Missing Mixing

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After I got to Wisconsin last August, I only had eleven days between my arrival here and when I had to teach my first class. I’ve taught classes on short notice before, but I’ve almost always done so at places where I’ve already been teaching, so I have some idea about curriculum requirements and the like before I start planning things out. Trying to put together classes in less than two weeks when I’ve not only never taught at an institution before, but I’ve gone all my life without even setting foot in the state until eleven days before the start of the semester, is a totally different challenge. Add in the fact that the institution was already transitioning from statewide to regional governance, and my first weeks here in Wisconsin wound up being a real trial by fire. I got singed a few times there, but I think I came out of it okay.

Most of the courses I taught my first semester here were English courses, so I had over a decade of experience to fall back on there as I got things around for the start of the semester, even if teaching English at a Wisconsin college is substantially different from teaching English at colleges in Ohio and Michigan. (Back in Toledo, I sometimes had to change my approach when I was teaching the same course at different campuses, just because of the educational experiences of the people from each region of the city.) I also had to teach a study skills course last fall, though, and I’d never done anything like that before, at least not formally; I’ve always given my students hints about how to study, both for my classes and others, but that’s far different from teaching a full course devoted to study skills. There really wasn’t much guidance for me on how to teach the course — it had evolved, at least at our campus, into a strange hybrid between a first-year reading course and study skills — and it was already set to be fazed out at the end of the academic year, so I was given a lot of freedom in terms of how I structured the course. As always when it comes to curriculum design, that freedom can be a blessing and a curse.

I’ve always emphasized the need for teachers to be knowledgeable and understanding of how their students grew up in environments far different from how they grew up, and as the pace of technological change has accelerated over the past decades, that difference has gotten wider and wider. Encyclopaedias on CD-ROM, and dialing into the local library with a modem to use their card catalogue from the comfort of home, were cutting-edge when I was going through my high school years; I was watching Star Trek: The Next Generation every weeknight, but I didn’t think that we’d have consumer technology so close to the Enterprise-D’s amenities just twenty-five years later. Especially as colleges get more and more students who grew up owning smartphones from a very young age, this creates all kinds of challenges for instructors when it comes to capturing and keeping students’ attention. (The only thing on the cell phone I had as an undergraduate that could have distracted me was a Snake game.)

Music is another thing that varies widely from generation to generation, and while I’ve always given my students a list of recommended music at the start of the term — not just my favourite artists and albums, but also a long list of good music to study to — teaching that study skills class gave me an opportunity to explore the effects of music on my students’ study habits even more. I created a couple of YouTube playlists of good studying music across a variety of genres — everything from classical to lo-fi hip-hop — and even had my students work on homework from their other courses in one class, just so I could play music for them and we could see how different kinds of music affected their ability to concentrate on their work.

That study skills course has been replaced by a new orientation class for incoming students, and even though I’ll be teaching that, I don’t know if I’ll be able to do the same kind of experimenting with students when it comes to how different kinds of music help (or hurt) their ability to study. I’ll still have lots of students in all my classes, though, and I always want to help them out however I can, and since I’ve been creating playlists on YouTube, I can just email them links to each playlist I create and have them experiment on their own. (This is assuming that they even check the playlists out, which I know a lot of them won’t do, but at least I can feel better knowing that I tried to help them out.) I’ve got syllabi to rework here, and pedagogical articles to read up on, but I’m still placing this whole YouTube playlist idea pretty high up on my list of things to get done before the new semester starts next month.

More than just making playlists of good studying music, though, I have to admit that I’ve been strongly tempted to come up with other playlists of excellent music to share with my students. I already give them that sheet of music recommendations at the start of each term, so putting together a few playlists and then sneaking the links into the emails I send out wouldn’t be that difficult, and it would be a lot more convenient for my students. I hesitate to do that, though, because even as much as sharing that music might help my students, I worry about being seen as a music snob, especially since I don’t care much for the kind of music that my students (or at least my students last year) love to listen to. I don’t think their favourite music is bad by any means, but it’s not what I like to listen to; these days, though, even that distinction can come off like I’m dissing their music, and a lot of students can misinterpret that as me saying that I don’t care for them as people; I certainly struggled with that when I was their age. (I feel like I should shotgun an Ensure every time I use that phrase.)

I made my fair share of mixtapes back in the day, and I even made a few mix CDs when I was an undergraduate, and there’s a real joy to that whole process when you know that it’s going to give you the chance to share some really awesome stuff with people . When you know that a good percentage of those people won’t even bother listening to a single second of your efforts, though, that kind of takes the joy out of it. I don’t know how far I’ll wind up going when I start making those YouTube playlists later this month, but it feels like all I can do is hope that at least one student winds up liking the music I share with them.

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