Puzzles

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.

Curriculum Crashing!

Six weeks ago my colleagues circulated a Newsweek article titled “The 13 Most Useless Majors, From Philosophy to Journalism.” While responses (mostly from faculty in humanities fields) jokingly sized up the respective disciplines, the timing could not have been more serious. Public scrutiny of higher education has escalated significantly the past few years due to rising tuition costs, high student debt, and dim job prospects. Students and their parents find the promises of a liberal arts education elusive and have shifted their focus to “useful” (i.e. job specific) degree programs.

Faculty of traditional liberal arts fields face many challenges as institutions of higher education adapt to this mindset. Idealism will not trump practicality in this climate as more tangible results for the financial transaction of college are expected. Campus initiatives to sell meaningful educational experiences rooted in the liberal arts will leave fields that operate in the silo behind. The same month Newsweek published its rankings, educational faculty, staff, and administrators convened at Lafayette College for a conference on the “Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and its Leadership Role in Education around the World” to discuss interdisciplinary strategies. Ignoring the reality of this reorganization of the curriculum may have significant consequences if one does not participate in the discussion.

These challenges also present tremendous opportunities. Faculty cannot sell the relevance of liberal arts fields because of any traditional ties to Europe’s earliest universities; therefore, we need to assume leadership in defining what liberal arts majors offer to twenty-first century concerns. Faculty in English, Philosophy, Music, and other fields called into question, should be the movers and shakers and model what we teach. Statements like “students will appreciate my course later in life,” “this is how I was taught,” and “this is the content set by the department chair” are the sign of complacency. The fact that students do not buy into these comments is a good thing.

I am guilty of designing and teaching my courses in the manner I was taught not too long ago, a survey of discipline content. Indeed I learned a lot from my professors and developed a lasting interest in the fields of music history and music theory. These experiences positively impacted my development. But I didn’t have Google, YouTube, Facebook, a cell phone, and wireless internet service. Receiving new information from my classes and the campus library was something special. Hyper-connectivity has killed the content-focused course–perhaps for the better–and proponents of “engaged learning” and new educational technology recognize this. I’ve explored these new approaches and am convinced that they offer an impactful experience when guided by the goals of a liberal arts education–the development of morals, character, and skills in critical thinking, communication, and persuasion. Discipline content should serve these goals rather than the other way around.

It’s time to crash the curriculum! The student question I used to dread, “why do we need to know this?”, is now my inspiration. There are a few considerations before barging in. For one, graduate schools, accreditation committees, and certification boards will expect students in my courses to cover the content and demonstrate competencies in several areas. Second, some of my courses meet college-wide degree requirements with clearly defined outcomes. Third, my excitement over new technology and engaged learning activities sometimes outpaces the time I have to troubleshoot and develop a successful delivery. Heeding these standards will keep me honest so that the quest for innovation does not distract from the goal of actual learning.

My hope is that active blogging will encourage me to undo old habits and take meaningful risks as higher education continues to evolve. I invite others to crash the curriculum with me. Let’s breathe new life into our immensely useful fields!