Mess Up and Make Up/Rate Your Students

Jonathan Bellman

My make-up lecture for the one I missed was last Wednesday night. What a nice experience! Several colleagues came (they were very appreciative and generous), and between two and three dozen students. Yes, those from the Music History class had the opportunity, if they wrote up a two-page reaction paper, for some extra credit—a far clearer “learning opportunity” than just attending the lecture. I even got some applause, when a particular demo at the piano worked well. They especially liked the Chopin contrametric rubato, which I like to demonstrate first on a stripped-down version of the Eagles’ “Desperado”—so everyone is clear what they are listening for—before going on to Chopin himself, which this time was the second theme from the First Ballade. All good. Plus, since the regular teacher for the history course is going to the regional musicology meeting and I’m not, I’ll be doing the Introduction to Impressionism lecture at the end of this month while she’s gone. Yes, it will be at 8:00 in the morning. (No, I won’t need a reminder call at 7:30. Shut up!) Even I will consider my sin expiated after that lecture.

The lecture experience, and the grading of an assignment I gave for the first time this year, put me in mind of a truly wrong but seemingly unavoidable part of the higher education equation: the adversarial nature of a lot of faculty-student relations. I just discovered the blog Rate Your Students, and the top story when I logged on, “One year ago on RYS—On Keeping One’s Sanity” (scroll down to find it) is pretty much what you’d expect: war stories of an exceedingly ugly and dispiriting nature. The name of the blog is based, of course, on ratemyprofessors.com, which students log onto and either praise their profs or raze them to the ground. Did I mention the chili pepper used when the professor is “hot?” Just the sort of thing to make idealistic, content-and-pedagogy-minded young faculty want to fling themselves from windows. Between this kind of polarized faculty-student situation and the feebleminded approach to higher learning shared by our government and much of the American populace, it is certainly easy to lose hope.

So here’s my new assignment. I teach a class called The History of Instruments and Instrumental Practice, and once I dispense with the instruments unit (here’s Mr. Rebec, here’s Mr. Crumhorn), I get to swim around in my own particular sub-discipline, Performance Practices, and preach ye olde techynge to all these performers on modern instruments. Aside from the midterm and final paper project, homework assignments have included exercises in eighteenth-century ornamentation, French style vs. Italian style, and how to use them. This year, I added the following: after a presentation on cadenzas and different approaches to them, choose one for your instrument and write a cadenza. (Percussionists could choose something else, like a Mozart violin concerto.) These people spent some serious time on these cadenzas, and I got some really good things back—some more nineteenth-century than others, some more extended than others, but in general it really seems to have captured their interest, and the vast majority of them took a lot of time and really met the challenge head on.

Did I mention that our orchestra has won the national Down Beat award for Best College Orchestra five out of the last seven years, and the top Jazz Band has a similar record? Without wanting to idealize, I have to say that I see a lot of prairie toughness in the students here, a strong inclination to use college to make up for lost time, in terms of musical development. Actually, it reminds me of a couple of pianists in California three decades ago, who later went into musicology.

Let this be a clarion (if largely drowned out) note of dissent in the usual academic chorus of complaints. Listen up, Baby Docs and other academic newbies: you made the right decision. Once the initial adjustments have taken place (and that can take a few years), the level of fun and fulfillment can and will outweigh what you’re not getting paid. Departmental and School cultures can get lively and productive, and you may well find yourselves riding waves of student interest, your own crazy motivations, and so forth. The slacker students ye shall always have with you (they were with us when we were students), and of course administrative support varies from place to place and from administrator to administrator. I’m sure none of that has changed since Plato’s Academy. When people are rowing in the same direction, though, one can’t imagine a better way to live.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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