Monday, October 10, 2016

Asking for a turn at the microphone.

I was doing some reflexive writing to help me have a conversation with some colleagues, and thought that these might be useful words to put out into the world. So here they are :-)

The research that I do, the material that I teach, and the ways that I teach are all intentionally resistant to exclusionary social norms. I teach to destabilize "the way things have always been" because I think it's important to ask why things have "always" been that way. The gloss "that's the way it's always been" or "that's just the way it is" quite often hides the history that brought a set of practices into being, and when we examine that history sometimes we find different ways of doing things that give us more inclusive ways of running our society or solving our challenges, and more material for making our art.

When I'm teaching popular music in a general education class, I want students to notice that black people are rare in photographs of  Grateful Dead concerts, and I want them to ask "why?" I want my students to pay attention to the ways that women who play guitar draw our attention, and I want them to ask "why?" I want them to ask why some music is considered more worthy of study than other music, and I want them to see what happens when they try to study music that hasn't been researched much. I want them to ask why the tools typically used to study music seem to make some music look really silly, even though that music might mean everything to them or to someone else.

I'm teaching music theory right now, and I want my students to ask "why does all this music end in a V-I progression". I want them to look at lots of examples of that progression and see what it does and how it's put together so that they can recognize it easily, and write music using it if they choose to. And I want them to find music that doesn't end that way, and figure out how it works. And then I want them to ask why we teach so much music that ends in V-I, and so little music that doesn't. And they're starting to ask those questions. They're starting to ask "what happens when I put these notes together in this way?" and they're starting to come up with some really interesting sounds.

But there are students who are so bothered by this change in the way that music theory is taught, that they're barely able to sit still in their chairs. "But there's this rule that says...." When that happens, I ask "why is that a rule?" "What does it sound like if we break that rule?" "Why might we want to write according to that rule?" We're just barely beginning to find some answers....

The problem that I run into when I teach this way, though, is that students who are used to feeling really competent and in control of this material feel uncomfortable. It's hard to ask "why?" when you're used to it just sounding right, or to following a rule. And it's hard to understand, when you're feeling destabilized like this, that your familiar competence with the rules leaves students who listen to and play different music from you, feeling excluded and unwelcome. The wonderful thing about learning to ask "why" about music, though, is that you develop the tools to talk about music that you can't even hear as music yet. And you find a language to talk about your music to people who haven't already internalized the rules. In other words, you start to find a way to deal with diversity when you ask "why" in a music theory classroom.

When I'm teaching music theory, then, I'm giving students some tools to understand how music works, and to start to make sense of any music that confronts them, if they're willing to be curious about it, rather than relying on a familiar competence. And for this reason, the discomfort of my most competent students is really good. I welcome it, and I encourage them to be energized by their discomfort and the questions that it raises.

The problem is that many of our students have been trained in a system in which curiosity and playfulness are always trumped by the "right" answer. And the right answer is something that they're used to receiving from an authority figure, and repeating back until they inhabit that position of authority themselves. I don't look like the authority figure they're used to. I don't look like anyone's stereotypical idea of a university professor, despite my penchant for blazers, and my cultivation of my emergent gray hairs. And so when students don't receive the "right" answers in the familiar ways from me, they frequently go to the people in my department who look like the authority figures these students expect to learn from, to complain about their discomfort. It happens. I did it myself as an undergrad. And I remember the lesson so well. The male professor I went to asked me whether I'd asked the female professor teaching the course about my concerns. I said no, and explained that I didn't think she understood the material herself. He (rightly) read me the riot act for thinking that I or he knew better than the person who had a PhD and a lifetime of working with this material, what the right answers were. I was suitably ashamed of myself, and never forgot that lesson.

We know that students presume incompetent that anyone who doesn't look like the authority they expect. Even students who look a lot like the professor they're undermining are more likely to accept as truth the words of someone who looks like what they expect an authority figure to look like. So it's not strange that my students frequently go to the older white men in my department when they feel uncomfortable with something that happened in my classroom. But the student's prejudices in favour of the familiar are reinforced when my colleagues, with the best of intentions, assume that role of arbiter of truth by answering on my behalf. Even if their answer is "these are the very good reasons why prof. Hammond is teaching this way", that answer coming from the mouth of someone that the students already grant authority to, leaves me to work with authority by proxy. I'm able to do what I do because someone with greater authority says it's alright.

That's not alright.

Today I'm going to ask my colleagues to ask any student who goes to them about a problem they have with my teaching, whether the student has asked me about it directly. I'm going to ask them to point out to my students that I have a voice, and agency, and some valuable knowledge and insights that those students can share. I'm frustrated that I have to ask for this. But there it is....