Scaffolding and Structure

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.

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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3 Responses to Scaffolding and Structure

  1. Chris Smith says:

    [tried to post this yesterday, not totally sure it went through]

    I also appreciate the rigor that a reasonably detailed course calendar imposes upon *me*, more than upon the students. I have found, like Phil, that some students are especially rules-and-metrics driven, especially those who are Honors or AP students, or who are putting themselves through school on scholarships. They’ve spent many years (in TX especially) being programmed to believe the metrics of success are all quantifiable and that success in learning is essentially a numerical contract between professor & student. And, though I don’t particularly wish to cater to that obsession, I do understand it. Much more of an issue when teaching undergraduate students, especially UGs taking required music courses–they do not want to screw up their GPA’s or have to retake classes. Much less of an issue in teaching grad students, for who my assessments are far fewer and far more qualitative.

    However, I’d agree with yourself that the calendar helps keep me honest. I love expanding upon topics which a particular seminar group finds particularly fruitful, but every 15 minutes we spend down a particularly intriguing rabbit hole represents, at least potentially, a loss of material at the end of the semester. My own solution to this tends to be two-fold, one element of which is absolutely linked to the detailed calendar: (a) simply cover less material–or at least fewer compositions–in return for greater detail; this is challenging and seems counter-intuitive but for me is seldom a bad choice; (b) be honest and rigorous with myself in laying-out the calendar in the first place. In other words, as you’ve suggested: use the calendar to keep myself on track and balance the desire to tailor to individual seminar group.

    Third issue, not directly a product of your essay above, but related: I don’t mind having to author a detailed calendar or incorporate literally 8 pages of university-mandated boilerplate: as long as I keep current with whatever boilerplate the current regime is requiring, I can just block-and-paste into the newest iteration of a given course’s syllabus. And I do put an informed-consent clause at the very end of the syllabus (see below) because I never want to have to argue with a legalistic student about whether s/he “knew about” a legal detail in the syllabus.

    However, I do, most definitely, resent and find wasteful and enervating the ridiculous proliferation and ever-increasing complexity of outcomes & assessments reporting. With the availability of menu-driven web interfaces which any professor “can be expected” to master and employ for reporting (as opposed to using staff hours for these purposes), and the linkage of websites to databases, it essentially became possible for covering-their-asses legislators and senior administration to require that professors create syllabi outcomes-and-assessments for literally dozens of specific skills, design course activities (and calendars) that demonstrably inculcate these skills, develop assessments that confirm efficacy, and report those skills as part of constantly-updating (and fully public) online faculty dossiers. This is a ridiculous level of over-reporting, betrays legislators distrust and misunderstanding of the craft of teaching, massively erodes faculty motivation, and generally gums up the works. State certification boards would do far better to take their mitts OFF of textbooks and performance reporting, quit taking kickbacks from private for-profit testing corporations, and generally go back to politicking for more money on behalf of public education. But that don’t hardly like good ‘Murrikin free-market capitalism ta me.

    Informed Consent
    I have read and understood the contents of the syllabus for MUHL2303 “Music as Cultural History: The Modern Period,” and agree to abide by the rules, guidelines \and schedule contained within it. In particular, I understand that
    1. The instructor also agrees to abide by the rules, guidelines, and schedule in the syllabus.
    2. I will consult the syllabus if I have a question about the course rules, guidelines, and schedule.
    3. The instructor cannot make special exceptions for me without being unfair to everyone else taking this course.
    I understand that my continued enrollment in the course will be taken as indicating my consent to these conditions

  2. The survey monkey-type things? We don’t have ’em. (shhh) Before I leave the room after passing out the evaluation forms, I thank them for the time they’re taking (roomful of eye rolls here) and implore them to take the time to some comments. Did something work? Tell me. More or less of something would be better? Tell me. I tweak my classes every time I teach them.

    The numerical data is whatEVer, but I can really use the remarks. And my students, for the most part, appreciate the spirit in which the request was made and contribute their thoughts.

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