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Sometimes the Best Laid Plans Aren't the Best Ideas by Steve Cunningham

Generally speaking, having a new or well-refurbished classroom in which to teach is a wonderful thing. However, commissioning that room so it is ready and correctly configured for specific types of classes can be another matter altogether. And commissioning a building full of new rooms can generate anything from a few mild headaches to full-blown ulcers for those involved in planning and outfitting those rooms.

I've written previously about the planning and implementation issues involved with our computer lab as it was successfully moved into a new room last fall. While a few hiccups occurred along the way, the last six weeks of the fall semester in the new lab went surprisingly well. However, other “new to us” rooms that came along with the overall deal—consisting of entire buildings being swapped between schools to make way for new construction—did not fare quite as well. And so it is that the start of a new semester brought with it new issues that have arisen as classes were taught for the first time in the new digs. And as expected, the complaints by the faculty about a couple of these rooms have already started rolling in.

Most of the problem areas are small, and turn out to be little more than unfinished business: routing wires; completing connections to raise and lower projection screens from the podium; balancing the HVAC between rooms; that sort of thing. This can be chalked up to the final phase of the entire project having occurred over the winter break when time was tight, and they are being fixed. Another issue arose when the faculty realized that the only access to a shop for equipment repair and a storage area for tools and unused audio equipment was accessible only by going through a classroom dedicated to audio mastering. Given that the tools and equipment in question are rather expensive bits, a door or two will be added or removed to mitigate that problem in relatively short order.

The largest of the current problems revolves around seating orientation within classrooms. In one instance the room is both large and long, with the length being over twice the width. Unfortunately, the projection screens and loudspeakers were mounted along the long wall, and desks sit facing that same wall. There are two eight-foot projection screens and two individually addressable projectors to cover the span, so the visual aspect is acceptable. However, the stereo sound field is very narrow, and only the middle third of the seats reside within the stereo sound field. The other two thirds of the seats, one third on each side of the center, receive what is essentially a mono signal from the closest speaker. As one might imagine, this situation caused the greatest uproar amongst the natives.

As I may have mentioned before I teach in a school of music, so naturally classes tend to be about sound; creating it, hearing it, recording and editing it, and evaluating its qualities. These classes do not require that rooms be tuned to mastering-lab specifications for critical listening, but they do need to function well enough that students can hear a stereo image from the rather expensive stand-mounted studio monitors in the room.

No one yet knows what will come of this issue. It's been suggested that the contents of the room be rotated ninety degrees during the coming summer, when this room will not be used. In the meantime, faculty will simply have to deal with engaging students who are seated some 20 or 25 feet to their left and right.

All this begs the question "why were all stakeholders -- including the faculty who will teach in these rooms -- not part of the information loop during the planning phases?" That is a difficult question to answer, and we may never know the reasons.

After all, we are talking about academics here, and academia's version of good old office politics may have been involved. An old saw that probably originated with Woodrow Wilson but is usually attributed to Henry Kissenger says, "Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” It is certainly possible that after the extended give-and-take of the planning phase for the computer lab, the folks in operations who were driving the bus felt comfortable with their contractors' and staff's recommendations on the other rooms should be configured. Perhaps they didn't feel it necessary to take time to involve faculty who would actually be working in those rooms. If that is the case it can be argued that any gains in efficiency from that decision may ultimately be vaporized by having to reconfigure the rooms, should that come to pass.

Or perhaps this situation has just come from the current desire to do more with less. If the desired student experience requires an acoustician to measure the room and make recommendations, but the budget does not exist to pay that acoustician, then perhaps the only thing one can do on 4th down and 10 is to punt.

Steve Cunningham is an assistant professor of practice at USC's Thorton School of Music.