Tuesday, January 22, 2008

"In the Trenches" Day 09 ("Street-Fighting Man" edition)*

Back to teaching after the MLK holiday: short week, but no less jammed. Today is “Musics of the African Diaspora” class.

We’ve had the preliminary discussions about the pre-Colonial kingdoms of West Africa (to correct the still-prevalent presumption by undergraduates that, although the Middle Passage was a Very Bad thing, the reason slavers were successful was because of the limitations of West African culture), about musical and social aesthetics in West Africa (community, balance, “finding your place,” music as a tool of enculturation and social modeling), and about the impact of Islam even in sub-Saharan West Africa. We’ve had our preliminary demo-workshops learning polyrhythmic percussion music using vocables and beginning to experience integrating such polyrhythmic sound with analogous motion. We’re into our readings (John Miller Chernoff, Gerhard Kubik, and, for today, Robert Farris Thompson) and learning some skills in reading and synthesizing critically for purposes of seminar discussion. We’ll start in tomorrow talking about project ideas—usually narrowing, specifying, building a workable and arguable thesis—and ways to begin research and brain-storming. Then we’ll hear a bunch of examples, working on hearing “like Africans”, and then start talking about colonial contact—not so much about how Europeans conducted themselves (they mostly know that sad history) but more about how to read between the lines of the primary sources to reconstruct early performance practice and meaning. We can only really trace Africanisms in the New World if we have some understanding of how those procedures worked in the pre-colonial era. They’re most not documented in indigenous sources (except for the degree of continuity in performance practice even after the Middle Passage) but there’s actually fairly detailed information in the first colonial accounts—if you can read past the cultural bias and distortion.

In other business: it’s not a novel insight, but I’m having confirmed for me again that the biggest shift in moving to a Chair’s position is the added service work: committees, especially. The transition is eased because, with the explicit support of my senior colleague, I have been “growing into” the chair’s role for at least the past 4 years, and as of Fall 2007 semester was essentially fulfilling nearly all supervisory functions: curriculum design, new courses, chairing internal committees, searches, design/implementation/assessment of graduate examinations, strategic planning, outreach and recruitment, etc. The biggest change is the external stuff: the stuff at the upper echelons of the SOM administration (and beyond) and in which all chairs are expected to participate: cross-school and cross-college committees especially. This isn’t a lot more time-consuming than formerly, as I was usually dealing with the fallout of those committees’ decisions—but it’s another hour here and there, dotted through the week’s schedule, when I have to be somewhere specific following somebody else’s agenda.

Add to that the expanded number of graduate projects that all of the Musicology staff are supervising, as our graduate program grows, and there are a lot more 1-on-1 hours in the week. I love working with grad students, but, in my formulae, a 1-to-1 hour is a lot less time-efficient than seeing 30 kids at a time. That formula is the same reason that I basically do not teach private lessons anymore—I love doing it, but my schedule sort of doesn’t permit a full hour’s time for a single student. The exceptions to this, as they should be, are those students who are, like the grad students, my direct supervisees, who are both entitled to and should receive the tailored 1-to-1 contact.

Add to that the cross-campus committees: curricular, Teaching Academy, Study Abroad—and those controlled-by-others hours start to mount up. As with today’s: the University’s Freshman Summer Reading Program, for which I was recruited a couple of years back, and to which I now return after sabbatical. I stick with the committee (like Teaching Academy and Study Abroad) because I really believe in the mission: to select a single text, suitable-but-challenging for a high-school senior, that all students who have enrolled at our school are encouraged to read in the summer before they arrive here in Lubbock. It’s a voluntary program, so many students do not participate, but a surprising number do: typically those whose parents recognize that the transition from high-school (good, bad, or indifferent; big-city or small-town) to college is going to be a bit of a shock. A smart parent in our target recruiting populations recognizes that Junior is going to have to do some growing-up swiftly, in that first Freshman semester. The dumber or more absentee parents fail to recognize this, and Junior shows up—usually with an expensive, gas-guzzling car, and a lot of personal possessions which Mom & Dad have purchased to try to replicate in the dorm room all the comforts of home, not realizing that the very most important possession they could have supplied Junior is some maturity and self-reliance—with the unconscious presumption that college is going to be like high-school: learning by rote; teaching to the standardized tests that are the Bush Administration’s long-term contribution to the destruction of American public education; no need to do homework; being told by teachers or parents when to wipe your nose; being permitted to make as many errors and blow as many deadlines as you wish and still, at the eleventh hour, do “extra credit” that magically erases the consequences of your own bad decisions; etc.

