Music of the Peers

Video games, and the mentality of those who excel at gaming, are under scrutiny from academics looking for helpful pointers. Video games foster learning, whilst keeping the player motivated, and have been touted as a good example to follow. To my mind however, video games still focus on rather well defined targets in boss battles and leveling up etc., and so the temptation to draw an analogy to traditional letter grades (A-F) still persists.

I would like to offer another fringe group who demonstrate a style of learning we should seek to emulate: musicians.

As artists, the targets musicians seek are not well defined. Instead, the vast majority of playing is aimless, unguided, and purely undertaken for the fun of it. Self-satisfaction is always paramount. Richard Feynman called it the ‘pleasure of finding things out’ and it is something artists do well, academics poorly. The musician’s journey involves much blind fumbling, and one must use one’s ears as guides (a challenge for visually oriented mammals like us). But that is half of the fun. Naturally in such a system, mistakes are not punished. Especially in an artist’s formative years, mistakes are actually the most powerful tool for learning, opening up new lines of thought or revealing hidden perspectives.

Further, good musicians seamlessly blend all four of the traditional learning styles such that learning is guaranteed!

1) Auditory; obviously

2) Linguistic; most teachers will tell you to sing what you want to play before even picking up an instrument, and instrumentalists spend most of their time trying to sound like vocalists.

3) Spatial; music theory contains bars, staffs, and what’s known as the ‘circle of fifths’, and music notation creates elaborate artworks that wouldn’t look out of place at a modern abstracts exhibit. Each written line a black and white masterpiece:

4) Kinesthetic; have you seen James Brown?

Finally, music is a collaborative art form. Working with others towards a common goal is the bedrock of any band or orchestra. Symphony requires the uncensored sharing of ideas, unwavering commitment to the cause, and impeccable communication skills. Such traits are all highly coveted in academia, but rarely worked upon.

I see a lot of promise in the style and emphasis that characterizes a musician’s education. It’s not perfect, however. There are still tedious scales, metronome practice, and Bono from U2. But mark my words, if we sow such musical seeds in higher education, we shall reap virtuosos.

What Do We Want? Swamp Drainage!

In the following post, the names have been changed to protect the innocent…


As an ecologist, I was aware of the potentially disastrous consequences of ‘draining the swamp’ even prior to the emergence of a rogue twitter feed, captained by one Blonald J. Rump. Still, I reassured myself that this was politics; sweeping hyperbole and ‘catchphrase’ rhetoric are to be expected, if history is any judge. I don’t give it a second thought, and neither should you.

What does worry me though, is a similar rallying cry emanating from inside my own clique of higher education.  Teaching at all levels is getting an overhaul, and it seems to be WiFi-way or the highway. The attitude of young-career academics can be paraphrased thus: ‘If only the old fusty lecturers of a bygone era would hurry up and retire, we could all get on with fixing this mess’. Or in other words: ‘drain the swamp!’ In the absence of any comment from Mr Blump on the subject, I would like to offer my own reservations concerning this dissent.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the future. I direct any skeptics to my previous revelry for the technological revolution we live amidst. Soon, you will be able to browse the internet directly through your brain, read any book ever written, and instantly communicate with anyone around the globe. A brave new world perhaps, but one that I welcome with open arms.

Support for the new however, does not necessitate disdain for the old. For instance when I teach, I still make a point to move over to the chalkboard for noting equations and figures. Anachronistic perhaps, but I would argue that this is the period of the lecture when my students pay the most attention! They suddenly sit bolt upright, startled by the piercing noise of chalk on slate, perplexed by the white powdery drawing tool. As you might imagine, they have no trouble recollecting the equations (or such and such a figure) for their exam when the time comes, because they have vivid images of me fumbling around with this mysterious, antiquated technology; we wade through the swamp.

It is in its novelty that the chalkboard continues to succeed in engaging the students of today. One would assume that this phenomenon only magnifies in effect as it becomes rarer and rarer. This is why I implore young people to reconcile their ideologies with  traditional pedagogical practices; we are stood on the shoulders of giants after all, best not antagonize them. I support traditional methods not because they are tradition, but because they work! They have after all, got us this far.

Swamp drainage is irrevocable.  Swamps are delicate ecosystems, with each component being honed over millions of years to perfectly suit its role within the system. It is usually our own ignorance to blame, not the swamp, when things seem flawed or sub-optimal. We can modify the ecosystem for our own comfort, or we can be one with nature, the choice is ours. However if we turn our collective backs on the grand history of higher education, we risk throwing out the baby with the swamp-water.