Lessons Learned from Teaching Twice

September 7, 2009 at 5:47 pm 1 comment

For the second summer now, I’ve taught the survey of American Music course at Northeastern University. As before, it was intense: seven weeks of teaching, and this time Mondays and Wednesdays for three and a half hours each time. Below are some things I learned.

Do Less,  Accomplish More

As most who have taught a survey course know, it is possible to be representative, it is not possible to be comprehensive. So I deliberately altered my goal of the class from “introduce students to the main repertoires of American music” to “give students the tools to think thematically about music of the United States.” This required radically slowing down the pace of the course, and digging in more deeply to each subject to tease out the themes of each one.

I ended up emphasizing four themes: authenticity, genre, borrowing, and revival. Each of these cropped up numerous times over the course of the term, albeit in different guises: the question of race in American music can be seen as one facet of authenticity, but then again colonial psalmodists were concerned with bringing a kind of theological authenticity to their musical practices. Popular music abuts the issue of authenticity, but, when thought about in terms of genre, reveals how problematic genre is through American music.

So a lot of the material that I covered last year got left on the cutting room floor this time. But if my students can learn to think of new music they encounter in terms of authenticity, genre, borrowing, and revival (without, of course, thinking those are the only possible themes), I think they will better equipped to think critically about it rather than cramming in a much greater volume of material with thinner analysis.

Sometimes, Effort Trumps Ability

In grad school, I’ve learned to be efficient. With hundreds of pages of reading every week during course work, constant pressure to write, present, and deliver, it is the only way to survive. But the reality of teaching – and something that I didn’t really appreciate until this time around – is that there are large swaths of it that are about process, rather than product. As such, trying to “optimize” too much only leads to unhappiness and frustration. Carefully reading and responding to twenty-eight response papers simply takes a certain amount of time and concentration to do right. And the student whose paper you read last deserves your undivided attention just as much as the student who was first in line.

In short (and to borrow from Malcolm Gladwell), effort trumps ability at times. Preparing a lecture thoroughly, making sure that the course web site is clear and up to date, is more of a question of consistent application than any kind of special talent. This is not to say that, when teaching this term, I was not aware of any time passing. I am becoming increasingly sensitive to the reality that teaching, done well, should not necessarily be thought of in terms of efficiency – of “processing” students. Which brings me to my third point.

Carrot First (and Second, and Third), Stick Later

As some readers may have noted, there is a lot of anger in the academic blogosphere, and sometimes it is directed towards students. Similarly, I think that an antagonistic stance towards students sometimes serves as a stand-in for intellectual rigor in a classroom environment. One manifestation of this is surpassingly baroque course policies. Some syllabi I’ve seen on the internet have late and make-up policies that run for more than two single-spaced pages! Yikes.

This term, I wanted to make sure that the students knew that I saw them as human beings. One way I did this was by scheduling individual conferences with all of the students in the second week of class. During the conferences (which were about 15 minutes long), I spoke with them about their first, short written assignment, but also tried to get a feeling for why they were majoring in music, what they wanted to accomplish, and so on. This was probably the single best decision I made all semester. Not only did it communicate that this would be a different kind of class – not an impersonal grinding out of facts – but it also helped me to assess the individual learning styles and personalities that would add up to the group when we met for the rest of the term. I think it also helped the students to see me as a person, as well – which in turn I think forestalled a lot of the behavior that leads to the vicious cycle of teacher frustration and student problems.

Furthermore, treating students like real people allowed the course’s rigor, and my own authority as a teacher, to flow from more meaningful sources than from how “hard” the syllabus (and class) was perceived to be. I think once the students saw that I wanted them to succeed, the rigor came from within them – which is the goal, since after the end of the course they will need to be the one’s capable of being independently rigorous, with me or anyone else watching over them. Also, it built a level of trust because the students (I hope) saw that I was standing at the front of the class not because I was the agent of some distant and nebulous grade-assigning-machine, but rather because I had something that I could offer them.

Well, I’m almost at amusicology’s 1,000 word limit, but stay tuned, since the next blog post will be about the much-lauded case study method in the classroom. 

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Should I Be A Musicologist? Music History and The Case Method: Minstrelsy

1 Comment

  • 1. Zach Wallmark  |  September 12, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    Insightful suggestions, all. Your suggestion to progress through the topic with four critical themes in mind throughout must really help to codify students’ knowledge of the material. Furthermore, categorizing knowledge in this way (as opposed to simply arranging things chronologically and hoping that students sort it all out and make the connections on their own) brings a much more meaningful, rich understand to the trends and repertories you’re discussing.

    On another note: looking back on my own undergrad career, the profs who figure most strongly into my development were the ones who took that extra time to meed individually. In fact, they mandated it. Talking through my goals as a musician, as well as discussing the coursework in a tutorial style, proved an invaluable experience. I’m really glad you brought this up. It seems like often instructors are so fixated on their materials that they forget about the people in the room with them.

    Looking forward to the follow-up post!


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