Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Day 06 "In the Trenches" (quick hit)

Quick hit today: Wednesday full-court-press schedule.

Today is meeting 3 of the undergrad survey ("Music as Cultural History: The Modern Period"). Today will be the impact of Romantic progressivism on orchestral form and harmonic language: we've discussed the Wagner Tristan Prelude (1857) and the programmatic reasons for its drifting chromaticism, but then we've backed up and talked the roots of that--Wagner to the contrary, his style was not sui generis.

So we listen to the "Wolf's Glen" scene in Weber's Freischutz (1827/30) and most of the kids who've heard "Ride of the Valkyries" sit straight up because they realize they can hear the influence of Weber and that Wagner was not self-created. They usually also make the connection to film music, and so we use that to invert the history and talk about how, when European-born orchestral composers and conductors fled Germany in the '20s and '30s, and came to Hollywood, the conventions of 19th-century programmatic music were an obvious language for the invention of film music. This helps make the point that musical style evolutions came from a specific set of resources and in response to a specific set of circumstances.

Also introducing the first stage of the research project today. This is a "Topic Idea"--the very first kernel of a focus for the semester-long project. We review the students' ideas at each of the project's six stages (because, if there are problems, we want to catch and detour around those problems early in the process, rather than late), and the very first review is of the "Idea." The commonest problems that we encounter are ideas that are too broad, vague, or unspecific; that do not actually lead to a thesis, but simply propose to survey some chunk of history (e.g., "I will trace the history of the clarinet"); that are unprovable or completely subjective ("I will prove that Beethoven was the greatest composer ever"); or that have been chosen by the students because they believe the topic will be a slam-dunk ("I will prove that, in the Rite of Spring, Stravinsky used rhythmic combinations that had never been used before"). We have to steer them away from any or all of these problems.

Historically we've done that by collecting printouts of each stage, and having TA's and professor-of-record write comments. Then we moved to having the stages submitted online through webct, and faculty/staff would comment online.

This year, with the wiki, I'm trying something new, derived from my reading of some great education bloggers: peer review. That is, each stage of the research process will still be reviewed by faculty/staff, but this time there will be an intervening step: each stage of a student's process, submitted on the wiki, will be critiqued by another student, also on the wiki, and each student's grade will be a sum of her/his own submission and of her/his critique of an assigned peers. This will be both efficient (I hope), because some of the most egregious errors will be caught by the peer reviewers, hence necessitating lighter reading and less commenting by staff--but also (I hope) pedagogically productive, because students will have the opportunity to think critically about someone else's ideas, and in turn reflect upon their own. An experiment! Hope it works.

Gotta go.

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