A different three Rs

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A sign I saw on a school visit

There exist a number of websites for complaining professors. OK, everyone needs to vent sometimes: goodness knows professors have the right to be a bit peeved about low pay, budget cuts, departmental skulduggery and so on. Whether the internet is an appropriate forum for such complaints is another matter; I figure they’re grown-ups and if they want to put themselves out there for public scrutiny and possible damage to their careers, that’s their business.

But then there’s one type of whiny-professor website that really gets on my nerves: the ones where they complain about their students.

The complaints fall into four broad categories. (a) “Students are lazy, whiny, immature, and entitled.” (b) “Students don’t do what professors tell them, but if they just did these very simple things we recommended, all would be well.” (c) “Students pretend their grandmothers have died during Finals Week and this is always a lie.”* (d) “Students don’t know anything, don’t read, can’t write, are hopelessly unprepared for college, and generally dumber than a rock. We were never like this. What’s wrong with millennials?”

(d) is followed by “What are their high school teachers actually doing? Are they teaching them anything?”

This, I think, crosses a line.

When I become the emperor, I’m going to make it illegal for professors to grouch about the shortcomings of high school teachers. Teachers have a lot to do, and they’re doing their best. Chances are they’re already trying to teach students all the things professors wish they knew, but they’re stymied at every turn by bureaucrats who expect them to be fundraisers and therapists and moral exemplars and get their class to score highly on standardized tests. It’s no fun.

Here’s another thing. It’s OK with me, as a professor, if students begin university not knowing anything. Because there’s a presumption, isn’t there, that it’s my job to teach them things. If they leave university still not knowing anything, then shame on me.

I sat down to write a list of things I wished students would learn before university–a perfectly shaped, flexible bow hold? a natural sense of intonation? knowledge of how melody and chord progressions work? some idea of how to practise? Well, of course those would be nice. But the more I’m in this business, the more I think character has more of an influence over how someone does at college than prior knowledge. In fact, I think the predictors of success could be reduced to just two character qualities.

  1. Curiosity.
  2. The ability to deal with frustration.

Curiosity, passionate curiosity, about music is a driving motivator. Human beings are motivated by curiosity and desire. The desire to be good at it and do whatever it takes to improve in the practice room. The desire to take it to bits and figure out how it works in the theory class, and to understand its historical-philosophical context in the musicology class. The desire to know everything, understand everything, find out more. The curiosity that motivates you to practise ambitiously, listen voraciously, read widely, argue passionately, work obsessively.

The other thing is that music is hard. It’s hard to get good at it, it’s hard to break into the profession. If you crumple at the first sign of adversity, that’s a big problem. I see so many music students who have never been told anything other than how smart and special they are who, the first time they run into something they aren’t good at, dissolve into tears and/or decide they don’t want to or can’t do it any more.

And then you see a certain type of student who comes to college maybe a little less prepared than you’d like, with some technical problems, or limited musicianship skills, but something about her makes you take a chance on her, and she ends up being your best player. Because she genuinely loves music enough to want to be good, and patient enough to hang in there long enough to get that way.

Further to the same kind of idea, I recently read The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, a book that seeks to quantify the personal qualities that produce success. It got panned by the critics (justifiably, I think) for certain racist and poorly-researched aspects, which is a pity because there’s a lot of persuasive arguments for character in there. Chua and Rubenfeld came up with three success traits: (1) a superiority complex, (2) a sense of insecurity, and (3) good impulse control.  That’ll work too: the contradictions of a high-achieving personality combining to motivate you, and the self-control to make things work. I wish Chua and Rosenfeld hadn’t tied their thesis to certain ethnic and religious groups (including their own), however. Might it not have been better to frame it as a set of universals that people of any race or social group could cultivate?

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*I give a free pass for dead grandmothers. Mine died at the beginning of an exam week during my second year at university, and my teachers were all very kind about it.

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