Saturday, February 27, 2010

Van Jones goes after Glenn Beck, Beck pees himself with fear...

Incredible speech from Jones, who Beck character-assassinated right out of the White House "Green Jobs Initiative" post:

Jones instead had kind words for the Fox News host:

Last thing I want to say is this: To my fellow countryman, Mr. Glenn Beck. I see you, and I love you, brother. I love you, and you cannot do anything about it. I love you, and you cannot do anything about it. Let’s be one country! Let’s be one country! Let’s get the job done!

Beck won't be able to handle it--any more than a cockroach running from the light--but Jones has hit on the best possible way to hit back at the toxic opportunists and psychotic fanatics of the modern "conservative" movement. Or, to quote Gerrald Winstanley:
To conquer them with love, Stand up now, stand up now,
To conquer them with love, Stand up now
To conquer them with love, As it does you behoove
For He is King above, No power is like to love
Stand up now.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Quick hit: retraining after the coffee break

Just back from the Delta blues gig: once a week (Thurs nights) in a coffeeshop where the clientele can, on any given night, be overladen with too many posing (and loud!) high school students, oblivious to those few others who might've actually come out to hear the music. But on other nights it can be OK, if the ambient noise level is reasonably low and my hands are working reasonably well. Not the best night tonight, playing-wise, but not the worst either.

This next picks up from a comment over on the ProfHacker blog (where a Dr Coyote article on teaching to large classrooms will appear in the next couple of weeks), where the PH crew asked for suggestions about "15 minute activities that improve the next day's efficiency."

Was working earlier today with teaching assistants on the materials for the Friday discussion sections, the balance to the Monday/Wednesday lectures when, on Fridays, the TA's take over in order to create a different interactional dynamic. The kiddos need the contrast--because having to deal with Dr Coyote two days a week is quite sufficiently intense--and they need to take responsibility for their own interactions with one another.

Down-side, of course, is when/if certain little criminals decide that the Friday meetings are somehow "less important" or "not real classes", it means a week away before the next Wednesday when I can bring the hammer down upon them. And, even when they're not criminal, it can be damned difficult for them to hold onto the continuity from Wednesday to Wednesday, if the Friday content is chunked-out separately or unrelatedly. So we try to have Friday group tasks & chores pick up from Wednesday lecture, and feed-into shared activities on the Monday morning--it makes for much better continuity.

I also work on continuity from one class meeting directly to the next. Immediately after every meeting of a class, including the MWF 50-minute sessions with the undergrads and the TR 80-minutes with the grads, I send a Blackboard email "further to meeting of XX-XX-XXXX [date]", in which I reiterate the meeting's topic, point to new resources relevant to the day's discussion (at the same time, I am converting and uploading the day's Flash slideshow--I teach music history so audio and video embeds are important for student review), cite next due dates, and so on. I find it keeps the continuity from the end of one class session through to the beginning of the next--in musician terms, this would be "connecting the energy at the end of one phrase to the beginning of the next"--as well as providing a concrete, succinct, cogent summary, meeting-by-meeting, of that course's progress through the semester.

It's a little more than 15 minutes, and it happens after each class meeting rather than once a day, but it certainly seems to help both students and professor with continuity.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Wisdom is wisdom, the Dharma is the Dharma...

...whatever the forum.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, spiritual (and quasi-political) leader of the Tibetan people in exile after the Chinese invasion of 1950-51 (and captured most harrowingly in Martin Scorsese's mournful Kundun) has a remarkable ability to take the most banal questions in the most asinine, dumbed-down situations with the most predictable answers and turn them sufficiently on their head that he can elicit insight, even from Larry King.

Case in point:

King asks: "the American people want both trade with China and independence for Tibet; how can they resolve this contradiction?"

HHDL: "... Tibet does not want independence from China! We are a landlocked technologically backward country; we need China's help. No, we want autonomy and the preservation of Tibetan culture--but NOT independence."
Talk about redirecting energy from tired paths to those with new possibilities!

I am privileged beyond measure to have had the opportunity to take refuge vows with the man himself. The Vows are the vows, and the Dharma is the Dharma, no matter where, from or with whom.

But it damned sure is easier, as a fallible human, to stick to the Middle Path with a leader like that as inspiration and role-model.

Monday, February 22, 2010


It has become all the fashion on the productivity blogs to bash multi-tasking, while at the same time, on the education blogs, self-consciously "progressive" types are bashing hidebound *resistance* to multi-tasking.. I think, however, that such trendy bashing proceeds from somewhat different critiques. On the productivity blogs, the critique is that multi-tasking, which is conventionally understood as "doing two or more things at the same time" (editing, talking on the telephone, monitoring social-networking feeds, etc, etc), actually erodes productivity--that the illusion is believing that either one of the tasks being performed simultaneously "to save time" is being executed as well as either could be executed sequentially.

For the edu-bloggers, the contrary argument--in terms of their contrasted clientele of students--is that 21st century youth (and in this I'm including anybody anywhere in any formalized educational system, age 5 to around age 26) spend nearly all of their waking hours multi-tasking anyway (cell phone, facebook updates, text messaging all occurring simultaneously with, oh, I don't know, operating an automobile, "studying" for a test, "taking notes" in a lecture) that it's artificial, probably uncomfortable, and certainly counter-productive to insist that they suddenly switch gears entirely and become one-pointed in their attention during the tasks that we think should be accomplished by mono-tasking.

Historically, in the K-12 world, as I understand it educators have finessed this by diagramming the durations of attention of which children are capable at various stages of cognitive development: 90 seconds at age 6, two-and-a-half minutes at age 10, and so on (the likely inaccuracy of my time estimates here revealing my embarrassing unfamiliarity with educational technique). This strikes me as an OK/not-bad solution to the existing situation--but not one that is really applicable for a college-age clientele who are supposed to be learning how to expand and focus their concentration, in terms of both topics and durations.

