An excerpt of music faculty member Nick Brooke’s Convocation remarks. Enjoy, we did.
The College gave me a Studies Leave, so I don’t teach this term, instead I will be hanging around with you at the salad bar as your resident “adult learner”. I can’t wait. Maybe you can.
I am thus legally able to leak secrets about teaching without seeking asylum in Russia. But lest I become a punkin chunker of pedagogical chestnuts, let me say: I don’t think teaching is SO different from studying. Teaching has that restless curiosity. At Bennington, the faculty is told to teach what keeps us awake. Truth is, I’m most alive when teaching what I’m on the cusp of knowing. Maybe you sparked my interest in it last term. What scares us the most can be the most life-changing, and that’s not saying ”be wild”. As a composer, I create strange sampled collages of pop-cultural disjecta, and sometimes teaching a course on fugue scares me.
Teaching is also a form of improvisation, unlike this speech. One prepares endlessly for class, but ultimately class is a moment of listening, one in which your insights could annihilate my lesson plan. I must go with it, and listen. One prepares, prepares, but then improvises. Take for example the bad-ass improv that began this convocation. In their shredding, Susie Ibarra and Bruce Williamson do not have an innate gene for bad-assness. Susie has tried that elbow-drum gesture a hundred ways, and Bruce was not born on stilts (Comforting note to President Silver: less than 1% of babies are born with congenital stilts).
I remember a provocation from a teacher in grad school. It was the confusing, earlier days of computer music, and everybody was making their own software. But no one had time to document it. It was 2 AM, and I was trying to get a program called CMix, written by my mentor Paul Lansky, to do anything. Nothing worked. The program had a help button, however, with a picture of Paul. If you pressed the button, a recording of Paul’s voice played, saying. “You’ll figure it out”. I was so angry. I kept jamming the button. “You’ll figure it out, you’ll figure it out.” Why spend time programming a button that says “I can’t help you”?
But by 4 AM, I’d figured it out. And the feelings of frustration and challenge probably made the learning stick. It’s part of a give-a fish or teach-to-fish conundrum in teaching new technology. I don’t condone Paul’s shirking of pedagogy, but I also know that teachers are more than manuals. And that learning at its best is like artistic collaboration, improvising not just with data, but with whole approaches to performance, jockeying between modes, and knowing when to take a new tack. In a way, I was being taught to improvise, or as we call it in music, “listen”.
So, as I become a student, I wish you luck. Surprise us. Play. You’ll figure it out.