Monday, September 07, 2009

Day 05-06-07 (Round IV) "In the trenches": Catching-up edition


Lotsa stuff happening very very swiftly all up in this joint.

We're 1 week and 2 days into the Fall semester, and have now been through one full rotation-and-change of the weekly calendar. Also, atypically, we had a week-and-a-half of classes preceding Labor Day (early start to semester this year) instead of just 2 days, so it was much more possible to get the kids back into "Holy crap, we're back in school!" mode than in the more typical 2-day jump start. Overall, this year's calendar is vastly to be preferred, as there's far less mental fog and thus much greater pedagogical efficiency.

In the interests of catching up with "In the trenches" posts I owe the blog, here's a bit about how each day shook down:

On Tuesday (Day 04 "In the trenches"), I was feeling pretty excited and encouraged about the way that the new-regime staff assignments might chunk-out everybody's time home. So far, so good: haven't heard of any crises from the staff, everybody seems to have the tools they need, everybody seems to know what they're doing. 'Course, there's still lots of time for i to fall to pieces, but the systems seem to be sound.

Wednesday (Day 05) brought another "service & research" day--though at the beginning of the semester, those days are still definitely skewed more toward the "service" end of the spectrum. Haven't been able to do much on the minstrelsy manuscript since Day 01. So Wednesday was: checking on assignments, especially checking-in with instructors-of-record and grad assistants, many of them new in their respective assignments, to make sure they had what they needed.

Also started locking-in my own weekly MWF calendar of meetings, appointments, private lessons, thesis consultations. I teach almost nothing in the way of private lessons--though I did it for years, my own honest perspective is that, with the exception of the (very) occasional student who needs studio-style teaching from me that can't be got elsewhere in the region, it's not the best or most efficient use of my time. There was a period, for example, after the retirement of our long-tenured guitar professor, when I took over teaching just the couple of jazz/plectrum guitarists then in the program, as the person then on-faculty with the most immediately-relevant (Master's in Jazz Guitar performance) qualification. And I still teach (really, "coach") the several MUBA students (fiddle, flute, percussion, etc) for whom there isn't another local vernacular teacher.

This is not an optimum situation, mind you: I would much rather that my fiddlers, flute-players, percussionists, etc should have a weekly lesson with an expert in that instrument and idiom, but we're a helluva long way out up here on the South Plains, and so it's not always possible to access such teachers. We do the best that we can, by sending kids out to more occasional and more distant one-off lessons, by encouraging them to take advantage of summer workshops and weekends and the like, by coaching them as we can (I can't play the fiddle, but I know what Irish and old-time fiddle are supposed to sound like, and am starting to have a pretty good sense, as a non-player, of the mechanics necessary to make those sounds), and, especially, by seeking to facilitate occasional visits by expert players.

Usually, we'll try to build these around some kind of concert event, so as to maximize the bang for the buck: try to locate somebody who's on the road from hither to yon and can build in a mid-week gas-and-lodgings gig (we don't have enough of a budget to be a destination for most artists), and make sure that person gives us a master-class, a classroom visit, the concert, and, if we can scare 'em up, lessons to fill in the cracks. With the visiting artists we seek out, their willingness to be bunked-in with hosts (we always feed, sleep and booze-up our artists very generously), and their generosity and "buy-in" to the VMC's mission, we can put such artists in front of an awful lot of kids in an awful lot of complementary contexts in the course of a "VMC weekend."

Still means there are a few kids per semester who really need the weekly coaching, and so those times in my own schedule--which are at a premium, because it's not my principle job to teach lessons--tend to go to kids who are finishing up, and need to take advantage while they're still here.

Thursday (Day 06) is, as with Tuesday on the TR schedule in this fall semester, another heavy teaching day: "Topics in Ethnomusicology" (history, philosophy, methods of the discipline; readings and discussion on sample ethnographies; fieldwork projects from seminar members; probably the most intellectually-demanding course I regularly teach) followed by "20th century music" (more-or-less a period seminar in the "long Twentieth Century", but really more a cultural history of modernism in Euro-American art forms; text is Glenn Watkins's genius Soundings).

Each of these 80-minute meetings has, built into the schedule, at least a 60-minute followup block, during which I will turn the class slideshow (text, images, audio, video, links to online scores and listening files through our library's subscriptions) into flash files & upload to course website; I will also typically upload the prompts ("Discussion Questions" or "Reading Notes") for the next assigned readings, whether in the textbook or via JSTOR pdf's, and will always write a followup "further to our most recent meeting" email, which I have found is extremely useful in both tracking the course progress, but also in keeping seminar members on-task. This is a trick I learned, actually, from "good-practice" approaches to chairing meetings: distributing meeting-minutes that include action items makes it explicit that all participants have a responsibility for follow-up. So I need that 60 minutes after each seminar meeting, to complete these meeting-by-meeting followup tasks while the session is still fresh in my and their minds.

After that, on Thursday, come two or three more lessons and thesis meetings. As I've said, I don't do much in the way of one-on-one private lesson teaching, as it's typically not the best use of my time or (narrow) skill-set. But I do spend a very substantial chunk of time, as would be expected of a Ph.D. in the Graduate School faculty, supervising Master's theses and Ph.D. dissertations in Musicology and Ethnomusicology.