But I don't think the edubloggers quite have hold of the right of the stick either. There's an old saying back from all those years ago in the 1970s, "If you studied stoned, you better take the exam stoned." (Parenthetically, I can still say that, four decades later, I still see undergrad music kids operating from the same numb-skulled presumption--trumpet players never change) I don't hold with trendy parallel current view about multi-tasking's suitability. I think contemporary college students don't know how to concentrate and that part of our job is to teach them how.

On the other hand, people do sometimes comment on the work-load I carry, and/or the degree to which I can "multi-task," thinking of it as revealing higher-than-normative productivity. I don't happen to believe that--I'm crucially aware of what I could be producing and of the colossal degree to which I'm constantly falling short--but that repeated assertion has made me think about what it might be they think they're seeing. And I don't think it's multi-tasking; there's something else going on here.

What I think is being observed is something I learned years ago, as a survival skill, somewhere in the twelve years we were in graduate school, or maybe even before that when I went back to finish the aborted undergrad degree, or maybe even before that, when I was working as a bookstore night-manager, or restaurant cook, or framing carpenter. I learned that I was never going to have the number of hours, or the extended blocks of time, that would let me practice uninterruptedly as long as I wanted or in open-ended ways.

When I was carpentering, I learned to get up at 4:30am and practice until I had to be at work at 7:30, because trying to practice chromatic approaches after a full day of framing houses, and a shower, was a recipe for falling asleep.

When I was cooking, I'd work double-shifts three days a week (14 hour days: 9am-11pm), so that more days were open for practicing. I'd get out of the restaurant at 11 and walk three miles home across town, trying to unwind enough so that I could sleep readily and get up early.

At the bookstore, I'd work 7-midnight, take a last train from Cambridge's Harvard Square, sprint for the last bus at Government Center in Lynn, and hope that bus in turn made a connection that would take me all the way up to my home town on the North Shore so I could walk only a couple of blocks to my friend Larry's house--if I didn't make that last connection, I'd walk 5 miles there. And get up early to practice.

Night-managing the guitar studio, I'd get up and get to the studio two or three hours before opening time, so I could have the place to myself, away from distractions or noisy apartment neighbors, and better concentrate on the practicing. I'd sit behind the desk once we opened up and play scales and patterns on the house acoustic guitars for hours upon end, driving everybody in the waiting room crazy, when Larry & I weren't playing Irish tunes on fiddle and mandolin and driving them crazier.

I taught myself to sight-read on the Brookline Green Line train heading to the Studio every morning and, late night, riding home at night. I still remember the workbook: an early edition of Clough's Chords, Keys, Scales, Intervals, and Triads.

When I went back to school, I'd read the 4th edition Grout Music History textbook on the Red Line to Dorchester, when I wasn't sitting there, book closed, practice piano fingerings (Stravinsky's Les Cinqs Doigts and Bartok's Mikrokosmos) on its spine.

One of the most amazing guitarists I've ever heard, Wisconsin's Jack Grassel, said to me, "if you work at home, keep the guitar out, on a stand, so if there's only a few minutes free, you don't have to waste time pulling it out of the case."

I'd sit there in the late-night Wednesday or sign-on Sunday shifts at the Bloomington public radio station, my throat raw and voice shot from screaming over the 9-piece horn band the night before, the mic shut off, and play Dave Baker's 101 Bebop Licks and 33 common-practice bebop heads in 22-minute increments while the LP's of Bruckner and Brahms spooled through their sides. I'd sit at the station's sole MS DOS desktop, which ran the AP ticker and was embedded in a wall of World War II surplus sound-gear about 5 feet off the ground, so I had to use a high stool, and transcribe classroom lecture notes onto floppy discs, with the on-air feed turned up loud so I could hear it.

I learned to carry along a primitive walkman everywhere, so I could block out ambient noise wherever I was. Studying for my doctoral exit exams, I had three huge 5-inch loose-leaf binders, one for each major topic area (Baroque, American, 20th century), so huge they wouldn't fit in a knapsack, so I strapped them all together with a martial-arts belt, and carried them everywhere.

Nowadays, I stand or fall on the hour-by-hour scheduling of the Outlook planner. I tell students asking at the end of class for a meeting time to please send me an email, because I can only guarantee that the time is available (and will be reserved) if I'm sitting there with the Outlook planner open.

I block out the week literally hour-by-hour, always making sure, as I've blogged before, that there's not only prep-time for each class or meeting, but also followup-time. As I've said, nowadays I'll write a followup note (kind of "minutes or "action-items") for every meeting: student, faculty, survey, or seminar class. It means that almost every hour of the week is locked-in, and for some people would "feel" terribly rigid, but for me it's actually liberating. Because I can be reasonably confident that there will be time to do everything that needs to be done within the constraints of the timetable on which they need to be done. But it has to happen right then, not later, and not optionally--it has to be right then.

And it can all go to hell, of course, if the inevitable unpredicted interruptions overwhelm the small chunks of time in the schedule allocated for them. These days, with a parent failing, also by the hour, it's particularly difficult to stay focused.

But it's particularly important, now, in the job I've held these past 10 years. Because now, the blocked-out hours and half-hours and quarter-hours are not only essential to getting my own work done, but absolutely essential to the viable progress of my students--especially graduate students--in their own life-plans. I spent 12 years in graduate school and I do have some grasp of how overwhelming every single hurdle can seem. What that means is that they have to believe that, meeting by meeting and semester-by-semester, I am totally locked-in, for that particular chunk of time together, on helping them every way I can, right there and right then.

