Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Day 01 (Round III) "In the trenches" (lemme-at-'em edition)

First day of the Spring 2009 semester.

I really, really, really like my job. Not every day, not every aspect, not every element. But the parts that I do like are in the vast majority and are vastly more satisfying than the constituent elements of any other job I've ever had.

And I even like the repetitious nature of the work: the fact that, on each annual academic cycle, we get to revisit at least some portion of the same work we did last year, and put into practice the insights we gained in last year's iteration. For reference's sake, here are links to Fall 2008 and Spring 2008 opening day "Trenches" posts. As I said in each of those, I really enjoy the energy at the start of the semester: the chance, as a teacher, to get stuck-in at the actual central content of the job--which is the face-to-face interaction in the classroom and, as an observer, to see the off-the-charts nervous energy (not all of it positive, but all of it full of potential) of the kids returning.

Am particularly looking forward to this semester's teaching, for a bunch of different reasons, in addition to all the "let's get this party started" Day 01 activities I've blogged about before:

2009 brings another iteration of my "Ireland" seminar, a kind of culture-studies course which is simultaneously open to upper-level undergraduates and grad students from across the campus (all disciplines) but also fulfills an upper-level Musicology requirement for music majors--a neat trick, that. I've been playing these musics for a little over 30 years, and a student of Ireland's folklore and traditional culture for probably 20, and teaching them in a quasi-academic setting for about 15, but it's only in about the last three years that I have been enabled to teach an entire 15-week semester specifically on this particular world culture and with this particularly wide a cross-disciplinary swath. One of the principle texts is Henry Glassie's magisterial Passing the Time in Ballymenone, about which my old friend the General said, "I think if Fermanagh was to cease to exist, you could recreate it just from that book." That's kind of what I hope this class, which I've now taught three times and capped with a two-week May field trip to the West of Ireland, can do for my kids: provide them some means, some circuitous route, some Spiral Journey that can help them find their way into this culture which is so rich, so complex, and has given me so much--and then find their way out again, bearing at least a few of those insights as lasting gifts. I get to do this course almost every year,; in that sense, it's a little like planting a garden: each year I learn a little more, fine-tune a little more, deepen the insights a little more. I feel very grateful to have the extraordinary privilege of teaching this topic again; can't wait to get started.

2009 also brings an interesting, challenging, valuable shift in our boiler-plate teaching of the 4-semester undergrad history sequence: when I took over the gig in 2000, we taught music history in 2 two-semester sequences: in the freshman year, a two-semester more-or-less "Music Appreciation" course, and in the sophomore year, a two-semester more-or-less "Ancient to 1750/1750 to the Present" chronology. It was simultaneously redundant and too simplistic: the freshman sequence was rather cursory (for God's sake, the textbook was actually/literally Classical Music for Dummies) and the sophomore sequence had far too much material to cover feasibly in two semesters. Pretty quickly we reoriented that curriculum to the 1- plus 3-semester format I've described in the past, which front-loads the tools & skills stuff into the first semester, and buys us more time, detail, and concentration for numbers 2 through 4.

For several years, the 1-(2-3-4) sequence has been taught by myself and one colleague: numbers 1 + 3 in the fall semester, numbers 2 + 4 in the spring. This has worked well for the students, as it means that any given student can access any given increment (1, 2, 3, or 4) within one academic calendar year, and at the same time, a student entering as a freshman and proceeding linearly can take the courses in the sequence (1,. 2, 3 and 4) which best serves the material. But, the corrollary has been that my colleague and I each had to teach an undergraduate section (myself, 1 in the fall and 4 in the spring; herself, 3 in the fall and 2 in the spring) every semester--and that in turn limited the range of other or upper-level courses we each had time to offer.

Now, with a retirement and a new hire, we've inaugurated a shift so that each of the four Musicology faculty members teaches one semester of the 4-chunk sequence. This has several advantages: it opens up one additional slot per calendar year for my colleague and myself to teach a special topic, it provides our other two colleagues the opportunity to engage with the large-enrollment undergrad courses, it lets each of we four teach in our respective periods of particular expertise, and, perhaps most centrally and essentially, it provides every student the opportunity--and the requirement--that s/he engages with each of 4 different professors and 4 different teaching styles.

This is incredibly important: it is essential that every undergraduate student be exposed to--have to cope with--a range of quite-contrasted professor profiles, approaches, styles, priorities, vibes. It is very easy for a young person to decide that s/he likes or dislikes a particular approach, and then attempt to avoid any other approaches that are less comfortable or familiar.

That is not what college should teach. What it should teach young people is the focus, flexibility, patience, and pure-D stick-to-it-ivity to succeed in the courses and acquire the information for which they are responsible regardless of whether the professorial approach is familiar or unfamiliar, comfortable or un-. A student who can't, won't, or doesn't believe that s/he can learn from such uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or less-desirable situations is damned sure never going to be able to hack it out in the big world, where the people who control your job may display analogously uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or less-desirable managerial styles.

So the four discrete semesters / four different professors template both diversifies the load for us and, more importantly, diversifies the experience for the kiddos. This is the first semester we've been able to put this into play and I look forward (I hope I can look forward) to the results.

I like this annual cycle. I like the work--that it's all, fundamentally, about enhancing understanding, increasing possibilities, deepening experience, creating human value. And that we do it on an annual cycle that actually lets us learn from--because at least we start by remembering--the insights of previous years.

Kind of like the farmers of Ballymenone.

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