First Reflections on Teaching Online


First Reflections on Teaching Online

(Image credit: Hawk the Slayer,

I recently finished teaching my first online course. Gettysburg College has been running a pilot program for summer online courses the past two years. This year, I was one of six faculty members to participate. Before I get too wrapped up in other summery things (you know, research), I thought I'd write a few reflections down.

I taught a five-and-a-half week version of my "Music in Video Games" course, which I had taught on campus this past spring. Gettysburg gave very few guidelines on how to structure the summer courses. Since a Gettysburg semester is 14-15 weeks long, I decided to go with five weeks, so that the course would be compressed into roughly three "weeks" of work to one summer week. I then added a couple of days to the end to make up for the 4th of July holiday in week 5, so that students could take time away from the course for travel/family without feeling like they were falling behind. I then made the final project due a few days after that, in a rough approximation of an exam week or reading period.

The weekly work load looked something like this:

  • There were three units per week. Many 'simulated' a week's worth of on-campus classes (or sometimes even more), while a couple were more like a single class session.
  • Each unit included several readings from academic or popular sources, plus two documentaries when appropriate: Beep: A Documentary History of Game Sound, and Reformat the Planet, a 2007 documentary about the chiptune scene in New York City.
  • Each unit included one or more lecture videos that I recorded, giving background information or examples, or explaining difficult concepts. Sometimes I went through material from the readings, but I mostly tried to avoid that kind of duplication.
  • We held two live video chats per week, and hosted one "text chat" on Discord. (Discord is like Slack, but designed with gaming in mind, with a corresponding aesthetic. I started one "Introductions" channel where I asked students to post introductory videos about themselves, and then I created one channel for each week of the course. In these channels, we discussed one or two texts from the course readings - typically those that weren't featured in video chat or writing assignments.
  • Most units included a short writing response on the theme of the unit, or reacting to a specific reading or other piece of media. Some were duplications of assignments that I asked my on-campus students to do; others were new, designed to replace portions of the class that I would have handled in class discussions. Because one of the major features of the brick-and-mortar course was open-ended class discussion, I needed to re-create that experience in as many different ways as possible. The video and text chats helped with this, but I also wrote new response prompts to simulate the 'share your experiences/opinions' portions of class discussion. There were a total of 12 Assignments, so a bit more than 2 per week.
  • Finally students were required to keep a "Gaming Log," which was a feature from the regular course. Students needed to write about one 30+ minute session of a game, and there were restrictions to ensure variety (must hit three different genres over the five weeks; must play games from at least three different decades; one must be mobile- or browser-based.) In an ideal world, these function a bit like research journals as students work on topics for final projects.

That's a fair bit of work when you add it all up: In a single week, students would read five or six papers/chapters; watch three to five short (~15 min) lecture videos; write two responses plus a gaming log; and engage in live and/or text chats on about three of the readings. On top of that, they had a short midterm essay due at the end of week 3, and a final project (which could be a written essay, or a multimedia project) due at the end of the term.

Here are some reflections on what went well, and what I would change.


  1. The size of the course was just about right. I began the summer with 12 students (the upper limit for this online pilot program). One student dropped out immediately, realizing the summer schedule wouldn't work for them. Another one had other things going on that proved too much to deal with along with the course, and dropped out at the end of the second week.
  2. The work load was very rigorous. I'm quite satisfied that my summer students worked as hard as my semester students, if not harder in many cases. The higher number of written assignments meant I was hearing from them each individually/privately much more often than in the campus setting. It's easy to hide out in a class discussion, and I'm certainly not a "cold-calling" type of professor. Replacing 'discussions' with written reflections forced every student to offer some sort of opinion, reflection, or example, on every single topic that was discussed during the course. The pace of the summer seemed to hold students more accountable, as well -- I had fewer problems with late/missing assignments, and attendance in live chats was very nearly perfect.
  3. The students produced some excellent work. I'm committed to letting my students explore multimedia and creative work in their class projects. This doesn't happen for every unit, but many students took the chances that I gave them to create YouTube videos, websites, musical compositions, and in one case even a game demo (created in RPG Maker) with a custom soundtrack. One of my absolute favorite aspects of teaching courses concerned with music and media is seeing what students come up with when they're set loose to be creative. Often, they create things that I had never even thought of when writing the project prompt, so I'm always pleasantly surprised.
  4. Freedom. Obviously, teaching online grants a much more flexible schedule than does teaching on campus. I was able to work on my own schedule, at home, and often from the road, without the commitment of driving to Gettysburg every morning. The college also gave each faculty member the freedom to set their own length of the class (some were as short as four weeks), though I imagine that will change once the 'pilot' phase of this ends.


