[Smt-talk] Writing prose in music theory courses

kos at panix.com kos at panix.com
Sun May 26 08:47:56 PDT 2013

On Sun, 26 May 2013, Lynne Rogers <ROGERSL13 at wpunj.edu> asked:

> I'd like to get a broader sense of the use of prose-writing in music theory 
> courses, especially undergraduate courses. If you ask students to write in 
> your courses,

I got the idea of writing weekly summaries from one of my teachers at Queens 
College.  (It was more of an ethnomusicological course but had theoretical 
elements.)  As a student I hated the responsibility of having to do something 
each week.  And yet, 30 years later, I still recall some of the details learned 
in that class.

But it wasn't just the retention of facts and ideas that was useful.  I found a 
weekly writing assignment went far in refining my ability to express myself in 
formulating ideas and concepts.

In my years of teaching theory, I (and many of my colleagues) have come to the 
conclusion is the primary thing one teaches is "how to learn." I often have to 
teach my students how to take notes, and tell them that if they really want to 
learn, they should copy their notes so that they retain the material and have it 
organized according to their needs.

The distance between taking one's notes for oneself and taking notes for the 
teacher did not seem all that large to me.

Several years ago, for my one-semester introductory course in Schenkerian 
Analysis, I decided to require all students to submit a weekly summary, 
generally averaging two single-spaced pages.  I have been very pleased with 
the results.  It gives me a good sense of whether the student is, what they are 
understanding, what is not clear -- whatever the issue is, it comes out in the 
writing (and I can address that more precisely in my notes on their homework). 
In student evaluations, students have been forthright in saying they learned a 
lot, and can't help but feel it's due to the effort they put into the 
weekly summaries.

To be sure, some students have a hard time understanding what is being asked of 
them.  Sometimes students write things like "X went to the board, we discussed 
it, then Y went to the board."  I'm not really interested in a summary of the 
*events* of the class, but of the discussions - of the choices one is faced with 
and by what methods we decide on a particular outcome.  I find that most 
students have been conditioned by their schooling to just come up with the right 
answer and everything else can be forgotten.  I insist that students capture 
the various choices one has in understanding a passage, and why some answers 
provide more convincing answers than others.

Asking students to write class summaries nearly eradicates plagiarism.  When I 
use pieces I have used in the past, there can be no guarantee that the student 
isn't copying from friends who've taken the class previously.  But by requiring 
that they write summaries, I can see if they are listening, particularly if the 
discussion veers off to unique issues particular to only one year.

If your class has no substantial written homework, I enthusiastically recommend 
class summaries.

Bob Kosovsky, Ph.D. -- Curator, Rare Books and Manuscripts,
Music Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
blog:  http://www.nypl.org/blog/author/44   Twitter: @kos2
   Listowner: OPERA-L ; SMT-TALK ; SMT-ANNOUNCE ; SoundForge-users
--- My opinions do not necessarily represent those of my institutions ---

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