Monday, June 8, 2009

A Small Gift to My Students

My dad told me a story once about when he was a boy growing up in Kansas City. One of the neighborhood kids had found out that he was related to Daniel Boone. Of course, at the time, Daniel Boone was a superstar and coonskin caps were a frequent sight in any group of kids. This boy took every opportunity to bring up his famous relative, leaving the other kids wishing that they had a famous ancestor.

Now, this particular neighbor kid eventually moved away, and after seeing the moving van drive off, my dad pointed out — for probably the hundredth time — that the boy was related to Daniel Boone, and wished aloud that he had a famous relative. It was at this point that my grandmother decided to tell him that he was, in fact, related to President Abraham Lincoln, which out-awesomed Daniel Boone by a factor of ten or twelve and which caused my father to utter in stunned disbelief, "You tell me this now?" My grandmother's reason for withholding this precious bit of information was just what you'd expect it to be, if you had ever met my grandmother: she wanted my dad to live on his own merits, not those of some famous relation. (And that's just as well, considering there are more than enough rogues and crooks on my father's side to more than balance out whatever Honest Abe's family contributed to the bloodline.)

Fast forward to seven or eight years ago, I found the source of my grandmother’s information: the obituary of my great great grandmother, Abigail Stover (neé Nave), which stated that President Lincoln was her great uncle. Unfortunately, for Lincoln to be anyone's great uncle, he would have to have a sibling with grandchildren, and President Lincoln did not... his younger brother Thomas died at the age of three, and his older sister, Sarah Grigsby, died while giving birth to her first child, who also did not survive the birth.

My dad: “Well, they tended to embellish things a bit back then.”

So, on to the gift: another type of genealogy. The connection here is not blood, but learning. My faculty advisor for my Masters and Doctorate was Dr. Evan Copley, who retired a few years back. He studied at Michigan State University with H. Owen Reed, who studied with, among others, Bohuslav Mårtinu, on whose third piano concerto I wrote my own dissertation. Reed actually studied with several other composers of note, and of course they each studied with other great musicians, and so on.

Now, this genealogy comes, quite literally, from an afternoon spent on Wikipedia, which means 1) you can trace my steps if you like, and 2) well, the information is as reliable as anything else on Wikipedia. It is, of course, woefully incomplete; I’ve studied with many other professors, as has Dr. Copley, and so forth and so on. If this type of thing interests you, think of it as a “start.” Most importantly, don’t put much stock in this; it’s not going to mean anything on a resumé, and bringing it up to others will just make you look pretentious. My main point in doing this is to show you that it’s actually a pretty small world, and that the masters we study existed in the same world we do, even to the point of affecting us more directly than we may have previously considered.

So I give you my “Professorial Lineage”; and if you’re a student of mine, I commend it to you for further expansion downward.

(PDF, 15.9 MB)

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Force is Strong With These

Thanks to everyone who came to my presentation on "The Music of Star Wars" last night... it was great to have such a nice turnout (I think it was assisted by Dr. Dickensheets recommending it to her students as something they could attend for class credit).

This presentation often sparks people sending me humorous Star Wars-related links which I greatly enjoy. So I'm not being selfish, though, I thought I'd share some of them here.

First, I'm guessing most everyone has seen Corey Vidal's Star Wars video. No offense to Corey, who did a fine job, but I'd like to point out that it's not him singing; he's lip-syncing a tune by an absolutely fantastic a capella group out of Utah called Moosebutter. If you like this, check out their website, where you can listen to any of their other pieces as well. In fact, Moosebutter did their own Youtube video in response to Corey's, which I think is better:

The next video is one from a while back that I'm guessing many people haven't seen. It's Joe Nussbaum's independent short film George Lucas in Love.

Lastly, thanks to Jon Fisher for sharing this one with me, one which had me in stitches, laughing out loud in my office, making people passing by outside wonder what was going on:

Star Wars: Retold (by someone who hasn't seen it) from Joe Nicolosi on Vimeo.

May the force be with you!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Do and Redo

One of the things I think I've become known for at UNC is my homework policy, which is very lenient: I allow students to turn homework in late, and I allow them to resubmit assignments for a higher grade as many times as they can until they get a perfect score or the semester ends. This is not just something I do in order to be popular or well-liked (although that's a nice side-effect, to be sure); it's a policy about which I've given a great deal of thought, and which has evolved over the last ten years or so. It works the best for me for several reasons:
  • In my classes, homework presents the student with the topics and types of exercises that they will find on the exams. Thus, gaining a real understanding of the homework is the best way to prepare for the exams.
  • Often, the misunderstanding of a single element can cause a cascade of errors throughout the homework. If someone misunderstands how to build a particular type of chord, for example, it could be disastrous for a long assignment which uses that chord throughout. Grading that assignment objectively might result in a very low score — a 12%, for example — that does not truly portray the student's understanding of the assignment as a whole. However, knowing that the student can fix and resubmit the assignment frees me from feeling like I am condemning that student to a horrible fate while remaining objective.
  • Allowing a student to "try again" — or submit homework even though they didn't meet the deadline — reduces the chances that the student will throw up his or her hands and "give up" with that particular assignment... something that benefits no one.
  • The system actually makes grading much easier. Because students can redo their assignments, grading consists of identifying which problems are wrong, and not explaining why they are wrong — this is left as an exercise to the student as he or she is redoing the assignment. Of course, if a student continues to make the same mistake after a few redos, I will give them some guidance either on paper or in person. And because I allow students to turn in assignments after the deadline, I don't need to keep track of when a particular paper is handed in, nor do I need to play judge and jury regarding reasons for papers being late. (And, as any teacher can tell you, the whole "judge and jury" role is an exhausting one.)
The only drawbacks to my system is that students sometimes take advantage of it too much. I've had students go the entire semester without turning in anything, only to frantically complete all of their homework by the end of the semester and hand it all in. Unfortunately, this generally results in some very poorly done homework and no chance to redo it, and I can only hope that the student learns a valuable life lesson as a result. However, I think that giving students these opportunities to manage themselves — even though, to quote a colleague, it gives them "freedom to fail" — is an example of respect from professor to student, something to which all students have a right.