  1. The technology isn't quite there yet. First of all, the videoconferencing. Partly because this is a pilot program, and partly because Gettysburg is a small college, we don't have a really big, enterprise-level videoconferencing solution in place yet. Free services like Google Hangouts or Discord top out in the single digits for group video calls. We used a service called "Realtime Board," which is designed as an online meeting/presentation space. RTB features a persistent workspace where users can leave sticky notes, post links and media, and chat. With a premium account, they can have a group video call. However, the app is less than ideal. The faces are arranged in a tall stack, which you can't adjust or re-size. Sometimes the software is smart enough to shrink the faces and put them in two columns, but not always. There's no rhyme or reason to who gets to be big and who gets to be small, and if there are too many people on the call (more than eight or so, give or take), some students' faces will be off the top of the screen. Nothing can be done about that. It's also a very democratic arrangement - the video call happens on the board, it's not hosted by the instructor. Which is philosophically kind of nice, but it means that there were surely times when MY face was off the top of some of my students' screens, and they couldn't see me reacting or paying attention to them (I was always careful to be very expressive with my face as students spoke, to encourage and support them). It's clear that an institution needs to purchase or subscribe to serious, dedicated video-conferencing software. This isn't just a small college problem -- two years ago while I was working at the Bok Center, some colleagues and I discovered that even Harvard wasn't yet set up for video-conference or remote teaching in any meaningful way: it required homemade, custom solutions. Institutions that have serious online distance-learning programs are way ahead on this account, and many colleges could probably stand to learn from them. A friend of mine has been teaching online courses for American University for a few years, and he says they use Adobe Connect, very successfully. The top level of that costs $3,500 per year though, so it's clearly an institutional commitment. If Gettysburg continues its online course program (which I hope they will), we need to invest in something like Adobe Connect.
  2. Preparation. Teaching a compressed online course is a massive amount of work. I had lectures to make for 15 units. These varied in complexity, from simple introductory videos, to more serious content-delivery lectures, to multipart videos drawn from large slide decks that would occupy an entire 75 minute class period on campus. Some incorporated video and audio examples. Since it's my first time doing this class online, I was working just ahead of the students. I strove to have at least one unit per day live in the first few days of the week, if not more. (For example, in Week 1 I had to have Unit 1 all ready to go on Monday, Unit 2 all ready on Tuesday, Unit 3 on Wednesday, and then spent my time Wednesday evening and Friday morning preparing for and leading video chats.) I kept to that schedule, but it meant that lecture production was highly front-loaded: Mondays and Tuesdays were exhausting days of work, which sometimes started early on Sunday. I've been away from campus and various life events have been going on (travel, friends and family visiting), so weekend work time was extremely rare during the course. Naturally, all the freedom that comes with online teaching can have the same 'gas in a space' effect as on-campus teaching prep time: it will fill in all the hours you let it.
  3. Tons of Grading. Excacerbating the amount of time I spent on lecture recording was the huge amount of grading: three or four essays per week from 10 students was a lot of reading, corrections, and commentary. It required serious work to stay on top of the grading pile, and things would often pile up until I could sit down and devote several hours to getting the assignments off my virtual desk. So while the course was a semester's worth of work for my students in only 5 1/2 weeks, it was that much work for me as well. I got very little research done during the time of the class, and while I was able to take it easy on certain days when special events were happening, it was an exhausting summer term - coming right on the heels of an exhausting first year on the tenure track, from which I haven't yet had the time to fully unwind.

This has gotten long, but those are the thoughts I have upon finishing my grades. It was an intense but very rewarding six weeks, and I'd certainly teach an online course again if given the opportunity!



Gettysburg interview about VGM Class

In January, the college communications office interviewed me about my new music appreciation course on the history of video game music. It was great to talk about the new course, and the photoshoot was especially fun--I even got a new profile picture out of it. We spent a long time trying to get those shots of games being projected on my face. Super Nintendo games turn out to have the best color palettes for that...

Sunderman Prof. O'Hara Pioneers Video Game Music Course

The course itself is going really well - I ended up with twice as many students as I anticipated. Moderating discussion among a mixed group of majors and non-majors is a new challenge, but I've found that it's easy to get students to come out of their shells when the conversation turns to personal experiences and memories, and that preliminary discussion in mixed small groups (in a "Think-Pair-Share" kind of thing) can lead to really excellent class discussions.


Kaiju Kinetics: Anticipating Violence in the Soundtrack to Pacific Rim (2013)


Kaiju Kinetics: Anticipating Violence in the Soundtrack to Pacific Rim (2013)

Pacific Rim (2013) is one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies. Guillermo del Toro's love letter to classic monster movies and Japanese mecha is expertly crafted popcorn fare. Once the novel introduction--a masterclass in exposition and montage--passes, every story beat is telegraphed from a mile away. Every origin story, every heroic sacrifice, every unlikely partnership, looms large in our narrative peripheral vision before landing. It's tautly executed and stylish, but safe: "Save the Cat" storytelling, propped up with monumental action setpieces that make it an ideal background movie, perfect for an annual re-watch during a long writing marathon.

