Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Day 06 (Round III) "In the trenches" (punching-down-the-bread edition)

Hump day. One week since opening day; we've now been through one iteration of the weekly cycle--only fifteen to go. The kids are already thinking of the weekend--and if the topic of the shouted, vapid, intra-bimbo conversations in the Rec Center (at six fucking AM) and the coffee-shop (all fucking day every day) are any indication, they are already thinking about what they're going to wear and how all-body-tanned they're going to need to be when they head out for Spring Break to try to have a lot of cheap pointless sex and drink themselves into oblivion.

Which all above I wouldn't mind, except that, in their lemming-like hive mind, they tend to block the hallways and access roads and cognitive space while I and my staff and my students are trying to do work that actually fucking means something (can you tell I hate the six week mental vacation, driven by rut, between Day 01 and Spring Break?). Although--thankfully--the kids who live in the Music Building tend to be about six times as focused, self-disciplined, and mature as the average brain-dead testrogen-poisoned undergrad, they also are, already, stretched: when, in the first week of classes, the Celtic Ensemble kids are visibly relieved to get a bye on the Wednesday sectional rehearsal, you know they are already over-subscribed.

I try as much as humanly possible to be aware of this, both with the kids in the classroom and with those in the rehearsal room. In the latter situation, I don't usually have to kick many asses: the CE is an elective ensemble, with participants typically already invested in 2, 3, or 4 other ensembles (and many of them in addition part-time jobs and/or paying gigs) and these myriad outside obligations tend to mean that, regardless of their good intentions and solid self-discipline, they still get pulled into schedule conflicts. And, of course, if personal/life crises intervene, the whole damned row of dominos starts to fall. So, when they get roped into an unannounced rehearsal with their paid gig, or somebody gets sick, or somebody's recital preparations override ensemble rehearsal, I mostly just suck it up and try to be nice. I want the CE to be a place they want to be and where they don't have to feel guilty--and as a result, sometimes I get skunked for personnel, and when it works, I'm really pleased.

Full concert-performance of the Welsh repertoire they've been woodshedding pretty much since September, as per our usual annual schedule of "hard" Fall semester and "easy" Spring semester--with the final concert of the "hard" repertoire in the first week's of the Spring semester, and then a longer, slightly-less-jammed run of rehearsals in the "easy" repertoire: this year, Anglo-Appalachian. Running around frantically trying to finalize a guest artist/master class before the deadline for funding requests runs out--don't now if we'll make it.

On the other hand, the first meetings of a new academic class are really important, and (in contrast to ensemble) do sometimes call for a certain degree of setting-of-the-tone--to mix the metaphor, yanking on the lead chain so everybody understands who's in charge of the dog-team. It makes the Type-A's more comfortable because they're clear on what's expected, it makes the drag-ass ones who've coasted (and could have done far better if they only put forth a little effort) think "ah, shit...maybe it'd be less painful if I actually work this semester, rather than trying to coast by," and it makes the real criminals--the ones who'll cheat if they can get away with it, and whine and deny responsibility if they're caught--think twice about behaving unethically.

Particularly if they are coming into our classes for the first time, or are otherwise unfamiliar with the way that we prefer to do business, it's not a bad thing to set the ground rules from (as close to) Day 01 as you can. Everybody benefits, and--if you handle it right--no-one is harmed.

This does not mean that you kick asses all hours every hour and attempt to scare the crap out of everyone. My revered jazz teacher David Baker used, in his "How to play bebop" classes, "teach to the top 10%, because that way you'll know that everyone is being challenged," and I agree to an extent--certainly, challenging everybody is a good thing to do, but only provided that no-one gets left behind. Because a student who feels that s/he is being left behind, that s/he "can't" keep up, is going to give up. And you will never recover that student's sense of possibility, optimism, or commitment to evidence.

So you have to temper the message. You really really do want the Type-A's to focus--but be patient with those students who take a little more time to grasp things; you really really do want the lazy, middle-percentile mouth-breathers to quit coasting and work hard for a change--and to learn to challenge themselves rather than always/perpetually waiting for someone else to supply the ass-kicking; and you really really do want the lower-performance kids, the ones who've been raised-up to think that they're not as "smart," as capable, as "talented" (God I hate those fucking words--they're so meaningless!) to discover, for a change, a sense of empowerment, a sense that--contrary to the messages they've received entirely too repetitively over the course of their lives--"Holy shit, maybe I can excel at this!"

If you do this, you generate almost endless, useful, constructive, effective energy in the room--and with that kind of energy you can damned near heat and power the building. So you do not screw up that vibe. How do you provide the salutary ass-kicking that some need, without freaking out the ones who need the encouragement, commitment, engagement that others need? In the same room? At the same time? Without unfairly or inappropriately rewarding some or penalizing others?

Well, you can't yell at them: the Type-A's will freak out ("Oh my God! What if I don't get a perfect-A in this class?!?"), the mouth-breathers will think you're "mean" ("He's so meeeaannnn!" or "Aw, dood, he's fockin' A-hole, dude; you don't need ta lissen ta him!"), and the lower-percentile kids will shrink (cognitively) into themselves ("Oh,'s one more situation where everybody is going to think I'm stooopid. Maybe I am"). But you damned sure want them to get it when you say "Hey, attendance & participation in this class are really imporant", and not just hear it as the "wonk-wonk-wonk" trombone glissando that the old Peanuts TV specials used to convey pointless adult blather.

So you speak VERY VERY LOUDLY, but not in the aural medium that would freak them out. Rather, in this one:

Here's a slide with the typical template, format, font-size, and word-count--the visual, PowerPoint equivalent of "a normal public-speaking tone". What they see every day, slide after slide after slide.

And then, finishing up the discussion of "Course procedures and resources," you say "Oh, and there is one more thing; as is stated in the syllabus, I want to make one more point about one more issue of testing & assessment," and you put up this slide:

I should emphasize that this was an experiment: I haven't done much with the "theatrical" nature of PPT, though the various bloggers, public-speaking types, and Steve Jobs's (not to mention war-criminals like Donald Rumsfeld and John Yoo) of the world have made it the defacto publi-speaking mode, but I did want to find out if the visual equivalent of shouting would have a salutary--but less shocking--effect.

And, interestingly, it did: Slide #2 went up on the screen, and I heard audible gasps and shock. It makes sense: given the highly visual population we teach, and about which I've blogged voluminously before, one would think/hope that they would remember that visual cue, and actually internalize it in a way that the trombone-glissando verbal wonk-wonk-wonk would either frighten or bore them.

Below the jump: all-day 4-rising yeasted Tassajara monk bread. I learned how to cook this bread from my great hero Ed Brown, first head cook of the Tassajara Zen Center in N Cal, my tenzo role-model, and his dharma emerges from every loaf I've ever made.

Gassho, Jusan.

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