Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Day 15 "In the trenches" ("Isms" edition)

Undergrads today. Our kids are incredibly visual: most of their data sources are visual, most of their learning is visual, and--if we're smart as pedagogues--we teach with that in mind. That means we do a lot with iconography, but also with demonstration / imitation / critique (I always give a help-file with every writing assignment, which help-file always includes a sample assignment or template). This is not because they're dumb, or can't process information--but because they come to us with a prior educational experience, and the vast amount of their self-teaching has been done by observation, imitation, and experiment--poorly, when they're being taught to imitate the standardized text answers or to sing by rote; more effectively, when they get the "read one, see one, do one" model I learned in the trades.

They are tremendously verbally prolix--they talk constantly, if not in person then via cell-phone, IM, or text-messaging (text messaging is not prose--it's a direct translation, via acronyms, of their conversational discourse)--but they are not particularly verbal. That is: they are not accustomed to precise speech, the merits of clear sentence construction, the clarity that accurate grammar provides, the usefulness of a large and facile vocabulary. All of this is stuff that has to be modeled for them, ideally in the classroom (again, if they see and observe the professor and the TA's employing text-speech this way, they can begin to imitate and replicate it); we can then offer critique and coaching, and thus begin to move toward greater verbal command.

But, in the interest of bridging from their familiar pedagogical experience into more unfamiliar territory, we use a lot of iconography, a lot of visual aids, and a very careful and precise use of PowerPoint. The situations in which PPT doesn't work well are those in which a literate professor attempts to use the slideshow as a means of expanding/increasing the amount of text that a post-literate student audience can take in. This leads to densely-packed slides, simultaneous spoken and projected text, and a general confusion and splitting of attention. One thing I've learned from reading the blogs about presentation, sales-pitching, and so forth, is to learn how poorly text translates to a projected medium, versus how well images do.

So here's the slide for "Exoticism". In toto:

The theme: "The roots of musical 'modernism'" (e.g., in all the other late-19th-century "isms"--romanticism, nationalism, exoticism, etc which predated and helped fuel it).

The question: two words. The takeaway point that I want to burn, as new synapses, into those undergraduate brains: "if we look at an image, or listen to a composition, from the 20th Century, one of the ways we can understand composition choice is by asking ourselves about compositional goals. And one way of understanding the dizzying stylistic diversity of the 20th Century is to understand that the driving force shaping compositional goals was aesthetic diversity. In other words, the myriad "Isms" to which composers subscribed and which they tried to realize in works."

But I want to say that to them, or even better have them arrive at those insights themselves. I do not want them to see those insights in print on the screen--not only for the more abstract pedagogical reason that a concept arrived-at is better retained than one imparted-to, but also because, quite simply, they can't read, copy and listen all at the same time. If there's text on the screen, they're copying--not listening. So we vastly truncate the text on-screen, give them just the anchor to hang their lecture-notes upon, and push/force them to extract the additional, crucial information from the spoken commentary. This is the "critical listening" and "synthesis" part of the equation.

The images: two, without captions except those contained within the extensive verbal commentary that we prompt them to supply and discuss: a 19th-century French print (of a snake-charmer in an Egyptian marketplace) and a publicity still of Ellington's 1930s Cotton Club Orchestra, with the chorus line of feathers-and-cowries-clad light-skinned black girls. This usually effective for eliciting an extended discussion of race, "Self", "Other", economics, and "the Exotic." And it provides them a visual peg upon which to hang their understanding of an abstract and verbalized term. And it helps them begin to look for aspects of an "Ism" (color, light, alien dress or characters or skin tone, the unpredictable, sensual, irrational, or feminine) not only in a visual image but also in the a sonic language.

This may be a post-literate, online/digital generation. But these are old, old models: just ask the guys who cast the stained glass at Chartres, who carved the stone crosses or illuminated the manuscript at Kells, who painted the 32 views of Mt Fuji, who troped the medieval manuscripts at Santiago de Compostela, who sifted out the sand mandalas at the Potala.

It's an old, old way. And there's a lot of wisdom to it.

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