It matters that I've learned, over the past 30 years, to single-task--to apply one-pointed attention--in the pursuit of my own long-term goals. It's even more important, now, that I apply that attention to the long-term goals and well-being of my students.

Talent = chance; effort = guts

Jesus, what an incredible insight, from the much-missed John Fahey (a/k/a "Blind Joe Death"):

''I never considered for a minute that I had talent,'' he wrote in 1994. ''What I did have was divine inspiration and an open subconscious.''

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Stress & skillful means

Welcome to the sandbox.

It's not in my division, unit, or even college...but in an institution not too far away from here, I'm having to deal with some people who, for me, define "stress" in two classic fashions:

(1) "that feeling you experience when you are constrained from choking the living shit out of some asshole who desperately deserves it"; e.g., some "colleagues" who do not know how to behave "collegially"--expecting a level of sycophantic knocking-head (kow-tow) simply because they have been able to finagle the title "Dean", and calling into questions one's own competence when their *own* is manifestly lacking (as one of the embarrassed subordinates said, after one such session, "I could not believe that he questioned your credentials...I mean, all he'd have to do is google you!" to which I replied "yeah...and what do you think a search on his name would reveal?" to which the subordinate said "I know, I know...we're really embarrassed on your behalf", to which I refrained from saying "then why the fuck don't you speak up to this asshole?", and the big one:

(2) they jack with students. And, far beyond the reaction eliciting when you jack with me, if I see you jack with students, you're toast. If it takes years, I will never forget what you did to that kid.

As Twain said, "the reason that the battles in the Ivory Tower are so ferocious is because the stakes are so small." And, mostly, he was right--because entirely too many academics behave entirely too self-righteously about entirely too trivial issues of entitlement or power.

But some of the stakes are not small--sometimes, they are life-or-death. Sometimes it is worth going to the mattresses on behalf of a student, or a program, or an event which is being fundamentally compromised and exploited.

One such, involving this not-too-far-distant unit, was a couple of years back, when the chief officer of the unit decided he wanted to read the thesis of a student in his unit which was being supervised, at the student's request, by me. It's my suspicion that this Chief Officer knew that his department's productivity (e.g., successful student recruitment and graduation) was down and that he was seeking outside factors upon which to shift the blame.

At any rate, after having received less than no coherent or consistent information regarding that department's expectations, timetable, and/or requirements for a senior thesis, the CO decided it was necessary to call me on the carpet for the "problems" with the thesis for which he and his department had been a total absentee landlord. I entered the situation with the clear internal intention that, regardless of whatever candy-assed bullshit went down, I was going to keep the student's own long-term best interests at heart.

And it's a damned good thing I did, because the CO (good-hair, trademark starched white shirts with the sleeves rolled up to demonstrate that he was a "regular guy", telltale drinker's high color and red nose) began the meeting by saying "what is the basis for your qualifications to supervise this thesis?" And it was all downhill from there. I had to tell him--because he obviously had not taken the trouble even to read the faculty bio, much less run the above-mentioned google search--about the range of my own scholarly research and publication activity, while his subordinates, both junior and senior, ducked their heads in embarrassment.

Finally, I observed "we are not here to interrogate my qualifications. Your department requested that I take on the additional, unremunerated duty of supervising this thesis, to which I assented because I wished the best for this student. Can we now please talk about that topic? What would be best for this student?"

Of course he immediately backpedaled, insisting that he "wouldn't think of questioning" my credentials--when in fact that is precisely what he had been doing--and I managed to direct the conversation back to the thesis and what could best enhance the writing. It became apparent--obvious I think to the embarrassed subordinates who'd felt unable to speak up to contradict their "boss"--that there had been massive, systemic failure, of design and of execution, in his own department's procedures for vetting, supervising, and confirming the thesis work. Within 5 minutes of conversation, the CO was saying "well, what sorts of things would you do differently in contrast to the existing procedures?"

So I let the bastard have it, and detailed over a dozen different tweaks, adaptations, re-sequencings, and additional stages which I thought could help close the loopholes in his division's ill-conceived existing procedures. He sat there, nodding sagely yet visibly disinterested, while his subordinates scribbled frantically, taking notes on my suggestions.

Six months later, the two subordinates are gone. Every one of my (uncredited) suggestions has been incorporated into their vetting procedure. And the CO is still there, good hair and starched shirts in place, while his division continues to hemorrhage students, faculty, and quality.

I don't give a shit about the credit--I get way more than my share as it is--but I could wish that crap didn't so entirely too often to the top of the university pond.

It ain't right.

Why true scholars matter

Because in the wake of a shooting spree that killed her UAH colleagues as they sat around a faculty conference table, Debra Moriarty said this, in refusing to join the hysterical cries for ever-greater denials of civil liberties:

"There is evil in the world; it is unfortunate that good people are hurt by that. But a university is a place of free thought and freedom to explore ideas and to search out new knowledge and you don't want to put anything in place that dampens that."
That is the courage of a true scholar. Thank you, Dr Moriarty.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Privilege. F*ckin' privilege

Too many West Texans have seldom if ever consciously encountered a functional, non-dismissible adult human who they are prepared to admit has better-informed opinions than their own. Addicted to the paranoid propaganda of Fox "News", they believe what they believe--a mish-mosh of childhood programming, corporatist lies, and a deeply-unexamined, internally self-contradictory and hypocritical set of "small town values"--in the face of any empirical, factual information to the contrary. And when challenged to rationally defend their convictions, they default to one of two positions: they respond by parroting the latest, most simplistic talking points spoon-fed to them by the Right-wing noise machine; if that fails, if they actually see that their points fail in the face of logic, they retreat to an obstinate, know-nothing stance of "well, you might think that 'cause you've got all this information, but I believe what I believe because those are the values I was raised with"--because, in their world, "values" trump, and can be held in the face of direct contravention by, objective factual reality.

