Friday, January 25, 2008

Day 12 "In the Trenches" (happy-hour edition)

Dancing 'til Monday comes around.

[Ashley Hutchings]

Friday blast edition: off in about 90 minutes to the weekly Irish pub session, which we started 6 years ago as a Friday 6:30-9pm situation because we thought it might interface pretty well with the transition for our core audience from work-week to weekend. Have housed in several different locations, each with strengths and weaknesses, but I can feel (intuit/sense) another shift coming. Historically, the period right around St Patrick's (March 17) is a pretty good time to make a change, as you can launch the new location, day, or time with a splash (Patrick's week is typically the only week when bars will lay out any $$ for advertising). Back at the old standard tonight though: nice little pub, but with some noisy resident bar-flies and really crap smoke-control (yes, Texas is the holdout after both Ireland and France caved--you can still smoke in Texas bars).

Other news: Friday meeting of the undergraduate "Music as Cultural History: The Modern Period" class. Fridays in our regular rotation are the discussion-section days--no lecture, the students break up into two or three rooms, and Teaching Assistants facilitate discussions, review, team-projects, take questions, etc. It changes up the presentational dynamic (good for the kids), gives tenured faculty a bit of a break (handy if they have to be out of town for conference weekends), and provides graduate students the opportunity to stand up in front of a classroom and make it work all by their lonesome (good professional development and CV line-items).

But it's also useful to provide a bit of a transition to this altered dynamic, location, and mode of operation. In the first couple of weeks of the semester, we tend to have all discussion sections meet together, in the big lecture hall, to make sure everybody is well-and-truly jump-started into the semester (this is the first year in which all discussions sections meet at the same time on Friday--formerly, due to room restrictions, they met at different times, and it was impossible to bring them all together on a given Friday), but today was the transition day: when we introduce the new mode of operation, start to hand over facilitation duties to TA's, and get the kids acclimated to operating under the TA's control and in collaboration with one another.

So it was Iconography Day. I've blogged before about the degree to which 21st century students respond with remarkable acuity and energy to iconography: they are used to processing data visually and they're very engaged by such a process.

So we look at this image by James Gillray, the mordant early-19th century caricaturist (titled Farmer Giles and his wife introduce their daughter Betty to the neighbors...) and we talk about caricature, and the physical attributes which caricature uses to depict class, intellect, or social identity, and about the rituals of vetting-and-negotiation that 19th-century arranged marriages implicated (cue those kids who've read Jane Austen and the Brontes in high school) and the ways that music, the study of music, and the instruments of music (especially the parlor piano) were markers, and tools, of social advancement. They're typically very engaged, and by the end of a 12-minute discussion, capable of extending this mode of analysis to their individual teams, under roving supervision of the TA's.

So then we put them in two groups, in opposite "bleachers" of our large auditorium-style lecture room, and distribute copies of various other images (especially Impressionist, Expressionist, and Exoticist--these are the dominant tropes in the late 19th-century music we're looking at right now) and ask them, in groups of about 8, to decide amongst themselves what "Ism" should be attached to their image, and, crucially, the evidence and interpretation which legitimates the group opinion. Almost no one has taught these kids that an opinion unsubstantiated by evidence is irrelevant--for many of them, the only "opinions" that have been modeled for them are the unexamined, low-information, programmed convictions which their parents, neighbors, youth ministers, coaches, or other authority figures have promulgated.

In contrast, we say "why do you believe that? I won't believe it unless you provide a concrete, articulate, logically-sequenced, presentation and interpretation of evidence." By insisting on this in an in-class, coachable situation, we can then insist that they extend analogous intellectual process to the discussion sections under TA's, and, eventually, to their individual research project.

It's a hard slog, but it's remarkable how swiftly they wake up, engage, speak up, and begin to communicate amongst themselves, particularly when we break up the knots of friends and stick them in groups of unfamiliar colleagues. This serves the added benefit of helping them get to know one another, and thus begin to converse and collaborate across cliques.

