Monday, September 22, 2008

Day 18 (Round II) "In the trenches" (content/context edition)

Rolling into the middle-third of the semester now. Last night brought the closer of the Fall Fest, and the Celtic Ensemble rocked the house. This is also the week when, across the campus, many of the professors administer the first round of exams. So the coffeehouses have been jammed, the kids have been distracted--but they're focusing!--and the general goofy "hey, it's still September, it's not really 'school' yet, is it?" from the undergrads has largely dissipated. Now they pretty much know they're in school and that it's For Real. Tomorrow brings another installment of Grand Jury duty--which despite the fact that it's eating forty hours of my life (Toby Ziegler: "well, that's 20 seconds of my life I'll never get back"), has been interesting and educational, and has confirmed a bunch of things for me:

  • the ready accessibility of alcohol and American capitalism's dependence upon using alcohol to sell meaningless lifestyle materialism is the single biggest factor in domestic and acquaintance-upon-acquaintance violence. Booze makes people violent;
  • the criminalization (as opposed to legalization and regulation) of small-quantity recreational drugs is responsible for (a) most of the property crime in medium-to-small-sized cities; (b) the catastrophic development and spread of bathtub drugs like meth and crack, (c) the massive, ridiculous overpopulation of low- and medium-security prisons, and the development of an incarceration state where it costs taxpayers more, but earns corporations more, to jail than to treat addiction;
  • most people in a city this size have no idea where, when, how, or by whose actions crime occurs--but they are willing to make presumptions based upon their ethnic and class prejudices;
  • I am more of a Dirty Fucking Hippie than most people. But that comes as no surprise to anyone, least of all me.
Very rewarding conversation with a new musicology colleague today. We were talking about the challenges of teaching upper-level history courses to target populations whose prior preparation may wildly diverge. So if you have a top 10% who have tons of skills and prior experience, and a bottom 10% whose background is very lacking, and a large majority in the middle, how do you teach--really, the question should be, how do you focus seminar time--in a fashion that keeps everybody on board without boring the snot out of the top students?

Well, the first things you learn are three you can't employ:

(a) you can't teach only to the top 10%, because at least 3/4 of the balance will be lost and probably fall away or under-perform--which benefits no-one;

(b) you can't spend all the time jump-starting the bottom 10%, because that will make-miniscule the amount of actual material you can introduce and make-work;

(c) you can't keep all the plates spinning and teach to all three populations, because you'll lose all three.

So what do you do? Well, a couple of strategies present themselves:

(1) you identify the areas where there is the most comparative parity--where the disparity of ability is least pronounced, and the playing field most even;

(2) you identify those other areas in which the route to remediating the disparity mostly involves the individual student doing the (bibliographic, editorial, background reading, score study, or other fundamentals) skills-work on their own, rather than a lot of one-on-one coaching;

(3) you prioritize time spent on those group activities that cannot be replicated outside the seminar room.

What this means is that, ideally, you create outside-class assignments which can address Area (2)--that is, skills--which, even if redundant for the more advanced students, can be completed in just a few minutes, yielding an "easy A"; while the less-advanced students, who really need the remediation, can take the extra time required to complete the assignment and at the same time enhance skills.

It also means that you seek to find ways to combine Area (1)--areas in which there is a relative parity of skill-level, a relatively even playing field--and Area (3)--the in-seminar time where the only real, I would say the essential, group stuff goes on.

That's still very open-ended, but if we take the above model (short form: find the common areas that need work and make those priority in the seminar room, chunk out the skills-stuff where there's disparity and create outside-class assignments to be done on the individuals' own time), and combine it with the mission of teaching "critical thinking - critical speaking - critical writing - critical reading - (and in our formula) critical listening", the day-to-day goals become clearer.

Critical thinking (reading, writing, speaking, listening) is the skill of examining a body of data and learning to recognize its patterns--the patterns by which the data is conceived, organized, or employed, and identification of which is the essential task of analysis. Whether a score, a prose text, a poem, a language, or a historical phenomenon, understanding the patterns by which human agency has shaped the data is key to (a) analyzing the item and (b) using that analysis to make comparisons and predictions. As I said to my colleague today, "if the students have analyzed 10 1780s symphonies' structure and intentions, then when they encounter an 11th, they are likely to be familiar with some patterns of musical style and musical usage and to recognize those patterns if they recur." Or, for that matter, to be able to take those 1780s patterns of organization and usage and compare them to 1830s variants. Or to other large musical forms across cultures. Or to other art forms of the period.

That is the point of critical thinking (listening). It is also the skill which, maybe more than other, these students have not previously encountered. Whether in high school or as undergraduates, they are likely to have high experience with concrete data memorize-and-regurgitate models, and almost none at analysis, synthesis, critical reading, etc. And they mnostly know this: they know that they don't have much skill at analyzing the patterns of musical style, and they're receptive (that "level playing field" again) to working on those skills in the seminar room.

Likewise, they know that they don't know much about history (damn--Smokey Robinson!), and they definitely don't know much about history's patterns. So if you, as the teacher / discussion facilitator do have the knowledge of both historical/contextual patterns, and musical/stylistic patterns, and, as a scholar, have worked at linking these two (this is how your "research" duties can link up with your "teaching" duties), then you can demonstrate as well as facilitate practice in this process in the seminar room.

So you can put up 3 pages of a 1781 symphony, maybe after having them listen in advance, and lead them through an articulation and discussion of the stylistic thumbprints that yield a characteristic sound, and a group consensus about stylistic patterns (and lots of modeling) occurs. Then you spend 10 minutes talking about 1780s Hapsburg musical expectations, contexts, and responses, maybe after having them read a short excerpt in advance. Then facilitate a discussion wherein participants try to find echoes of those patterns in both musical content (e.g., "the notes") and musical context (times, places, people).

"Context informs (reflects) content. Content informs (reflects) context." That's a fundamental premise in our particular approach to teaching "Music as Cultural History." And critical thinking (listening, reading, writing, speaking) is the arena in which the two link.

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