And I'm not bitching about this. I spent a lot of years--too many years--writing a damn dissertation and earning a damn Ph.D. not to be supervising theses and dissertations. And I was trained in writing and historical/analytical thinking by giants on the earth, whom I thank once again. And I believe in the value of that kind of thinking and writing, particularly when--as I've said elsewhere--it accomplishes the subtle task of being both rigorous scholarship (and thus credible to the field specialists) and also engaging advocacy--and thus accessible to and valued by the general population.

There are two ways I learned to write, and to write well enough to be able to teach others:

(1) I had the good fortune read an awful lot of very good writing, from a very early age. Everybody in my family was a reader, and we all read voraciously, in every genre. It's like listening to great musicians: you read enough great writing that has spoken across time periods and audiences, and, if it rubs off no other way, you'll simply flat remember how and why that writing worked.

(2) Concomitant to that, and at least as important, I was edited over and over and over and over again, by absolutely masterful prose stylists, Peter Burkholder and George Buelow chief among them. They wrote so beautifully, and read so closely, that they understood and had years of practice at articulating why a given passage did, or didn't, or could be made to work. That's where, and how, I learned to teach writing, and where I garnered what skills I have at that pedagogy.

The issue here, though, is that you can't substitute for item (1): you simply have to read a absolute metric ton of good writing, and that's very time-consuming--usually we're talking decades of reading. And item (2) is, almost inevitably and I don't know a way around this, massively time-consuming: the student simply has to write a lot of raw prose and the teacher simply has to spend a lot of time reading it--and not just reading but writing comments upon--that prose.

This takes a lot of time. You can read prose quickly, and form responses and feedback to that prose almost as quickly as you read it, but in order to get that feedback into a form that is constructive for the student to hear, you simply have to capture it. I have experimented for a while with providing comments upon undergraduate drafts (not final versions) via spoken-word audio file; initially, I was very hesitant, as I wondered if the students would have trouble processing feedback in audio versus textual form (I sure would). However, their own comments, and empirical evidence, suggests that this works pretty well.

But final drafts, and more sophisticated writing, just seem to require a visual, text-based form. You just have to write those damned comments (thank God, for those who don't remember the old "marginalia and red pens" days, for word-processors' "commenting" function), and then you have to sit the student down, and talk through those comments, the considerations that go into them, and the fixes that are perhaps possible. I still think that the direct, person-to-person, detailed-specific, line-by-line-by-line edits are an unavoidable and absolutely essential part of how people learn to do scholarly writing.

And it takes time. I may teach smaller numbers of students, or fewer preps, but I am damned sure spending the same amount of time in "teaching." It's very, very labor-intensive--most principally, of course, for the candidates, who can very understandably feel that the process will never end--but also for the supervisor. It can take *years* and it's a damned grind for everybody.

End of this day brings the weekly "Musicology Happy Hour". Most all of our divisions try to have some kind of weekly get-together, informally to hash through departmental and divisional decisions that are more quickly and efficiently dealt with via multi-channel face-to-face conversation than by email. Our theory brothers and sisters at Tech have a weekly Friday lunch at a local Indian restaurant--not least because none of them have to teach on a Friday afternoon, and so their weekend can begin Friday right after lunch.

For us, though, because our teaching schedules overlap and conflict too much, a Thursday at 5pm (when most of the performance studios have a mandatory studio class, and so few students or performance faculty are around) is better. We meet in the back room of a cocktail bar across the street, and over the past few years that single 1-hour gathering, when folks are mostly en route from the school on home, or to wherever their Thursday evening will be taking them, is actually pretty productive: it's a chance to unwind at the shag end of the work week, an opportunity for us to share ideas, problems, and solutions (especially with pedagogy), and to bring to one another's attention tools and resources we all might benefit from employing.

Thus to this: the conversation at the happy hour this week was mostly about technology: predictable geekery about our "smartphones" (most academics don't give a shit about being able to access a camera, video-cam, or facebook from a phone, but damned sure do give same about being able to access email or the desktop computer via phone--if only to be able to check references and clear the inbox of late-breaking items). But, more saliently to the stated purposes of the Happy Hour, a chance to talk about using Web 2.0 (RSS feeds, Google calendar, and the wiki) for filtering the torrent of information we nowadays deal with. The fact that, as I've said, I have the Fridays free, meant that next day, in response to the conversation, I could come up with this.

Which is supposed to make everyone's life easier.

Friday (Day 07) brought more student/grad-student meetings, and more writing and administering, in anticipation of a weekend that would bring a "slow" session (teaching session), a radio production (if not two), a video-podcast-editing session (where I learned that the program I'd been using for a year to edit had gone away, and that it was going to be necessary to learn the industry-standard Adobe Premiere--thank the Universe for computer-expert ensemble members), a Celtic Ensemble rehearsal (and the soda bread and "proper Irish tea" that plugs enough calories, caffeine and sugar into the mix to keep 'em going), some office rearrangement (got to find desk-space for the Administrative Assistant the grant bought), and so on.

Before we head back into Week 03.

Still holding so far. And this year, maybe even gaining a little.

1 comment:

Seeker said...

Well, as one of the students who have benifitted from your close and careful attention to our writing, I think I speak for everyone when I say your efforts are deeply, deeply appreciated. Thank you for everything you do.