Thursday, August 21, 2008

Day -02 "In the trenches" (Round II edition) and, Fuzzy people 39

T-minus 2 days to the jump-off of the semester (Monday). Today is mostly an open day, so being employed for course-materials reproduction, touching base with my own research work, and plotting out the various away-dates in the semester. It sounds like the most rampant, Ivory-Towered, white-collar privilege, but the fact is that travel days--even when paid for by the school, a publisher, a gig, or a conference,--are a huge hit in the flow of the semester. Particularly in the fall iteration, because the academic calendar in the fall is already massively skewed. The traditional Spring Break (2nd or 3rd week of March) breaks up the 15-week sprint reasonably well--though when most kids come back from the constant alcoholic and reproductive stimulus of the Break, their heads are most definitely not in the game--and, after they've sobered up and dried out, recharges their batteries for final projects, final exams, and (for the competent few) graduation.

Not so the Fall. Just because of the historical and "traditional" peculiarites of North American academic calendars, there is no such break/recharging of batteries in this semester. The closest we get is the 3 days mandated (and the 5-7 days which kids, or their parents, routinely insist upon) at Thanksgiving. Prior to the end of November, then, it's a 12-13 week sprint of unremitting hard work with few breaks (and, for the 400+ kids in the marching band, even the weekends are socked-in, playing for home, or worse, away games). Especially for our target intake, for whom the southwestern US high-school music experience was mostly geared around sitting in ensembles (some of those kids were in high school ensembles as much as 4 hours/day, six days a week), the idea of having to get all your musicianship work done in an 80-minute daily rehearsal, so that you can spend 3-4 hours practicing, another 4 in class, and the balance of the awake-time studying, is quite an adjustment. Many of them are bright and didn't have to study much in high school--so they could be in a lot of ensembles. Many of them are bright but went to shitty high schools--so they could still avoid much studying.

That ain't college. In college, they all, whatever their backgrounds (good school, bad school, home schooled) need to study, and they need to be permitted the schedule, and the psychological reinforcement, to succeed at that. We like to get 'em into the classroom, get 'em away from their parents, and begin "abatement" (kinda like what you do with asbestos) of the high school presumptions as quickly as we can.

But that first fall semester of college is also extremely intense, sometimes disorienting, and carries for them a very high degree of stress. And 12-13 weeks without any real break is terribly hard on them: by around Nov 1 they're just flat shell-shocked--can barely focus anymore at all. The thing that helps them hold it together is looking forward to Thanksgiving, when they can go home to Mom, crash on the couch, have somebody else cook and clean for them, sleep 'til noon, etc.--though what usually happens is that everybody in the extended Texas family or small town wants to "visit" with them to find out how college is going.

This year, though, as a result of some particular asinine calendar coincidences, the fall semester is starting early (Aug 25), and thus ending early (Dec 3). Which means that they're going to sprint almost 14 weeks, arrive at the Nov 22 week totally burnt-out (and therefore more prone to blowing-off the Mon-Tues required classes), achieve a nine-day "Thanksgiving break", and then return--at least physically--for a brief period of class-days until Final exams and departure for Christmas.

This year? That brief window of return between "Thanksgiving break" (really "Thanksgiving week") and the mental checkout that accompanies the last day of classes?

It's three class days. Three. They come back, they have classes for three days, and then finals start. There is no way that the typical freshman or sophomore is going to be present mentally for those three days. And that doesn't count the ones who literally, physically, don't even return.

Which means that they sprint for 14 days, and then the semester--in their mental estimation--ends around November 18.

We got to plan ahead. One way we do that is to locate as much course work, materials, critical feedback, and testing/assessment on the web, so that, on those occasions when the students and the faculty are not in the same physical proximity, at least some degree of the work can be done, and some degree of continuity maintained. Over the past 4 years or so, we have all in the Musicology division done as much as we can to continue moving scores, audio, video, commentary, discussion, etc to the digital realm. This both facilitates access for the students--and makes use of information interfaces that are a hell of a lot more familiar to them than books and paper--and makes possible intermittent and/or when-necessary "distance" education. Lets them work from the physical locations, and for that matter at the clock times, that suit them best--which typically are not the 9-9:50am, 10-10:50am, etc slots of face-to-face classes. And, it lets us reserve that (very limited) face-to-face class time to the essential dynamic interaction that is only possible in the classroom.

We have to be both technologically savvy, imaginative, and receptive, and great classroom teachers. Not a small order.

Image: digitizing workstation, with HP Scanner software, Adobe Acrobat, and a USB hub. Means I can take a stack of xeroxed articles, stick them in the automatic-feed scanner on the right, hit "capture," and blithely do other work (or wank on the blog), while the damned thing grabs the entire stack and turns them into pdf's. "Why, I remember when we had to run our own xerox copies! And we had to pay for comb-bound reading packets! Uphill, in the snow, both ways! And we liked it!.

The degree to which digital technology has completed transformed--and vastly improved--the pedagogy we are able to offer still blows my mind.

Below the jump: Aliens Have Landed in Ur Driveway. They Want Salmon.

Thanks to the Rev for the "fuzzy people" appellation.

Now playing: Doug Goodhart and Mason Brown - 02 Kitchen Girl
via FoxyTunes

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