Category Archives: Humanities

Writing Repeat, Writing Repeat, …

For the past several years, I’ve supplemented the usual, high-stake writing assignments (papers over 1000 words) with short reflection posts to the course LMS. These essays are limited to 250-300 words and I grade them on a 5-point scale. Depending on the course, I might assign anywhere between 8-12 posts. They are quick to read, easy to grade, and valuable to enhancing class discussions. Students score samples at the beginning and mid-point of the semester to calibrate themselves to the rubrics and to establish a standard for quality work.

My intention with these assignments is to cultivate regular writing (and thus thinking) habits, to prepare students for classroom participation, and to give students many opportunities to practice putting arguments forward and supporting them with class resources. With the brief post I make to the entire class that summarizes my feedback and offers suggestions for improvement, some students are able to make significant improvements in mechanics and style.

The majority of students, however, find a formula that earns them a ‘4’ on a continual basis. Part of this trend stems from the bell-curve distribution of performance and the limited point values to choose among. However, I am starting to believe that the repetitive nature of the assignment encourages students to settle into a groove (or funk?) that will predict their performance for the majority of the semester. Although the topics for the prompts change from assignment to assignment, the process of writing remains unchanged.

My recent experience in article co-authorship, collaborative peer review, blogging, and the various genres of writing one finds in the life of an academic (formal letters, public presentations, assessment reports, scholarship, and creative work) seems at odds with the repetitive writing format we often expect of our students. We train them to write in the style of our disciplines or to the “standards” based model of expository writing. If writing is not improved in repetitive writing activities of the same type, then perhaps we are not introducing students to enough variety of writing practices to give them the the perspective needed to make notable changes.

I plan to diversify the short writing assignments in the future, although I will still use a simple, 5-point rating system. In addition to posts to a discussion forum, I’m considering a class blog project, co-authored papers, and creative/fun fictional writing, among others, to stretch the students’ exposure to various styles and formats. The old adage that one improves by repeating a task over and over again is often challenged when a variety of complementary skills is lacking. This is why athletes cross train and why our students learn to think analytically, quantitatively, and critically in a diverse, core curriculum.

I’m curious what types of short writing assignments others use.

Annotating Josquin with Goodnotes

mzl-zllmeecr-175x175-75 There are several annotation apps available for iPad, including iAnnotate and Penultimate, but Goodnotes has been my favorite so far for the music classroom, particularly for score analysis. The functionality of Goodnotes across multiple platforms and the ease with which scores and annotations are imported and exported provides ample opportunities for making analysis more interactive in the flipped environment. For students and classrooms with easy access to mobile technology, Goodnotes is a low-cost solution to expanding textbook resources quickly and efficiently.

I often introduce peer analysis activities to encourage students to think beyond the isolated examples of the course anthology. Most music history textbooks, for example, include Josquin’s motet “Ave Maria…virgo serena” to illustrate the new compositional techniques of the Franco-Flemish school circa 1500 CE, namely those described by Pietro Aron in Toscanello in musica (Venice, 1523/rev. 1539). The most striking of these features include the pervasive “points of imitation,” paired voices, and homophonic textures, which reflects a sensitivity to text setting achieved by composing all voices at once (vertically) instead of in linear stages. Simulating the stages of composition and text setting with an activity facilitated by Goodnotes helps students solidify concepts from the book and anthology and reflect on the conditions for composition, performance, and dissemination.

After discussing “Ave Maria virgo serena,” teams of students are assigned a different motet by Josquin to analyze and present to the class. Goodnotes facilitates teamwork outside of class by its compatibility with a variety of applications, Dropbox, Evernote, Google Drive, to name a few. Individual students can work with a specific color to represent their contribution with the file-sharing capabilities of the external programs.

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One advantage of Goodnotes is its compatibility with Safari on the iPad, which permits students to seek and acquire examples using their own judgment rather than relying of the instructor to provide. Note in the second screen shot that the Safari app provides a box for opening .PDF files from web resources directly into Goodnotes, like the International Music Score Library Project.

The Goodnotes workstation will assist student learning outside of the classroom, offering the autonomy of choosing a variety of annotation styles and of managing notes in folders and through file-sharing programs. These activities solidify important concepts from the textbook by engaging students or teams of students in the steps of acquiring, annotating, and discussing musical form, style, and function in the context of their readings.

Planned and Surprise Debates

Debate is an effective pedagogical tool for engaging students in the classroom and guiding them through the pros and cons of complex issues. In my music classes, I tend to initiate two types of debates, planned and surprise. Both require active participation of all students, but exercise different skill sets.

