Friday, February 12, 2016

Second Lesson

I had my second violin lesson yesterday.  I wasn't anxious (as I was the first time), but after a rough day, I was looking forward to something different.  And I got it!

I showed Strings what I'd practiced, and she praised the practice and the song I'd made up.  I did well on the quiz of the bow parts (probably because I'd written them all down in my practice book with a picture of a bow, which helps me remember).  And then we got down to new stuff.

I'm sure a lot of what Strings does is pretty standard for the Suzuki method, but she seems to be really thoughtful about what she's doing, and she's a good explainer, and good at showing stuff.

She put two little pieces of colored tape around my bow to help me know where she wanted me to focus on using the bow, and showed me that one of them is on the balance point.  And then I got to bow on open strings, a rhythm pattern (straight from the book: Mississippi Quick Step - say that and you have the rhythm, pretty much).  It's HARD to hit only one string, and to do it holding the bow right, and moving the lower part of the arm.  She showed me how to stand against the wall to help me not move the upper part of the arm. 

I did that horrid squeaky sound, and she asked me what I thought caused it, and I said it happened when I didn't bow right, and then she showed me how if you bow too slowly, the string can't vibrate well.  I think that will help me with avoiding that sound.

So, we practiced bowing a bit, on the different strings, and moving between them and then bowing the same pattern.  It may look simple, but it's not!

Then she put some colored tape on the neck, to mark where my index and second finger go for positions one and two.  And then I learned to pizzacato the melody part to Hot Cross Buns.  (I'd learned the harmony part last week, and practiced it over the week.)  And I learned what the notes for the first two positions on each string are supposed to be.  (Which is a little confusing, until she showed me the way the whole steps are on the piano, and that helped me visualize it.)

It was totally and wonderfully not like the rest of my day (stressful because I was trying to use my university's required travel system).  But holy cow, this is hard!  I'm going to have to work on the basics of bowing and the basics of pizzicato and fingering the first two fingers a LOT!  (I don't get to bow and finger at the same time yet, which makes a lot of sense.  It's hard to just bow well, and hard to finger well, so separating them out, working on each skill alone, that should help me.)

I went home and practiced (because I'm just that sort of student), and wrote everything down so I can look at it if I need to.  I get to make up a new song this week, and I haven't even started trying to work on that.  I can either bow the open strings or pizzicato and finger for my song.

Monday, February 08, 2016

A Short Rant

Our Center for Excellent Teaching without Money sends out a weekly reading with a commentary by one of the supposed experts at the center (people who have never actually taught college courses, of course).  This weeks was on the superiority of multiple guess exams, and how it's possible to write really good "distractors" and how you only need three elements in your multiple guess exams, not four or five.

Okay, so I know in big courses instructors feel the need to use multiple guess exams.  And, having done quite poorly in my intro zoology course in college on the multiple guess exams, I know they can be really, really hard.

But "distractors."  A quick look at a the OED will show that "distract" comes from the Latin past participle "distrahĕre."  And a quick look at an on-line Latin dictionary tells me that "trahĕre" means "to pull."  So, to distract is to pull apart.

More commonly, though, one distracts in order to move a subject's attention away from where it was, especially if where it was bothers the distractor.  So, you distract a toddler's attention from the breakable object they want to play with by waving a toy in front of them.  That's benign.  Or you bump someone so a third person can pick their pocket.  That's less benign.

The thing is, if we're asking students to trust us, then the idea of trying to mislead them, to in a way, trick them, is not what we should be doing.  But it's inherent in the way that researchers who study multiple guess type testing think about what they're doing.

I'd never heard the term "distractor" for the wrong answers on a multiple guess exam before, and so I'd never really thought about the term.  And as someone who's never written or given a multiple guess exam, I've never thought much about them in that way, either.  But now I'm thinking about them, and I'm resenting the zoology class's tests.  (Most of my exams weren't multiple guess in college, though I had lectures of 400 people at times.  Mostly, I think, some poor grad student or students did the grading.)

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Adult Learner, Thoughts on Trust

I've been practicing holding my bow, playing pizzicato, and trying to make my own song.  And of course, it's been fun to think about.

When I first asked about learning violin from this teacher, let's call her Strings, it was because she was telling me about the Suzuki method, and learning and stuff, and I've been thinking for a while about trying to learn something expressive, something creative in a different way than my work, and it just clicked that violin might be it.  And when she said she could teach me, and then I asked her for real, and she said yes, I had some time to think.

