Writing about creative survival in higher education

Month: April 2021

Teaching with Tangles and Knots

I’ve spent the day with a background of mental visualisations. Abstract images of stitching, sewing, crotcheting, knitting. Of material workmanship in progress – productive incremental actions. The imagery involves a sensation in my fingers and the palms of my hands. Tingling imagination of the warm, abrasive itch of wool, of pinching and grasping and moving yarn and threads, manipulating needles and tools, of bringing stitches and loops together from sides to middle, sides to middle, turning in and outside and yielding comforting new breadths and lengths of fabric.

The imagery emerged after I read a discussion thread this morning. Among some musicians who teach University courses in composition, who were identifying and discussing the dilemma they routinely encounter in the admissions and pedagogic process. The dilemma is to do with the deep divide between experience and expertise in musical notation practices amongst prospective students. The discussants described witnessing a debilitating lag in skills for those seeking access to musical composition programmes who did not already have fluent, sophisticated literacy skills from working with musical scores already for many years and as a fundamental, performative aspect of their musical lives. The conversation in the thread recognised that the means by which applicants might have attained such skills were almost exclusively tied to both cultural and financial capital. Yet the need for musical composition pedagogy and professional practice to be based in music notational literacy was – for the majority of contributors – an indisputable priority: How, one discussant asked, would applicants with less experience and fluency in reading and writing musical scores ever ‘catch up’?

Another contributor began circumspectly to question the musical conservatory in its entirety: Having noticed that ‘luckily, conservatories are not the gatekeepers of music’, then ‘letting [more] people in’ to conservatories is something that would concern the contributor a lot more should the conservatory itself offer something of value to students whose interests (and experience) lay with ‘say, non-notated music’.

Hmm. Having composed the post and pressed ‘Send’, might the contributor themselves have then spotted that slippery double standard?

The thread mirrored so many conversations I’ve been party to, that I’m still working through, and that I’ve challenged without resolution.  But why did all this bring me to that quiet mental yearning for the experience of a crafting process? Sides to middle, sides to middle, inside to outside…

Let’s imagine that teaching and learning in HE Music depends on three parts: intellectual (discipline), artistic (radical), and technical (progressively-refined skills).

  • With academic discipline, we support students’ submission to an existing framework of knowledge in order that they will master and challenge it.
  • Art is radical. We have to respect the authentic voice of the individual student from scratch, so that they can step up and raise that voice when they are ready. Might take ages, long after graduation. That has to be OK.
  • Technical teaching and learning in music… it feels to me like this is where everything hangs.  This requires that we academic practitioners develop our own workplace-consensus on defining those progressive skills so that we can tool up to teach them. This final aspect is the most controversial. These skills are not necessarily the ones that we were trained in. We are going to have to be courageous to deal with this.

In my daily life and work with University music teaching and the students who arrive at our University, I find myself longing for a way to teach that would better honour individuals and give them a better chance to honour one another and their own private, unique musical life experiences. I would like to have richer interactions with more opportunity – time, space – to meet applicants and students where they are. To validate the experiences that have shaped their particular journeys. Not only their exam grades or qualifications, but their own niche: Their context, their aspirations, their priorities, their families or networks. What these people can ultimately have to say – as musicians, artists, members of civic society – is dependent on all of this.

But: again, why did this bring on the vivid, tacit internal vision and sensation of crafting? Of working-with? Of sides-to-middle, inside-outside transformation and growth? Perhaps, because this is the process that I want teaching to be — working with, not working on. Transforming and creating through process. Making, not judging.

Why I Find It Helps To Remember You Have A Bum And A Back

The demands of remote teaching have given urgent rise to so many needs during the past 12 months. We need screen breaks, we need good spec tech, we need more space at home than most of us have got, we need our children to go away, we need to move and stretch, and (I think, more than anything), we’ve needed to upgrade the quality and efficiency of our professional relationships, with colleagues and with students.

What I mean by better quality relationships is, the sort of relationships that can really tolerate confusion, and impatience, and misunderstandings, and occasional mute button swearing. We’ve had to share and create new knowledge under exceptionally limiting circumstances and with broken connections, poor sync, terrible sound quality, patchy wifi. Good communication fundamentally requires a basis of some common ground, but when this began we were all in a new place, each of us confined to our own pieces in a square jigsaw of icons and initials and – now and then, if you’re lucky – floating faces.

The digital reduction of our physical selves and our communicative intentions into 2D space is as crummy as it’s miraculous. How can we know if we understood? How can we know if we have been understood? We can dissolve into a puddley, formless state of gaze and scroll, gaze and scroll, all our precious connections to other people mindlessly constrained to a loop between gritty eyes, aching ears, fingers on the keyboard… This is why I find it really helps to remember you have a bum and a back, and I have enjoyed reminding my students of this, too.

This semester I have systematically integrated such reminders into my online teaching, making space for the class to act (not think) in a playful and creative manner in response to a variety of prompts, some as warm-up activities, others as core teaching devices. I’ve used my experience of improvisation and mindfulness practices, and it’s been serious fun – as in, the results have induced both laughter and deep reflection. Devising the exercises for online groups required a little bit of thinking, mostly in reshaping group facilitation strategies that I have used informally for a number of years. Making these work online has felt like a game-changer, for the way that they can transform a shallow, disconnected virtual space into an engaged and courageous cohort of students.

– Playful grounding exercises as standard welcome/warm-up

– ‘Busy hands’ tasks, to help students navigate online discussions with one another

– Structured peer-to-peer listening sessions, timetabled alongside academic seminars

– Deliberate integration of freeform creative journalling exercises (doodling, painting, colour, collage) into academic topic-based discussions:

  • to support students’ development of their own voice and original argument
  • to support students’ autonomy, their own approach to integrating knowledge
  • to create space for emerging studentled discussion and new perspectives on central issues of concern such as good academic conduct, plagiarism, etc.

Over this time, I’ve loved finding patches of common ground with other ECA colleagues who have also been trying out new strategies. And I’ve loved naming each exercise – Lemon Buzz, Alternative Corner Reality, You Have Nice Hands, Labyrinth, Other Body Curiosity… Please get in touch if you’d like to know more. If you’re already using creative journaling or art techniques in your academic teaching, I would especially like to chat!

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