First things first…

Last week, at the end of a very jolly study day on women musicians, a very enthusiastic course participant came over to me to thank me for the session. He had been in attendance throughout the year’s worth of weekly sessions and focus events, and spent a little time reviewing what he had learned, and which modes of presentation had suited him best. ‘There’s one thing,’ he said, ‘that happened in one session which I really take exception to.’ In said session, a tutor had played an excerpt of music by the composer of the week, and then remarked, quite casually, that it was ‘obvious’ that the piece in question was by that composer. It simply couldn’t be by anybody else. ‘And it’s all very well him saying that,’ my participant observed, ‘but the point is that we’re there to learn about such things. If you tell us it’s obvious – and it might well be to him – it just makes the rest of us feel stupid.’

I spend a great deal of my time thinking about how I might best communicate with the various audiences I encounter, either in person or via print. Whilst this gentleman’s remark is pertinent to all kinds of different educational and communicative scenarios, I was particularly struck by its importance in higher education – and to the case of teaching western European ‘classical’ music to today’s students. We live in a time of rich cosmopolitanism and diversity, and our classes include individuals from all over the world. Whilst conservatoires are particularly adept at attracting students from many nationalities, university degree courses in music tend to be ‘whiter’ (I say this based largely on personal experience and casual observation, so please correct me if I’m wrong about this). And as a result, a lecturer might assume a certain level of basic cultural understanding or broad European historical awareness.

Now imagine that your class consists almost entirely of non-European students, and you’re teaching a course on nineteenth-century European art music. What level of familiarity with western European history and culture should you assume? What additional foundation laying do you need to make room for? And, crucially, how do you set up an environment that makes it ok to ask questions if students are unfamiliar with terms and concepts under discussion?

The short answer seems to be: slowly, carefully, and with compassion. As with all classes, some might know more than others. Some are more willing to interrupt, and ask if they don’t understand, than others (and here there might be additional cultural complications of the relative acceptability any given individual feels about interrupting or questioning a tutor). Some things you might misjudge and find, come tutorial time, that you were not understood – which gives you the chance to fix this. Sometimes, you might ask if everyone’s comfortable with a given concept and they will nod in an ‘of course’ sort of way… and that’s fine too, because it’s always better to have asked on both sides of the conversation. Better go with the attitude of ‘first things first’, and not leave them staring at you in panic and confusion. And, by the way, I have never told them anything is obvious. It is gross arrogance to assume that just because it happens to be obvious in my universe, it is also obvious in theirs.

There is another issue to be addressed here, which is not only relevant to a broadly international class with a wide range of different educational and cultural backgrounds. For years, as educational goalposts shift at school level, lecturers have been left with the task of getting their students to whatever level they think their new undergraduates should be at in order to ensure parity with previous generations. Variations on the ‘they don’t know as much as they used to’ gripe are familiar, I’m sure, to all of us who have ever taught in HE. But here’s the thing. Shouting at the students of 2015 because they don’t know what the students of 1992 knew is completely and utterly pointless. And you know what? If they don’t know something you need them to know, the fastest way to fix it is not, in fact, to shame them all into feeling like idiots, but to either tell them directly, or point them in the direction of finding the answer for themselves. I’m so bored of the kind of mentality that places the focus on how many firsts are in the room – and I mean that from the point of view of administrators who count them, teachers who consider them to be the only students worth their time, and students who feel as if obtaining one is the sole purpose of attending university. I’d rather they left with a high 2:II, a far better grasp of the subject than they had when they arrived, a love of learning and exploration, and an understanding that they have tools, and a way to learn more, as well as that coveted certificate signed by the Vice Chancellor. As educators, we are bound to do the best we can by the students sitting in front of us, at that time, on that day, in that place. Surely that, at least, is obvious?

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