There's No Business Like Show Business

There's No Business Like Show Business

Despite the fact that I teach at a large university, I'm in still show business. Back in the day I dressed and took the stage as a piano player and told stories through music. Today I don't wear a costume and seldom work from a stage, but I still tell stories and put on an average of seven two-hour shows every week. Back then I worked in concert halls and nightclubs, whereas today the venue is a lecture hall.

From a presentation standpoint, there's little difference between giving a lecture to an audience of undergrad students and performing for a crowd in a nightclub or concert hall. One still has to engage the audience, stimulate thought, and communicate concepts. Even the old show biz expressions apply in the classroom - the show must go on, luck favors the prepared, and always leave 'em wanting more.

As in ancient times, knowledge is passed and retained through the act of storytelling. Today, AV technology is an integral part of the show. PowerPoint presentations help illustrate important points, keep verbal ramblings on course, and stimulate the audience. Movies, animations, music, sound effects, and pictures all help tell the story outlined in the syllabus, and help the listeners retain the information. But like any live performance, things can go wrong. That's show biz, isn't it?

My Communications class had nearly finished watching Ken Burns' Empire of the Air documentary on early radio, and the climactic ending was approaching. Inventor Howard Armstrong, his fortune lost in patent battles and his marriage on the rocks, had just taken a room on the 13th floor of a downtown hotel, put on his coat and hat, and stepped out onto the window ledge. That's when the AV rack hiccupped.

Both the AV rack and the projector went completely dark for a moment, then the rack came back on but the projector did not. Instead it indicated its displeasure by remaining dark and continuously flashing two red LEDs. Meanwhile, Armstrong's fate was being told in picture-less narration as the audio came back online.

Forty-odd students issued a disappointed "awww." I felt completely helpless, and there was nothing to do but let the last ten minutes roll and be grateful the malfunction didn't occur 30 minutes earlier. And, yes, Armstrong jumped.

After class, I called our head AV guy in operations and told him what had happened. This is where having a good relationship with the AV department comes in handy. I'd get a candid response, rather than an incident ticket and the company line. "It might just need a power cycle," he said. That had occurred to me. But the security cage enclosing the projector, installed after the previous unit "walked" last summer, prevented me from getting to the projector's power button.

When a projector simply quits there is not much to do, save calling operations for a replacement projector, a monitor cart, or by doing without altogether. I consider myself fortunate, because my shop employs several individuals whose jobs consist of maintaining the audio and video equipment upon which we all depend. Better still, operations keeps spare projectors and powered loudspeakers on hand, and can usually deliver a replacement within 15 minutes to any location on campus.

I could not foresee or prevent the projector failure, but there are precautions I can take to ensure that my show goes on, and these involve having a bit of computer server space for storing presentations. Since part of my job includes managing a couple of servers and a lab full of client computers for software instruction, I have access to server space that is available from anywhere on campus.

By storing all of my presentations in a personal folder on that server, my show can go on despite the fact that I left home this morning without my laptop. I can use the dedicated PC in the podium to download and run my presentation in most any room on campus.

And in case the unthinkable occurs and I have neither my laptop or server access, I can still tell today's story using an iPod that I keep in my desk drawer. It contains JPEG renderings of all my PowerPoint slideshows and, once connected to a projector or video monitor, will allow me to give my lecture minus the sounds and movie clips, which is better than no show at all.

All of these contingency plans amount to little more than a sensible data backup plan. The trick is to create a backup that can be used in an emergency as it stands. It takes just a little extra time to prepare these backups, but this is a strategy that pays large dividends.

Each year more classrooms become multimedia- capable, with dedicated PCs, plasma displays, Smart Boards and Document Cameras, gigabit Ethernet connections, and touchscreen podia. Our newer projectors are IP-capable, allowing operations to check them remotely for lamp life. The more upgrades administration gives us, the more our presentations depend on technology. As educators, we must learn not only how to use these tools, but also how to make sure that the show indeed goes on.

In the meantime, if you want me I'll be in my trailer.

Steve Cunningham is a senior lecturer in technology in the Thornton School, Music Industry Department at USC. He can be reached

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