Prof. Jono Podmore: „Working at a Musikhochschule is a little like working at a museum“
With their campaign #95vsWissZeitVG („95 Thesen gegen das Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz“ / „95 theses against the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz“), initiated in fall 2020, Amrei Bahr, Kristin Eichhorn and Sebastian Kubon reacted on Twitter to the line of argumentation of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research regarding the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (WissZeitVG). The Federal Ministry speaks of an imminent “danger of system clogging” if scientists are offered normal employment contracts.
The reactions within the scientific community (but also beyond) were vehement and led to the hashtag #IchbinHanna – “named after the fictional character used to illustrate the supposed advantages of the WissZeitVG in the video” (quoted from https://ichbinhanna.wordpress.com) – under which a great many scientists reported personal experiences of frustration and gave insights into their (often) precarious living conditions.
On March 27, 2022, the book „#IchBinHanna. Prekäre Wissenschaft in Deutschland“ was published by Suhrkamp in Germany.
Not affected by the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz – and yet exposed to similar frustration and precariousness – are the freelance lecturers at German universities and colleges. Unlike their permanent colleagues, they are in principle allowed to continue teaching for life, as long as they can afford it in view of rather mediocre hourly rates, (often) no reimbursement of travel expenses, and (mostly) unpaid preparation and follow-up time.
I myself know the academic world well through many teaching assignments over the past twenty years – which ultimately (beyond the publication mentioned above) led, through my conversations with colleagues, to the idea for this series of interviews, the intention of which is to stimulate discourse about these suboptimal working conditions of the freelance teachers who make up a significant part of university and college teaching, and, naively speaking, perhaps to set impulses for change.
I am very pleased that Prof. Jono Podmore, known to some Kaput readers by his stage name Kumo, has taken the time to answer the questionnaire.
Prof. Jono Podmore is a professor of popular music at the Cologne University of Music and Dance. Since the 1980s, he has contributed as composer, producer, sound engineer and string arranger for Bomb The Bass, The Shamen and Jamiroquai, among others.
Can you please briefly and concisely describe your college/university, the institute/subject, and specifically the course/program offered.
I work at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Köln. In 2009 I created the MMus Production course, a post-graduate course in popular music production that is based in our professional recording studio, a facility that I campaigned for, co-designed and I’m now director of. I also teach Bachelors students on a workshop basis.
How long have you been employed at your current college/university and in what position?
I’ve been there since 2005 as Professor der Praxis der Popular Musik.
Would you say that the current offering ratios at your institution(s) were shaped by you and meet their needs?
In terms of the subject I teach, yes, absolutely. I created the course I run in its entirety. But in more general terms we still have a long way to go in teaching popular music comprehensively at the Hochschule.
How have you experienced the pandemic at the college/university to date?
It’s been quite a journey. My professorship is part time (50%) so I live here in London and can continue with my freelance work as a producer and composer, traveling to Köln to teach in person on average once a month during the semester time. When the pandemic hit I shifted my teaching online in a matter of days using Zoom and Audiomovers, which worked very well for a while. The students eventually became frustrated but the travel restrictions continued to make it difficult for me to teach in person until March 2022. But there were benefits. A large part of the MMus production course is based on workshops that I set up with industry professionals, specialists, artists and academics. In the past we have restricted ourselves to people we could get to Köln to teach in person. Suddenly with the pandemic I was able to book Zoom sessions for my students with experts in London, Korea, Norway, Turkey etc. The range and quality of the cultural aspect of the course massively increased which is something I will try to maintain.
How do you think students and colleagues experienced the pandemic? Are there many of you who have given up studying? Or who are massively restricted in their study behavior (due to anxiety, depression, etc.) as a result of the pandemic? Are there any offers of help or an exchange?
I don’t know any students who gave up their studies. Rather than fears or depressions the most common response was frustration. In my position as a professor and course leader I was able to immediately offer my students an extra year to collect their credits: their 2 year course became a 3 year course. They all agreed although some felt their lives had been put on hold. Nevertheless the education they’ve had in that extra year has more than made up for what they missed and my first Corona Masters are about to finish their Masterarbeit and their courses. I’m quietly confident they’ll do brilliantly!
How satisfied / dissatisfied are you with the current state (offering and implementation) of teaching at German universities in general?
I’m not in a position to criticise the range of courses offered at other universities across Germany, but I can say that working at a Musikhochschule is a little like working at a museum. Historical forms of European music are maintained and taught in a way that makes progress and inclusion very slow, and at times even confrontational. Preserving the skills involved in historical musics is of great cultural importance of course, but it attracts conservatives who instinctively reject or undervalue non-European music or the contemporary music of the Black Atlantic. So developing courses in popular music can be a minefield at times, but we are inching our way through it. Ironically, many of the students are from outside of Europe (China, South Korea and Eastern Europe in particular), and all of the students spend much of their waking life in plurality of the internet, so the institutional bias towards a narrow historical band of European music does not reflect their world at all.
How satisfied / dissatisfied are you with the status quo of teaching at your college / university?
I’m not happy at all with the current range of courses but I’m very happy that we are able to slowly improve the situation. Funding at a Musikhochschule in Germany will always gravitate towards the Classical and Romantic repertoire and instrumentation. It’s a cultural given and a marketing point for the institution. If a South Korean student wants to study the music of Bach, Beethoven and Stockhausen where better than in Germany itself? But it means the rest of us can be out in the cold and for much of the population of Köln their music does not even get beyond the front door. It can feel at times as if those of us outside that tradition are fighting over scraps from the table, although the situation has improved since I started work there in 2005.