Something that's different for me from any previous classes or lessons or whatever for me is that I decided that I would trust Strings as a teacher.  I've never consciously thought about trusting the person who's teaching me.  I've thought a lot about how much trust I ask from my students; I ask them to trust that the assignments I'm giving them, the things I'm asking them to try, will help them learn.  I ask them to trust that nothing bad will happen in a class if they try to interpret a passage and mess up.  But it's been a while since I've taken any sort of lesson like this, and I've thought a lot about teaching in the meanwhile, I guess.

And so, in a way, I'm all in.  I'm enjoying my practice so far, and I'm looking forward to learning more!

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Adult Learner

If you remember, I blogged at the beginning of the year about starting violin lessons.  This week, I had my first violin lesson. 

I have to admit, I was a little anxious (mostly because I don't want the person teaching me to think I'm an idiot or be irritated that I haven't practiced or something).  But I'm also excited.

My teacher is very cerebral; she thinks a lot about her teaching and how learning works on a lot of levels, and it really shows.  She's also enthusiastic and encouraging.

We talked about the parts of the violin and bow, and she taught me how to hold the bow and violin.  Then we played a duet, pizzicato.  That was fun.  She started by teaching me a pattern of three notes on open strings.  And then she built up the pattern to the point of about 10 notes, maybe.  And then she played the melody part, and I played my pattern, which was the harmony part.  And it was so cool because even though it was really simple, we made music.

My homework for the week is to practice holding the bow 10 times a day, to practice the little song pattern, and to make up my own song.

Being me, and a grown up, I did an errand after the lesson, and then went home and practiced holding the bow, playing the pattern, and trying to come up with a little song.  I really like the G string, and so far, my little song sort of uses the G string as a drone while I play another note or two, and then I go back and play the G string again, if that makes sense?

And of course, being me, I thought about why I had the homework I did.  That's good, because let me say if you don't have a good idea about why you're practicing holding a bow 10 times a day, it feels silly.  Let me revise that.  It feels silly even if you're sure there's a good reason.  I'm guessing it's a lot about muscle memory, teaching your hand how to do something until you don't have to think much to do it well.  And if you start getting that muscle memory in place without actually bowing the instrument, then you aren't going to get into bad habits with the bow.

Practicing the pattern gets me to listen, and to practice the position, and so on.

Making up my own song, though, that's really interesting.  It's fun.  It also has me trying out different things, different patterns, listening carefully to the sounds.  I think it's almost most important to be playing and listening to the sounds.

We have a composer here who's got a reputation for writing incredibly difficult stuff.  So the joke is that I should ask her to write me something using only the four open strings.  Except she'd write something so impossibly difficult that [name a famous violinist] would find it difficult.

One last thing: it's really hard to get a nice sound every single time you pluck a string.  The practice probably is going to help with that!

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Group Identity

Over in underwater basketweaving, the basketweaving theory and history folks have noticed that they've got fewer students majoring and minoring in basketweaving theory and history.  In contrast, the basketweavering majors and minors are up in all sorts of good ways.  The basketweaving folks seem to have a strong sense of a group identity, too.  (The theory and history major/minor numbers are going down nationally, so it's not just them.)

The theory and history folks look at the basketweavers, and think they're doing something right, but they're not sure how to get their majors and minors to have a sense of group identity, and how to attract more majors and minors.

Here are some things they've noticed. 

Basketweavers have small classes (because they're working on weaving and critiquing and such), and the classes (with the weaving and critiquing and such) have a sort of built in community building.  Reed cultivators also have small classes and a sense of community, but they aren't growing as a major, either.  Theory and history courses are bigger at every level.

In the more advanced courses, they only have basketweaving majors and minors.  (The theory and history courses have basketweavers, reed cultivators, and so forth; pretty much everyone in anything related to basketweaving takes one or more of their courses at every level.)  So the theory and history students are never in courses with just other theory and history folks.

Basketweavers do a lot of community basketweaving with their students.  They show their baskets off at community events along with students, pretty much every month.  Theory and history folks feel like their work is more esoteric, harder to share with the community, and harder to do in community events with their students.  (There's something about the "Lacanian Analysis of Knot Size in Early 20th Century Polish Work Baskets" that doesn't scream "popular!"  In contrast, lots of people in the community also make baskets, and go to community basketweaving events.)

