Thursday, May 19, 2011

Yay! I have a Master’s Degree! Now What Do I Do?

We at Musicological Musings are happy to report that both of our regular contributors have recently reached milestones in their long journeys toward academic excellence: John has finished his first year as a college professor and Tyler has wrapped up his first year as a doctoral student. In the wake of such accomplishments, we are offering a two-part, year-in-review post highlighting the highs and lows found along each path—we hope this exercise in narcissistic reflection will prove especially interesting for those of you who are currently trying to decide between looking for a job and applying to terminal degree programs. The first of such installments is given below and the second will follow in a week or so. As always, please feel encouraged to leave questions and comments.

Yay! I have a Master’s Degree! Now What Do I Do?

–Part I: Professorship

I recently finished my first year of teaching. I taught a history of Western music for non-majors (essentially a music appreciation class on steroids) and a history of rock and roll (which is essentially a cash cow for the University). All things considered, I think it went very well. I think most of my students learned something, I feel that I was as an effective a teacher as I possibly could have been, and I played a *lot* of music, so hopefully some of it sunk in.

One of the hardest lessons I've had to learn involves what one professor has called the "digging holes or stringing wire" problem–that in a survey course, you need to find a balance between covering as much as possible (there are student and institutional expectations inherent in a survey course) and going in depth enough with a few topics (so that students not only have time to think about something, but that it's possible to demonstrate discipline-specific thinking). The first semester of my Western music course, I definitely strung far too much wire. While I was better able to manage this in the spring, I still need to go deeper more often. It's a tough decision (do I leave out Josquin? do I skip Mozart's chamber music?), and one I don't relish making. I use Kerman/Tomlinson's "Listen," which intentionally focuses on the common practice period; since this is already built into my text, I might take more advantage of it. I will still talk about everything else, but I don't think I'll focus on it as much next year (this has the added advantage of playing to my strengths). I also think that I'll do a brief historical survey, and then organize the rest of the course by topic (do a 3-week unit on operas, for example).

I honestly think I'll do the exact *opposite* in my rock class; I've added about 25-45% more material than we usually cover [N.B.- this estimate is a guess. No math was used in the arrival at this number]; while I end up skimming over a lot, I want to paint the broadest picture possible, since so much of the music is known to so many of my students. I will try to focus more on specific songs (talking about why they work and so forth), but I think that I will continue to move over a vast amount of material. I've tried going to the present, and I've tried making it to the 90s, and I think that I will continue to end around that later time. I've also found that, if I end with rap, it ties together a lot of the major themes we began talking about at the start of the semester, but reframes them (it's a lot easier to see why N.W.A. is scary, but Bill Haley? Not so much).

The biggest difference between fall and spring was my comfort level; unfortunately, this translated into me being expansive (read: long-winded) with the material at the beginning of the semester, and then needing to move far faster throughout the remaining material (my course calendar was a joke by the beginning of February). I also noticed that the students are better (smarter, more engaged, more polite) in the spring, and can't wait to break in another group of freshman.

One of the other major changes I'm making is about my attendance policy. It's currently punitive, and I have logistical and philosophical objections with it. I think that I'll still have a hard and fast rule (for example, if you miss four or more classes, you fail automatically), but there will be rewards instead of punishments (for example, if you miss three classes, you can redo a paper, etc)

I'd also like to make a quick mention of the fact that I've gotten great institutional support this past year. I've heard lots of horror stories, but at every level, I've felt supported, listened to, and helped. I've also been able to take advantage of several pedagogical classes specifically for part-time faculty, and hope to do the same next year.

If I had to bitch (which I do), I'd say that the "cons" include living so far below the poverty line that there isn't any other legal job I could have that would pay less, and the students. While they can obviously be a real treat, I've been appalled by what seems like the ever expanding new lows of student behavior, spelling, etc. I had a girl email me all semester and not address me by name (even FIRST name, which I had to wean some students off), or sign her name, or tell me what class she was in, or use proper grammar or spelling or any punctuation. Every time I think I've hit bottom, I find a new low. I'm sure if I talked to a physicist, there's a universal field theory in there somewhere.

The most important lessons I've learned: you have to let a *lot* roll off your back. I'm naturally an A-type wound-up spazz-wad, but if I project calm in the class, I feel that more learning (and less resentment) happens.

I've also learned that you should never, EVER, EVER talk about basketball. I'd rather talk about Obama, Jesus, and why 9/11 was an alien/governmental conspiracy than basketball. I'll stick with making hockey references.


  1. Congrats on both of your first years. What's on the docket for next year's teaching, John? Looking forward to part II, Tyler.

  2. I'd love to hear the story about you bringing up basketball in class ;)

  3. Hi Ryan- I'll be teaching the same courses next year if I get a contract (with an adjunct position, it's always up in the air). I'm sure Tyler's has many stories to tell us of leading drum circles and whatever else ethnomusicologists do.

    As for the basketball? Well, I grew up in PA, where hockey is a big deal, and basketball just isn't, whereas in KY, I've seen people with what can (charitably) be described as shrines to UK's team. I was mentioning my desire to be in a sports riot, and since UK was in the Final Four, and U of L(ouisville) was out of the contest, I said that I hoped UK won, since I'd be able to go light a couch on fire, tip over a van, what have you. Almost instantly, half the class was screaming about what a crock of crap UK's team was, while the other half were (nobly?) defending their school. Several students who were otherwise polite, mild mannered and reserved were getting into shouting matches about this. (I've also seen people almost get into fist fights–one was wearing a U of L shirt, another a UK shirt.) After getting the room back under control, I resolved to only reference hockey finals for the rest of the semester.

    The moral being: if you're going to reference things to seem more interesting/human/etc to your students, make sure they don't have any skin in the game. I'd also recommend learning the big rivalries before hand, but if you pick an obscure enough sport (like hockey in the south, or cricket anywhere), you should be ok. It is funny in retrospect, and I'll be sure to talk about why the government wants to take away their guns/mountaintops before I ever talk about basketball again.