I have two weeks, so I write this counterpoint to Phil’s Coverage and Exploration post from behind the eight ball, in a sense, but am still tenaciously trying to work on summer projects, which is Virtuous. Prep vs. research: Þe aulde daunce, this. My own nowhere-near-complete-please-don’t-ask syllabi are much on my mind as I read Phil’s position statement against the tyranny of the detailed syllabus, the effect it has of suppressing real exploration and the all-things-in-their-own-time rhythm of a real college course. Oder?
Every major work needs scaffolding, be it a building, a semester-long class, an Ockeghem mass, or a Beethoven symphony. Structure is necessary: a map, to use Phil’s image, to see where you are, on both macro- and micro-levels.
Detailed syllabi (for me, “detailed”=one line for each class meeting, with thorough and explicit reading and listening assignments, due dates for assignments, and the like), are a way of ensuring that the latter parts of the curriculum weren’t crowded out, either by entirely healthy conversation or by professorial lingering on favorite bits. I suppose that such syllabi do indeed keep administrators happy (I guess it must look like “accountability,” but I don’t really care), and my syllabi-for-the-record (come accreditation time, and suchlike) look just fine, like I’m Getting It All Covered. It may seem like a lot of pointless work up front—can’t we just let things evolve naturally?—but I reap the benefits: such syllabi keep me on track, so that I don’t self-indulgently spend three weeks on Don Giovanni or Chopin or whatever. To produce such a syllabus, in other words, means that I’ve thought through the entire semester from the outset, as I ought to have done.
And maybe because I teach graduate students, primarily, I see none of the telltale scars of No Child Left Behind. The students I see seem more formed by their experience as musicians, not as products of this or that educational philosophy, and the highly regulated and controlled NCLB is not likely to impress (or even make much of a mark on) those who have had to figure out how to learn for themselves, as all musicians must to a large extent do. Among the undergrads, students who have been taught/bullied to think between the lines are, paradoxically, among the students who have gotten the most out of my classes, because I can introduce them to the idea of questions that admit of several good answers, or possibilities, and the personal research quest. This may be a new idea for them; whether products of NCLB or home-schooling, they are used to the authority figure providing the paradigm and curricula to which they must adhere. My approach, once they get used to it, allows for a kind of spreading of the wings.
As a member of the high school class of 1975, I hit Education in Cool Afterglow of the 1960s. And here’s a generation-specific (I suspect) result: the open-ended, free-exploration class that goes flipping NOWHERE, wherein people lose interest and the thing is a train wreck. Is this not a 60s/post-60s thing? I—a card-carrying Californian—have has such classes as a student in junior high, in high school, in college, and in religious school, and I do not idealize it, and in fact my basic instinct when confronted with that is for my heart to drop. “Open-ended exploration” is, in my experience, code for “Mud-pie time! I haven’t prepared, and don’t intend to. We’re going to be earnest as hell about this, though.” Such an approach might work with a highly motivated and self-selected group, and I have never found such groups to be typical—anywhere.
So in my seminars, I go through a big thing about how syllabi are binding contracts…then I end up changing them, and everyone’s fine with it (particularly if it means less prep for them). No lawsuits yet. Gratitude, in fact.
[Unwisely, I thought I’d get my son’s reaction about this issue—how seriously do you take your university syllabi, and what are they like? He’s a double major, Geography and English (Creative Writing: Poetry). Usually, he says, it’s week by week rather than class meeting by meeting. “I mean, it’s fine,” he says. Well, that helps an awful lot. “It’s fine.” He tells me that in high school, however (I guess I didn’t know this), he had to bring all the syllabi home and get them signed, to signify that both he and the family agreed to all the requirements, etc. He always had Mom do that: “Because she’s the official one and you just kind of make us money and stay in the clouds.” Well. That conversation didn’t go as I’d expected. What is more, he visibly enjoyed both saying that and observing my reaction. I wonder where he gets this diablerie?]
In any case, I’m not sure that syllabi even make that much difference to the students. But what about the sort of student Phil mentions, those “more suspicious or legalistic” who “come to treat every class like a drawn-out game of Simon Says and act like the prof can’t legitimately ask them to do anything that isn’t explicitly laid out in the syllabus”? A certain amount of targeted reality-riding, it seems to me, would correct that. I’m sorry, you’re paying how much for this course and you’re trying to box me in? Why, because you have such a keen grasp of the educational process? Because you (or Mom, or the gubmint) is paying for your higher education and you propose to track it by making sure it adheres, point by point, to syllabi prepared before Day 1 of the semester? At the end of your degree, what do you suppose would be the best result? A pile of syllabi that were followed to the day?
Now, get out of my office and do not make me call your studio teacher. Because I’d be happy to, I’m tenured, and academic freedom means I grade you not only on what you produce but also the integrity with which you approach it. Are there any further questions?
Bottom line: a legalistically inclined student isn’t going to last long in music per se…even the really religious and literal ones (I am not making this up) find ways to benefit from what we’ve got, and run with it. It is not uncommon for those to be the ones with whom I can really make a difference.
All this said, I have, I admit, seen syllabi with a paragraph of God-knows-what for every class meeting: “Today, we’ll cover the XX reading, questioning some of the assumptions usually made in musical historiography. We will work toward breaking down barriers created by traditional readings, moving toward a new cultural synthesis wherein…”
And that problem isn’t the administration. That one is the quivering, insecure prof who wants/needs the students to freely question and inquire and discuss…and come to all his or her conclusions…neatly, in the class time allotted. And that is no less BS than NCLB or administrative over-oversight.