Case in point: sitting in the breakfast room of the TMEA hotel, a place very popular with conferencing students and tourist families as they'll supply cots, trundle beds, wireless, breakfast, and a watered-drinks happy hour, all free of charge; some of these folks are obviously making 2 meals a day off the self-serve waffles at breakfast and the chili dogs at happy hour.

Sitting at breakfast, alone at a table for four as I wait for Dharmonia and the General and the Sergeant to make it down from the room, I'm approached not once but twice, by two different spherical white ladies laden down with stacked plates of the waffles whose self-serve status they've obviously exploited, and asked pointedly, "excuse me, are you here by yourself?"

And when I reply, "well, no ma'am, I'm actually waiting for three people who are just about to join me," instead of being satisfied with that response--precisely, of course, the response they would give themselves if the situation were reversed--they look visibly displeased, even resentful, before reluctantly turning and waddling elsewhere. And you think, "why on earth are they resentful? You'd think they'd be more pissed-off if I said 'actually, no, I just prefer to sit here by myself'".

And you realize that this resentful sense of entitlement results from a pre-existing conviction, unsupported (because considered unnecessary) by any factual empirical evidence, that the large long-haired person in black with the earrings, sitting by himself at a table drinking coffee and eschewing the carbs, can't possibly "deserve" to have a table "to himself" when Good Christians like themselves can't find seating for their double-wide asses and their stacked plates of waffles. And even though they would say precisely the same thing, if the situation were reversed (or even if they were in fact by themselves, but didn't want to share), in the face of outward contradictory reality, their inward sense of entitlement still shapes their view of the world.

In the event, when the plan has changed and my party is ready to leave, and a Hispanic gentleman with friends at the next table says, "Excuse me, you mind if I take one of your chairs" so he can pull-up to his friends' table, I say "well, sir, I'm just getting ready to leave. Please do feel free to take this table." And--as often happens in this part of the world when Hispanic folks have to interact with Anglos---he goes out of his way to say profuse thank you's, and adds "well, I don't want to run you off," and I say "Oh, that's okay...I been run off out of better places than this!" and we both laugh and part friends.

In this city--the very city where a bunch of Anglo claim-jumpers and soldiers-of-fortune tried to found an empire based on the premise of slaveowners' rights--I'll quote the great James Gandolfini ("Tony Soprano"),

I hate privilege.

Gopi Podila, Adriel Johnson, Maria Ragland Davis; Luis Cruz-Vera, Joseph Leahy

Because they, not the poor twisted madwoman who attacked them, should have names and faces:

Gopi Podila (RIP),
Adriel Johnson (RIP),
Maria Ragland Davis (RIP);

Luis Cruz-Vera,
Joseph Leahy.

May their names and the constructive energy of their lives continue to resonate after we are gone.


Monday, February 15, 2010

To neither generalize nor particularize - UAH

There is no point in trying to "make sense" out of things that are by definition senseless, to "find the reason for" things which are without reason. Yet those is what so often, too often, happens in the wake of shootings like the one at University of Alabama.

Here's what I wrote over on Dean Dad:

Well-put and apt. I would certainly agree that the rush to generalize (as in "just another case of...") or particularize (as in "somebody must have made an error somewhere, which, if only identified, could prevent this happening again...") are both equally inapt. As I expressed to a friend, the mainstream media's tendency to try to find some failure of security or record-keeping, some "red flag", which "should have" been a warning signal, proceeds from a unsubstantiated conviction that tragic events are never random and can always be prevented, which is not how the world works.

That said, we both have experience of working in academic bureaucracies (or as bureaucrats) in which we can recognize that certain persons manifest inappropriate responses (e.g., potential "red flags") of varying magnitude. And in a bureaucracy bound by OP's, the path to containing the behavior or terminating the employment of such a person can be very difficult.

I will be interested to see, if we ever hear, any commentary from the tenure committee or other UA-H colleagues about why the shooter might have been denied tenure. It does not appear to have been a problem with productivity (grants recorded around the web) or student satisfaction (as of yesterday, she was well-regarded at ratemyprofessors). Was her tenure denied because of inappropriate conduct? It seems possible.
If there is a lesson, it is that life is short, and unknowable, and that we damned better live our lives with that in mind.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

"I'm talkin' to the wall here!"

My admired stepfather, rest his soul, an Italian stonemason and bebop drummer/saxophonist, used to say this when someone--typically one of his daughters--was refusing to see things his way. I don't often have occasion to use the line, as most of my students are receptive and smart (or maybe I just think they're smart, because they behave to their professors as if receptive--not a bad skill in a grad student), but I was reminded of it upon reading an article in the London Financial Times about witnessing the semi-legendary entrepreneur/motivational speaker Malcolm Gladwell. The author is a proponent of a perspective about "spontaneity" which I try to train my students out of:

I also make a point of not writing out my speech. My theory is that it is more interesting to hear someone talk, than to listen them read a prepared text.
As I tell my students, such a perspective really means, as a subtext, "I think I can improvise something as precise, articulate, coherent, relevant, and well-timed as somebody else can pre-compose and I rehearse." And they ain't too many who can actually do that. I am an adamant and insistent advocate, especially in the context of a scholarly thesis exposition of the sort that I train my students to provide, of writing that sucker word-for-word, and then editing remorselessly for content, clarity, and timing.

