Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Day 44 "In the trenches" (countdown edition)

As in: setting 'em up and knocking 'em down. Heading toward spring break, now. Over the next 72 hours or so, the neighborhoods will get quieter and quieter as the kids bail for points south, warm, and lubricious. Not a problem for me: I like it when the campus and the campus neighborhoods get quiet: feels more like a small town and a hell of a lot more peaceful.

At the same time, we're heavily into the "coming up to Patrick's Day" season. St Patrick's day for Irish musicians is like New Year's Eve for any other musician: you get paid a lot of money to play for people who more-or-less don't give a shit about the music. But, we do it, because we can get paid (to quote 'Pac), and because it's about as high-visibility a time for real Irish music as we get in the annual calendar 'round here.

So, having slogged back Sunday from a RT Lubbock-Savannah that was riddled with the incompetence and dishonesty of American Airlines, yesterday brought two schools presentations, both public ISD schools, one in a historically blue-collar Anglo neighborhood and the other in a historically blue-collar African-American neighborhood. Really good reception from the kids in both, though the black school was older, prettier, and way more run-down, while the kids were more hyper but way more into the dancing: nothing like teaching a bunch of African-American adolescents the Irish step-dancing 3's and 7's, having them catch on virtually instantly, and then turn the step-dance into hip-hop within moments (as Dharmonia said, "that's like a W.S. Mount painting coming to life, right there"). There's a lot to be said for raising kids in a culture where dancing, both by boys and girls, is still valued as a great form of personal expression.

Then it was back to meet with grad students who are preparing papers for regional conferences (nothing like building a program which starts to export top-notch grad students to read their excellent papers, and then having the university run out of money to help them get to those conferences). An awful lot of the skills that you need as a graduate student aiming toward the job market are not actually taught in the standard-issue musicology courses: things like classroom teaching approaches, conference presentation approaches, how to prepare a read-aloud text versus a read-by-a-reader text, how to time things, how to render a reading text in such a fashion that it sounds spontaneous, etc, etc. Unfortunately, the courses you take in grad school don't tend to teach this stuff, so here we try to design either in-class exercises or outside-class practica (often through assisting with teaching) that will provide these skills anyway.

So the upper-level history courses, mostly, are assessed via two methods: (1) with essay-format exams, often on a pre-assigned shortlist of topics, which students write in the manner of qualifying or exit exams--this prepares them for taking such exams near the end of the degree program; (2) end-of-semester presentations in the style of a conference paper--this prepares them for going out in the world to do same.

These skills are not hard to learn but they have to be learned: no one knows instinctively how to employ them. And, actually, they mostly have to be learned by trial-and-error: folks mostly don't realize how short 20:00 minutes can be for reading a paper unless they've been through the experience of getting the "2:00 minutes left--please finish!" note when they've still got five pages to go; or of just how quickly a roomful of undergraduates can permanently lose their concentration after 10 or 12 seconds of technology snafus; or how much and how ruthlessly you can cut a 15-page paper to make it fit into 20 minutes and have that cutting actually improve the overall comprehensibility. But they can learn by doing.

So we send them out to the regional conferences to frame ideas, submit abstracts, deliver papers, hassle the technology, and field the inevitable oddball questions asked by people who haven't actually been listening to the content or point of the paper. It's good practice, and good practical professional development, and it shouldn't be left to chance.

So that was the grad students. Then it was quick errands and groceries (always like to make at least two meals per day at home: food cooked at home by people who want to cook it is both cheaper and healthier--and a hell of a lot more satisfying), and then back to campus for an absolutely massive (and excellent) choral/orchestral conducting concert, by one of our grad students who's an interesting guy: with one year off from his bank manager's job, he's cranking out all the coursework in that year for a Master's in choral conducting, before he goes back and builds Ireland's first choral-education program. Great work, mostly unpublished compositions, very well-prepared choir--but damn, it was tiring after a long day.

And then it was to the local student-run FM radio station at 10pm--way after bedtime--to play an hour's worth of tunes and songs and talk to the kiddos who are just beginning to learn how to do live radio. College radio, like college journalism, is supposed to serve a pedagogical goal: ultimately, it's not about objective excellence (in broadcasting or writing), but about learning the skills that'll let you grow toward excellence. BUT, excellence doesn't get learned in a vacuum: contrary to the hands-off negligence of too many "faculty advisers," kids don't get better at broadcasting or journalism by repeatedly doing it badly. Somebody has to show you how to do it right--so that you have some idea about what you're shooting for. That's as true of radio as it is of news-writing.

So it was a question of tactfully leading these youngsters through the process of doing their first live-music-on-air show. And they mostly did pretty good--but we sure did have to show the way through a good deal of it.

Today was African Diaspora seminar, then guest shot ("how do rhythm & meter change when bebop occurs"--try doing that in an hour), plus a couple of private lessons, and more textbook re-writing and a couple more grad student consultations. And tomorrow brings more of the same: grad consultations, writing coachings, a lecture on futurism in the undergrad class, plus more committee work.

Looking toward the Break, that's for sure.

Oh, and by the way: a Black man carried Mississippi. In my lifetime. Revolution's comin', baby.

Below the jump: springtime clouds and buds on the South Plains.

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