The following is a statement on teaching; among those solicited by the University of California “Center for Teaching and Learning,” from nominees for the Chancellor’s “Excellence in Teaching Award.” I was honored to receive the award in 2011.


Thoughts on teaching

Most university teachers today are responsible to facilitate more than one style of learning. We might shift between different fields or areas of inquiry; we might change our methods to accommodate different specialized topics, or wed conventionally ‘academic’ assignments with innovative exposure to ‘real-world’ experiences off campus. We sometimes have to nurture one approach at the expense of another that might be equally relevant—for example, in a course covering the history of the big band, an instructor can’t easily ask students to do both advanced harmonic analysis and advanced essays on popular representations of race or gender identity. Most urgent—in my experience at least—is that students’ levels of experience, and readiness-to-engage in a course, seems to range more and more widely among students in any one classroom. 

While the available range of approaches is not new by itself, many of us find ourselves in the unfamiliar situation of having to traverse a larger part of this range in each class. Some of my courses involve conventional mixes of theory and practice—for example, teaching students to analyze a piece of literature, and to embody its materials as a performer, in the same syllabus. But a lot of my teaching falls further afield: in one seminar, I introduce methods from the cognitive sciences to graduate musicologists; later that day I might lecture on popular culture to an American Studies class of 400+, struggling to relate bullet points and YouTube videos to participatory online exercises. Across these territories, can there be some unifying “philosophy of teaching”?

This thin spread of efforts has surely slowed my development as a teacher. After nine+ years at UC Santa Cruz, having put on some of these hats only a couple of times, I still feel like a beginner. However, this schizoid range of objectives is also an asset—and not just in the sense of the addage about “what doesn’t kill us.” Moving repeatedly between large, potentially anonymous lecture halls, and graduate mentoring has helped me re-think core beliefs about teaching and learning. I’ve noticed a shift of emphasis. The familiar organizational work of meticulously managing “student experiences” has long been a fall-back mechanism for me, when I’m less confident of good content, or my own command of the material. More recently I find myself mixing lighter and more flexible planning with room for collaboration, and the hopeful benefits of the unexpected.

I think I just heard one of my students in a polite act of throat-clearing. “And when is that shift of emphasis scheduled to occur?” Many of us would love to let students choose varied paths through our materials and assignments, but it’s hard to know how to ensure that kind of freedom really can work in their best interests. So I search for the best of both worlds. Sometimes I create “units” of assignments, each with divergent essay topics… each topic emphasizing different aspects of the course materials. But shepherding students over so many pathways can drown an instructor in minutiae…there always seems to be just one more nuance to tweak, or one more step to clarify, and beyond a certain point this sort of work isn’t a good use of time.  More important: students don’t always find that kind of freedom rewarding. It can be frustrating to be presented with a “choice” in learning, when you don’t yet know what’s at stake.

At least I can say I’ve learned something from all the experimentation. First, I feel I have gradually let go of a few assumptions about good pedagogy:

  1. I used to think my best work as a teacher resulted from direct efforts at clear communication. I now value more highly the indirect problem of how to motivate my students, to “switch them on” to a communication and ensure they’re ready to get the most out of it. (I also once thought that “motivational” college teachers were pandering and entertaining unnecessarily. But motivation is integral to good teaching in complex ways. I now consider one of my most important tasks to be the design of environments and circumstances that bring out the right kind of learning enthusiasm at the right time.)
  2. My drive to manage and sculpt course experiences was based on my assumption that in learning, students are comforted by certainty, and that ambiguities are liabilities. From my own career as an artist, I might have known better!: as an improvising composer, I thrive on unplanned situations, and cultivate them for outcomes I can’t gain any other way. I now not only allow for improvisation in my teaching, but plan for it.
  3. I have found that when I “nurture” spontaneity and the unknown in the right way, students can better activate and mobilize toward knowledge of their own making in the spaces left open. 

Through observations like these, I have begun to concentrate on putting in place the kinds of provocations, structures, and environments that—rather than aim at thorough, well-‘managed’ expressions of the course content—will compel students to express the materials or ideas to themselves, and to each other. Examples:

  • Instead of simply showing students a diagram of a Chopin Prelude or a Bach chorale, as a model for their own analyses, I sometimes present a series of diagram fragments, each of which presents an incomplete image of musical structure. I then ask students what information the fragments lack. I find many of them immediately taking initiative in the conversations, to discover on their own what a good analysis can do.
  • Early in a syllabus, I might present a difficult piece of music that provokes questions students aren’t equipped to answer…and profess (sincerely) my own befuddlement at how to think about it. (It might even result in a feeling of being “lost” in the material—“how are we supposed to understand this? We haven’t been taught the simpler stuff yet!”) I let discussion flounder around for a while, disorderly and undefined, though they’ve already figured out that they’re in over their heads. Once we realize the challenges we face with the example, I let the students know that I hope what we learn in the coming weeks will give us a sense of how to think about a problem like this one…and that I hope to improve my own approach to it through our dialogue with them.

In some exercises like these, I confess to my students that I’m not certain that we will even reach our objective. The fragments of that Chopin analysis might not add up, or provide the key they’re looking for; the reasoning behind an emotionally awkward costume choice, or a contradictory lyric in a music video, might never be academically explicable. But I find the students aren’t frightened by that uncertainty. They’re challenged by it, and spend the rest of their time with me hoping that—not only for them but for their teacher—something new and compelling will emerge.


Related materials

My curriculum vitae.

Sample course syllabus [Dialogues and Questions: Writing at the Intersection of Theory and Practice [Or visit my “Current Courses” page.]

Sample course activity. For listening assignments in this activity, you will need to contact me for a username and password.