18 January 2014

An Eloquent Explanation of What We Do

From a professor of music theory, an Open Letter to My Students.

If I could count on my students to read and assimilate this much abstract exposition, teaching would be a lot easier.  I'm not sure it works as advice for the specified audience, but as an articulation of we do in the humanities, it works for me!

In particular:
Assimilating concepts often requires engaging multiple perspectives on the same information — multiple theories about the same musical concept, multiple ways to perform the same kind of passage, etc. It also requires attempts at applying the material, such as composing, analyzing, or performing. These things are harder than taking notes and regurgitating them on a test, and often take longer than a single class meeting or homework assignment to figure out. For those of you who are used to courses that “test early and test often,” this may be uncomfortable and may feel, initially, ineffective. However, doing hard things and working to apply concepts leads to deeper, longer-lasting learning than lecture, baby-step homework, and a test you can cram for.
A lot of students do not come naturally to the idea that learning things can be hard or uncomfortable. At some point in every course, I often find it necessary to explicitly reassure them that finding it difficult is a necessary part of the process.
You are paying too much money and putting too much time into your education for it to be valuable for a few years of work only. Your education should help you develop skills that will last your entire career (which could be upwards of 50 years). We don’t have all the information that will be required of musicians working in 2060. However, what we do in these classes can help you develop the skills of inquiry and analysis you’ll need to figure out how to work in those new settings. We will also take multiple approaches to a single topic so that you can 1) see that there are always a diversity of ways to understand a single topic, and 2) have more tools at your disposal to choose from when facing something new that was not anticipated by your textbook’s authors or your professors.
Yes, yes, YES!  This point needs to be made frequently, loudly, and ardently when people are wondering what the point of the humanities is.
 Even when students’ goals are congruent, the “best” route for each student towards those goals is different. Thus, a class activity is always a compromise that seeks to enable as many students as possible to make as much progress as possible towards those goals.
It's true.  I devised my own course evaluation form last semester, so I could get a more fine-grained understanding of how students experienced various features of the course. The feedback was not as helpful as I'd hoped--for every student who particularly loathed one kind of activity, there was another who thought it was the most useful contribution to their learning.

The underlying message is that this instructor expects students to learn by doing.  That the expectation is spelled out in such nuanced detail conveys just how alien it is to students.  I don't write my students a letter, but I make sure to spend at least part of a course's first class meeting getting them to  read, analyze, and discuss a chunk of text.  Everybody gets called on at some point.  Students have to stand up and write things on the board.  Material written on the board gets assessed by the class.  The provisional and highly qualified nature of any conclusions is emphasized. When I specify a date or state anything in a declarative way, students reach for their notebooks with some relief.

Then some students go home and drop the class.

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