Friday, February 01, 2008

Day 17 "In the trenches" (knockin' em down edition)

As in: raisin' 'em up and knockin' 'em down--the work weeks, that is.

End of Week 4 of the semester. The first of the interrupted teaching weeks looms: Feb 13-16 is the huge gathering of the tribes I've previously blogged about. Those absences (the kids', not our own) can play hell with student concentration, and so we now know that we have to plan aheada to maintain their mental continuity and focus in the run up to, as well as the aftermath of, the away dates. It's a lot of the usual pedagogical razzle-dazzle: change up the in-class activities, introduce new templates and procedures (such as TA's taking over their assigned Friday Discussion sections), ramp up the level of engagement and personal organization the students have to maintain (expect them to do follow-up work over the weekend to the chores undertaken on Friday, and to bring in results on Monday)--most of which they will either resist, ignore, or require repetition with. This is exacerbated by the looming away dates, as they actually begin on Monday the 12th, with short recruiting tours by various School of Music ensembles to Texas high schools. That means our kids will be away from classrooms, practice rooms, and their Internet/printed study methods, for anywhere up to 6 days.

I sometimes joke about having to re-train undergraduates "after a coffee break"; in 6 days some of them can forget they're even in college. So the issue arises of how to maintain continuity, minimize the erosion of concentration, and provide a ready jump-start (coercive or persuasive) back into the post-hiatus work. For most undergraduates, nothing concentrates the mind like a deadline or, even more effectively, a looming grade.

So we place the first Exam, covering approximately the first third of the semester's work (roughly, 1857 Wagner Tristan Prelude to 1913 Le Sacre du printemps), on the Monday prior to the Tuesday departure. This ensures that, pretty much right up until the buses roll, they're having to spend some part of every day in the reading, listening, and review we want them to pursue (not just pre-exam, but all the time--though some of them will concentrate only immediately pre-exam). It means that they get that first large-scale assessment task out of the way before they leave, and engage in every kind of lack-of-sleep, eat-bad/wrong-foot, sneak booze, engage in various physical hi-jinks--in the wake of all of which, around Feb 18, we'll have to scrub out their mental systems. A really good way to do that is for them to see exam results on the Monday they get back.

But it's intended to be neither punitive nor arbitrary: rather, we're trying to recognize their high- and low-concentration periods throughout the semester's calendar, and plan to facilitate their academic performance by framing events in the context of those periods. We want them to work hard for, and then to succeed at, this exam, because that sends the most valuable and long-term constructive message of all: that the path to success is via effort, and, conversely, that effort, focus, self-discipline, concentration, prioritization, ethical commitment, are the true keys to success.

A friend of a friend, once a member of the Athletics staff here and now strength coach for one of the NFL powerhouse teams, once said "Shit, man. In this town, you can be a superhero if you just get up early." I recently saw a sign that said "The difference between successful people and unsuccessful people is that successful people will do the work that unsuccessful people don't feel like doing." Or, to quote Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, a pretty execrable, sentimental, and narratively dishonest film, but in which Hanks's characterization is maybe his finest moment as an actor:

"If it was easy, everybody would do it."
Being an artist in this culture is fuckin' hard. Any youngster who wants to be an artist in this culture (and I'll include teachers in that category--as teaching, especially in public schools, might be one of the most artistic and idealistic jobs in American culture) had damned better develop a work ethic, a sense of personal responsibility, and an ability to enjoy the work for its own sense of satisfaction: what Gary Snyder called, and I recently quoted in the liner notes for Mason Brown's great When Humans Walked the Earth, the "relentless clarity at the heart of work."

That's the clarity which it is our responsibility to seek and model.

Below the jump: post-Blue-Norther dust storm on the South Plains.

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