So you want to be a rock ’n’ roll professor?

This guest post is written by Mark Katz, Professor and Chair of the Department of Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He teaches courses on music and technology and popular music, and is the author of Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music, and Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ.

With increasing regularity, pop music icons are hooking up with institutions of higher learning. Hip-hop legend Afrika Bambaataa was recently appointed a visiting scholar at Cornell University; ?uestlove will soon be co-teaching a course at NYU. Last year, rocker Todd Rundgren spent two weeks at Indiana University. Wyclef Jean had a gig at Brown; Lamont Dozier and Steve Miller were artists in residence at USC. It’s not only performers getting in the higher ed game—a variety of music industry professionals, from lawyers to producers, now teach at universities across the country as well.

?uestlove, of The Roots, will co-teach a course at NYU

As chair of the Department of Music at UNC-Chapel Hill, I’m keenly interested in this phenomenon. Having hired several music professionals over the past several years — whether as occasional guest lecturers or to teach or co-teach courses — I’ve seen how they enrich students’ experience by offering their unique perspectives on music and the business of music. I’ve also discovered the challenges of bringing together people from such different worlds. I’m writing this post, then, to answer a few basic questions for music professionals interested in breaking into academia.

Why teach at a university?

The university seems to offer even the most successful and experienced music professionals opportunities they haven’t found elsewhere. Ken Weiss, whom I recently appointed as my department’s Entrepreneur in Residence, traveled the world with Crosby, Stills, and Nash (he was Stephen Stills’s manager), and has decades of experience as a music supervisor and publisher.

“I’ve been extremely fortunate in my career,” Weiss says, “and I want the industry to prosper and grow. One of the ways for that to happen is to hand off some of what I learned to the next generation. It’s my way of paying it back.”

Not long ago, Jason Ross, co-founder of the rock group Seven Mary Three, and Frank Heath, owner of the renowned North Carolina venue Cat’s Cradle, invited me to coffee to talk about collaborating on a venture with UNC. Ross explained his interest:

“A university campus is where emergent ideas tend to take root. I think ideas are what keep you young. I want to be around students when they have those ‘aha!’ moments.”

Heath agreed, noting that there’s “an incredible energy to a university that you don’t find other places. There’s a lot swirling around.” Stephen Levitin (aka Apple Juice Kid), who developed UNC’s Beat Making Lab with me, likes teaching because it offers such a contrast with his gigging life. “Outside the university, I can get stuck in my small group of people I interact with, so the teaching experience gets me out of my comfort zone on many levels.” If you’re looking to grow, to share your knowledge with smart, energetic people and to draw inspiration from them, a college campus is a great place to do it.

How do I get involved?

Don’t bother looking for job announcements and don’t wait for someone to reach out to you. There are rarely guest artist positions just waiting to be filled, and professors at your nearby universities may be blissfully unaware of how many hits you’ve recorded or Twitter followers you have. You need to take the initiative. Search university websites for courses or programs on popular music, and read up on the professors. E-mail faculty who you think might be interested, and ask to stop by office hours for a chat or to meet for coffee.

Don’t immediately pitch a business proposition; instead, explain that you’re interested in making connections with the department.

First, tell your story and show your passion for your art; then you can offer to visit a class to talk to or perform for the students. Unfortunately, most professors have no funds for visiting artists, so you might have to offer your services gratis, at least for that first visit.

Once you’ve had a chance to prove yourself in the classroom, the professor can request funds or apply for a grant. Regardless of how you get there, however, you need to start by establishing relationships and trust. Here’s a perfect example. A few years ago I met two local DJs, A-Minor and SK. After getting to know them I brought them into class to demonstrate mixing and scratching. I quickly learned that they were good teachers and utterly dependable, so I kept hiring them; this spring they’ll be teaching regular lab sections for my class “The Art and Culture of the DJ.”

Is there money in this?

Not a lot, unfortunately. Depending on how much funding I can get and how much time and travel are involved, I’ve paid between $75 and $250 for a class visit. If you become an adjunct professor — meaning you teach or co-teach your own class (usually meeting three hours a week for about four months) — you might get anywhere from $2000 to $8000 per course. It’s rare for musician who hasn’t come up through the ranks of academia (and earn a doctorate or at least a master’s degree) to get a full time position with benefits and tenure. Chances are you’ll be paid per service or course. Many professionals aren’t looking to replace their current jobs, so this arrangement often works very well. In any case, don’t look to get rich by teaching.

What are the challenges?

Teaching a class requires more than just showing up and chatting up the students. Whether you’re lecturing on the music business or demonstrating how to mix songs on two turntables, you have to prepare and hone your presentation (making sure it fits into the allotted time).

If you’re teaching your own class, you’ll have to develop a syllabus, choose reading and listening assignments, set up a course website, prepare lectures, and write tests.

Outside of class, you’ll meet with students and spend untold hours grading tests and assignments. (Ken Weiss, who also teaches an arts entrepreneurship class at UNC, told me that he has written up to 100 comments on a single student paper.) You have to be organized, consistent, and fair, and above all, professional. You cannot miss a class or even show up late, and you have to be to be patient with and respectful towards students, staff, faculty, and administrators. And a word of advice: if you want to keep your job, don’t date or drink with the students.

There’s a lot more I could say about the challenges and rewards of university teaching. But to sum up: take the initiative; be passionate and creative; and be professional. Your future students will thank you.

Have you gotten involved in academia as a professional musician? Share your experiences and advice in the comments below.

JustinSo you want to be a rock ’n’ roll professor?


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