Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Day 46 (Round II) "In the trenches" (one-more-once edition)

Day last of the Fall 2009 semester.

The great Bill "Count" Basie, who led one of the most fantastic territory bands ever for over 50 years, and did it all without ever visibly breaking a sweat or losing his beaming style (he and Ellington were the original avatars of the great insight that one effective way for black musicians to combat Jim Crow was simply to outclass the people who practiced it), had a catch-phrase that he'd use at the end of one of the band's patented tutti finishes: the band would cut out, and Bill would sketch, in the Zen-sparse piano style of which he was the master, a syncopated descending-ascending triad 1 - 3 - 4 - #4 - 5-6-7-1, and then the band would come back in, smacking out a nice hairy dom7 #9 chord or something similar.

It was a remarkable display of the balance between over- and under-playing, of density and sparsity, of harmonic simplicity and piquant dissonance. And then he'd lean into the microphone, yachting cap (late in his career) firmly in place, and say "Le's do that one more once" and they'd play it again.

It's a little bit like that at the "end" of the semester. If you've been through the annual academic calendar enough times, and have paid attention to the emotional, physical, and psychological cycles that it tends to elicit, then you can avoid being quite so blind-sided when certain annually events recur.

For example: I get sick near the end of semesters. Not during (or, if I do, I don't hardly notice it), but, as I said yesterday, nearly-but-not-quite at the end: it's as if my immune system checks out a week in advance of when the brain can actually shut off.

For another example: the 3-4 days immediately after grades are turned in tend to be days when I can't do much of anything except sleep and read: it's as if all the mental down-time I put off during the semester hits me, willy-nilly, right when the brain realizes it's OK to be distracted, self-indulgent, or sluggish.

As Basie recognized, you can never really say that a performance (or a semester) is over--in the academic world, just when you've passed in "all" of your grades is when you discover that you've missed one; or that some little criminal who you thought had dropped the course weeks before (and should have) has instead stayed registered, hoping that you'd somehow "forget" his/her absences and just "by accident" assign a passing grade; or that some other little criminal wants to claim that s/he did an online assignment and that the computer "lost" it (this is essentially impossible, but the excuse is attempted so commonly that we now have language in our syllabus boilerplate that states "computer issues are the student's responsibility; their correction in a timely fashion is likewise the student's responsibility). So it's never really "over"--you just realize that, at a certain date, a given semester is done.

And that's the moment when I am again able to recover a longer perspective on a given year's crop of students. In the day-to-day combat of "In the trenches" (to quote this series' title), with fires breaking out all over my desk, never enough time to think leisurely about decisions, operating largely (because so pressed for time) on learned instincts ("solve this problem this way, solve that problem that way, never be rushed into a decision, never agree to something in the hallway, admit error but then move on"), it's easy to lose sight of just how much I love and believe in this job. Of just how much I love and believe in the potential of these students: to create beauty in the world, to become teachers and performers and advocates for such beauty, to lead lives that in turn enhance the sense of wide-open possibilities in future generations' lives, and so on.

But at the end of the semester, I am reminded of all those things.

So to today's class: last lecture in "Introduction to Research and Style Analysis," which they all persist in calling "SHMRG class", after the LaRue style parameters and listening strategies which form the guts of the day-to-day in-class work. We do lots of other stuff: research skills, contextual analysis, iconography, "Isms" of all kinds, and so forth--but the kiddos all call it "SHMRG class." As I've said before, I'm OK with this perception on their part: listening skills are the one area in which we find the most parity, the least disparity, in their prior preparation. In every other area: critical writing/reading/thinking, library skills, research & bibliography skills, music terminology skills, everything else, the disparity of preparation inculcated by their varied secondary-school experience is obvious, and problematic. So we chunk out those other, disparate skills into outside-of-class assignments, which the expert students can do swiftly "for an easy A", while the less-skilled ones do the individual skull- and development-work to catch them up to the group--and reserve the shared class time for the listening skills that they all, regardless of prior experience, agree they need to enhance. Hence, "SHMRG class."

But it's also a class in how to be a college student, and succeed, and in the cluster of life-, learning-, and social-skills that such success requires. So when we get to the end of the semester, in the last meeting, I drag a chair out into the middle of the lecture hall's floor (the area I usually pace back and forth throughout, constantly moving, just as if it were an amphitheatre, so that at any given time, some kid knows s/he may look up and think "oh, shit, he's coming over here IN MY DIRECTION!!!", which does wonderful things to generate adrenaline-driven attention), and sit down--at which they fall silent (one of them says "I've never seen you sit down in this class," to which I reply "I know--I'm moving the goal posts") and I begin the last class of their first semester as college students by saying,

"I'm proud of you guys."

This brings them up short because, while I believe that I regularly convey mutual respect and affection for them (we kid a lot and they laugh at the jokes), I also believe that it's sort of wasted effort to cheer-lead with youngsters of this age. Contra the youth-ministers and football coaches and choir directors and whatever other authority figures they've had in secondary school, I don't want to rah-rah them into working.

