Interval – Or Why I Do What I Do

This past Monday I was really “bummed out,” as we would say when I was young.  A friend of mine posted a link to this article on his Facebook, and I couldn’t actually bring myself to read it all the way through, but also browsing some of the writers other editorials, I began to be depressed and this fed into a dilemma I’ve been wrestling with: how to approach teaching my first class this fall.  But alongside that is my long running anxiety of coming back to grad school for my PhD.  In the face of a terrible job market in higher education, especially for humanities and the arts, I have questioned what it is I’m doing on more than one occasion.  In a world of vast homogenization of the job market, it seems like that it is either business, accounting, computer science, or some other degree that will lead to medical or law school that is the only way to go if you want job security.  So in such a world, why do the arts matter?  That seems to be the attitude of so many students.  On top of the problem of trying to actually prepare students to be thinking members of society and not just working to a goal of a good grade or whatever goal in life (good performance review, bonus, etc) is currently in front of them.

This also dovetails with a conversation I’ve been having with a good friend of mine who I consider a stalwart member of my “Brain Trust.”  In discussing the new Karate Kid movie and by extension the original, she told me about a book she had read (and graciously made some copies and sent to me) that dealt with how we learn, or rather the best way to learn.  You provide the groundwork (in KK the waxing, painting, or in the new, “Jacket on, jacket off, hang up jacket, etc), and the student has the breakthrough when they actually learn how to apply those skills.  Rather then rote learning, you actually have to apply what you have learned, integrate it into everything else you learn.  In what the author calls the “good student syndrome,” the student wants steady progress towards the ultimate goal, whereas in life, it’s really plateaus and breakthroughs.  You have to first learn the basics and then move on.  But conversely, as a teacher, you have to actually provide that foundation.  As a teacher, it’s easy to teach “for the test” – give them the bullet points of facts, dates, etc. that they’ll need to pass the test, and then call it a day – and this is really tempting because it is what so many student expect and want.  But besides making us lazy as a teacher and student, it also makes us intellectually lazy for life.

You see, part of learning, becoming intellectually stimulated for life, is learning how to learn.  How to take in information and process it.  To want not clear-cut answers and facts (trivia…which I love, I’m a massive trivia nerd), but rather systems of thought that can support larger ideas.  To seek out questions and answers that go to the core of who you are and who “we” are.  It is a reflection of this trend that so much popular culture is not made to challenge the audience, and those that do have a hard time finding an audience.  Lost is an exception to this, and it is odd that this show found such a wide audience, though at the same time I feel that it challenged the audience not in a way that made them look inward along with outward, but rather focused on the surface external mystery (though I do couch this in that there was the deeper level of meaning of community and human relationships that was there, but so much of the last half of the show “lost” this thread and it wasn’t really picked up again until almost the end).  It wasn’t challenging like BSG that made us question what it means to be human in the face of the apocalypse (or terrorism).

This is all to say that in approaching my first class, I have decided that I really must try to engage their minds on a deeper level – challenge them, confront them.  In my film class last semester the first set of readings the teacher assigned was from Michel Foucault, and she flat-out said that if you can’t get through this, find it difficult, or that you don’t want to do this kind of reading, that maybe this wasn’t the class for you – and bear in mind that this was a dual listed grad level/upper level undergrad class.  I would like to similarly challenge my students.  To much the same the degree that I am distressed by certain elements of modern culture (American Idol and other such reality television) and I am constantly fascinated by new media trends on the Internet.  And I wholly believe that culturally significant material is being produced and posted on the Internet.

But does the world really care when the people who would study such trends are finding it difficult to secure employment?  In my little niche of the world of film music studies, I find it fascinating that independently produced films made strictly for internet distribution will routinely employ composers to write original music.  Surf around the many Star Trek fan film series sites and you’ll quickly discover that many have composers on their team.  But who cares, really?  What is the point of my field of inquiry in the end?  To say that it’s just about music and media is to be very literal and narrow-minded.  On a higher level it is about how we as humans react to media and storytelling.  How music influences our emotions and thus how we engage and interpret a visual text.  Further, I study modern culture and trends, so part of it is also our cultural history, and what has been a more dominating force in culture of the last 100 years than film, television, and the internet?  As someone once noted, all that has changed is that the screens have gotten smaller.