With a sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising due to hit theaters in a few weeks, I thought I'd write a bit about one feature of the original's soundtrack that has always struck me: the main theme is constructed in a way that perfectly mirrors its larger-than-life action, and its comfortingly broad story strokes.

Pacific Rim was scored by Ramin Djawadi (Iron Man, Game of Thrones, and most recently Ava Duvernay's A Wrinkle in Time) and features Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello on its title track (used for the film's end credits). Djawadi wrote distinct themes for the heroic Jaegers (the giant robots that defend humanity), and the lumbering, mysterious kaiju (giant monsters who emerge from an undersea portal to attack coastal cities).

The Jaeger theme's metric structure is what makes it so striking. Most heroic themes seem to begin either on the beat (think of the fanfare that begins John Williams' Superman theme, or the orchestral flourish from Guardians of the Galaxy), or with a strong, single upbeat (Star Wars, Indiana Jones). The Jaeger theme's upbeat, on the other hand, occupies two beats, beginning on the "and" of three. As shown below (in comparison to some of those other themes I mentioned), this makes the pick-up both exceptionally long, and metrically very weak.

Pacific Rim (2013; Ramin Djawadi)

pacific rim.png

Superman (1978; John Williams) [1]


Star Wars (1977; John Williams)

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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981; John Williams)

indiana jones.png

Admittedly, this wouldn't be all that notable if the film didn't so frequently match the theme's opening downbeat to the action on screen. A good example is shown in the clip below. Gipsy Danger (the Jaeger piloted by our heroes Raleigh [Charlie Hunnam] and Mako [Rinko Kikuchi]) appears on the scene of a desperate brawl in Hong Kong harbor. "Alright Mako, get ready, this is for real," Raleigh yells. The underscore's tense silence says the same thing to the audience. The beast charges. Gipsy Danger bends at the knees as the theme enters, preparing to throw its shoulders up like an offensive lineman. The combatants collide as the downbeat lands and the rest of the orchestra enters. The moment seems agonizingly (or perhaps, thrillingly?) long; the underscore is less an upbeat and more of a complete suspension of musical time while we wait for the blow to land.

Such mirrored anticipatory gestures--from the Jaeger and the soundtrack, simultaneously--happen over and over throughout the film. Pacific Rim luxuriates in its own scale, fully understanding that the joy of watching a 30-story tall robot fight a 30-story tall lizard lies in the deliberateness of it all. The movie's fight scenes seem to unfold in slow motion. Gipsy Danger's uppercuts swing for acres before they land on the kaiju's jaw, and the viewer's pleasure lies not in the impact itself, but in the several seconds of anticipation: the frisson of just how awesome that punch is going to be.

(Slow motion, not coincidentally, has been a part of kaiju movies since the beginning: it's what gave the very first, man-in-a-suit Godzilla [1954] a sense of mass and scale.)

After Gipsy and the kaiju grapple for a few seconds, the monster gains the upper hand. It hurls the massive Jaeger toward the shore. The music stops as the robot soars silently, helplessly through the air. For five whole seconds Gipsy rotates gently; the soundtrack rushes back in as the robot nears an overpass, the rapid escalation of noise just before impact mirroring the release of the breath that the viewer is meant to have held until now. The Jaeger scrambles to its feet and digs its hands into the ground, dragging its fists through row after row of shipping containers to arrest its momentum: the monumental blows of Pacific Rim have after-effects that sprawl for as long as their anacrusi. The action sequences, and the soundtrack, are all about momentum. The antagonists charge toward each other, building up speed towards a clash that will finally bring the soundtrack back in. 

These (pseudo-)silences have much the same effect as dropping the bass in a pop song: the ubiquitous "BRAAAM" sound of contemporary cinema is nothing without the absence that precedes it. As Robin James has written of EDM drops, the sudden silence "build[s] intensity towards a valley instead of a peak." We anticipate the soundtrack's re-entry just as the EDM listener anticipates the return of the beat; the lurching absence is more powerful than the soundtrack itself, for it signals our anticipation.

The musical kinetics of the theme--the way it enters on an upbeat that points ahead to an eventual accent--mirror the massive wind-up that accompanies any meaningful gesture in this world of kaiju and jaegers. In the clip below, Gipsy Danger trudges up the street, dragging a barge behind it like a club. The robot transfers the barge to its right hand, hoists it, swings; the theme re-appears, aimed--just like the makeshift cudgel--squarely at the monster's jaw. Just as we are meant, in a summery popcorn movie like this, to watch each plot twist wind up and gather energy before it lands, so too are we meant to hear both the theme and the lumbering combatants pulling back, coiling up in potential energy, as we marvel in anticipation of what is about to happen.