As Gideon Rachman relates, Gladwell agrees:
First, he is a master of the “look no hands” style of speaking. He just stands up there, with a button mike and talks - and it all sounds very spontaneous, with little asides and jokes, and messages tailored to his audience. Second, he tells stories - there are theories attached to the stories - but the bulk of the talk is made up of charming anecdotes to illustrate rather simple themes.
And how does he do it? Rachmann asks him, and Gladwell replies:
“I know it may not look like this. But it’s all scripted. I write down every word and then I learn it off by heart. I do that with all my talks and I’ve got lots of them.”

Quoting my stepdad: "Am I talkin' to the wall, here?!?"

I sure hope not. :-)

Friday, February 12, 2010


Traveling and conferencing heavy on the Riverwalk this weekend. Blogging lite ensues.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Spiritual exile(s)

A young friend is grappling with his family's incomprehension of a spiritual path he is beginning to enter. He wrote a beautiful, very sad blog post about the ways in which the experience of such intolerance can actually lead us to a compassionate opening of awareness to others' experience of intolerance. He spoke, very powerfully, of "coming out"--not, in this case, as tending toward alternate sexuality, but as tending toward an alternate spirituality--and of the likelihood that, when and if he did, he could count on experiencing damned near as total rejection as if he were gay.

So I wrote a comment upon that post, having some sensitivity to the challenge that such fundamental shifts of perspective and self-identification--the realization that we are all, ultimately, going to be exiled--can represent. With his express permission, here it is:

This is an extremely difficult kind of thing to cope with. Here are a few thoughts:

It may be helpful, in your own head even if not in talking to your parents, to emphasize that most sects of Buddhism do not describe the tradition as a "religion". Rather, it is a way of understanding the world, understanding cause-and-effect (karma), understanding they suffering happens and what can be done to lessen suffering.

Buddhism does not require belief in a Deity. Even in the more "religious" streams of the tradition (I am thinking of Tibetan Buddhism, for example), where saints and bodhisattvas are recognized and venerated, there is no Deity.

This in turn means that most Buddhist teachers would say that it is not necessary to abandon one's natal religion in order to begin a Buddhist practice. In fact, especially since the 1960s, there has been a large percentage of the American Buddhist commentary who combine Buddhist practices with Jewish or Christian worship as well. There are even Buddhist teachers who are also priests, ministers, and rabbis.

Buddhism is a system, a tool for trying to make sense of a world of suffering (Samsara), injustice, and death. One of its aspects that has most powerfully drawn me personally has been its logic* and its honesty: its stance that suffering happens, not because "only bad people suffer" or because of "original sin", but because human beings suffer from ignorance, avoid the truth, engage in repetitive destructive and selfish behaviors.

One of the most liberating aspects of the tradition, for me, is that it provides a set of tools for unlearning ignorance. It believes that enhanced insight is possible and that it is such insight which alleviates suffering and provides hope for the future.

This in turn means that you need not think of your changing convictions and beliefs as "leaving the Christian faith"; Buddhism does not require that you do so. The hard thing is that, based on your descriptions here and elsewhere, you would wish to leave your father's religious tradition regardless of whether Buddhism was in the picture or not. You have not only found a tradition that makes better sense to you. You are also facing the very difficult--but very human--realization that you have to leave a tradition whose convictions, beliefs, and repercussions who don't support.

That is hard.
May all beings find a home.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Quick hit: service to the teacher

I've blogged recently about the experience of entering a new physical training regimen, and all the complicated monkey-mind psychological baggage that brings up. But I've also blogged about my sense of debt to my teachers, and the sense--pretty much arising from the Sino-Japanese-Tibetan contexts in which the debts were incurred--of privilege that ensues when you actually have some grasp of the magnitude of what the teachers have willingly given you. It certainly informs how I myself think about teaching, and about the nature of the bond--the commitment beyond death--that can, and maybe should, obtain between teachers and students of concomitant commitment.

And I also recognize that, in the mercantile West, and especially when you introduce purchase-and-sale into the exchange, such dynamics can't, and maybe even oughtn't, to obtain. But that doesn't mean that I can't choose to perceive, and proceed from a perception, that connects me with ways of proceeding and interacting with the teacher that feel right.

Not everybody relates to the teacher this way. Not every teacher is right for every student. Not everybody should relate to the teacher in this way. But I do.

So when I read on the teacher's blog that, due to the demands of building the business, she winds up eating take-out and frozen food, I find myself thinking, "That's not appropriate, that my teacher should have to do that."

And so, at an hour when I'm usually thinking of going to sleep--and of the goddamned 8:00AM meetings which loom about 10 hours away, I'm making the hummus recipe that another admired friend gave us one magical night. And when I have the chance to pass this along as an offering to my admired teacher tomorrow night, it's going to feel like closing a very important circle. Or, as she would say, "a loop."

Once again.

Saturday, February 06, 2010


The very idea that Robbie Robertson would have tried to argue with Paul Butterfield about which version of "Mystery Train" for The Last Waltz is ridiculous. Robbie couldn't even carry Butter's harps. Buzzy Feiten on guitar:



Their very own pirate crew

I've blogged before about the sense of camaraderie I found in communities of musicians, and about how, before I ever even thought of being a working musician myself, what led me toward those communities was a sense of who they were and how they lived. I've also written, at length, about the ways and means by which esprit de corps can be created, and some of the payoffs--both practical/musical and also interpersonal/philosophical--which such esprit can create.

Practically speaking, creating esprit in a musical ensemble enhances attendance, commitment, willingness to make sacrifices on behalf of the ensemble--but also the degree to which participants pay attention to one another in the act of performance: if you know, and care about, the people you're playing music with, you're far, far more inclined to pay attention to what helps them onstage.

