Sunday, October 18, 2009

Difficult Students

In both of my classes this semester, I have some difficult students.

One student in my Peace Studies class has taken to lobbing ad hominem attacks at almost all of the authors whose books we are reading, as well as some of the guest speakers I have brought to class (though, thank goodness, not in their presence). Not only do these attacks feel mean-spirited, they also turn out to be replete with factual errors. I need to figure out how to deal with this more effectively when it happens. But also, I need to find out why this student has become so unhappy. I think the course is getting to him. I suspect he took it expecting to find it easy to hold his own against the major premises of the course, and this is turning out more difficult than he expected. It has thrown him into a panic.

In my other class, a class on ethical theories, a group of students argues (badly and incompletely) against literally everything. I finally stopped class the other day to point out that it amazed me to no end that they were arguing against the author we were now discussing since their arguments against earlier authors convinced me that they were naturalists and should therefore like the current author. "Help me understand what's going on here!" I said.

They gave me bewildered looks.

I was not sure whether they were actually understanding any of theories we were studying. I had also detected that they were using the same argument strategy over and over again. No matter what ethical theory we were discussing, they kept coming back over and over again to saying that there are people who seem not to care about morality at all, who do terrible things without remorse; therefore, who is to say that there are any moral absolutes at all?

First, I ask what their evidence is for this. They cite to movies they've seen! I say that doesn't count as evidence -- someone's just making that up. Then they cite dubious statistics they think they remember from psychology classes they've taken, but they are unable to follow that up with actual citations to research, or describe the research that supposedly supported such claims.

Realizing that this is all beside the point anyway, I then shift to trying to point that out. "Even if you are right that there are lots of immoral or amoral people out there who see no problem with doing terrible things, how does that undermine this moral theory that we are studying? Are you assuming that everyone in the world has to agree with something for it to count as true?"

A lively debate ensues that doesn't quite get to where I expected it to go. They keep coming back to "what gives someone the right to tell another person they are wrong?"

So, I try something else: "In real life, no one lets someone off the hook who has done something terrible just because that person sees no problem with what they are doing. We don't, in courts, say, 'oh, well, if you don't see it as wrong, that's okay then -- you are free to go!' So, ethical theories are trying to get at what is wrong about those behaviors that most people do regard as clearly wrong."

The students return to a line of discussion invoking cultural relativism. There are no behaviors that most people regard as clearly wrong, they try to argue. Maybe this is so within a culture, but somewhere, there is some culture in which any given questionable behavior is okay.

Since pointing out that cultural relativism does not imply moral relativism does not seem to get through to my students any more, I try to counter their last claim more directly. I point out that just because cultures may disagree about some moral claims does not mean that there is disagreement about all moral claims. "There is no culture," I point out, "that lets people freely kill whoever they want, whenever they want, for any reason, or even for no reason at all."

I thought that these arguments impressed the students and effectively made the intended points -- but then the next class session, they are at it again. New author, new ethical theory: "this is all a bunch of crap because some people think it's fine to do whatever they want, and so there are no moral absolutes. Who is [insert name of present author] to claim that he knows what is right and wrong -- who gives him the authority to tell everyone what to do?"

I sigh.

Usually in my classes, we don't get so stuck like this. I'm trying to understand why this is happening. My unhappiness with this is similar to my distress at the rhetorical strategies employed in the political arena these days. Maybe they are related. Maybe my students are too influenced by what they see in the news. Maybe they genuinely have trouble distinguishing between actual arguments and other rhetorical strategies that are not actually arguments.

At least in the ethics class, they are trying, to some extent, to construct arguments, but they do not seem to be grasping that they keep arguing against the whole project of ethical theory itself rather than constructing arguments against particular ethical theories. It derails us from discussing the particular details of different ethical theories. I'm almost suspicious that this is an intentional diversionary tactic to avoid serious engagement with the particular theories, but I am not sure about that. The students do show evidence of doing the readings and engaging some details of the readings. I do not think that they are slackers. But I do think they might feel threatened by the prospect of taking ethical theories seriously.

And so the cases in both classes are somewhat similar: students catching glimpses that how you live your life (ethics), and how you engage conflict (peace studies) are questions that really matter. They catch glimpses that there might be something wrong with the standard answers they receive. This shakes them up and so they try to change the subject, by attacking peripheral aspects of the emerging new insights.

I share this because I feel that we are at a crucial stage. I want to handle this well. I worry that if I don't, they will lock into their resistance. But right now, there is still hope that I can help them into more serious examination of points of view that are different from what they have considered before.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Musical Update

I really love my house. Slowly, I'm getting settled. I still walk around gawking, amazed, saying to myself, "this is my house!" and can hardly believe it.

Meanwhile, I've now had three of my concerts, and two more have been added, so there are three more to go.

The first was a concert in which I played silver flute. The director of my early music ensemble had never heard me play silver flute, and he was impressed enough that he has asked me to join an orchestra he is assembling for a choral concert he is directing. We will have two performances. This is not early music! I've worked on my part, which is easy to play but strange to count -- passages in 5/4 time, or 3/2 time (mixed in with more standard 3/4 and 4/4 passages). I have had no orchestral experience at all, so I don't know if this is normal or not. I used to play with concert bands at times, but that was a long time ago. I don't have a melody line, as such (well, actually I do have one for just one fleeting moment). Most of the time my part is just to add color, I think. This will be a very new experience for me! Most of my recent performing experience has been small-ensemble playing.

So, anyway, my first performance did go well. I accompanied a small group of singers on two pieces.

The second performance was a reprise of one of those pieces for a different event.

The third performance was a number of recorder trios as part of an early music concert. (Yes, in this small way, our early music group is back! I'm really glad!) We played four sets of renaissance pieces in this concert.

I was nervous before the first concert, but once I started playing, I was able to focus on the music and get into it.

I was even more nervous before the early music concert, because I was keenly aware of all that could go wrong. At our dress rehearsal, our recorders clogged badly (a hazard this time of year because of rapidly changing temperatures and humidity levels). For those who don't know, clogging is when the water vapor from your breath condenses in the instrument in a way that it blocks the very narrow passage that the sound comes out of. As you can imagine, a blockage to the area where the sound is supposed to come out creates strange and unexpected sounds. There are ways to try to prevent this, but nothing is foolproof. And there are ways of dealing with this when it happens in performance, but this is not foolproof either. So there is always the serious danger that a major clogging incident could disrupt the performance.

I took all of the preemptive action I could and hoped for the best. My strategy ended up working. I had no clogging problems. The other members of the trio each had minor problems that they were able to address on the fly.

Meanwhile, I suffered other physiological effects of nervousness: shaking, sweaty hands, and the worst: dry mouth. Yet I stayed focused, and things went well, and gradually all of these symptoms disappeared. By the last and most challenging (but also the most fun) piece, I was relaxed and eager to show the audience how wonderful this piece was, and I think it went very well. It was nice to have entered the Zone in performance! That's what a musician most hopes for. We catch those moments in rehearsal sometimes, but it's harder to find in performance because of the stress of performance situations, unless you are very experienced.

It's nice to receive this confirmation that: (a) nervousness is not in itself necessarily fatal to a performance, and (b) it can actually go away during the performance!

So, the next two concerts are the choral concerts where I will be playing silver flute as part of the orchestra. Then I actually have two more concerts after that: two performances on Irish flute as part of a special Christmas event.

I have other updates too, but I'll save these for another posting.