Planned debates require students to conduct independent research and develop cogent talking points with teamwork and careful preparation. I announce a topic from one of the main themes in the textbook in advance and assign oppositional sides and supporters. Each student is given a worksheet to complete as a prerequisite for the debate. Students work together with colleagues through Moodle discussion forums and chats split into oppositional sides outside of class and a debate moderator I assign ensures that each student participates. While the actual debate itself can be lively and enriching, the gem of the activity lies in what students accomplish prior to the debate. Planned debates demonstrate student success in speaking, research, collaboration, and argument; however, the skills underutilized include listening, quick-thinking, and adaptation, all targeted by the surprise debate.

Surprise Debates are as spontaneous for the professor as they are for students. Whereas planned debates benefit from predetermined reference to specific topics from the textbook, surprise debates are effective in intervening when the primary course objectives are under scrutiny. I have initiated surprise debates when discussions are lackluster or when students are resistant to learning. When needed, I ask students to stand and without hesitation move to oppositional sides at the edges of the classroom. An object representing a speaker’s staff is passed among students who are immediately responsible for addressing the primary issue; students can change sides at any time. I observe silently and tap students who’ve just made profound statements to join me in the middle of the room so that all students are eventually pressed to speak. While much of the learning in planned debates is front loaded, the most beneficial aspect of surprise debates is the follow up discussion. Although I have not tried it, Twitter feeds and periodic clicker polls projected on the screen could assist students in monitoring changes in opinion and the direction of the discussion; both will be helpful in the period of reflection.

To maximize the potential gain of debates in music courses, it is important to consider targeted learning outcomes. Often music courses for undergraduates have specific content and perhaps one or more general education (liberal arts) objectives. While these should be at the forefront when engaging and assessing both planned and surprise debates, one should not forget the broader goals of higher education and the variety of transferable skill sets that debates require: critical thinking, adaptability, research, and public speaking, to name a few. As Snider and Schnurer have effectively presented, exercising these skills through debate across the Freshmen and Sophomore curricula will help prepare students for upper-level courses, graduate school, and future careers.

Thoughts on Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences

The big news of last week was the recommendations made in the report of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences for more support for and emphasis on teaching those disciplines. Administrators and faculty alike have begun a series of back-patting as media ranging from mainstream news outlets to the Chronicle have quickly celebrated validation for continuing to promote traditional fields of study.

The report’s presentation on the national level, though, leaves a lot of questions as to the implications for the majority of Americans in local school districts and state institutions of higher education. Will the optimistic news have any significant impact on changing public sentiment toward the value of a college degree? Will local and state governments suddenly begin investing more in “big picture” disciplines? Will humanities and social science researchers try to reach mainstream issues and audiences?

The announcement reminds me of the championing of liberal arts degrees by employers, proclaiming that they seek talented, well-rounded employees who can adapt to change, communicate effectively in writing, and think critically. This is all good, but what impact do these candid statements have on actually hiring trends? Most college graduates will submit their first job applications to mid-level hiring managers and receive the scrutiny of automated screening programs. Job descriptions match position titles with the ever-growing selection of career-minded majors that reference specific jobs rather than timeless liberal arts. It seems to me that companies ought to invest as heavily in humanities-based grants as they do STEM ones if these qualities are needed in the workforce.

Where does this leave teachers? It would be a difficult battle to advise undergraduates to go against the post-recession culture of career-sensitive education. But that does not mean that traditional liberal arts, humanities, and social sciences are mere buzzwords. Persistent reflection on the broad skills, global perspective, and interdisciplinary mindset these fields cultivate should be at the forefront of every class. College faculty in these areas need to expose ALL students to the relevance of traditional subjects in contemporary contexts. This includes courses for both majors and non majors. And these qualities and skills are not inherently tied to traditional content. Emphasis on writing, creativity, and problem solving should be recurring functions of all classes. It’s up to teachers to guide students through process of understanding the value of the humanities, whether new students continue to choose modern professional degree programs over traditional fields of study.

The report encourages institutions to support teachers in these disciplines. If students trend away from these majors, administrators will need to rally behind their effective teachers. It may be difficult to sustain departments anchored by senior research scholars and their graduate students as the number of undergraduate majors continue to decline. In agreement with the report’s criticism of inward-focused trends, emphasis should be placed on making these fields relevant to the general studies curriculum by addressing contemporary needs in local, national, and global contexts. Courses of this nature should focus on collaborative, interdisciplinary problem solving and model the application of humanities and social sciences to issues in need of real scrutiny and change. Content will be the byproduct, not the focus.