The basketweavers also have a facebook page.  And that, the theory and history folks hope, is something they can do.  And so they have.  Someone near and dear to this blog may have suggested it.  But that same person has some doubts.  Do students even look at facebook these days?  The basketweavers page tends to link to the community events and such, and there really aren't many community events for theory and history folks.

If you are/were in basketweaving theory and history (or a similar sort of field), what do you do to give your students a sense of community?

Saturday, January 30, 2016

All the Things I Should be Doing

A lot of them.  Now.

Tomorrow, I'm going with a friend on a bit of a road trip to see a play.  It's not a huge road trip, just over to the big city, but a play!  By a professional company!

We're going to have lunch ahead, then the matinee, so we'll leave in the morning, and probably not get back until late afternoon.  And that means, I have to be totally prepared for Monday by tomorrow morning.

I really should get with it.


Yesterday, during our department meeting, we split off into our teaching areas and talked about some stuff amongst ourselves.  We were asked to try to accomplish about four things, and we pretty much did.  One of them, we totally finished, when we hadn't really expected to.  So that was good.

I'm reminded again of how much good work my colleagues do, and how much I like having them as colleagues.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Data Entry

It seems like there's a lot of stuff these days that faculty do that we didn't used to do.  For example, instead of emailing an admin assistant our list of books for ordering, we do the data entry into the bookstore thingy (whatever that thingy is, who knows).

It's cheaper for the university, I guess, because we faculty folks just add the extra 15-30 minutes to our work and our pay doesn't change, but the admin assistant has been moved out of our department to elsewhere (a good promotion for her, for sure) and the new person doesn't get nearly as many hours.

Was there ever a time when faculty didn't type or produce their own syllabi?  (What about before typewriters?  Where there even syllabi?  I wonder how things got communicated without easily replicated handouts?  Verbally?)

Or assignments?  I know a friend from grad school who'd gone to Oxbridge, who'd never had to type his essays there.  Do they now, or do they still handwrite them?  (In my own undergrad experience, we were expected to type everything but exams or math homework, and that was 5+ years before I went to grad school and met that friend, but who knows.)

Anyway, it seems like there's all sorts of stuff where at one point we faculty folks would hand in a handwritten form, and then someone else would do whatever was done, and that would be it.  So, for example, at one point, I could hand in my receipts and a hand written travel form, and then a month or two later, there would be a check in an envelop in my box.  Now I have to enter all sorts of information in a form before I can buy tickets, then enter everything into a different form after I buy tickets but before I travel, and then enter everything into a still different form and then send in all my receipts separately to get reimbursed.  (Yes, we have an especially inefficient system, it seems.)


Classes started today.  My Shakespeare students laughed generously at my jokes.  My first year writing students mostly contributed when I asked.  And for some reason, I ended up writing a time line of Western European history from 300 BCE to 2000 on the board in my seminar.  (I was trying to get them to see what the Renaissance thought it was the rebirth of, so that they can understand what a "Renaissance man" was, so that they can understand how Henry Louis Gates is using a quotation from an essay that argues against the sorts of diversity Gates supports/ed in MLA conferences.  So now my students at least know that Rome was sacked and that Petrarch had something to do with the Renaissance in that massively oversimplified way that trying to cover two thousand plus years of history in 15 minutes will do.)

Altogether, this was a very good day in ways that had to do with classes, with colleagues, and with pretty much everything.  And now it's time to go home and recharge!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Writing Assignment

I'm asking my senior seminar students to write short "keyword" essays in which they read a piece of theory or criticism and then write about a key word in the reading, explaining how the author is using it in the argument, and then responding shortly.  I'm envisioning these as a page or two.

So today I wrote one for the reading assignment I emailed them all for the first day.  (Yes, I've become THAT professor).  It took just under an hour, and I'm pretty happy.

When I was first starting a certificate in teaching composition (way back before my phud program), one of the things they really suggested was that instructors try to use the instructions for an assignment to write the assignment.  It's a GREAT practice, but I don't usually do it because it also takes a lot of time.  But this time, I want to get a good start on this reading in the first class meeting, and I want to give them an example (because the last time, which was also the first time, I did the assignment, I wasn't always happy with the work they turned in) so that they'll have a better idea of my expectations.