But there are philosophical and emotional payoffs, too--payoffs that extend beyond the boundaries of the rehearsal room and the stage, and outside the contexts of preparation and performance. Sure, some of them wind up being pretty good friends with each other--rooming together, cooking together, and--inevitable when you deal with young'uns--occasionally hooking-up together (that last pretty damned challenging when, as also often happens with young'uns, the hook-up ends).

But it extends beyond that, too: not all of 'em will get along with each other at all times--some of the personalities, priorities, musical interests or aptitudes will be too different--and so as leader you have to make smart and thoughtful assignments, not only of repertoire to individuals, but also of individuals to one another in the various collaborative groups. And there's a hell of a salient lesson for young'uns there, as well. It's a merit that's even less immediate but perhaps more long-lasting, or perhaps more resonant if less direct. It's that, in turn, when you've created a collaborative group who look out for each other, (mostly) enjoy each other's company, and, most importantly, are willing to invest time, effort, concentration, or even the self-control that might be required to "control your demeanor" around somebody with whom you don't necessarily see eye-to-eye but with whom you somehow have to enact a successful musical process. All good for the kiddos participating, of course.

But even more valuable for the kiddos who see that kind of collaboration/participation; who, themselves maybe casting-around for a community they can feel part of, get a bit of a vision that is inclusive, collaborative, committed to excellence and effort, and seems to provide some emotional support and sense of home.

Dharmonia refers to it as the "duckling" reaction: from the old, bathetic children's story of the Ugly Duckling (of course, in the "happy ending" denouement, after being shunned and rejected by the ducks, is finally and gratifyingly recognized and accepted as a swan). She's used it in the past to describe this reaction, this sense of recognition, from students who may have been casting-around, a bit lost, trying to find a place in the symphonic or operatic or choral or chamber-music world and not quite finding a fit. When they see what the early music ensemble or the ragtime ensemble or the left-handed sewer flute ensemble or the Celtic ensemble are doing, and--at least as importantly--how much fun they're having doing it, and how much they seem to care about each other, and, as Dharmonia says, there's a certain "quack-quack-quack" of recognition.

When you've seen it in enough kids, you recognize it, and you value it, and you try to make sure that such kids encounter a sense of very explicit welcome. And you work hard to make sure that the kids already part of the ensemble understand that part of their role is not only to learn their parts (by ear), play their parts (from memory), keep their "heads up, eyes open, not forgetting to breath" as they interact in rehearsals and on stage, to carry their share of the gear and to inquire when/as/where they can otherwise pull their weight--but also to make those quacking "ugly" ducklings peeking in the door of the rehearsal room or coming up to try out the weirdo instruments after the encores feel that there is a place for them to enter this situation.

Part of it is simply about learning to show other young'uns that it's OK to be different, OK to feel like a bit of an ugly duckling--in short, showing others how to make friends with being an outsider. And to recognize that, in fact, there's some power to being an outsider--to resisting the panicky feeling of "needing" to fit in somewhere. To recognize instead the bedrock Buddhist truth that we are all going to be alone, at some of the most joyful and some of the most sorrowful moments of existence. And to understand that such a circumstance, though it can be lonely and sad, is a place of extraordinary opportunity: when you are standing alone, you have access to a 360-degree horizon of possibilities. And it means that, because you are not bound by expectations or norms of behavior of a received or generic community, you can *choose* your tribe: you can look around you at the realms and communities of experience that are available, and you can select your community on the basis of shared values--rather than genetics or inheritance.

In the Celtic Ensemble, those values, in addition to "community," "empathy," and "personal responsibility,"--and exemplified in the above "keep your head up" dictum and Celtic Ensemble Rule #1 "Don't Suck!"--are also about creative, constructive, imaginative, even cunning responses to limited resources. About maximizing opportunities. About traveling light. About making sure that everyone is taken care of and along for the ride.

I call it the "spit and bailing wire" ethos: the conviction "we're going to find ways to make maximal art happen out of minimal resources, ones that aren't dependent upon anybody else's budget, anybody else's permission, anybody else's venue or rubric or approval--because that's how we manage to stay free." I use it because it's the only way to respond to the nearly-non-existent resources available, but also because I want to model it for the kiddos. I want them to believe in their own ability to do the same thing. So that when we send 'em out into the world, we're sending out self-sufficient, self-confident, imaginative, constructive, creative, courageous artists.

I thought of it the other night as we were just beginning to work on the Celtic Ensemble's "big" spring program, some version of which we prepare each year, starting around this time, so as to have suitable repertoire for the run-out concerts, festival concerts, and "big" gigs that the Spring semester brings. This year it's a "sea music" program, as I've mentioned previously, which I think will work pretty well, and which will, in the context of West Texas, of course be hopelessly exotic. The kiddos are really excited about it, and I think a big part of that excitement, beyond the objective greatness of the music (and it is pretty great), is the very fact that what they're playing isn't something anybody in the School of Music does. They're learned to like that they play esoteric music, music that others haven't heard, and they like the sense of having discovered something for themselves, something they can then take out and share with others. They become very messianic about it--they come to believe in the music the way that I do, the way that the people I learned from did.

So we're walking down the hall, me and the General, from the rehearsal room where we work on their instrumental stuff to the big open hallway where the dance orchestra rehearses with the dance corps, and as they lollygag along in front of us, about 5 of them start playing "Whiskey Before Breakfast"--which they are very proud of having discovered and learned, by ear, all by themselves.

It's become their "traveling music", and part of the band/rehearsal ritual is that they have to play the tune as they're traversing from one space to the next: just part of the little social ritual/traditions that develop as the esprit goes. They know that when we get to the performance hall they help schlep chairs and PA components; they know that after the shows there's always a music party at Dr Coyote's house; they know they "can't suck"; and they know that when they walk from the rehearsal room to the dance hallway, they play "Whiskey Before Breakfast." Some of them, the more recent recruits, don't even know where these various social rituals came from--they just know they were already in place, already available, already part of joining the tribe, when they arrived.

