Category Archives: Problem Solving

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.

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.


When I was a TA in graduate school, I led a professor’s students in an activity that reminded me of a jigsaw puzzle. A 12th-century setting of the Christmas Mass gradual, “Viderunt Omnes,” by Leonin of the Notre Dame School of polyphony was snipped into multiple strips of paper in a sealed envelope. Student teams were responsible for sequencing the polyphonic setting of the traditional chant from its disorder. In order to successfully recreate the complete setting, students had to fully understand the relationship of Leonin’s compositional choices to the structure and style of the original chant setting. Instead of passively observing Leonin’s elaborated version, students had to piece it together from random fragments.

Perhaps students could learn formal structures of large-scale works better through puzzles than models. James M. Lang posted an interesting piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the “Benefits of Making it Harder to Learn” and I wonder if we are short-changing students by providing them with the paradigm schema for easy, yet shallow understanding of complex texts. According to Lang, providing challenging learning conditions for students results in deeper encoding, and thus better recall. Although the tests of “cognitive disfluency” cited in the article center on challenging fonts of text, Lang cited some strategies he shared at the Institute for Pedagogy in the Liberal Arts that may prove engaging for classroom activities. The first technique, asking students to process or translate course material using unusual rhetorical or expressive modes, reminded me of the assignment on Leonin’s polyphony, a visual expression of a text for students to process through puzzle solving strategies.

An updated version of this assignment pushes cognitive disfluency further. Instead of having students sequence Leonin’s elaboration through comparison to the original Christmas Mass gradual, I will ask students to work with fragmented excerpts from both versions. This will require an additional layer of difficulty so that students will move beyond just understanding the relationship to discovering that the texts are related in the first place. The following chart illustrates a simplified sequencing of both versions.

Chant Sequencing                                       Elaboration Sequencing

1. Solo Response in Monophony                     1. Solo Response in Organum

     a. Melisma on “Omnes”                                       a. Solo Response in Discant

2. Choir Response in Monophony                    2. Choir Response in Monophony

3. Solo Verse in Monophony                           3. Solo Verse in Organum

     a. Melisma on “Dominus”                                    a. Solo Verse in Discant

4. Choir Verse in Monophony                          4. Choir Verse in Monophony

In working with fragments of both versions together, students will gradually (pardon the pun) discover that there are two fragments for each bit of text, some of which have identical musical settings and others that are different. This will trigger the observation that there are two versions of the same text that are related.  What follows is the goals of the original assignment as developed by the professor when I was a TA, figuring out that Leonin has only updated the solo sections of the chant and that he writes organum for syllabic phrases and discant for word melismas.

I have provided models for most of the musical forms I teach (sonata form, da capo aria, etc.) for students in the past before we observe complete texts, although many students have difficulty processing form when individual musical pieces betray the paradigm. Perhaps puzzles will yield a deeper understanding of formal structures and help students accept that models are the descriptive product of theorists and not the prescriptive framework for composers.