School of Education forms band for national academic conference

Watch the Skew perform one of its education-based rock tunes | More videos

The Skew is:

  • Gretchen Anderson, graduate student in educational measurement, vocals
  • Angela Broaddus, doctoral candidate in curriculum and teaching, keyboards
  • Diana (DJ) Buie, student in the graduate licensure program, fiddle and violinla
  • Colby Cormack, senior in social studies education, hand drums
  • Jon Hankley, the only Skew member who does not attend or work at KU, bass
  • Zach McCall, doctoral student in special education, drums
  • Lauren Ray, senior in journalism, lead guitar
  • Neal Kingston, director of the Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation, manager
  • Julia Shaftel, research associate at the Center for Educational Research and Testing, assistant manager

Getting a room full of researchers to dance is an achievement very few academics could list on a curriculum vita.

A group of faculty, graduate research assistants and students, primarily from the School of Education, recently pulled a band together and got a group of academics to groove after a long, hard day of discussing educational measurement. The band, known as the Skew, rocked a reception at the American Educational Research Association National Measurement Conference in May in Denver.

The band was the brainchild of Neal Kingston, director of the Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation and a “rock music impresario in his spare time.” Kingston had been attending the conference for 30-plus years. He thought the reception could use some livening up, so he shared his idea with the conference directors. They loved it.

“We’re big on work hard/play hard at CETE,” Kingston said with a laugh. “KU certainly needs to be represented at this sort of thing, so I put out a call for a band.”

The band solicitation garnered a litany of music lovers and performers from across the School of Education.

The Skew was chosen as the name as a tribute to skewed distribution, the research term relating to unequal observations above or below the mean. In short, they are referred to as a positive or negative skew, or just the skew. They also considered the Standard Deviants and a few other research-related monikers.

Julia Shaftel, research associate at CETE, was among those to answer the call. Legend has it Shaftel played keyboards and sang in a punk band in the past.

Sample lyrics by The Skew:

From Tenure Track:

When I think back on all the stats I learned in grad school
It's a wonder I research at all
I wish my lack of publications hadn't hurt me none
But I can read the writing on the wall.
Tenure track
You give me that nice bright future
You promise those carefree summers
Makes you think all the world's a sunny day, oh yeah!
I got my doc'tral diploma
I love to teach intro stats
So dean don't take my tenure track away

“When real musicians showed up I said ‘That’s fine, I’ll be assistant manager,’” Shaftel said.

Though she wasn’t on stage, band members said her contribution can’t be overlooked.

“Julia was the glue that held a lot of this together,” Kingston said, pointing out she hosted rehearsals at her house and coordinated schedules.

That is to say, partial rehearsals. As one might imagine, it can be difficult to get seven researchers, grad students and faculty members in one place at the same time.

“The performance was a lot of fun,” said Angela Broaddus, a doctoral student who played keyboards. “It was very difficult to find rehearsal time. We didn’t rehearse all together until we got to Denver. But it all came together.”

“We decided it would be a train wreck,” joked Gretchen Anderson, a graduate student who handled vocal duties for the Skew.

The performance was far from a catastrophe. The band performed four songs, all parodies of popular hits, with new lyrics focusing on educational measurement. “Tenure Track” details the anxiety all young faculty members face in seeking tenure, set to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Kodachrome.” The band went back to the Simon and Garfunkel catalog for “Test Prepping,” a take off of “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” “Devil Went Down to KU” retold the tale of Charlie Daniels Band’s “Devil Went Down to Georgia” as a story about analyzing research data and publishing, complete with frantic fiddling. “Baby Got Backing” was perhaps the boldest attempt, reworking Sir Mix-a-Lot’s ode to the posterior into a paean to grant funding.

Two other bands played the reception as well. At first, the idea of a “battle of the bands” of sorts was floated. Instead, the bands decided to work together, trading ideas and even working together to coordinate equipment rentals once they arrived in Denver.

There is already talk about getting the band together for next year’s conference. Judging from this year’s reception, live entertainment is a welcome addition to a conference in which thousands of researchers discuss educational measurement several days in a row.

“People came up to me the last three days of the conference saying how much fun they had at the reception,” Kingston said. “They even ran out of food.”

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L. Ayu Saraswati, assistant professor of women, gender and sexuality studies.
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