What happens in the writing center

Instead of teaching college classes, for the fifth year of my fellowship, my assignment is to work in a college writing center. I have long told my students to take their papers to the writing center for help, without having actually gone myself. Now, I help students with their class essays in any subject, or sometimes I help them with graduate school application materials.

Working at the writing center gives me a new window into students’ perspectives on writing. Students tend to vent or otherwise open up to writing tutors—they feel safe with us. Every day, I listen to students who are trying their very hardest to succeed in school, but they are stretched incredibly thin and pulled in many different directions. The students I tutor are, almost always, not just going to school; they are working, they have children, they are immigrants who travel back to their home countries regularly. Students are also often facing immense barriers to their success: they are suffering from illnesses; they are broke; they are being evicted. Their teacher wants them to write a paper, though, so they are at the writing center asking for help.

So when I am scrolling through Twitter to take a break between tutoring students, and I come across a tweet like this…

…it’s hard not to get immediately incensed, on a personal level.

I, personally, did not have to face much hardship as an undergraduate student. My family supported my education, emotionally and financially. I had scholarships to help lessen their burden. I had to work to help pay my cost of living, but the jobs were good jobs—accompanying fellow music students and church choirs, and a brief stint as a student assistant in the fundraising office. As an undergraduate, my focus was almost entirely on school, and on musicianship.

Students like me tend to be the kind of students that continue their education by going to grad school, and the kind of grad students that stay in academia to become professors. School is more fun when you have the privilege of focusing on your studies. The more you can focus on writing, the better your writing becomes—if there’s one lesson I’ve learned from the dissertation, it’s that writing is a job, and like a job, you need to dedicate a good amount of time to it to succeed.

What about students who have to write papers, but do not have that good amount of time? People like me, who have been full-time students all along, can easily forget that not all students were as fortunate as we were to have uncomplicated lives. I’ve met students who commute for hours every day and get to class hours early because that’s when the cheaper train is. I’ve met students who have families (who says that potty training twins is the exclusive domain of professors?). I’ve met students with learning disabilities who are deliberately declining to use the accommodations to which they are because they’ve been told that the “real world” won’t accommodate them. I’ve met students who are trying to write their paper before they get their tumor removed the following week.

Why don’t these students I meet in the writing center speak up to their professors, so they can work together to a solution amenable to both parties?

Because they believe their professors will roll their eyes at them, tell them to suck it up, or not even believe them in the first place (“show me a doctor’s note”; “bring me the funeral program”; “get a babysitter”). This is why students vent to their tutors instead of talking with their professors. They’re not stupid. Even if the professor would never say such things to a student’s face, students can certainly sense the condescension in communication with a professor that thinks this way.

And at this point, who has not been exposed to the kind of snark in the tweets above, either through Twitter, Facebook, or edgy op-eds? Jesse Stommel, a notable voice in the world of critical pedagogy, wrote an article, “Dear Student,” in response to a series by the same name  published in Chronicle Vitae. He gives alarming statistics about how commonplace this attitude is among faculty.

Some stats from a few recent studies of bullying in higher education:

  • 62% of professionals stated they had been bullied or witnessed bullying in higher education vs. 37% in the general population. Women, African Americans, and members of the LGBT community are disproportionately bullied.
  • 51% of students claimed to have seen another student being bullied by a professor/instructor at least once and 18% claimed to have been bullied themselves by a professor/instructor at least once.

These statistics are definitely in sync with my anecdotal experience. I have heard stories or seen students mistreated by faculty (and faculty mistreated by faculty) at every institution where I’ve worked. If you haven’t seen this bullying running rampant, you may be the bully. And it may be unintentional, because the problem is systemic.

Joshua Eyler’s Inside Higher Education writeup, “Against Student Shaming,” though apparently not written in response to these Anonymous Professor tweets, speaks to the larger issue of why even anonymous venting about “lazy” students is harmful (emphasis added):

Even anonymized, these stories are embarrassing and give the impression that faculty constantly see themselves in opposition to students. Such narratives about students are often little more than straw men used for rhetorical effect, but they convey a powerful message to readers, especially any student readers: despite the stated desires of faculty members to help students, here is what we really think.