Now that's done, and I'm going to have lunch and go snowshoing with some friends, because that's what friends are for!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Almost Ready

I spent much of the afternoon at work today, getting ready for the new semester.  When I started, my list felt overwhelming, but it pretty much all got done.

In my seminar, we're starting with one theoretical reading (by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.), and then reading the plays fairly quickly, and then reading some more theory, and then revisiting the plays with criticism and early modern stuff (a captivity narrative and such).  I'm excited, and also a tad worried.  But our students are usually cooperative and helpful, so that's good.

I didn't finish everything, because our departmental scanner seems to be down, and the campus system thing to get a list of students in a class didn't seem to work (you email a specific list address, and then put your class information in the subject line, and voila, moments later you get a text list of students names alphabetically, which you can cut and paste into another document very easily.  Except not today.)

Last evening, we had a retirement party for three colleagues, two men and a woman.  The men were both long time, full prof types, the woman an adjunct.  The men were at the party, the woman wasn't (there was a reason for that, and it wasn't a bad reason).  Anyway, we brought food, the chair said a few words, and then a couple men she'd asked to speak spoke, and then another man spoke because he wanted to, and then the two retiring men spoke.  So, yeah, all men.

The one who wanted to speak always wants to speak.  He just does.

It was okay, and all, but really pointed up the ways that the good old boys are still good old boys, except we don't even call them out on it.

One of the men I truly will miss.  He's a fine poet, and we would talk about poetry.  There are few of us here who seem to like poetry much.

The other became an administrator just as I joined the department, so I've never really felt like he was part of my department, if that makes sense.

A couple of days ago, I invited my literature colleagues to get together at my house for casual chat and snacks.  Five folks came, and we talked for a couple hours, and it was really great.  It reminds me how much I like my colleagues, how smart and hard-working they are, how creative as teachers, and how willing to share.

I have a couple more things to do for class on Monday, but I'm at the point where everything looks much more do-able.  Thank dog.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Conversation with a Friend

I was chatting with a friend about a mutual acquaintance, and had a bit of insight.  The mutual acquaintance, let's call him Flute (it's a Shakespeare name, right!), was on the university senate while I was on it.  I didn't know him socially at the time, and the senate's pretty big.

Imagine, issue X would come up, and there was a practical option, which wasn't actually ideal in terms of students or adjuncts or something, but was practical in terms of cheapness and actual workability.  So, maybe it's class size for intro basketweaving, which would ideally be 15, but in practice runs at 20.  We can't afford 15, and 20 is pushing it in terms of the budget.

So there's discussion and going to be a vote.  And Flute would raise his hand, and I'd know he was going to say that there's no way we can vote for 20, and he'd go on to talk about the ethics of the issue and such.  I eventually realized that I pretty much always agreed ethically with Flute, but that I didn't want to hear about that because I felt like the cause was long lost and we were all going to vote for the cheaper or more "practical" option.  That is, in a way, I resented someone speaking for what I knew was right because I'd already given up on what was right.  And Flute isn't the most eloquent speaker; he's rough around the speaking edges, and takes longer than he should sometimes, because he feels so strongly about stuff and is so unwaveringly certain about his stance.

I don't think I was alone if not wanting to hear about what we should do because I don't think I was alone in having already given up.

Now, I think of some of the times in my department when I've felt compelled to speak against an issue because I think it's ethically important, and I could see other people in my department roll their eyes, and I think I've turned into Flute in some ways.  (I try not to take very long or hold things up, but I do feel compelled to speak sometimes.)

There's so many things around here that are ethically shady: big class sizes, use of adjuncts, lowering requirements for majors and such.  But we vote for them because we feel like we're trying to survive.  I think it hurts our morale more than we acknowledge.

And in some cases, I think it's devastating for our students.  I'm thinking of the ways racism works here, the ways that administrators talk around problems with racism and systemically support racism, all while claiming not to.

I went to a training session last week on "bias" which was pretty much what you'd expect: we're all biased and we need to think about biases we aren't so much aware of and consciously work against them. 

But what we should be talking about is racism and systemic racism on campus.  Talking about bias is patting white liberal folks on the head and saying that they don't want to be racist, so if they just work a little more, then we'll make things better.  And that way, we don't have to challenge the systemic racism or even acknowledge it.

(That isn't to say that I as a white person don't need to think about my racism and work towards anti-racism in my own behavior and beliefs.  But that's not enough, and not the big issue.)