[1] Note that the actual Superman "March," after the fanfare, has the same pickup as Star Wars

[2] See the first chapter of Robin James, Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Femininism, Neoliberalism (New York: Zone Books, 2015).



On Longmire: Length and Form in Contemporary TV

It’s pretty common, in this age of “peak TV,” to discuss prestige dramas in cinematic terms: a 10-hour movie, a 12-hour movie, etc. The implication of these labels is that their stories unfold over entire seasons, rather than in the “anthology” style of older dramas and sitcoms, in which a story takes 22 or 42 minutes (you know, after commercials), and then everything returns to the status quo the next week, with very little indication that our heroes even remember what’s already happened.

But the “12-hour movie” label also effaces the episode as a unit of narrative, implying that the five-act structure of a television episode is less satisfying than 12-hours of...stuff. As the pushback to this attitude indicates, episodic storytelling is still useful, and still, I would argue, the norm: I'm hard-pressed to think of an epsiode of Mad Men, or even Game of Thrones, that doesn't develop themes and present narrative arcs (or several, parallel arcs) that come to some sort of end as the credits roll. Yes, things build, and stories continue, but individual episodes are generally still valid as units of narrative.

One thing I’ve found very interesting about internet TV shows is their variable length. (We can include HBO in this as well, since they don't worry about commercials). Most episodes of House of Cards, for example -- one of the earliest major internet shows -- stay close to the traditional length, albeit with a few extra minutes. Episodes average 47 to 53 minutes long, with season premieres and finales occasionally running a full hour. Game of Thrones varies a bit more, with episodes running between 52 and 70 minutes (and a whopping 92 minutes for the finale of the seventh and most recent season). I sort of like this variability: it lets a show "breathe" in a natural way across an entire season: some episodes are short, some need a bit more space. Small-to-medium arcs can arise and resolve themselves within the larger structure, taking a bit more time when necessary, and shorter, more self-contained episodes can break up the flow. I confess, however, that even I don't always notice the structure of episodes: when I was binge-watching the first six seasons of Game of Thrones over the summer or 2016, for example, I stopped and started whenever it was convenient, paying little to no attention to where individual episodes began or ended -- it was an undifferentiated flow that I dipped into at the gym, or when I had a spare fifteen minutes to kill.

Which brings me to LongmireLongmire is a police procedural about a sheriff and his small team of deputies in a fictional Wyoming county. It's one of those shows that Netflix rescued from cancellation. The sixth and final season came out last fall, and we've been watching it this week. It's a ten-episode season, and the thing I've noticed is that they're all about 65-70 minutes long, yet they tend to adhere to an absolutely old-school procedural structure. It's not all case-of-the-week stuff, there are long-term arcs. But they seem to be highly compartmentalized. The show left itself with several long-running threads to tie up, but it seems as if the producers decided to do so by devoting one mega-episode to each. The crazy survivalist who's been a thorn in Longmire's side gets one mega episode; a civil suit against the sheriff gets another. A cursory look at the episode list tells me that most of the same people are still involved, and the writing/directing duties are no more or less evenly distributed than in other seasons. Maybe some of this is just the liquidation process that happens when the writers know it's the last season, but I've found the effects interesting. The consistent use of 65-70 minute episodes in a police procedural (that is, longer than standard, but still much shorter than the "feature length" 90-120 minutes found in a series like Sherlock, for example) seems to carve out some kind of new territory, in which the undifferentiated, multi-season momentum of binge-watching collides with the conventions of episodic storytelling. I've found myself checking my watch more often than usual, not because the show is boring, but because conventional markers of timing don't seem to apply. I've sometimes wondered aloud to my wife, "has this all been one episode?" because they feel so long.

I'm not sure this observation is particularly deep, but I wonder about the way in which formal/narrative structures collide with the practical constraints of episode length, production schedules, etc. I wonder if this might reflect some new era of post-broadcast TV production: not the "breathing" sense of variable episode length found in many online/premium cable shows, but some new standard of episode length. In the case of Longmire, I'm not sure this is always entirely successful -- but at least it's interesting.

[As a postscript: perhaps I'm just being too conscious of the timing of my entertainment these days, since the other recent time I checked my watch was during the last reel or two of The Last Jedi. Not because I was bored -- anything but -- but because I knew how long the movie was, and couldn't imagine how things would possibly be tied up in only 15 minutes or so - particularly once Luke showed up. Maybe the solution is simply not to pay attention to how long a show or movie is, at all, in order to stop this sort of meta-framing from intruding...]