Teaching music

I have frequently been called upon to teach the intro to fine arts course at Shimer College. It is a challenging course because it falls outside the “read books and talk about them” model that professors and students alike are most comfortable with. Talking about art and music in an intelligent and collaborative way requires a different set of skills than talking about texts, a problem that is compounded by the fact that many people believe those skills are an occult discipline that is unattainable by most — especially in the context of music, with its complex theoretical apparatus. In the worst case, you get some students making up narratives to go with a classical piece, other students (those with some musical performance training) trying unsuccessfully to explain basically what the sheet music probably looks like, and a critical mass sitting in sullen silence because they don’t know what they’re supposed to say.

My approach has been to sidestep the technical terminology to the extent possible and focus instead on giving them obvious things to listen for. Read the rest of this entry »

Teaching the Phenomenology of Spirit

This semester I’ve had ideal circumstances for teaching Hegel: a very motivated student and a one-on-one setting. My ultimate goal, however, would be to teach a proper course, and I imagine (based on my experience teaching Heidegger) that such a course would be pretty full at Shimer. Here are some of my thoughts on how to organize that.

First, I think it’s absolutely necessary to pair it with Hyppolite’s Genesis and Structure. Hegel infamously refuses to cite his sources, and simply providing that context (which includes many texts that Shimer students would have actually read) is invaluable. Hyppolite has his own reading, of course, but so far it seems that he has kept his axes relatively unground. For any given day, then, I’d assign a certain segment of the Phenomenology and the parallel text in Hyppolite.

Second, I don’t think they need to do everything. For the segment on “Observing Reason” (which I had us go through much too slowly this semester, due to my relative unfamiliarity with those sections), I might assign Hyppolite and tell them to scan over the actual Hegel — they should know what goes on and how it recapitulates previous movements from a new perspective, etc., but they can probably get by with just a description. I would also omit “Religion” and — perhaps more controversially — both “Absolute Knowledge” and the Preface. (In any event, I would save the Preface for last if there turned out to be room.) By my math, this would make it possible to do less than 10 pages of Hegel per session on average (assuming three days a week). Even paired with the Hyppolite, the reading load would still be light compared to the Shimer average (30 pages per sesion).

Finally, I think this approach would leave me room for some further secondary essays, where I could incorporate a range of perspectives (particularly feminist and black perspectives) on one of the ultimate Dead White Males.

A Few Thoughts on Discipline and Punishment in the Classroom

With the end of the Spring semester just a few weeks ago I have finished three years of teaching at my current institution. During our third year here we have to finish a third-year pre-tenure review, which I found to be as unenjoyable an experience as you might imagine by that name. While I found some of the process confusing and ultimately unmoored, that doesn’t appear to be an indictment of my institution in particular and seems to be the norm generally for these sorts of bureaucratic exercises. Really though I suspect the impetus behind these reviews comes from a good place and I was encouraged by some of my colleagues to approach it as a moment of self-reflection. Some of that should be a way to acknowledge for yourself the good things you’ve done over the course of the three years, but it also offers a place to consider weaknesses to work on in the coming years. I’m sure that all of this is not unproblematic and there are nefarious neoliberal tropes underlying all of it, but I am also very committed to becoming a better teacher and found this a good way to make use of the required bureaucratic exercise. One thing became clear to me as I read over my students evaluations and those of my more established peers: I am not a very good disciplinarian in the classroom and more importantly I do not know how to work on that within the pedagogical framework I have tried to construct.

First, I hate nothing more than begging. Those who have in the past contributed to online fundraising efforts may find that surprising, but by begging I don’t mean virtual panhandling. Asking for money from people willing and able to give is simply asking. They don’t have to and I do not hold it against them if they feel their money is better spent on other things. Begging in the sense I mean it can only take place within a situation that is effectively governed by a contract where one of the parties only carries out their obligations because they are required to. I mostly teach courses that students take to complete their general education requirements and while they have signed up to a liberal arts education most students resent what is required of them to attain a liberal arts education. When I first began to teach in the US I did find myself wanting the students to like the classes and it felt like I was begging them to. I got over that pretty quickly as it just feels pathetic and embarrassing. But I didn’t give up because I trusted in the contract, I gave up because I saw the (not very good) Hannah Arendt biopic and realized how many of the students I come across could easily become camp guards (or may become part of the prison-industrial complex) after graduation. I began to read a lot in critical pedagogy (mostly works by Friere, bell hooks, and George Yancy). And that work has been really useful and I’ve come to be very happy with the direction of my teaching. But when it comes to dealing with issues of discipline and punishment in the classroom I’m a bit lost. In fact, when I take punitive measures against my students for using their cell phones in class or not attending or even doing something really stupid and unambiguous like plagiarizing I feel like I am back in that position of begging them. It feels like I’m begging them to care about the work, to care about the class, to care about becoming a more interesting person, to care about what’s being said in class even when it’s the boring but necessary parts.

The thing is, when students aren’t interested in taking responsibility for their education then it isn’t clear to me what the response should be from the perspective of critical pedagogy. What kind of ways can we think about accountability without lapsing into punitive thinking? Is the classroom an appropriate space to think through these sorts of prefigurative ideas? Or is the classroom too overcoded by the same carceral logic as the wider society? These kinds of questions are even more pressing for me because of how many first-generation college students I have in my classrooms and many more who are products of a society that has not prepared them for the kind of work that I ask them to do.