On Grading, Part 2

One of the biggest steps in transitioning students from high school to college classes is showing them the difference between text and context. When Western music cultures, for example, began notating music and eventually printing and selling it, music as a living cultural expression became a thing. The process of thingifying music–the academic in me says I should probably use a word like reify, but thingify just rolls off the tongue so nicely–explains how the canon of great works formed. This process crosses into other expressions of culture as well, where Shakespeare’s plays became curricular texts and Howard Zinn uncovered another history of America. The point is that when intangible activities and events become objects, something is left out.

When we explain this process of thingification to our students, we ought to introduce the concept of grades as an analogy. A grade is a measurement of performance within a limited parameter, whether it be a quiz, a presentation, or group participation. There are so many things to a class that cannot be measured because despite our best efforts we cannot contain or quantify them. Something is always left out. Have students make lists of everything they can connect to a course: trying to figure out what Schopenhauer is saying, tracking all of the diminutive variants of Crime and Punishment character names, crafting a sixteenth version of a thesis statement that will hopefully pass muster, to name a few. Grades on a transcript ten years down the line will not document these components of the class.

As we help students start to realize the limits of the text and the deep layers of the context, we should also help them start viewing the limits of grades. Grades have their purpose just as a history text has its purpose. But when we thingify the learning experience, we misrepresent value. Anxiety over the impact of grades on job prospects and scholarship requirements may not go away completely, but perhaps this conversation will help remind students that there are many worthwhile components of a class that cannot be represented on paper.

Dr. George “Arkansas” Smith

This morning I came across Mark Carnes’s “Setting Students’ Minds on Fire” on the homepage of The Chronicle of Higher Education. I remember reading this last year–and am not really sure why it resurfaced on today’s page–and envisioning an action hero of sorts, Arkansas Smith, a mid 20th-century musicologist who splits his time as a professor at Amherst College and a covert researcher in the catacombs of secret European libraries. His oversized conductor’s baton is a front, as he is a skilled swordsman and not afraid to challenge unreasonable library hours. Think Indiana Jones meets Robert Langdon.

In the spirit of the “Reacting to the Past” games, here is my list of Arkansas Smith’s great mysteries:

The Origin of Gregorian Chant

The Genesis of Machuat’s Messe de Nostre Dame

The Original L’homme arme

The Intended Cycles of Bach’s Lutheran Cantatas

Salieri and the Death of Mozart

Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved

The Composer of the Mendelssohn Italien Lieder: Fanny or Felix?

Was Hans Pfitzner a Nazi?

Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony: Political Rehabilitation or Satire?

Perhaps Arkansas Smith should pay a visit to the classroom from time to time. Since most of my students are puzzled by what a musicologist does, I frequently bring in primary sources (manuscripts, concert reviews, diaries, correspondence) for them to use in concluding what my colleagues published in academic journals years ago. While this approach allows students to arrive at the material in an active fashion, rather than passively skimming it in the textbook, motivation is still a challenge. If “Reacting to the Past” does excite students in the way Carnes describes, then I’m willing to try framing these activities in game-like fashion as students assume the role of the dynamic, musicological hero.

Humanities Counters in Old School Fashion

In an essay posted to Inside Higher Education this morning, Peter Burian effectively turned a traditionalist argument into a refreshing voice of reason amidst current debates on the value of humanities fields. Many champions of the liberal arts, including myself, have emphasized the “transferable skills” argument of liberal arts study for career-oriented discourse of higher education. This approach has breathed new life into the content course and pushed students to grow beyond their comfort zone for a competitive edge in today’s global economy. And while this curriculum crashing is a necessity, Burian reminds us that professor crashing is indeed required.

Assessment, course evaluations, accreditation, retention, and graduation rates are all important to the best teachers. But in our quest to be good teachers, do we forget to show students why we’re inspired to be good teachers? Burian hit the nail on the head in shifting the conversation from relevance back to essence. Rather than defending the value of the humanities to external demands, professors ought to emphasize and explore the depths of what makes us human. One cannot face the complexities of a culturally diverse and complicated world fully without seeking what lies beneath the shallow commerce of information in the digital age. And this fulfillment is a privilege of humanistic study, not a goal.

While I applaud Burian for reiterating the timeless benefits of the humanities, I predict an uphill battle in trying to “reassert more passionately and more effectively the principles and practices that distinguish humanistic teaching and learning.” Perhaps the first step is to model these principles. Students should not perceive humanists as task masters for student performance, facilitators of “great works” surveys, and preachers of the liberal arts gospel. Rather, students should admire professors for their individual quests for knowledge, truth, and understanding and should awe at their deep and unique perspective on current realities. One cannot and should not teach what one is not passionate about. Passion will inspire more than words.