Monday, February 29, 2016

Rereading Gawain

Over the past ten years or more, I've participated a number of times in a small "scholarship" program my department has with the local public library.  Basically, each semester, there's a small sum of money (we call this sum a "donut fund" because you could use it to buy donuts for the department a couple of times a year, but that's about it), and it goes to a faculty member who runs a four session (usually over four or five weeks) program at the local public library.

In 2005, I wrote about doing my first program, on The Winter's Tale here and here (it actually ran in spring 2006, so ten years ago!).  Then in 2010, I did a program on some of The Canterbury Tales.  I also did a program one year on Macbeth, another on films and Henry V, and another year on some early modern lyric poems.  So I've been pretty active with the program over the years.

This year, I'm doing a program on Gawain and the Green Knight.  The last session is tomorrow, so tonight I was rereading the final part of the poem (using Simon Armitage's translation), and oh, what a poem.

I think I'm more aware of my failings these days, because I find myself feeling much more charitable about Gawain this reading.  (It's probably been about 10 years since I've taught Gawain.  I haven't taught it very often, a couple of times in an old style survey, and a couple of times in a texts course.)  I was pretty teary-eyed during the ax scene.

I'm looking forward to the discussion.  We had fun last week talking about the hunting scenes (outside and in).  I wonder how some of the group will find this part!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

On Seeing *Cabaret*

I don't remember when I first saw Cabaret, but probably a long, long time ago.  I was young enough, or maybe the times were ripe enough, that I remember mostly the music, but not as much the plot.

I saw it last night, a student performance which was very good.

And it was horrifying.  I think, especially in these times, the story being set in a time when things looked at least momentarily freeing, when there was space for places where people played more or less openly with sexualities, and then, we know, things got very bad.

And now, politically in the US, we've got some candidates spewing vile, vile nastiness.  Instead of hating Jews, these candidates are hating Muslims.  But it's the same old hatred, isn't it?

One of the horrible things about the show is that none of the people who realize things are bad feel like they can really do anything except maybe leave, run away.

I really worry about certain candidates getting elected.  The economics of what our governor has done have been horrible, but the national candidates are way, way scarier for more than economic reasons.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

In My Fantasy Life - The TV Interview Edition

A couple of weeks ago, the local news broadcasts all had segments on which local high school football player was signing a letter of intent with which college.  They showed the football players at a little desk, often with a cap showing their soon to be college, signing their letter of intent.  And then they did little interviews, pretty short, with different players, about why they'd chosen the school they'd chosen.  The interviews, of course, were exactly what they were supposed to be: they praised the coaching staff and opportunities as the future school.

In my fantasy, come graduation season, the local news broadcasts would go to each graduating class and do similar short interviews with the valedictorians or top students (in various ways, top math student, maybe, or top art student, or student with an outstanding record of service) about their plans, future schools, whatever.  And they'd put these little interviews on the news with the same attention that they put the football players on the news.

And you know what, maybe they'd realize that there are female students at local high schools, too.  (They sometimes do give highlights of girls' sports games, I admit.  But they didn't show any female athletes signing letters of intent.  Nope, just male football and hockey players.)

And then, here's the real fantasy: in six years, they'd reinterview the same students, the football players, the art students, the valedictorian, all of them they could find, and they'd ask about the past six years and the students' future plans.

And I bet they'd learn that those valedictorians were graduated or graduating, had jobs, grad school, or other stuff planned going forward, and had become the sorts of adults we hope our K-12 educational programs will help create.  My guess is that a lot of the football students will have become those sorts of adults, too, and will be doing good stuff.  But I bet it would be exceedingly rare for the football student to still be playing football, while the art student would still be making art, and the student noted for outstanding service would still be doing good service work.

And then they'd actually think out loud about the supposed "career" oriented education that so many of our governmental folks desire and about what sorts of high school activities we should support with our attention and money and such.  Maybe, just maybe, instead of having a football coach and two or three assistants, the local high schools would hire another art teacher.

I live a rich and full fantasy life, don't I?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Sweet Spot of Practice

I've been practicing the violin, as you might imagine.  It's really deeply pleasurable.  By that, I don't mean I sound good, because with the rare exceptional moment, I don't.  But it's like a good bike ride in that my brain is focused and so the rest of the world fades, and I just think about trying to play a scale, or broken thirds (really hard, I have to say), or Twinkle Twinkle.

Some things I was thinking about this week:

1.  If you've been grading a lot, right-handed, and tend to hold your pencil a bit tightly, your small fingers will get crampy really fast if you pizzicato much.  (So I've been doing more bowing than I otherwise would.)

