the forefront, and the Chorale became central to the project. We were then later able to connect with the Jazz Studies program when Tri-C alumnus and Jazz artist-in-residence Dominick Farinacci did jazz arrangements of several of the songbook songs; his department-based jazz ensemble was featured in Songbook Unbound II.

This model of passionate people finding their own appropriate way into the project happened over and over again. We just needed to cultivate the patience to keep them in our sight but let them find their own way.

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