Friday, April 18, 2008

Day 69 "In the trenches" ("2 more minutes, please" edition)

Things coming to a close here. Graduate students finalizing their seminar ("Musics of the African Diaspora") presentations for tomorrow--we hope; undergrads finishing their paper projects--we hope. Come hell or high water, the last obligation, aside from attending and contributing in class, is over for the grads by 5pm tomorrow; for the undergrads, the millstone of the paper is done by 10:00am on Monday (we don't accept late papers, and we make the hard-copy due at the beginning of Monday's class--as otherwise the little bastards would write frantically, and probably meaninglessly, until 10:46 on the due date, and then sprint into the room in the last 4:00 minutes of class, claiming they were still "on time"). They're cursing me now but they'll thank me Monday at 10:51.

For some reason, for the typical musical undergraduate, even one in the 4th semester of a 4-part sequence, in three semesters of which papers are required, a 10-page research paper on an original thesis is still scarier and more insurmountable than, oh, I don't know, playing an entire concerto for memory. I don't mean to sound snotty here--I realize that something you've either (a) never done before, or (b) have never done well before, can seem impossible--but I wonder about a state which mandates that virtually all of secondary education be geared toward standardized testing, and the monkey-see-monkey-do blind imitation and memorization of templates which yields defensible scores on such tests, and then turns around and mandates a Writing-Intensive (10 pages, multiple rounds of submission and critique, re-writing, etc) requirement at the undergraduate level. My sense is that, subliminally, the state is saying "we know that we've sold out all pretense toward pedagogy at the secondary level in order to suck up to the Oligarchs of "No Child Left Behind"--so we're going to mandate that you (minimally) state-sponsored universities pick up the slack we've left...and then we're going to threaten you if you question the requirement--or put gutless-punk courtiers of the lame-duck Oligarchs in positions of university-administrative power."

The end result is that we do what we can, but spend at least as much time re-tailoring the dimwitted state mandates to meet their imbecilic (and usually quasi-illiterate) "letter" of the law, while providing our kids the life- and professional-skills (through the requirement) we think might land them one of the few remaining arts jobs in George W Bush's America. It's a fine line to walk, and usually takes some finesse and some very slick-and-subtle selling of the material's merits to kids and parents (fuck selling it to the Suits at the Top--most of them don't care about pedagogy anyway).

Meantime: watching grad students grow into the role of scholar and professional colleague. For some, it's easy: it's what they planned to do ever since undergraduate. But we don't see too many of those--I'm not sure whether, outside the Ivy Schools, there are very many who come in at 17 or 18 saying "I know that I want to be a musicologist/ethnomusicologist" and never waver from that.

The commoner profile is somebody who comes in to an undergrad degree as a performance major (because they've seen performers, enjoy the look of that career, and have that path on their radar screens), or as a music educator (K-12 band, choir, or orchestra director; for the same reasons), or perhaps coming in from a concentration entirely outside music. A lot of those last have actually been playing music just as long as the music majors, but for one or another reason (don't like the lifestyle, have too many other more marketable aptitudes, lack of self-confidence) don't declare as music majors right away.

Hence, more commonly, students usually discover the existence of the musicology/ethnomusicology nexus while they're already undergraduates majoring in something else. Typically, this is why ethno people actually get started as master's or even doctoral students: they're already on campus, they're already involved in music, but in one way or another they're not satisfied with the rather more circumscribed curricula and career paths of those other concentrations.

So they look around, and--for a certain small percentage--what we do seems like either more fun or more complete (or both). Either they are interested in music that doesn't fall in the jazz-or-classical binary that is the focus of most music conservatories' curricula, or they're interested in an approach to music that's more inclusive--of culture, of meaning, of context, of psycho-spiritual-politico-economic-historical function. And that's when they tend to land on my doorstep: as shifting-concentration doctoral or master's students, or as brand - new - wet - behind - the - ears master's students ("jeez, I don't know how the hell to act like a graduate student...I don't feel like one!"), or--more rarely--as undergrads for whom the lights went on the very first time they heard the terms "musicology/ethnomusicology".

