I remembered a maxim about teaching I had read somewhere in St. Augustine: the first rule of any teacher or speaker is to know your students, or your audience. In other words, put yourself in their place and figure out what kind of approach might engage them. Or as the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard put it, find the "point of contact." So I did just that. What lessons did I learn? First, I learned one size does not fit all when it comes to teaching. The student determines the manner in which content will be learned. It's the job of the teacher to figure that out. A teacher needs to be part artist, relying on intuitions and informed hunches about his students.
WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - In the summer of 1979, I started looking for a teaching job in a market where practically no positions were available. My new Ph.D from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, was hanging on the wall; the end of a 12-year journey that started at the University of Texas studying philosophy before turning to theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.
An unexpected door, however, suddenly opened. The local Southern Baptist College, Mercer University Atlanta, offered a B.A. to inmates at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta and the Phillips Correctional Facility in Buford, GA. Dr. Jean Hendricks, still my ideal of an academic leader, offered me a job for the year teaching at both institutions, and I eagerly grabbed it. I wanted so badly to be in a classroom, it didn't matter where it was or who I would be teaching.
As it turned out, I would become the student and my inmate-students would be the teachers. From them I would receive my greatest lessons in how to teach and learn why the vocation of teacher really is, as described by literary critic George Steiner, the "postman for the Absolute."
The two classes were somewhat different: At the federal facility my class was entirely African-Americans, mostly from urban areas in the Northeast. The students at the state prison, where my class was held in the weight room, were from Georgia, and all but one was African-American. What they all had in common were drugs - all but a few were serving prison sentences on various drug charges and other crimes connected to selling illegal drugs. The guys in the fed were more savvy and seemed to welcome my fledgling efforts at teaching more than the other class of ten rather sullen faces that appeared before me twice a week as I took my seat on the bench press. But, I would learn an important lesson from both.
I was asked to teach two classes at the federal penitentiary; History of Western Music and Modern Literature: From the Romantics to the Moderns. My doctoral work had included extensive study of the literature involved, but I had to rely on my passion for, and study of, classical music to provide the kind of responsible overview the music class required. In the first class when the text books and syllabus were handed out, it was clear, as I had feared, my students had no previous experience of the kind of music I would be playing and discussing. So I had to get creative.
I remembered a maxim about teaching I had read somewhere in St. Augustine: the first rule of any teacher or speaker is to know your students, or your audience. In other words, put yourself in their place and figure out what kind of approach might engage them. Or as the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard put it, find the "point of contact." So I did just that.
At the next class, I handed each student three sheets of paper containing identical questions. At the top they were to write the name of the musical selection I played them, and then they were to answer three questions: Did you like the music? Did it move you emotionally? What did it make you think about? Not very scholarly, of course, but music is that kind of medium, whether classical or popular. These questions established a "point of contact" that none of them could deny, and perhaps might even enjoy. They did, and far more than I anticipated.
Starting with chant, moving through its development into organum and early polyphony, I noticed the students were filling in more and more of the space. At first the sheets they turned in were spare, but gradually they started filling up and, as you might guess, became very revealing and touching. When my friends found out I was playing Medieval and Renaissance music to my students at the federal penitentiary there was mild scoffing until I told them about the day one of them wept openly.
I didn't pick the Penitential Psalms of Orlando de Lassus on purpose, although as I handed out the sheets, I realized the irony (See Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). These psalm settings were among the more accessible and moving examples of choral polyphony I knew, so I chose them, not realizing what impact the words, which were on the sheet in front of them, might have.
From Psalm 51:
Wash me throughly from my wickedness: and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my faults: and my sin is ever before me.
[Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea: et a peccato meo munda me. Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco: et peccatum meum contra me est semper.]
William was easily the largest man in the room, and the other inmates, I noticed, looked to him as their leader. When he had warmed up to the class, everyone else warmed up with him. It was my practice to scan their faces as the music played, to gauge their level of enjoyment or lack of it. Then I noticed William's head was down and his hand was shielding his face, but the heaving of his shoulders gave him away. I went to William and put my hand on his shoulder, leaned over, and said, "Yeah, this really gets to me too." I was surprised that he looked up at me. As he did, William pointed at the lines from Psalm 51, and I nodded in recognition.
The class never felt the same after that, and after I played Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess" I was met with a chorus of voices, "Play it again, again, wow!" Yes, they learned the historical periods of Western music, the evolution from monophony to polyphony, homophony, chromaticism, and atonality, but I didn't expect them to remember much of that. Although, I do hope they remember that once they heard some "classical music," and it was really beautiful, and the guy who taught the class, well, he was really into it and not a snob at all.
What lessons did I learn? First, I learned one size does not fit all when it comes to teaching. The student determines the manner in which content will be learned. It's the job of the teacher to figure that out. A teacher needs to be part artist, relying on intuitions and informed hunches about his students.
Second, I learned never, and I mean never, to become a slave to "covering the material." The Absolute, as Steiner called it, is not delivered through short term memorization. When the Absolute arrives it changes the student, it sets loose a desire, a love, an appreciation that acts like a "gateway drug," leading to more and more powerful and substantial experiences of learning.
These lessons have guided me ever since, whether during my 15 years of teaching, my 15 years of publishing and editing, or my ongoing lecturing, writing, and work on TV and radio shows. And I have learned the lesson comes down to this: the teacher does not deliver the Absolute, as if it could be read in a book, or even all books. The teacher delivers the Absolute by awakening the student to its presence, and once awakened, the student can do the rest.
(Tomorrow I will tell the lesson about morality I learned from my students at the Phillips Correctional Facility in Buford, GA.)
© Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D
Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor and Movie Critic at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, is heard on the Ave Maria Radio Network.
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