Saying goodbye to Hamilton and its people is hard enough for graduating seniors. But on top of having to separate themselves from the place they know and love, they are forced to accept the fact that Hamilton-level philosophizing simply doesn’t happen round-the-clock — at least, not on a daily basis.
“They get out into the job world, and it’s great,” Professor of Music Lydia Hamessley said. But after watching her niece graduate from college, she saw that the thoughts, “I miss being in a class,” and “I miss talking about books” come up often after people leave school. As a result, Hamessley decided to find a way for these kinds of experiences—studying sources and engaging in classroom discussions—to transcend the physical college realm. In turn, she developed Hamilton’s first online course.
In 2010, Hamessley received The Class of 1963 Faculty Fellowship to cultivate new areas of teaching expertise. Through that fellowship, she developed the syllabus for Music 245, Music in American Film, which first became available to Hamilton students during the spring 2012 semester. After teaching the course, Hamessley realized its broad potential reach; students need not be music majors to enroll, as its curriculum is steeped in popular culture. Once she received the go-ahead from Dean of Faculty Patrick Reynolds, she began enlisting the help of others to get Music in American Film online.
“My real worry about the class was technology,” recalled Hamessley.
To ease her anxieties, she brought ITS’s Carl Rosenfield and Ted Fondak onboard.
“My colleague Carl and I evaluated all of the major videoconferencing solutions, many of which simply didn’t permit the easy sharing of video clips that the class required to function properly,” said Fondak. “Once we settled on Adobe Connect, we discovered that there are significant potential copyright issues extent in the sharing of video clips with which we needed to grapple. While initially a monolithic problem that threatened the future of the class, collaboration with Reference Librarian Lynn Mayo (our resident copyright expert)—who courageously jumped right in—and with Professor Hamessley gave us a path through the issue.”
“Thereafter, having never facilitated a class online, we assisted Professor Hamessley in grappling with the new interaction paradigm using the tools in Adobe Connect,” he continued. “How exactly can you have a conversation that involves a chat tool, an occasionally persnickety phone connection, a hand-raising feature, and a poll?”
“I didn’t want to prepare nine one-hour lectures that could be videotaped so people could watch them,” Hamessley explained. Adobe Connect allows her students to log in every Wednesday at 8 p.m. for one hour and see her conduct class live. The program has an interactive aspect, as students can “raise” their “hands” to communicate directly via voice chat or comment whenever they like using text chat. Every week, the class is recorded for those who cannot attend a live session.
“I miss the Hamilton classroom,” said Elizabeth King ’91. “And while the time and space are different in Professor Hamessley's online course, the academic experience is unmistakably there.”
“I feel a little like I’m eavesdropping,” said Heather Montana ’07, who is unable to log on for the class’ Wednesday 8 p.m. meeting time and watches the session recordings, “but mostly I feel as though I get to be in a Hamilton music class again!” Montana majored in music on the Hill.
Before ever conducting a class, Hamessley and her tech supporters ran a series of tests to work out any issues the program might have. In addition, Fondak sits in during every one of Hamessley’s class sessions to assure that each of them runs smoothly.
Extra help has come from Allie Goodman ’15, an American studies major who took Hamessley’s Music in American Film when it was first offered in 2012. After she completed the class, Hamessley approached her in Commons Dining Hall and asked if she would like to help her with the adaptation of Music in American Film to an online version.
“Based on my interests, this class was everything that I love to study all in one: film, music and American history,” said Goodman, who intends to minor in cinema and new media studies.
“I did not hesitate to accept the offer,” she said. “I loved the class last year when I took it and I had told Lydia at the start of this year how much I missed going to that class three times a week.”
Every week, Goodman cuts the film or films that the class is studying into short clips that Hamessley shows during class and uploads them to the class’s Blackboard page. Like Fondak, she also is present at each class for tech support.
Further support has come from Clinton residents and Hamilton grads living in the surrounding area who attend the course live on the Hill, providing Professor Hamessley with the energy she needs to make the sessions feel genuine.
“The interchange between Lydia, those of us in the classroom with her, and the alums online has been delightful,” said Jerry Pitarresi ’71, who is enrolled in the course with his wife Marie Pitarresi P’08, P’10.
Alumni Relations also played an essential role in bringing the course to life by reaching out to alumni and Hamilton parents, encouraging them to register. It wasn’t too hard for them to persuade music majors, music enthusiasts and film lovers to enroll in Hamessley’s course, though.
“I'm taking the class partly because I was a music major, but mostly because I love Professor Hamessley, who is one of the most engaging professors I’ve ever encountered,” said Kara Novak ’08. “So it’s no surprise that she is the first at Hamilton to embark on an online class to bring alumni together and teach them something fun.”
“I had never seen any of the films covered in this class. As a student of theater and music, I wish I had had the opportunity to take this class as an undergrad,” said Alison McLaughlin ’11.
But the class has appealed to a much wider audience than former music and film concentrators.
“As mostly a non-film person with about 10 favorite movies with music, I really did not expect to hear music in the background of the films presented in the course,” said Patsy Couper W ’44. “What a surprise to discover that music in many films is an integral part of understanding the words, plot, feelings of the characters as well as being able to grasp the mood of each moment—quite an education for one about to reach age 90!”
Currently, Hamessley is teaching the online, not-for-credit version of Music in American Film alongside its original on-the-Hill version. The online course is a condensed version of the real class—an opportunity to “showcase the passions of Hamilton faculty to alumni in an abridged and accessible form,” as Alex Fraser ’85 put it. Classes will run up until Spring Break, as opposed to until final examinations on the Hill in May. The two courses do have significant overlap in terms of course content, though. In fact, the students in both classes will be watching the same films at the same time to ease Hamessley’s workload a little.
“The week I’m doing Casablanca in class, I’m doing Casablanca with my online class,” she said.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Hamessley said of teaching the course. But she certainly wouldn’t call herself a “convert” to online instruction.
“The one thing that has sort of surprised me about the class is that people aren’t really using the audio like I had expected they would,” Hamessley said. “I can’t tell if they’re shy about it, if they don’t feel like they have enough to say, or if it’s like, ‘Well, I’m at a computer, so I’m in ‘[text] chat’ mode.’”
“If anything, this has really reminded me of how limited the technology is,” she said of the teaching experience. “I think it’s terrific for what we’re doing. This does not come anywhere near taking the place of what we do here.”
Despite its limitations, Adobe Connect offers Hamilton alumni and parents a great opportunity to continue their education.
“You can come back to college, in a way,” Hamessley said.
And who wouldn’t want that?