Author Archives: Tomasello

Posts: 5 (archived below)
Comments: 23

Mendicant Preachers

At the end of the fall semester, I received this e-mail from a student in my MSC 1003 class who had recently earned a D grade:

i am on academic probation. if my G.P.A. doesnt reach 2.0 by the end of next semester, im kicked out of baruch. i mathematically cant make 2.0 if i have a D on top of a F. please, im begging u. i need to retake music or i will end up in community college.

This was just one of several e-mails from this fellow who begged for me to reward him for his D-work with an F. His agony was based on the shame of having to tell his parents that he’d be transferring to Kingsborough Community College because a mere music class beat him down. I told him that community college is no shame and reported on two close friends who started at QCC (one now a CPA who works for the AICPA and the other the chair of an art department at a Maryland college), and I sent him the Wikipedia link to former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona who started at BxCC. I spared him my usual spiel about how I’d bet music was not the only subject giving him trouble.

I find these requests more troubling than the can-you-raise-my-grade ones. Maybe it’s because the student should have had a good sense that he was running a D with 80% of the grade completed by early December, and he easily could have bailed on the last quiz, had he done the math; so this bespoke a kind of detachment from his own academic progress. Maybe because he failed the course once, in ostensibly an easier version of the course, only to stumble into my CIC version with all its extra writing-based requirements. Maybe it’s because, if he had attended only seven of the hour-long workshops that accompany the course, he would have received extra credit enough to raise his D to a C. Maybe because it is ultimately educationally sound for a D-student to re-take a course when he finally has become mature enough to pass it. Anyway you slice it, he could have either gotten his F or his C with very little effort. Yet the flurry of e-mails that his D engendered showed that he was eager work the art of the deal with me, to spend time arguing in favor of his F, and, of course, to preach to me about what it is really like to be a student.

Is it better–educationally sound–to give D students the retroactive F, if requested? Is it fair to others? Is it even legal?

Posted in Classroom Rules, Communicating and Managing Expectations, Grading | 8 Comments


In the early 80s, I lived in Brooklyn and taught MSC 1003 at 8:00 a.m. (at least three-versions-of-the-grid ago). One fall morning, as I was walking down President Street towards the F train station, I passed a three-man Sanitation truck performing its semi-weekly pick-up. One of the workers was standing in front of a brownstone, looking in the gated front yard filled with piles of magazines and old wooden planks. The fellow was furious. “What the hell kind of bleep is this?” He yelled at his buddies as he gestured with outstretched arms in the direction of the junk, “Who does this guy think he is putting out his bleeping garbage like that? I ain’t gonna pick this bleep up unless he ties it into neat bleeping bundles!” I passed the worker and muttered through my clenched smile, “Dude, you’re a garbage man. This is garbage. It’s your job to pick it up twice a week. If there were no garbage, you’d be unemployed.” I thought this all very humorous. I then descended into the subway.

About 10 minutes later, while straphanging and staring beyond the passing tunnel lights, I began to meditate on my few semesters teaching multiple sections of MSC 1003. Most of my students were first-year students with paltry skills and little college preparation. Many were foreign born. I couldn’t figure out why every semester, in every section, I found myself reciting the same endless stream of facts and admonitions, “Rhythm is the flow of music in time,” “Remember: The word ‘rhythm’ has two Hs,” “Write this as a complete sentence,” and all the other things I found myself repeating semester after semester. Would these kids ever get it? How many times did I have to bleeping tell them the simplest things?

It then occurred to me that my job is education–exposing people to something that they don’t know, getting adolescents to think in new ways, introducing students to the beginnings of a college-style of learning–in effect, making my semi-annual pick-up. If there were not this continuous flow of fresh, 18-year-old high school grads who needed to be taught those same lessons, I’d be out of a job.

It’s therefore incumbent upon us instructors never to lose patience but instead to dole out the familiar facts and stale admonitions in new ways–as if it’s the very first time we’re stating them–because for the students it is the very first time we’re stating them. Without negating the importance of content, we must always be thinking about our classroom techniques. I think it’s good to remind young faculty that, although the teacher might learn a few tricks over the years and get smarter, the students never seem to.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Devil is in the Details

Several decades ago, when my dissertation advisor told me to “spice up” my writing, I realized that the better my prose became, the more I moved away from the facts–what I saw as “the truth.” Whereas I knew for a fact that “in March 1347, the papal treasury paid five silver pounds for fur hats for the pope’s eight singers*,” I didn’t really know if this was a “benevolent gesture by the supreme Pontiff.” But since I needed to please three readers, something that was always in the back of my mind, I suppose it ultimately didn’t hurt to insert gratuitous phrases periodically into what otherwise amounted to a 500-page spreadsheet.

As I’ve moved along in my teaching, I ask myself, “What is it that these students should know? What do they care about? What can bring them closer to the music and to the historical period?” At this point, I can honestly say that some of the information I now convey to my students is . . . uh . . . less than factual. At best, I suppose, it can pass as historical speculation. I’ve moved far away from factual detail in my lectures to a gray area of broad generalization and rhapsodic rambling.