So they're walking down the corridor ahead of us, and I chuckle quietly and say to the General, "I think they kind of like being the barbarians at the gate. Their very own pirate crew."

And he laughed, and said back, "you bet: that way they've got something nobody else has. They can do something nobody else can do."

And so, of course, they can. They've got something nobody else has. They built it.

For themselves.


Thursday, February 04, 2010

The day that's in it

Here's why the blog post is the way it is:

3:40am His Highness decides he wants breakfast and knocks items off the bureau until I get up and feed him; try to get back to sleep.

7am alarm rings for real. Shower, cook breakfast for two, off to campus.

8:30am straight to office (too busy even for the ritual coffee run); finish polishing PowerPoint for Ireland seminar;

9:30-10:50am Ireland seminar; good group this year, pretty good engagement, but they're already pretty sleepy--and it's only the fourth week of the semester;

10:50-11:30am finalize slideshow, followup email, instructions/etc for the course just taught

11:30-11:45am choke down a quick sandwich while finalizing materials for Ives/Ellington/Zappa "great composer" seminar--realize that it might actually make sense to explain (in part) Ives Symphony #3 "The Camp Meeting" in terms of Joyce A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: locate online full-text version and link

12:30-1:50 Ives/Ellington/Zappa seminar: good discussion of Ives's Yale experience (1894-98) and good student contributions re/ why Ives wrote his Yale composition professors out of his own autobiography

1:50-2:30 finalize slideshow, followup email, instructions/etc for the class just taught

2:15-3:00 print about 130 pages of brass parts for first reading session by Celtic Ensemble brass recruits

3-3:45 roughing-out Discussion Questions for next Tuesday's seminar meetings

4-5pm meet with Teaching Assistants who present the semester's first Discussion Sessions tomorrow, Friday--3 weeks of weather cancellations have set that clock back

5-6:15pm colloquium presentation on "Improvisation in the Classroom," something I've wanted to present on, for grad students and colleagues, for the past couple of years. Present, take questions, run an exercise or two, have absolutely no clue (because too much in the zone) whether the presentation was aptly-calibrated to the audience. Hope for the best; infer--from the number of questions and follow-up comments--that maybe it was OK.

6:15pm-7:10pm race (tardy) to first brass reading session. Feel significantly relieved that the brass recruits really dig the charts, even though we don't get through sight-reading all of them. At least the positive response is encouraging that maybe the charts are going in a good direction.

7:15 home; quick dinner with Dharmonia. Try to ramp down the adrenaline of the day--which is not over yet.

8:30-10pm solo blues gig at coffeehouse across town. Audience isn't always great, but management is so considerate and respectful that I'm still doing the gig. This time, an unusually wide representation of friends and students, and unusually low level of ambient noise. I actually remember a bunch of songs, my hands are in reasonably good shape, there's a reasonably positive response from the other coffeehouse types, and I manage to segue "Jesus on the Mainline" with "Need Somebody on Your Bond" with "Bird in God's Garden"; thank you, mixolydian mode.

10:30pm finally home. Pat the cat, kiss the wife goodnight, and drink a little rum.

And it all begins again tomorrow.

Belated: Wednesday/Hump-day email followup

Over the past couple of years, I've developed the habit of writing a followup email after each meeting of each class I am teaching, rather in the manner of "minutes" or a set of action-items following a meeting. It seems to yield much better continuity: undergraduates, in my observation, tend to start thinking about class content about 5:00 minutes after the meeting begins, and stop (when we're lucky) sixty seconds after the meeting ends--when we're unlucky, 5:00 minutes before it ends.

So the followup emails, for both undergrad survey courses and graduate seminars, help to preserve the continuity: kind of like, as I say to the Celtic Ensemble, picking up the link of the chain which is the last note of one phrase, and making sure you preserve rhythmic/phrasing energy into the opening of the next phrase.

It's time-consuming, but, as I said to Dharmonia last night, I can keep ahead of it and all the other tasks if I have 30 minutes buffer immediately after each meeting, and write the followups and upload the Blackboard slideshows right then.

Here's a redacted version of yesterday's. Somehow, I think it captures the mixture of moods and modes I wind up using in the classroom, and out:


Good work today: lots of good participation; was it the rain???

Slideshow is up. Remember that you must READ THE SLIDESHOWS after class, as often there will be added material, questions or other assignments.

Listenin Quiz #1 grades will be posted outside my office, by R-number, by 12noon Friday 2/5/10.

Topic Ideas will be critiqued by TA's by 12noon Friday 2/5/10. Please MAKE A START on your Thesis Statement anyway, and get that submitted, in proper and complete format, by its deadline.

Speaking of deadlines: please bear in mind that YOU are responsible for knowing when assignments, LQ's, and RQ's are due--stay on top of these.

Online Reading Quiz due Friday. Note: RQ's will still be due during Wed and Fri of TMEA week; all RQ's due on Feb 10, 12, and 15 will open on Feb 8. If you are going to TMEA, get those RQ's done FIRST.

Friday 2/5 meet in your respective Discussion Sections. Note that attendance WILL be taken.

Speaking of attendance: remember that NO unexcused absences are permitted in this class. Every unexcused absence counts against your grade. Remember also that it is Musicology policy that all students must pass all portions of the grade: exams, LQ's, RQ's, research project, and attendance/participation.

Hence, you can fail this class through poor attendance. Note also that the university REQUIRES that students missing too many classes shall be dropped from the roster in the fifth week.

