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From the outside looking in, what is Advance HE to me?

02 Jul 2018 | Jon Burton Jon Burton has been a live sound engineer for over 35 years working at the highest level. He became involved in teaching over 20 years ago and has delivered masterclasses at many Universities and colleges around the world. In 2017 he graduated from the University of York.

Jon Burton has been a live sound engineer for over 35 years working at the highest level. He became involved in teaching over 20 years ago and has delivered masterclasses at many Universities and colleges around the world. In 2017 he graduated from the University of York.

I had always viewed Higher Education from the outside. Leaving school my aim was always to be involved with music, either as a musician or as a technician. In the end I did a bit of both. My higher education amounted to 4 weeks on a Foundation Art Course, before dropping out to work full-time in a music shop. My formal education ended there, or so I thought. So where am I now and how did I get here?

My career became increasingly orientated around engineering, and in particular live sound. I have been a touring engineer since 1982, and travel the world doing concerts. At some point I was invited to talk about what I did and that sparked an interest in teaching. I have been giving guest lectures and masterclasses for over twenty years. I was never taught how to do this, I just got up there, talked about what I did for a living.

At some point when one reflects on one’s occupation you start to question what you actually do. How do you explain your profession. How do you quantify your knowledge, your skills, your ability? As soon as you start this appraisal doubts arise. What do I, as a professional, actually know?

I never studied music technology, somehow I only managed a year of physics lessons. What right did I have to stand in front of students and dictate to them what they should learn?

As the level of my involvement in Education grew, from hour-long guest lectures to one-day masterclasses, then to three-day courses my doubts increased. On what basis was I able to set myself up as an educator. This was a question I often raised with my academic colleagues. They seemed mostly unphased; ‘well you do it,’ they would say ‘you do the job they want to do’.

I still found their belief unsatisfying. I knew stuff, yes, but enough? Probably not. I started a long process of self-education. I studied acoustics and speaker system design. I went on courses, I read.  I still however had no science qualification beyond Biology GCSE (C).

In tandem with my lack of self-belief in my learning was a gradual realisation that I had no idea how academia worked.  I hadn’t been to Uni. I wasn’t a product of the system. My involvement was more a series of glancing blows. When I was invited to teach a module for a degree course I realised how out of my depth I was. I knew the topic. I could explain the subject, but I didn’t understand how this teaching fitted in with ‘the system’. I had never marked anything!

A chance reading of a prospectus brought me to the University of York. They had a one-year Master of Science in Music Technology. I figured that would be something to aim for. I hadn’t much work for a few months, I could sign up and see how it went. It was only a year, I could test the waters, after all I already taught degree students! My naivety and presumption are galling now, only a few years later!

I met my would-be tutor and we explored the possibility of me enrolling with prior knowledge, as my A levels in Art, and Art History, were woefully irrelevant. I was also talked into doing a part-time course and research rather than a taught course. The next two and a half years were a voyage as I went from knowing a bit, to realising I knew nothing, back to knowing I knew a bit. I now hold an MSc.

So, what is this to do with Advance HE?

Well alongside my masters, being a glutton for punishment I signed up to the York Learning Teaching Award. After all my reason for doing the Masters was not to gain knowledge, so much as an understanding of academia, and the academic process. In many ways the YLTA was harder than the masters. I was totally out of my comfort zone, doing something I certainly had never been given guidance in.

By the end of my YLTA year my teaching had been transformed. Being introduced to analytical methods, examining how I taught, reflecting on my teaching, was fascinating. Having my lectures observed and receiving studied feedback was painful but also liberating. I now knew where I was going wrong. I was given the tools to improve my skills.

Since completing the YLTA and becoming an Associate Fellow I have taken my teaching a lot more seriously. I now plan, and I plan with a purpose, I have structure!  I have found that many new avenues have opened up to me.

Last year I was made a companion of the LiverpooI Institute for Performing Arts, for my contributions there. I wrote and taught two three-day courses in Armenia and Serbia. Next month I am teaching a four-day course in High Wycombe. I continue to give regular Masterclasses, but I do so in a more structured way, with a greater integration to the curriculum, with a greater sense of academic purpose.

I am hoping this year to become more involved with Advance HE. I aim to apply for Fellowship.

I am no longer on the outside looking in, I am in, and looking forward.

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