This may validate my own feelings, but it does little to solve the larger problem, that of the state of education in America.  We’ve spent the better part of the last 30 or more years worried about the bottom line: standardized testing, achievement levels, and no child left behind.  All of which are designed to rate how a school and its students are performing.  We’ve overvalued higher grades and forgotten that ‘C’ means average.  So now it’s all about working the system so that students get a higher grade, and it’s easier and less stressful for a teacher to teach for the test and no more.  Teach from the text.  Well it didn’t work for me, and I feel that most of my major intellectual breakthroughs have happened outside the classroom as I read and challenge myself…well at least until my PhD.  In so many ways, this has been the most intellectually satisfying time of my life.

Of course, I keep throwing around this word “intellectual” which has taken on a bad meaning in America today, but I’ll leave that alone.  This is not a political blog.

I guess my true dream is to rediscover in academia the classical Greek academy, educate the whole person.  So many schools say they do this with their “core classes,” but we all know that many of those are watered down and the students don’t want a hard class “outside their major.”  And maybe this is also part of the problem, this focus on “majors,” that college is a means to an end.  Before, it was you would need a high school diploma to get a decent job and college wasn’t for everyone.  Now, to get that same “decent job” one has to have a bachelors degree, if not a masters.  College is now that means to the middle class dream, and that attitude of “I’m out of here in four years no matter what, so you better not fail me” pervades in the large core classes.  The traditional university has become more about vocational training in so many ways.

And I’m just as guilty of this as the next person, it’s only now that I truly miss having not pushed myself harder in my undergrad.  To have taken those philosophy and English classes and actually earn those minors I thought about.

My dream, my true dream, I guess, is to teach at a school, a small school that does challenge its students.  I don’t care if I have to start it myself, but I wish it to happen.  Start a think tank that is also part of an educational institution.  Have seminars and discussions with students, engage with them.  Who cares if Wagner died in 1883, or that his opera house was built in Bayreuth?  Why did he want that opera house built in the first place, what was its purpose?  What are the themes of Parsifal and what do they say about Wagner’s philosophy?  Indeed, what intellectual philosophies of late 19th century Europe influenced his operas, and how do these philosophers still influence thought today, or do they?  And the whole point of this is not to say, “look at how smart I am,” but rather to pose the question of how have these things influenced me and my modes of thinking?  Revealing the hidden structures of one’s own thought and shaking the scaffolding, see if it holds up.  We need to continually challenge our own thought, question ourselves.  We must do so to grow as a people, or we face a death of civilization, and if I have to turn into Spider Jerusalem to do so, then so be it.

To bring this all to a close, there are certain things in my life that have brought all this to a head recently.  Besides the already mentioned article, I have also been listening to the WNYC/NPR series Radiolab in podcast form.  This show always tries to get behind the story, ask the hard question of why.  And the questions and stories they tackle are ones that usually get to the very core of our human existence.  Now the sheer fact that such a show exists and has some 80 episodes available to download gives me hope.  Not to mention from an aural perspective, its innovative sound design and composition style is nothing short of brilliant.  Further, let us consider Star Trek, and it’s core tenant that humanity’s potential is limitless.  That, as long as we want to, we are capable of so much greatness and good.  While many sci-fi films, etc. project a dim and bleak or sterile future (Blade Runner, 2001, Alien, etc), Gene Roddenberry set out to show us a future, not without its warts, but one in which humanity found a way to come together for the common goal of peaceful exploration.  That our main pursuit in life is not one of wealth or power, but to better ourselves and those around us, be they from different countries or even planets…and to boldly go where no one has gone before.  Not to mention a civilization that still values art and culture, music, poetry…because these things to contribute to our lives.  They enrich us and have the potential to engage us on multiple levels.

And this is why I do what I do, because I believe that music and culture are at the very core of who we are.  That film and film music (and by extension other visual media and their music) are a central piece of how we engage with our modern society, and it is our duty to challenge one another to look beyond because that is how we can grow as a people.  Ask the question of how and why and what a film or piece of music says to us and says about us.  And without teachers in the humanities and arts there to ask these questions, pose them to students, we might end up with a bunch of Bill Lumberghs…and do we really want that?  I didn’t think so.

Good night and have a pleasant tomorrow.

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