The job for these folks is not only to train them in a body of repertoires (some of which they may know and/or play, but mostly not), a body of methodological practices (some of which they may respond to instinctively but with which they almost certainly don't have any practical familiarity), a body of perspectives (most of which "feel right" to them, as it's the perspectives that tend to draw students across disciplines into what we do), but also a body of goals and strategies. E.g., "what are the goals of your musicological/ethnomusicological work? What do you want your work to accomplish in the world?"; and "what tools and/or analytical/expository strategies are you going to learn and employ in order to accomplish your goals?"

That's where the graduate presentations requirement comes in. Instead of simply requiring a "research paper" (God, I hate that term, as 90% of the time it's the one used in high schools for those cut-and-pasted travesties kids are encouraged to paraphrase and plagiarize out of bad textbooks, online articles, and other shoddy sources), we make the grad students put together a formal conference-style presentation: formal thesis, abstract, careful title, reading text, visual/audio aids, handout, timed duration, formal Q&A after, etc. Most of them, when they start our program(s), have not only never given a conference presentation--they've never even seen one.

This means that you not only have to tell them how to do it, you have to show them as well. Which is why, at least once every semester, 10 days to 2 weeks out from the student presentations, I'll deliver at least one classroom lecture in the style of a conference paper (either improvised, from my lecture notes, or from an existing conference paper which happens to be relevant to the seminar's work). I have to watch out a little to balance the need to employ method and material that actually facilitates that work, and also to avoid freaking-out those Type-A's who think that their presentation must match the scope, facility, or comfort level of the professor's. But it's also/still really useful to show them a research presentation in advance.

And then it's really useful to have them prepare and deliver the presentation. The old in-the-trades model (which I learned by instinct but first heard articulated by my buddy Steve) is "read one - see one - do one"; that is: read/have described how to perform a certain skill (plumbing a house or building a staircase, teaching a lecture or delivering a conference paper), then see someone perform the skill adequately and effectively (because there are so many aspects to such skills that are taught and learned infinitely more efficiently by observation than description, and then "do one"--put it into practice, make the mistakes, fix the ones you can in real time and sweat through the ones you can't.

It's a good model and it works, but in academia there are fewer opportunities to put it into practice, both because much of the work-skills that are being learned are internal (not external), abstract (not concrete: you can't lose a finger through an erroneous application of Derridan plumbing), and text-driven. Anything that gets us up out of the seats, changes the direction of the flow of information or the burden of processual responsibility, diversifies the presentational method--or all of these things--is a good thing. Anything that performs all these tasks and gives kids enhanced skills at interviewing and landing The Job is a very good thing.

Thus to the presentation: 9:30-4pm tomorrow, all day long in a room, one after another, problem-solving and committing error-and-repair every time out of the chute. Coffee & donuts at 9am, catered lunch at 12:30, inevitably running late and being jammed for time (that awful note, handed up to the podium while you're talking, that reads "2 minutes, please"), guaranteed technology snafus, weirdo curveball questions from the audience (if necessary, if no one asks a hare-brained question which tests the presenter's ability to improvise, I will), and so on and so forth. I do this every semester, with every seminar, regardless of the topic or the other assessment tools (exams, journals, attendance & participation) involved. Because it works.

This is why our people go out and get jobs, or wipe the floor at regional conferences, or host regional conferences, or get invited back to present again because their initial presentations went so well, or provoke astonished and catty comments from other programs ("What the hell is going on up in Lubbock?!?"), or get grilled by fascinated senior scholars on their way to and from the restaurant and up and down in the hotel elevator, or get scholarship and travel money, or win national awards, or chair their own panels at national conferences in my absence, or get cover articles accepted by major periodicals, or all of those things. And more.

Because it works.

Below the jump:

Flowers for Danny Federici.

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