2.  Twinkle Twinkle is hard.  There's a point where I need to play the higher string (say the A, if I've started on the D string) and then get three fingers in place on the D AND move the bow so that it hits only the D (a bit of a challenge for me anyway).  Once those fingers and the bow are in place, then the next couple of notes involve lifting one finger at a time, which is easier.

So, the sticking spot is that move from the open A string to three fingers down on the D string (playing a G).

The thing is, the D scale, on the way down, makes exactly the same move.  So if I practice my scales, and do the down part extra, it really, really helps with Twinkle Twinkle.

(I've been learning the song in three keys, since it takes two strings.  It's very cool that way.)

3.  When I left my lesson last week, I was on the edge of overwhelmed.  Yesterday, practicing, I could tell I was getting better, especially on the scales and Twinkle Twinkle (my broken thirds are less good).  A little focused practice probably makes more of a difference at this point in my violin career than it will when I've been playing a lot longer.  So now, I'm excited for my lesson, because I think I've actually noticeably improved, and am excited for the next new thing to learn.

4.  I'm really working on not holding the neck of the violin with a death grip.  Boy, is THAT hard!  I have to practice and grow to feel confident holding the violin with my chin, but I'm sure not there yet.

Monday, February 22, 2016

When? A question about Student Writing

I just graded a small stack of short papers by the students in my senior seminar, and I have to say, they were stellar, every single one, with one a bit more stellar yet.

The thing is, I don't know why.  I mean, I feel like I'm smacking my head against a brick wall in my other courses as far as teaching writing.  I spend time working on writing in various ways in every class I teach, but I don't always feel like it helps.  (Sometimes, of course, a student just really gets it suddenly.)

Are these students in the senior seminar in English because they were always good writers? 

Or have we done something to help them become good writers? 

Or a mix?

(When I say stellar, I really mean it.  They all had strong introductions, addressed the assignment well, use quotations to make their points stronger, and let me with something to think about in their conclusion.  I think there was one with one or two proofreading boo-boos, but otherwise, they were well proofed and had interesting, well-crafted sentences.)

And the discussion we had last week was really good.  Maybe they're just super smart, good students, and somehow ended up together in this one class?

Friday, February 19, 2016

Third Lesson

Holy cow, it's REALLY hard to not grip the violin neck or bow with a death grip AND try to bow AND try to finger!  I may be having that problem...

But what fun!

Yesterday's lesson was great.  I played my practice stuff, hot cross buns, my Mississippi Quickstep, my fingerings, and I got help holding the bow and violin with less of a death grip (I need to consciously think about this).

Last week, Strings put two pieces of tape across the neck, under the strings, to indicate where I put my first and second fingers down on the string/neck to go up a full note.  And she put two pieces of tape around the bow to show where I should focus on bowing (though I'm allowed to go outside the lines a bit).  Yesterday, I got a new tape on the neck, for the third finger, but a half step up.

And then I learned to play three scales, and the first bit of Twinkle Twinkle (bow), and another bit of Twinkle Twinkle (pizzicato for now), to work on.  And, Strings showed me something called "broken thirds" which, if I'm remembering correctly, you do by playing on a scale: note one, then the third, then note two, and then the third if you were starting the scale on two, and then three and its third, and so forth.  It's REALLY hard.

The perfect thing was, when I left (after writing stuff down), I was just on the verge of feeling overwhelmed with stuff to learn.  But when I practiced last night (after the lesson and dinner), I wasn't overwhelmed, and was able to at least do the basic stuff okay.  And I was able to do some of it a bit better than okay (for my level).  So it was a really good balance, because I have plenty to challenge me this week, but not so much that I'm frustrated.

I practiced last night until my muscles were tired, which seems funny, but it's harder than it looks holding things just so.

I really like scales, somehow.  I want to try to remember arpeggios, because I used to find them satisfying, too.

The other really super thing is that when I sit down to practice, it's a total break from all the other stuff of the day, and I just think about trying to hold the bow right, and trying to hold the neck right, and trying to finger on the tapes, and trying to get a good sound (it's not the best, naturally, but I'm working on not getting that squeaky string-not-vibrating sound).  And then I practice a bit, and I feel tired but a bit refreshed, too.

Strings wants me to work on playing each of the exercises well five times in a row.  That's so hard! 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

I love It When . . .

My senior seminar discussion today felt committed and caring and real.  I felt like it mattered to me, and it mattered to the students.

I'm so grateful for the work one of my colleagues does, both because I've learned from it and because one of the students who's taken more than one course with this colleague was able to articulate really difficult stuff well, and attributed it to my colleague.

(I need to thank him, too!)

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?