One of my greatest journeys thus far as a pedagogue has been learning the value of being on the student’s side, not against them. I used to have strict attendance policies, no late work, etc., and students in violation of my policies were somehow punished. I found that as a result, students would lie to me about this or that kind of emergency preventing them from turning in even the smallest homework assignments—and it was immensely frustrating.

It would be easier for my ego to conclude from this experience that my students were being dishonest and lazy.

The truth is harder to accept: that I had set up the environment where deceitful behavior was rewarded, because trust was not there between my students and me.

Having such a policy sends a signal: I am judging you; I don’t trust you; you have to prove your struggle is worth my time.

This environment is not conducive to learning. Another quote from Eyler:

It’s actually a difficult thing for a student to say, either in concrete or in less obvious ways, “I don’t know something. Please help me to learn it.” Students trust us, and it seems to me that we violate that trust when we write essays that call them on the carpet simply for struggling through the difficult process of education.

I am not trying to be the “cool aunt” professor by eliminating my attendance policy and being more lenient with makeup work. I am making my classroom function better. Having a default policy of “prove it” is putting yourself in opposition to students, and students will not feel comfortable approaching you when they need help. 

Now, of course, some students will lie to you. Some students are lazy. Yes; this is a fact of life. But whether or not some students are lazy is not the point. The point is that I don’t know what my students are going through. In light of this, the proper starting point as a pedagogue when dealing with absences, lateness, or subpar work is to assume that the student is trying their best, and to ask the student what they need help with to succeed. When I approach students from this angle, I usually learn that the student is going through something very difficult indeed.

If you are at a school where your students are generally not going through difficult things, there are two possibilities, that I think are actually not mutually exclusive in any way.

One, you are teaching at a very privileged school with very privileged students. Maybe you teach at a residential private small liberal arts college (SLAC) that does not have a vibrant sports or Greek life culture that detracts from studies. Maybe the concept of students who are “homeless, cannot afford books, starving, and don’t sleep” seems preposterous to you teaching at such an institution. In which case, maybe keep in mind that those of us that teach at places where such situations are a little more commonplace are going to find your perspective out of touch and a bit offensive.

Two, more likely, you are wrong in your evaluation. It’s easier to see, at a New York City public school like the ones I’ve been involved in the past five years, that students can go through unbelievable troubles during their careers. But students going to fancy schools also have troubles, but maybe they’re not as obvious, for a number of reasons. Because even a residential private SLAC has students who may be homeless, etc. Many kinds of hardship that students go through knows no class or color: sexual assault, depression, death of a loved one, to name just a few to get us started.

I remember, as a first year master’s student, telling a PhD student all about how stressed out I was. Then I quickly remembered my place and deferred by saying, “Of course, it’s nothing like your stress level, I’m sure.” This person, who was on the job market and about to defend his dissertation, responded, “It is like my stress level. If you’re stressed, you’re stressed. Maybe my tolerance for stress is higher than yours, but we are equally stressed.” These words of compassion have rung in my ears each time I interact with a “stressed” student. Even if my life really is “more complicated” than a student’s, at the end of the day, who am I to tell a student that their suffering is not real? Each person experiences their complications in their own way, and their stress is real. It’s not a competition, and nothing is gained by putting someone down that way.

Taking the time to listen to your students and empathize with their situations can be difficult and emotionally draining. But I have benefitted immensely from reflecting on my practices, realizing how I might be contributing to my own problems in the classroom, and considering how to create the best learning environment for my students while still maintaining rigorous standards. The lesson is ultimately that professors have no idea how complicated their students’ lives are, and simply giving them the benefit of the doubt can do loads of good.