We usually run out of time before we get all the comments heard--which is a good thing, because it means that we're starting to generate some energy that can carry over, to the next class and to the next discussion sections. It also has the deeper, more lasting, and I think even more valuable effect of modeling a mode of conduct, and demonstrating (because saying this would completely go by them) that they are responsible for the conduct, caliber, range, interest, and sense of reward that happens in the classroom--not us. This is a major maturation moment, and, when it works right, represents a final break from the K-12 "teach to the test" / "my mommy and daddy paid for my education so you have to give me a degree" mindset that we battle every day.

Further to that: this week also represents the very tense period when teaching faculty receive both numerical evaluations and transcribed comments from the previous semester's students. It's really important to get this data--but this data is typically horrifically vulnerable to distortion, manipulation, or downright vengeful conduct. It's an opportunity for students to say laudatory things, constructively critical things, or spitefully destructive things, and it's why anonymized sites like ratemyprofessor etc are despicable--because the reality is that, for any age group in America, the opportunity to anonymously lash out--particularly at a defenseless or not-at-fault target, is seldom resisted (cf the infamous Stanley Milgram experiments, about which I almost came to blows with a gutless Assistant Prof at UMass Boston).

Hence to the impassioned and very thoughtful post "Devaluations" over on Dharmonia's blog. She lays it out very well and with a remarkable degree of objectivity; you should read it. But I'm going to bootleg my comments over here, in case you don't:
I agree that evaluations-time is enormously fraught, for precisely the reasons you articulate: because, typically, the most negative comments come from students who have (a) been very low-engagement in the class, have not invested much effort, and resent being made to work at all or (b) entered the class with a skewed sense of what its content or assignments would entail, through having failed to read, understand, or listen to the clear prospectus that we all typically provide.

It is tremendously difficult not to get "tossed away"--as Katagiri Roshi would put it--by the storm of emotional responses Dharmonia eloquently describes. But the reality is that the evaluations *should* elicit only very small, carefully-considered, conscious, and dispassionate responses: we look at the net feedback, attempt to discern patterns and figure out a more articulate expression than students tend to provide, and see if we can locate areas for improvement in our own teaching. Typically, we can--it's just more difficult when we are understandably angry and hurt by the spiteful little punks who want only to cause damage.

But, as the young HH the Dalai Lama said to Allen Ginsberg when Ginsberg asked him how to cope with frightening hallucinations that arose during meditation:

"If you see something horrible, don't cling to it. If you see something beautiful, don't cling to it."

A competent administrator (and thank the Universe, the Boss at Dharmonia's and my institution is one such) will look at a low-lined quantitative evaluation, or a spiteful, contemptible, and cowardly cheap shot like some of those Dharmonia quotes above, and say "OK, I can *tell* that this is spite, not commentary," and will discount it. I have *heard* our boss say precisely those words, in response to some outlier viciousness.

We have to avoid getting either obsessive or defensive about such attacks. We are *above* this--*we* have the power, and therefore the responsibility. As Dharmonia knows, we cannot succumb to the tit-for-tat, "some kid made a cheap shot so I'll tie myself into knots trying to figure out 'why they hate me'", knee-jerk subjective reaction. We're bigger than this. We're strong enough to take the hit, look past the spite and desire-to-hurt of the few, and try to discern the valid critical feedback of the several. It's of course easier if our bosses can do this too, and harder if we're in those snake-pit situations (just the sort that Dharmonia and I graduated from) where such evaluations can be used manipulatively against us.

One of our Buddhist teachers once said, "You have to dare to be disliked." Meaning: you have to dare to do the right thing, the difficult thing, the pedagogically responsible and mature thing--which usually means to look past the spite, assimilate the feedback, and fucking let it go.

It's hard. Waiting a few days before reacting, getting a trusted friend to read your evaluations and pass along a summary, or the good stuff, or an analysis of the patterns for improvement--instead of reading them for yourself--can also be a good strategy.

You're not here to be their friend, or to teach in their preferred style, or to act like their mom or big brother, or to baby them as their K-12 teachers were forced to do. You're there to be their teacher.

That takes courage. And that's another thing (along with data, and context, and critical thinking / reading / speaking / writing / listening, and ethics, and rigor, and esprit de corps) that we're supposed to teach them.

Ain't nobody else done it for them yet--so we got to.

Below the jump: chorophyll moving on the South Plains:

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