Is it important that Mozart wrote a certain number of operas, or is it better that students know that he and his Italian librettist (Lorenzo da Ponte) were Masonic proto-revolutionaries? Should we call Mozart a “lofty genius” or rather think of him more as a musical Rainman with a touch of dyslexia perhaps and a smidgen of ADHD, as a contemporary scientific account alludes? When covering the 19th century, I want my students to think of Robert Schumann struggling with bi-polar disorder (and/or was it with his symptoms of late-stage syphilis?). I offer the class Schubert’s hypothetical pedophilia as explanation of a 17-year-old’s sensitive setting of “Erlking.”

There is certainly some evidence for these notions, but what do we really know? We really know dates for events and numbers of compositions, however, this is not the substance of a lecture; these facts are not worthy of study at anything but the graduate level. This is not history. All the trashy little tidbits that I spew paint a broader picture of Enlightenment and Romantic ideals. I want my students to identify with these historical figures as real people perhaps with lives similar to their own. Or so what if I have to sketch out characters as olde timey pop stars whose every move would today be covered by ET (Entertainment Tonight)? So, over time, I’ve moved away from a fastidious accuracy that marked my youthful scholarship. The broad sweep, the hyperbolic–that’s what works for me in the classroom. The factual details have become for me the dust of history.

*I just made this up, btw. This is becoming very easy to do.
Posted in Learning Goals and Objectives, Students' Thinking, Teaching Large Classes, Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Teachin’ Thinkin’

Many years ago, I engaged in a short dialogue with a former colleague who had told me that he was hired to “teach music.” I differed with him and insisted that we were hired to teach thinking, writing, study skills, and many other things that were ultimately applicable to all of life’s situations. I told him that music was merely our vehicle. I think it’s important for us professors to tackle problems of innumeracy and illogic wherever we can. Over the decades I’ve tried to get students to engage in thought sometimes to the detriment of the day’s musical-historical topic. Here are some examples.

1) To negate their tendency to use facile opposites (i.e., “Schubert is the complete opposite of Bach”) I ask the class, “What is the opposite of ‘yes’? . . . ‘up’? . . . ‘black’? . . . ‘salt’? . . . ‘cat’? . . . ‘ketchup’?” They begin to laugh and see absurdity in opposite-of thinking.

2) To deter them from using negative terms to describe music (i.e., “The piece does not have a singer” or “It is not a fugue.”) I tell them that while such statements might be true, the piece neither has nor is an electric guitar, a screwdriver, a fuzzy overgrowth, or a bad aftertaste. It’s best to describe what something is (contains) rather than by the potential infinity-minus-one of what it is not (does not contain).

3) To correct freshmen who think they will all get an A in the class with HS-effort I tell them, “U. S. News & World Report states that 63% of you freshman graduated in top quarter of your HS classes. My question is this: What percentage of you will finish in the top quarter of this music class?” There are always too many who answer “63%.” That’s a real eye-opener for incoming freshmen.

4) To give them a sense of connection to history I ask, “How many people here had ancestors who were alive during the 15th century?” About 10% of the hands go up. They often look at each other and mouth, “How the heck am I supposed to know?” I’m sorry to say that this one boggles many minds.

5) To get them to think about the mathematics of the division of the octave I ask them “How many pitches can there be in an octave, if the two pitches can be hypothetically represented by 100 Hz (a string length of 4 meters) and 200 Hz (2 meters)? How many if they can be represented by 200 Hz (2 meters) and 400 Hz (1 meter)?” When they get this wrong, I ask them how many numbers there are between x and 2x.

I’m wondering if any of you have general thought questions you use in your classes/discipline that you’d like to share.

Posted in Students' Thinking | 1 Comment

.ppt? . . . pfft!

In 2002, after most of the initial kinks had been worked out of the Vertical Campus, I had the opportunity to teach a large lecture class (MSC 1003–the music appreciation course, a.k.a. Music in Civilization) using all the smart technology available.

I decided to try PowerPoint (known by its .ppt file extension). I slogged through the program, determined to make slides for three lectures. I compiled some nice illustrations of sound waves and musical instruments, discovered pleasant fonts and colors, added some zippy effects, and spent a lot of time trying out the various bells and whistles. In the end, I found the product ossifying. Something about the slides made them impossible to “riff off of,” as musicians might say. I was disappointed in the software, but figured, “It must be me,” since I was age 50, and this was a new technology that demanded a more malleable brain and a youthful receptiveness to the “new media” I suppose I had lost.

Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to see two, much younger colleagues teach on straightforward music-historical topics using PowerPoint. The first instructor presented a mess of slides, filled with typos and formatting inconsistencies, quite an unstructured piece of work that was hard for me to follow. The second instructor was worse. Besides using a historically inappropriate illustration (a saccharine, late 19th-century rendering of Martin Luther), the second colleague provided too much information. Each of the slides comprised long lists of seven or eight bullet points with a mass of detail. Furthermore, he was incapable of reading the muddle of facts. The student seated next to me was furiously copying the useless text (e.g., “Luther married a nun, Katherine von Bora when he was 42 and she was 26”–remember, this is a music class). My other experiences viewing ppt presentations have not been much better than these.

Hmm. At that point I knew something was wrong. I knew it wasn’t me.


Posted in Teaching Large Classes, Using Technology | 12 Comments