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Ear Training fantasies

One of my longest-standing research interests is in ear training pedagogy. Conventional wisdom says that the point of ear training class is not to train students’ ears in the classroom, exactly—everyone realizes that the majority of work must be done outside of class (though it’s hard to convince students that this is a good use of their limited time when ear training is a 1-credit-hour course)—rather the point is instead to give students methods for practicing. But what also takes up a large portion of class time is assessment. This assessment comes in the form of solo singing in front of their peers, and dictation tests. Both of these assessment activities are not ideal, as most pedagogues will admit. So then why do they persist? I think mostly practical reasons, involving who teaches ear training and what’s simplest to do in the classroom, which I don’t want to get into here.

Although I’m not teaching ear training this semester, and I’m not currently in a position to try out any of this, I often fantasize about my ideal ear training set up, which would attempt to improve on the typical assessment tools. My own successful ear training journey had almost nothing to do with singing quizzes or dictation exams (though being compelled to learn moveable-do solfège in college undoubtedly was an improvement over my previous ad hoc methods, even if I was too stubborn to recognize this at the time). I learned mostly on my own, by learning to play songs by ear.

In light of this, I would like to eliminate dictation tests in favor of transcription work. Transcription teaches many of the same skills as dictation: connecting sound with notation, and synthesizing pitch/rhythm/harmony relationships. Transcription has the advantage of affording more freedom to the student to manipulate the recording as they see fit.

Each student will experience different challenges in creating the transcription. Letting them control their “hearings”—the length and the quantity of them—allows each student to tailor their experience to their own needs. Students can be taught to do this in their own minds during a dictation exam, of course—this is often referred to as developing musical memory—but this is a highly advanced skill, one that maybe shouldn’t be taught before students really understand how to connect sound and notation. In my experience, developing musical memory will come organically while students work on transcription. As they try to become more efficient with their transcriptions, they will learn to memorize larger chunks.

Further, in a transcription assignment, the student is free to check themselves as they go along using any instrument of their choice—piano, guitar, piccolo, marimba, whatever. This makes the whole process more relatable to performing on their instrument. More importantly, this teaches students to self-correct rather than rely on the teacher to tell them what was wrong.

I would also incorporate learning to play songs by ear. This could involve both full harmonic textures, in which case students must perform on the piano or guitar, as well as melodic textures, which could be performed on any instrument.

The primary issue with transcription assignments is the problem of cheating, i.e., copying from a published score. Some cheating is probably inevitable, but here are some ways I would work against it:

  1. De-incentivize cheating through pass-fail grading, or other generous grading, and the opportunity to revise. Lowering the stakes of homework assignments often helps reduce cheating.
  2. Choose obscure pieces, withhold information, make recordings myself, etc. to make finding a score more difficult.
  3. Make at least a portion of the transcriptions from popular songs or other music that does not rely on notation, rather than art music. This would also serve to expose students to alternative repertoires.

I would also tentatively consider the possibility of a transcription “exam,” administered in a music lab so that students could access resources (keyboard, headphones, notation software, etc.), which could determine whether the student passes or fails the course. This would help ensure that students were not unethical in their submission. I have concerns, though, about having such high stakes riding on a single activity.

I recently gave a transcription assignment in my Analysis of Post-1950 Popular Music seminar, a graduate course. While many students agreed that the assignment was difficult, many students (many of the same students!) also agreed that the assignment was very valuable. Students reported totally losing track of time during the assignment because they were so interested and engrossed in the work, and they found it valuable to have to make a final decision about the best way to represent ambiguous cases.

Transcription is a better assessment tool than dictation because it is a more holistic approach to teaching the skill of connecting sound to notation. Transcription involves “real” music, with lots of rhythmic/textural variation. Also, in my experience as a professional musician, transcribing is an important job skill: music educators, composers, music therapists, musicologists, and performers alike could all potentially need to transcribe something in their careers. In this situation, they would have access to all kinds of resources, like online chords, peer collaboration, instruments, notation software with playback, and so on. Why restrict them to 6 hearings, no instruments, and even no humming? This is like transcription on extra-hard mode, and it’s not the most efficient way to teach people ear training, even if it may be the most efficient way to grade it.