Possibilities of teaching in Islam

My course over the Qur’an is nearing its end, and I think it has been pretty successful. While my lack of proper expertise poses some problems, and while certain aspects of the readings could have been better selected and arranged, at the end of the day we will have worked through the entire Qur’an, addressed its primary themes, and gotten a handle on the major differences between the Meccan and Medinan periods.

The current plan is for me to offer a variation on the course again next year, at which point I anticipate that I will have a fairly confident grasp on the Qur’an (at least in English translation). My question is where to go from there. I could offer some version of the Intro to Islamic Thought course again, or perhaps something specifically on Sufism or on Islamicate readings of Aristotle. Those would be relatively easy to put together and would constitute a “near reach” for my existing knowledge.

But a bolder idea has occurred to me: a course on Islamic legal reasoning. On a practical level, this may be more immediately relevant to students’ understanding of political events than expertise in the text of the Qur’an itself.

My question is whether such a course would be logistically feasible in a semester. Are there convenient editions of primary texts of relevant hadith and legal debates that would be usable in an undergrad course? How would such a course be structured? Is it something that you just have to have Arabic to do responsibly? Keep in mind that this is an introductory course for undergrads who may have little to no previous background in Islam, not a course for grad students or budding specialists (hence why I would dare to attempt it).

Feature or bug: On bad pedagogy

It’s commonly acknowledged that traditional pedagogical methods emphasizing passive listening and rote memorization are suboptimal. “We now know” that there are superior methods that focus on student engagement and discussion. What I sometimes wonder is whether people in those benighted traditional days knew this as well. After all, it’s not as though the aspects of human nature that make active learning preferable just sprang up 20 years ago, and presumably everyone involved in a community of learning stumbles into a productive discussion at some point.

And then it hit me: the badness of traditional methods is a feature, not a bug. The goal is not so much to teach people as to sort them by ability. The truly gifted students will overcome the crappy pedagogy and learn the subject anyway, whereas the laggards will be revealed as the laggards they always were. The task is not instruction, but judgment.

Writing to order

Over the last couple weeks, I have been working on a report for a committee at school. It started in a subcommittee made up of four people, but the intention was to produce a report that would reflect the whole committee, so there were subsequent rounds of editing that may or may not be over even as we speak. The report is on an issue that is important to me, but at this point, I can’t even gauge whether it reflects “my views” — nor what that would even mean or if it’s relevant. Even in its first draft, my goal was mostly to capture the views of my subcommittee members (in this case, all students).

I like to think that it still hangs together as a piece of writing and doesn’t have the open seams one associates with writing “by committee.” There’s a certain pride in the craftsmanship of the thing — even the formatting, as I tweak line spacing and fonts to keep it on the front and back of a single printed page — that somehow transcends the actual content. Whenever I’m the primary author of a group report, I always want more than “something everyone will sign onto.” I want a piece of writing that won’t embarrass me.

This misplaced pride afflicted me even in grad school, when I made extra money by writing up mutual fund reports. Obviously the content is fairly stereotyped, and I developed a range of synonyms to cycle through each piece. When I received queries that claimed my carefully honed wording was confusing or misleading, I felt defensive — and then immediately felt ashamed, because who cares? Indeed, I’m still not even sure who read those reports, if anyone.

One hard lesson I learned in that process is that when you receive a query, it’s never sufficient to explain why what you already wrote suffices. You have to make some kind of token change to satisfy the demand. And doesn’t the same thing apply in academia? Don’t editors sometimes advise us to tweak certain things as a way of going through the motions of peer review? Don’t we all instinctively know that saying, “No, the way I had it was fine and the problem is yours” is no way to make your way through academia?

We may chafe at it, but I think our academic writing is often more like those committee reports or mutual fund results than like an authentic expression of our creativity. At every level, we are writing to order at least to some extent. This is true of journalists, obviously, but also of other more traditionally “creative” fields. Whenever we write, someone else is party to it. Someone has to sign onto it, or someone is paying us, or someone is lending us a sliver of their prestige — and they want to leave their mark.

Sometimes I am puzzled that my students seem so stressed out when I tell them they can choose their own topic. But then I reflect that I’m mainly thinking of older students, who should be “past that” — i.e., they should know how to generate a topic within the implicit boundaries. I’m not expecting them to be genuinely creative or self-expressive, but to have caught on to “the kind of thing” that one writes in an academic paper at our peculiar school. I wonder, though, if even the pretense of open-endedness is serving them poorly — or if I should at least include an explicit requirement that they “pitch” their topic to me ahead of time. Cruellest of all, perhaps, is the marriage of open-ended free exploration and exacting judgment.

Book recommendations: On the Qur’an

It is likely that I will be offering a course on the Qur’an again next spring, and I’m already planning on working my way systematically through the text one or more times before that (likely in different translations). I’ll obviously never have the instinctive command of the Qur’an that I have of the Bible, but it would be helpful in class if I could more readily make cross-references, etc.

Toward the same end, I would like to read at least a handful of additional books on the Qur’an and on Muhammad’s life and the time period. My main sources on the Qur’an as such so far have been Wadudi and Barlas — because everyone’s research into religious scriptures should start from the feminist critique! — and I’ve also worked my way through most of Hodgson’s imposing tomes. I’m already planning on picking up Kermani’s God is Beautiful, which should keep me occupied for quite a while.

And here is the question: what books on the Qur’an and its historical setting should I prioritize? (And please, please respond in comments rather than on Twitter, so that I can use this post as a reference.)


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