Five minutes with James Humberstone

8 August 2014

Dr James Humberstone is a Lecturer in Music Education at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Image: Bill Frakes

As a busy composer, lecturer and father-of-three, Dr James Humberstone is always learning, but it is his passion for innovative teaching which has epitomised his first 18 months as a full-time lecturer at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

James was recently in San Diego at the Apple Distinguished Global Educators Summit, which he describes as "the most inspirational week of professional development that I've had in ages".

"Rather than talk at us, they had us going out into the field and into the local community as teachers and learners - taking water samples and identifying things in the sea, meeting with archaeologists, paleontologists and local experts - it was like they'd packaged up into five days what we would call 'engaged enquiry' here at the University, and I came away thinking, 'OK, how can I do that with musical education?'"

Staff News sat down with James in his office at the Con to discuss his approach to teaching and assessment, and the challenges of balancing lecturing with creative work.

What does your research involve?
My job gives me the opportunity to spend time exploring what I'm really interested in - music education, technology, composition and various parts of the arts - and finding ways that it can all join together and produce amazing things.

At the moment I'm kicking off some research into the use of tablet computers in music education. I've been authoring interactive books as models for my teaching and research. Composition is obviously a large part of my research output - four of my 'creative works as research' were accepted last year in our internal review, and I've got two journal articles in the pipeline now.

What are the challenges of your role?
I think it's difficult for any academic to find time to balance teaching with their research or creative work. I've done casual university lecturing before, but it's been quite a challenge to start work here as a unit of study coordinator with a heavy teaching load, and writing lots of lectures. I do feel under pressure to achieve a lot, but we get such great support from the team here. I receive a lot of personalised advice and help to develop strategies for establishing my research plan, and I've learned so much from my colleagues about teaching and learning. We also have fantastic administration, from our office people who keep everything ticking over and don't tell you off (too much) when you stuff up, and an amazing ICT team who always seem to say "yes" to things.

What kind of professional development have you been involved in since you started at the University in 2013?
It's great to see how the research of the Institute of Teaching and Learning (ITL) is being fed back into the system at the University, so that our teaching is based on best practice and the most recent research. I've done a few courses like the Principles and Practice program and a joint ITL/ICT course about marking rubrics, which has had a big influence on how I assess my students. I havea lot of skills from my 12 years as a teacher at MLC School, but the professional development I've done here has brought those skills to a higher level and given them new relevance.

How do you keep your students engaged in the classroom?
My philosophy, and the philosophy of the Music Education Unit, is to always start with musical experience. Almost all of my lecture-seminars begin with a hands-on activity. For example, students might listen to a piece of music and then improvise or compose a piece with the same ideas or principles they they've just heard. We'll often do role-playing and debates to work out where the students stand philosophically as music teachers.

The upcoming Sydney Teaching Colloquium will focus on assessment practices. What's your approach to assessing students?
In some of my subjects I've tried to change assessment so that it's much more project-based. I scaffold peer-review sessions into the structure of lectures, tutorials and assessments so that students are gradually progressing their work throughout the semester, rather than just a final assessment where they get their final feedback and do no more on it. There are checkpoints along the way that help students get working on their piece early and keep polishing it over the semester, which means they have the opportunity to produce something really amazing in the end. I aim to help them realise that to get more than a bare pass they need to give their work a lot of time, and they have to engage in deep, critical thinking. I think these are teaching principles that could apply across many other disciplines and faculties.

How do you relax off-campus?
The three most important things in my life are my family, my music, and cricket. Obviously in reverse order of importance - cricket is the first thing that I think about when I wake up and the last thing when I go to sleep each night. There's only four weeks until the first game of the Australian cricket season and I am hanging out to strap those pads on, occupy the crease for the whole afternoon and thoroughly annoy the opposition.

If you could give your 18-year-old self a piece of advice, what would it be?
My advice would be: don't do anything different. Getting my first full-time tertiary position here at the Con is a dream come true, so I consider myself extremely lucky and blessed. I probably could have taken a safer and less grey-hair-inducing path to get here, though! I had my first son when I was young and then brought him up on my own, so carrying on studying full time wasn't really an option for me. But if things had happened differently, I probably wouldn't have discovered that I love teaching purely on its own, and I wouldn't have gone down this side-alley of working with technology. Even though it might have been more sage advice to tell that 18-year-old self, "Don't take that year off and go travelling round Australia and start a family young, just get your degrees and stay on the obvious path," I wouldn't have half the richness of experience that I do.

Even though my job is incredibly hard work, I feel honoured every day that I walk through that beautiful foyer, down the steps and into this great room with this beautiful view. I get to teach amazing students and conduct a premiere of my music in front of a thousand people on the weekend and call that research - that's everything I've been aiming for my whole life.

James recently conducted the premiere of his piece 'The Very Music of the Name' at the tribute concert for Karen Carey, retiring head of music at MLC School. James was composer-in-residence at MLC for 12 years before joining the University