Please pass the word on this.

Dr Coyote

ps: One more thing: I recognize that not all members of a class may appreciate the various hi-jinks: joking, laughing, throwing chocolate, etc. If you are on of those persons who does not so appreciate, recall that you are in a room with 78 other people, many of whom find it easier to concentrate and be engaged as a result of precisely these hi-jinks, and please seek to tolerate them.

'Cause that's how we do.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Bipeds on the South Plains

This will come as no revelation--in fact, the sort of insight to which Dharmonia responds "Thank you, Captain Obvious"--but transport by foot, particularly in as obese and technology-dependent culture as our own, is not only a prosaic physical act but also a political, philiosphical, perpetual experience.

In today's Ireland seminar (still in the 3rd week), we were talking about maps and landscapes, and the ways that maps (including and focusing upon Tim Robinson's extraordinary cartographic meditations on Aran, Connemara, and the Burren in his various books) reveal or depict or even "fictionalize" landscapes: not only of topography, but also of experience, and even perception.

Early on in Henry Glassie's magisterial Passing the Time in Ballymenone, about which I've blogged before, he provides a set of sketched overlays of his fictionalized South Fermanagh community: terrain, work patterns, kinship, marriage, and the routes that individuals follow when they go to "make a ceili". They're fascinating and revealing, not only of movement but also of perception and of lifestyle--and virtually every one portrays routes of, at maximum, 6-7 miles in a single direction. The reason? Because that is the distance that you could travel, and travel back, on foot, across the rough South Fermanagh landscape, in a single day's light.

Here in West Texas (as, I infer, in large chunks of metropolitan Southern California), to walk somewhere, in order to actually get somewhere--as opposed to the lemming walking around-and-around-and-around the Student Rec Center track or the local yuppie parks--is a highly suspicious activity, and elicits presumptions: you're either too poor to travel by car, or too eccentric: there's one "Walking Guy" in town who I think might cover 7-8 miles per day--I see him, striding along through the traffic, all over town, always carrying his gym bag (Tom Waits: "what's he doing in there?").

Or too radical. The other people in West Texas who walk, or maybe bicycle, extensively, tend to be the cafe-society, American Spirit-smoking, multiply-tattooed and -pierced 20-Somethings. And, of course, though I'm an old fart, I've found far more fellow-feeling from such young'uns than from the Buffies in their SUVs (texting while they careen through campus), the Tylers and Trevors and Byrons in their pickups (blasting hip-hop, pretending to be black, and laying rubber through the residential neighborhoods), and so on.

But walking is still different than that. It's the very oldest ambulation of homo sapiens--after all, one of the things that distinguished our first direct ancestors from the other primates was a bipedal, upright, stance--and it reconnects us to very old modes of not only transport but also perception, and even of time.

And it's what the body is engineered to do: the cardio specialists say the ideal minimum number of steps each human such clock each day is 10,000. Which, figuring a 24" stride (long, I know, but I'm 6'4") or about 2600 strides/mile, is a little less than 4 miles. How many people do any of us know who walk 4 miles/day?

Now, I'm an absolute nightmare for a cardio doc: my life is high-stress, low-exercise, entails anywhere between 10 and 14 hours/day sitting on my ass staring at a computer screen, with only my hands and arms getting much workout (I probably type, on average, nearly as many words per day as I'm supposed to take strides per day). And, on top of that, I'm a workaholic who resists "wasting" time for things like exercise.

So it's a conscious act of will to step away from the computer, stand up, and take an extra 14-16 minutes to walk home, or walk from the school to the grocery store to the radio station and home. 14-16 minutes is nothing--I spend more time than that farting around on the Internet between actual work, and thus it represents no actual "waste" of time--but it still requires a recalibration of one's sense of priorities and time-scale.

It also changes your perception of the landscapes you inhabit, and your experience of those landscapes. For the impact it has on fundamental perceptions: heat/cold, up/down, wind, rough/smooth terrain, but also of the time it takes to move through those landscapes, and the experience of the details of those landscapes: the birds, the shape and color of the clouds, on this day--Imbolc, the opening of lambing season, Brigid's day, the moment of transition from Winter to Spring--the faintest green showing through the gray of the swelling buds.

I need to remember how to be a biped.

Monday, February 01, 2010

"In the Trenches": enhancing attendance

Here's a note I sent to my staff this morning, because of the week that's in it:


For those teaching as instructor-of-record: several people have mentioned that, as ever, the semester's attendance issues and problem-children are starting to manifest. Here is a strategy which both conforms to university doctrine and has worked well in the past:

Make a list of of those who have missed some number (say, 2 or more) class sessions in the first 3 weeks of class--of course omitting to include snow days or excused absences. Include in the list the *.edu email for each person (get it from online student information). Compose a generic email, which will be sent individually to each on the list, saying:

"In the first 3 weeks of class, you have an unacceptable number of unexcused absences from [course number]. University policy requires that we drop non-attending students from class rosters. Moreover, as of [email's date], you are failing this class on the basis of attendance. What is the problem?"

Then send as individual email to each student, includng the student's studio teacher in the "CC" line.

Then contact the studio teacher by separate, private email, saying "of course we know that it is not your responsibility to ensure Student X's attendance in the Music History class. But, we thought you would probably want to know about this attendance problem. Thanks for any assistance."

In the case of non-music majors, make the student's division, unit, or undergraduate adviser the CC'd recipient.

We have found that this helps to "close the loop" b/w various faculty. Also that studio faculty often wield a great deal of productive clout with music majors.

Your mileage may vary.
Sigh. Sometimes ya wished their parents had raised 'em with some sense of personal responsibility (hah!)