I myself am a freelance lecturer at three universities in NRW (at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Bochum/Essen, at the University of Paderborn and at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf). When you get requests for lectureships, you are flattered at first, but quite quickly you realize that a large part of the business of German colleges and universities is built on such moderately paid lectureships (often, moreover, not even travel expenses and accommodation costs are covered for seminars lasting several days). And so one quickly wonders why teachers in Germany are actually well paid at schools, but at colleges and universities a remuneration model has been established that I like to cynically refer to as “Hartz 4 teaching”. On which institutional discourses is such a model based? Who thought it up and defined the framework conditions?
I think the basis of the problem is the Einzelunterricht model of instrumental teaching. Most of the teachers in my department are Lehrbeauftrager; they have a new contract each semester based on the number of individual students they have. They are treated as if they were a casual workforce. It’s been that way historically largely on the basis that players from the local orchestra would give individual instrumental lessons in the Hochschule for a little extra cash. This was still the case when jazz first began to be taught at the Hochschule. The courses were defined by the skills available in the WDR Big Band in Köln – it was the same model. Not only is this now an anachronism but it produces tensions between the Lehrbeauftrager and the professors in the department (like myself) who are permanently employed and paid a “Besoldung” – another anachronism. A process of shifting these short term contracts to Mittelbaustelle (a permanent position) is beginning but this is painful and expensive as colleagues are expected to reapply for their own posts with all the hazards that brings.
The fee for the seminars usually also includes preparation and follow-up – and at most colleges / universities also exams. Of course, this has a long-term effect on the quality of teaching, as many teachers hold the same seminars over and over again because they simply lack the time to constantly redefine the teaching content. Do you know this problem from your everyday life? And how do you position yourself in this regard?
That doesn’t apply to me. I’m a professor so I’m “Frei in Forschung und Lehre”. Also my subject, like so many others in music education is practically based. I never repeat a lesson because each is tailored to the needs of the individual students or the piece we are working on. Also I work in a field that is constantly developing both technically and in terms of expressive content. As a result I work longer hours than my contract dictates and the admin goes on top but I see that as part of the reciprocal relationship between my teaching and my professional life.
What’s also missing is the ability as a freelance teacher to understand colleges/universities and the opportunities they offer to students in a way that allows you to think about your teaching content in a networked way with other offerings and show students linking horizons. Is that an observation that has come to you as well? Are such I’ll call it blind spots of university operations discussed internally? Or do you not share this observation?
Yes, that is a big problem. We try to get around that in our department with a biannual “Open Space”, where all the staff (and some students) get together for a couple of days for structured discussion and development. This has paid massive dividends in the past and has directly improved teaching practice and communication. Again, a big part of the communication problems are due to the Einzellunterricht model in music education. Students and staff can get through entire years without interacting with their colleagues if they set their minds to it. On the other hand to reach out to colleagues to work together takes a similar effort and often goes unrewarded and unrecognised.
The construction of the university teaching system with few permanent professors, lecturers and institute staff as well as a large number of freelance lecturers with usually only 2, 3 or 4 semester hours per week naturally also reduces the scientific research potential. The tight schedule of teaching assignments simply does not allow freelance lecturers to contribute and pursue potential research ideas. At least that is how I perceive this situation from the outside. How do you assess this situation? And what are the concrete effects in your field?
I think that works 2 ways. Yes, it reduces the opportunity for structured academic research but it actually increases the opportunity for informal research. In my field the role of the “often priestly class of organic intellectuals” (to quote Paul Gilroy) is much more valued than whatever ends up in academic research papers. In fact in my experience research papers in popular music still do little more than report to academia on the work of organic intellectuals. Eventually I hope there will be a more fluid and reciprocal relationship between the organic and the academic as the grey area between them is the space I inhabit much of the time. Back to your question, I think it’s much more important that the freelance teachers get treated with respect and a dependable income. Then we’d see all sorts of improvements.
Do you notice at your university that the conditions described lead to a high turnover of freelance lecturers?
Actually no, and that makes it even more frustrating. I have colleagues who have been working in my department for over 20 years, who are part of the very culture of the whole place, but who are employed on a semester basis. It’s ridiculous, but the cure involves forcing them to reapply for their jobs and running the risk of losing it in the process.
Now that was a lot of criticism from me in questions.
If you had three wishes for the university/university sector in Germany, what would they be?
3 wishes!?! Are you my fairy godmother!
1. Much more engagement with the non-European population of Germany and their rich musical traditions. Within a kilometre radius of the Hochschule there seems to be enough knowledge of Middle-Eastern, Turkish and African music to start a whole academy, but that wealth of understanding in rhythm, tonality and expression gets little more than a cursory nod.
2. A removal of the divisions between departments on the basis of history and tradition. Any musicologist should know that separating classical, church, popular and early music is counter-productive and based on arbitrary definitions. This nonsense is inherited from an earlier time with a nationalistic and supremacist set of values contrary to our modern world.
3. To end the vocational nature of tertiary education in Germany. A degree should no longer be viewed as a professional qualification; we are not training people for specific jobs. Rather we are educating people to continue learning and exploring creatively for the rest of their lives, enriching the rest of us in the process. It may seem like a subtle difference but it has a massive impact on the mind set and structures in German academies.
(4. …and of course we need more money…)
Is there a university (in Germany – but also abroad) that you would like to highlight as a positive example, because there the definition of the study subjects and teaching content, the organization of the teaching processes and the communication with the free lectures as well as their working conditions are better settled?
Again, I don’t feel I’m in a position to do that. The structures in all the other Hochschule/Universities/Academies I’ve worked with in Germany and beyond have both positive and negative aspects. That’s one reason I think it’s vital that we regularly work together between establishments and share our methods and findings. Of all my friends who work in education that I share my experiences with, very few work in Köln or even in my field. I constantly see how my students benefit from that exchange and input (even if they don’t themselves!)
Thank you for your time