Partly this is a matter of personal style--I don't like being a cheerleader--but more profoundly it's because I truly believe, as a result of my relatively extensive observation and experience, that for students of this age cheerleading is no longer appropriate: if they can't get motivated to get out of the rack and get to class on time, consistently, in their freshman year of college, then they're never going to achieve any future success in a high-effort low-yield profession like music (as the trumpet doctoral student who leads the mandatory 7am high-brass warmup class 5 mornings a week observed, "well, it tends to separate the cattle pretty quick")--in which case I mostly want them to figure that out and change majors as quickly as possible, before we have to exert all the extra effort that such waverers typically demand.

So I don't cheerlead much (I hate that "aw, c'mon, guys...this is fun! C'mon, c'mon now, let's all pull together"--it's like training a damned puppy not to pee on the kitchen floor), but instead try to model the behavior, conduct, and manner that (a) I think they're going to need to expect and (b) that I want them to begin to replicate. I tend to aim, then, much more for a "we are all professionals here and we are going to conduct ourselves as much like professionals as we can: listening, studying, discussing, or horsing around, we still need to excel" vibe.

It thus takes them aback, at the end of the semester, when I move the goalposts and say, explicitly, "I am proud of you." In fact, I would argue that it means more to them, when I finally say it, than if I'd been cheerleading right through the semester--because I think it makes them feel they have earned that praise.

And then we hand out a one-page repertoire list of all the pieces for which they've filled-out SHMRG worksheets over the semester, and say "here are the 53 pieces that you guys own. You worked hard on these, you listened critically and made notes, and now you have these 53 pieces in your hip pocket. Hold onto this list, and to the SHMRG envelopes, because a lot of these pieces will recur in your college career, and now you have a jump on them." Mostly they're visibly pleased to get the rep list, and visibly struck (in precisely the way that I want them to be) by the concrete evidence of the commendable amount of work that they've done. You can see their faces light up, see them sit up a little straighter--you can see their confidence and sense of accomplishment growing.

So we finish up the two-part "history of jazz in recorded sound" lecture that I often will haul out at the end of the semester (because they're burnt out and I don't really want to tax them with any more stuff that is really unfamiliar or challenging, and because it's the most concrete form of legitimization I can provide the jazz players in the room), and then I give the closing speech.

I've got some version of this same speech that I use at the end of every class experience, whether it be an academic semester, one of the summer workshops at which I teach, or the end of the 2-week field-trip intensive that Dharmonia and I lead to Ireland every spring. The goal of the speech is to put into words some of the emotions that I--and, I infer, they--may be feeling, but to do it in a way that is appropriate, constructive, and "teachable." The content is not perhaps so important (and, at any rate, in each of these situations it's unique, and private, between the people in the room), as is the tone, and, most crucially, the fundamental message: I want them to feel empowered, confident, grown-up, focused, proud, protected, respected.

About 18 months ago, in the wake of the Virginia Tech murders--yet another public trauma that I've had to try to help students process during my tenure as a teacher: Challenger disaster, Gulf War I and II ("look, George 41 and George 43, just go die, OK? You fucking rich men who sent poor kids to die for your corporate owners' profits?!? Don't kill any more of my kids--just fuckin' go die, all right?!?"), and, most pre-eminently, 9/11--I decided that the shock and fear my students were feeling after Seung-Hui Cho's rampage had to be grappled with, in the classroom (we had 48 hours of frantic parents phoning and emailing demanding to know what security systems we had in place to prevent a similar occurence here). So I stood up, at the end of class (can't make a speech like this at the beginning--they'd never concentrate for the balance of the meeting), and said

"In light of the tragic events at Virginia Tech, I want you to know that you are safe, as long as you are in this room. Nothing bad can happen to you, while I am here.

I won't permit it."

There are things you can't say, even if you're feeling them, to the youngsters in your classroom, whose efforts you've worked so hard to elicit and focus, whose heartbreak you've witnessed and whose childish bad behavior you've had to remediate, whose pride in themselves makes you feel proud (and, more importantly, like your time on this planet matters): what you're really feeling at that moment--at least, not as directly as you might in private conversation. You can't, because--aside from the likely disaster some suit in the University's general counsel's office might perceive this to be--saying such things explicitly can cheapen them. You have to show them what you feel for them, and what you feel they might be capable of achieving, and the depth of your commitment to helping them reach those heights.

You can't say it. It doesn't translate. You have to show them.

But if you've done as much psycho-therapeutic work as I have, for so many years, with great Buddhas, and have been the privileged-beyond-all-measure recipient of great gifts, from teachers who were giants on the earth, and have taught enough years and have thought about why you've taught for those years, and about the goals of those teachings, you can know in your heart the true nature of your commitment to those students:

Which is that you love them. All of them.

And by thought and deed, if not by word, you want them to know that.

The semester is done. The wheel turns. And then we begin again.

One more once.

Below the jump: mid-winter dawn on the South Plains.

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