The Summer Reading program tries to address that—to convey to kids that the college experience that follows that last summer after high-school is going to be different: that you’ll be expected to read and think critically, that you will be invited (in fact, required) to form and articulate opinions that are the product of such critical reading and thinking, rather than the rote parroting of the opinions your parents, coaches, youth ministers, or small-town mayors dictated. Some students struggle with this, and need to have critical thinking modeled for them. So they read the book in the summer, and then, in the Freshman Experience courses, there are discussions, exercises, assignments, and visits by authors. Other students (I would have been one of these) are so bored-stupid by their high-school experiences that they can’t wait to get into the meat of the college experience. Both groups benefit from the experience.

There’s also a sub-text to the program: in addition to providing a shared reading experience that can help kids get to know one another in their Freshman classes, the Summer Reading Program text can also help youngsters learn to think, and behave, differently than in high-school: to begin to take responsibility for their own education. Both our secondary education programs, and 21st century middle-class Anglo values, tend to absolve youngsters of responsibility: if every move in your educational life is being dictated by teachers, school boards, hovercraft parents, or standardized curricula and testing, then—just like the Army—you don’t have to make choices for yourself. Some kids chafe at this (again, I would have been one of these), but many sink into a comfortably-numb state of doing the minimum of what they’re told, on the timetable imposed, and not worrying about the long-term benefits of synthesizing bodies of knowledge. You learn such synthesis by internalizing a body of knowledge (say, a book), by deriving key insights or themes from that body of knowledge, by then articulating those insights and citing evidence in support of your interpretation, and then by defending and refining those insights in the face of contrasting interpretations. These skills are not taught in public high schools because the global power elites have no interest in a critically-reading-and-thinking population (when you have a Secretary of State and a President who both either dislike, or lie about, reading for pleasure, you know that this anti-critical-thinking stance is de facto policy), but development of such a population is still the mandate of a real teacher. That’s why I, nominally a music history teacher, sit on a committee largely weighted toward those English and Humanities faculty who are charged with implementing the slate of activities for which the Summer Reading Text serves as core curriculum:

Because I’m interested in resistance. And revolution. And the Long Memory.

So to this year’s final choices: Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey, a particularly clearly-and-affectingly-written account of a little boy from Honduras whose mama is in the States, and who sets out on the road to find her, with nothing but a phone number in North Carolina. It’s a beautiful, heart-rending story, and with a tremendous immediacy resulting from Nazario’s textual and photographic account of following Enrique on the trip. However, it has something of a conventional “happy-ending,” and, unfortunately, has a climactic reunion scene on the soundstage of a television talk-show. There’s nothing necessarily dishonest or manipulative about this narrative arc—it’s the true story, after all—and it’s certainly compelling (Nazario won a Pulitzer for the book). But it tends to reinforce the idea—for a high-school age reader—that the way that problems get solved is by the semi-divine deus ex machina of the mass media; e.g., “Oh, it’s OK, this story has a happy ending, because the talk show brought the family back together. Time to change the channel.”

My problem with the above, for the specific purposes of the Summer Program, is precisely this: that it tends to reinforce conceptions of narrative and cause-and-effect as they are taught to high-school students. My concern with such a text is that the target incipient-Freshman population, trained to seek the “correct” answers of a standardized testing method, will similarly seek the “correct” interpretation. What we want is for them to problematize things: not to ask the internal question “what is the ‘right’ answer that the test/teacher wants?” but rather “what do I conclude about this narrative/problem/issue?” The typical incoming Freshman has had scandalously little opportunity to formulate his/her own opinions—typically they don’t even realize that they are allowed to do so.

For that reason, I like the second choice, Luis Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway, much better. It’s just as closely-observed—Urrea obviously followed the coyotes and their passengers just as closely and extensively as did Nazario—but the narrative is also opened-out and contextualized, within the frames of international economics, racial identity, corruption, political opportunism, and so on, on both sides of the border. Urrea obviously talked to just about everyone on all sides of all issues around the illegal immigrant traffic, including individuals (legal and il-) who would seem never to have spoken to anyone else. If possible, he must have put himself at even greater risk of retaliation, from legal, para-legal, and illegal sources alike, than did Nazario.

As a result, The Devil’s Highway presents a much fuller, more complicated, less-readily-parsed picture. It requires much more in the way of critical reading and thinking, and is much less susceptible to simple “what’s the ‘right’ answer?” responses from students. As a result, instead of permitting the teaching-to-the-test responses that post-high-school students would naturally take (because familiar and previously the standard) to Enrique’s Journey, The Devil’s Highway would ask the same youngster to read and think like a college student.

That’s the goal: a revolution—in thinking and self-realization, for a start.

*Extra credit for anybody who can, in the "Comments", identify the relevance of the Stones quote.

Below the jump: fog rolling in on the South Plains.


Mac Tíre said...

I'm gonna venture a guess and go with Dennis Jones' book Street Fighting Man? Could be completely off there, though.

Shannon said...

Or the Stones' 1968 hit, "Street Fighting Man" ?