Monday, August 31, 2009

Day 02 (round IV) "In the trenches": the Body, unplugged

Catching up here--we're now finishing up Day 03, but I owe the blog a Day 02 "In the trenches" post. We're on a slightly eccentric startup-schedule this time 'round: report date was a Monday, classes started on a Thursday. This means two things: (1) the huge menu of stuff to be done between report and start, which is usually spread out over a week, had to happen in 72 hours; and (2) we get an opening "week" in which each class, either on the MWF or the TR rotation, meets only once before the weekend.

This is actually not a bad thing: the kiddos mostly are not going to concentrate in that first week, so whether you have two meetings in the first week, as opposed to only one, doesn't really enhance the amount of learning you can get done. At the same time, it's not a bad thing to smack 'em in the face--especially the freshmen, and the non-music majors taking a Music Appreciation-type course for the first time ever--with the fact that this ain't high school, this is College, and a different set of criteria and expectations obtains.

This is especially important in the very large-enrollment Rock History course, taught in a Biology lecture hall to close to 500 students. Over the past few years, we've worked out a reasonably sophisticated method for delivering that course with a high level of interactivity, multi-channel presentation, academic rigor, pedagogical credibility (none of which are always the case with a cattle-call music appreciation class). But all of that sophistication works least well on the very first day of the class, before any of the newest crop of kids have had a chance to internalize the expectations and behaviors demanded by the class. On the first day of the semester--a Friday, at that--with a new crop of kids, it can be a challenge to Get Serious as quickly and completely as you want to.

Our Rock History crew has worked this out, in part, by organizing and designating roles and functions: roles for each individual team member (the Console Person and the two Bouncers, and the Lecturer), functions for all the various audio-visual components, and, most importantly, the interplay of all those things. In undergraduate music-education class, they fetishize the construction of lesson plans, at least one principle function of which is simply to keep the lecturer on track, and aware of the remarkably short windows of attention the typical 8-year-old can handle before needing to move to a different topic, activity, or presentational method.

Well, the typical 18-year-old is not all that much different: they have remarkably short attention spans, remarkably attenuated powers of concentration, and remarkably little self-discipline. Nota bene: this does not mean that they're stupid--it does mean that the nature of their experience in the modern world means they function best when the data-stream is constant, energizing, and diverse, and least well if this is not the case.

So the first day of the Rock Class is a crucial time: a time when it's essential to set the ground-rules, hit 'em with the cold-water shock of "Holy shit, they're going to expect ME to take responsibility!", make 'em take notes, insist that they respond, demonstrate critical and engaged listening, and establish the lines of authority.

This year the opening day worked very well: the General, the professor-of-record, opened the class, laid out the ground rules, procedures, and methods of assessment; then Dharmonia, the original designer, took over and smacked 'em with the range of responsibilities they'll have individually with the extensive online component, and then I took over for the opening "mini-lecture" on the Delta blues, where the chronology of the course begins. So they got three different presentational styles, each from a presenter talking about her/his expertise; they got three different variants of the "wake up, you're responsible for your own life now" rap, and they got an active dose of the interaction of onscreen, verbal, and musical demonstration presentation.

It's a room of 500, where the wireless lavalier mics are essential for the professor to be able to avoid blowing-out the voice entirely. But when I step up for the mini-lecture, which combines rapid-fire "you need to know write this down...what's the answer to that?...come on, come on, people, wake up!" and live musical demonstration hammering on the National steel guitar, I don't want to use the wireless. Of course I would (would have to) if I were lecturing 3 times a week, not just because of the physical beating the voice takes, but also because as the professor you want to come across as relaxed and in command in the classroom, and having to project 200 feet back to the raked back wall just doesn't come across as relaxed.

But on that first day, when we're all working together to smack 'em awake and Get Serious, I want to use the the power of a human physical body engaging in conveying a narrative. There's something about a human body moving in the space, the sound of an unamplified LOUD voice (and guitar) beating on your tympanum, the ebb-and-flow of amplitude due to proximity, the sight and smell, the visible physical effort in the presenter's body as s/he pumps that volume out there, that cuts like a knife through the tuneout that happens to all of us, as creatures of the electronic age, when we hear the electronically-amplified voice. When the amplified voice is washing over everyone, at equal volume, regardless of any visible or variant effort, it's a little like the wonderful trombone glissando that they used in the old "Peanuts" specials to signify the blatting meaningless adult voice floating above the Kids' world the characters actually inhabited.

But when it's an unamplified voice, getting louder as the lecturer storms up the stairs toward the back-third of the room where you thought you could hide, text, gossip, or snooze, and here he comes up the stairs right toward your section, and his voice is getting louder and louder, and you can hear the rasp as the vocal cords wear out as he gets closer, and you breath a sigh of relief as he turns toward the row in the other direction, and you see the sweat sticking his shirt to his back, and then that voice suddenly blares louder as he unexpectedly swings back toward you, and you see the sweat on his temples and you can feel this big voice beating on your eardrums, and then he points at YOU and says "what do YOU think?!?"

You wake up.

It's analogous to what I learned from the great blues masters--that it was not skills, accent, or even the amount of melanin in your skin (take that, Portia!) that made the blues such a powerful, personal, and effective expressive medium. It was the intensity with which you embodied the music that made the blues "real".

When we teach, we want to get as real as we can, just as fast as we can.

That's why we do what we do.

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