Bricks Avalon is the vocalist of Louisville, KY hardcore band Miracle Drug. This is the fourth installment of his WORK HARD, PLAY HARDcore interview series where he chats with folks from the hardcore community about their career in the real world. This time he chats with Rob Pennington, a vocalist who has played in such bands as Endpoint, By the Grace of God, and Black Cross. —Carlos Ramirez
Greetings Rob. So, what is it that you do?
I do lots of things. I hang out with my amazing wife and dogs. I am a professor-researcher in special education/applied behavior analysis at the university of North Carolina at Charlotte. I play music, I eat delicious foods of the vegan persuasion. You know, the regular stuff.
In that answer, it seems like you bundled your career in and amongst your passions and enjoyment. How does one become a professional researcher in special education/applied behavior analysis, and how did you wind up on staff at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte?
I do very much count my career in amongst my passions. I have been fortunate to find a path that is both compelling and serves others. I was a peer tutor in grade school when I first interacted with an individual with extensive support needs (intellectual disability, autism, complex communication needs). I enjoyed spending time with him and somehow that adhered my focus to teaching throughout my high schools years. I provided respite, tutoring, therapy, during college and then taught in several capacities in public education (i.e., classroom teacher, teacher consultant/trainer). Teaching also was a great fit because it provided me an opportunity to still play and tour in my bands.
We would leave on a long weekend and play shows 12 hours away and then I would make it back to teach on Monday. We would do longer tours during breaks. Somehow, I ended up in a PhD program and found that I loved research and dove more deeply into behavior analysis.
I worked at UL for 8 years and really enjoyed the faculty life. It requires long hours (sometimes 60-70/week), but endless opportunities to express creativity and feed one's curiosity. The students were great and my colleagues were the best at UL. About a two years ago, I received an invitation to apply for a distinguished scholar (endowed) position at UNC Charlotte. I think I was ready to mix things up, so I applied not thinking I would get and invite to interview. Whoops, here I am. It has one fo the strongest doctoral programs in the country and I'm really loving the interactions and mentorship with graduate students.
How have you managed to weave your punk and hardcore music and philosophy in and amongst your studies and scholarly activities? How have you been successful in implementing your diy ethic in your work and in what ways have you felt like banging your head up against the walls of the halls of academia?
Man, that's a tough question. Overall, I feel good about the work I do and in most cases can navigate the complexities of this area fo study to stay in touch with my values. I have a punk pragmaticism, I guess, in that It always boils down to what is best for the person to which I am charged to support. For instance, in the field of SPED there are always competing viewpoints and I always return to what will help this student, teacher, or family have more skills and thus more access to resources and better quality of life. I speak my mind on these issues and am ok speaking truth to power.
For instance, I am generally against for profit charter schools for students with disabilities but at the same time have no problems talking about challenges that public schools face.
My work is awesome. I reject the notion that I do this because "I am a good person" or because "it's fucking god's work" or something. I enjoy solving problems, learning new things all the time, and hanging out with rad people with and without disabilities
It's funny how academia is similar to being in a band. If I have something to say, instead of screaming on stage, I write a paper about. Instead of touring to play shows, I travel often to support teachers, behavior analysts, and students.
On the flip side, has your involvement in higher education helped you bring a different perspective back to your community, your music, and how have you been able to share that?
The intersection of my work in special education and punk is most explicitly wrought out in my song lyrics. As early as By the Grace of God (i.e., "Cole"), I was writing about my students and my experiences as a teacher. Later in Black Cross, Black God, Minnow, and the last BTGOG records, I wrote about more systemic problems in education as my lens extended beyond my immediate classroom. Less pointed is the impact that my study of behavior analysis has had on my overall interactions with the punk community. For me, behaviorism is an ever-optimistic lens as it suggests that change is possible for everyone. Behavior analysts are the ultimate arbiters of PMA, or at least they should be.
Do you have colleagues who come from a similar DIY background, that you look to for support or inspiration?
There are a lot of punks in my field. My department chair, Charlie Wood, used to book punk shows in Kalamazoo. We’ve just started playing music together and his is a great comrade. I have other colleagues across the country. For example, Matt Tincani is super-talented researcher and is in the band Edgewise.
Do you ever reference songs or lyrics in a classroom or a lecture that seem pertinent?
Not often. This year, I send out weekly songs to the doctoral students for encouragement. Last week, I sent them some 3 songs.
Is there a soundtrack, that students or folks in SPED have responded well to?
Nah, not really. They just humor me. A couple liked the 3 songs, a Public Enemy song, and a Glen Hansard song.
Do you feel that you will finish your career in this role, or do you have other plans for future positions and growth
Who knows? I really enjoy my work and my colleagues here at UNCC. I am a sped lifer for sure but I can’t look that far into the future. I am hoping to keep at it for another 20 years.
How have you learned to upkeep and maintain yourself physically and financially throughout your journey?
I didn’t keep myself healthy for a while. 12-hour days, working on the weekend. My incredible wife helped me get things back in perspective but putting her foot up my ass. The academic workaholic culture is real, we actually brag about how many hours we work. It’s total BS. No I am at a much better place, circuit training in the gym, eating better. I have more energy and probably just as productive. As far as finances go...
As far as finances go...do you feel you can provide for your family and your lifestyle with the choices you have made and have you had guidance in making those decisions? Has diy and touring helped you understand your budget better?
I have never considered the relationship between the two. I have definitely drawn for my touring experiences when money was short. I am also ok with donating to charitable causes and giving more in taxes to support public programs.
I guess my many of my choices as to where and how to spend my money have been shaped by my experiences in punk community
Can you share one of the more incredible stories/experiences you've had in your work environment?
I have to say the sunglasses threw me off at first and then he commented at the end about them....are you saying this is one of the more memorable experiences? This conference?
No. It’s why I love behaviorism
My work is full of memorable experiences but I am not sure if I can pick out just one. Most of them involve me learning new lessons through an oversight or blatant screw up. Then there are those that begin with a misunderstanding of the capacity of a person with a disability of an educator. That person receives a slight nudge or the provision of some support and the their outlook changes, a problem behavior is treated or heck, sometimes a nonverbal student learns to communicate
Would you recommend your job? What would you say to someone who is interested in starting on that journey?
Definitely, but be prepared for a lot of work and love your topic of study. The route to tenure is no picnic and requires a great deal of balance (e.g., scholarship, teaching, and service).
But the journey is fucking great you learn so much from your mistakes along the way and make lifelong friends just as nerdy as you.
How can you be found if someone is interested in reaching out?