President Roger Brown's Teaching Journal (2007)

The president spends a semester teaching.

Last year, President Roger Brown spent a week shadowing faculty member Bob Pilkington. This year, he goes one step further and joins Liberal Arts Department associate professor Sally Blazar in teaching a course. He'll update this page periodically throughout the semester with his insights into the rewards and challenges of teaching as well as the impact of the liberal arts on music students.

  Sally Blazar
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Friday, February 23, 2007

Teaching Identity: Who am I? What is my destiny? Why is some cheddar cheese yellow and some white?

Two years ago, I went through the registration and audition process with the entering first-year students. Last year, I spent a week following Bob Pilkington, associate professor in the Jazz Composition Department, to all his classes and activities—harmony and ear training classes, the Afro-Pop Ensemble, and departmental meetings. This year, I wanted to better understand the liberal arts at Berklee, so with the recommendations from the dean and the chair of her department, I am "co-teaching" the course Identity with Sally Blazar.

First, let me explain that I use the term "co-teaching" when in fact what I really am is Professor Blazar's sous chef. She plans the menu; I chop some onions and dice some carrots. This class seemed like a great one because the very topic students explore is allowing me to get to know them in a deeper way. Identity is about who we are, the groups with which we identify, the influences that guide us or against which we rebel, and how we grow and transform through our lives.

The liberal arts at Berklee are not the principal reason students come to the college. I had heard from some faculty and students that many grudgingly take the courses and often wonder how relevant they are for their musical careers. My personal view is that as a college we owe our students a broad and varied education, with not only world-class musical instruction, but also courses that will open students up to the worlds of art, literature, history, science, and topics like this one, that cause reflection and introspection and a better understanding of people from other cultures, nationalities, races, and various identity groups. We often think of musicians as unidimensional, when in fact many have broad and expansive interests. Charles Ives was a successful entrepreneur and businessman before turning his attention to music. Herbie Hancock majored in electrical engineering in college. Bonnie Raitt majored in sociology and African studies at Harvard. Miles Davis was an active and enthusiastic painter. Kris Kristofferson was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and studied English literature at Oxford University.

I have been very impressed with both the qualifications and the commitment of Berklee's liberal arts faculty. We are blessed to be in Boston, a place that produces more Ph.D.s per capita than anywhere on earth. And many choose to teach at Berklee because, in addition to their primary scholarship, they are musicians or lovers of music and feel an affinity with Berklee students.

Professor Blazar got her undergraduate degree from Tufts and her Ph.D. from Boston University. She is active in the Berklee GLBT Allies, a group that provides support to students, faculty, and staff who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered. When I approached her with my request, she was curious but also a little uncertain. How would students react? Would the class dynamic be inhibited? But she agreed to give it a try, and we had a few conversations about how we would structure the class over the fall semester.

Our first class was on January 22. The classroom is actually part of the Boston Architectural College, which uses its classrooms mainly in the evenings. We have about 20 students in the class, roughly 2/3 men and 1/3 women, which is pretty typical for Berklee.

The students sat very quietly before class began. Professor Blazar and I gave the students an introduction, and we were very careful to explain what I was doing there. We had decided not to advertise the fact that I would be teaching during registration to avoid attracting students who were there out of curiosity. But now we wanted to let them know I would be there and that if anyone found it intrusive or inhibiting, they could utilize the drop/add period to find an alternative class or register that they would rather not have me there. To most, it seemed like a nonissue. A few said they liked the idea that I would come to class with them.

We began with an exercise of introducing ourselves to the entire group and adding one unusual or interesting fact about ourselves. One student has a deep interest in cheddar cheese. Other students, not quite believing him, asked a number of probing questions about cheddar cheese: What makes some yellow and others white? Why are the cheeses aged? He astounded us with his intricate knowledge and even came the following class with new insights he picked up from researching some of the questions further. Cheddar cheese has become symbolic of the curious quirks that make us distinctive individuals.

We did an exercise of privately completing this sentence: "I am ________." At a later class we would analyze the categories into which our answers could be organized. Then we moved into some smaller groups to discuss the origin of our names. In my group, we had students with Spanish, French, English, and Italian last names, including one reputed to be a swear word in its language of origin. One student was named Joy because her parents had not thought it possible to conceive her. I shared that my first name, Roger, is said to mean "spear thrower" in an early Germanic language, was spread to England by the Normans, and was the name of a ruler of Sicily.

Joy Daniels
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

I don't know exactly what I had been expecting—maybe a few sullen students with stocking caps pulled over their eyes refusing to engage—but the students are intelligent and motivated. When I mentioned this, they suggested that this is an elective and that they are upper-semester students, which may explain the high level of motivation. And unlike the beginning of class, when all had sat very quietly, the conversations were lively and spirited.

I was struck by the care with which Professor Blazar led the discussion. Often, when asked for an opinion, she redirected the discussion to ask the students' opinions. She encourages them to speak to one another, and not just address themselves to her. Knowing that we will eventually move into potentially divisive subjects such as race, gender, nationality, and religion, she seems to be consciously using the beginning classes to build a sense of commonality, respect, and trust.

At our next class, we discussed the first reading, "The Ugly Duckling," the Hans Christian Andersen children's tale. This is a story I used in my inaugural address to characterize a student—the editor of the student newspaper The Groove—who had described her experience of not fitting in at her high school in Florida. Everyone was interested in the football games and the prom, but she was totally absorbed by music, participated in all-state chorus, took piano lessons, and spent her time "reharmonizing Tori Amos songs." When she came to Berklee, she finally felt part of a supportive, affirming community—like a swan who had been living among ducklings.

A careful reading of the actual story stirred up a provocative discussion. How could the young swan's mother reject him? What message does it send that he was only accepted when he became physically beautiful? Could beauty have been a metaphor for something else? Is beauty to the turkey the same as to the ducks and the swans? Is it helpful to be told you are an ugly duckling and life will get better? Many students noted that the swan is suicidal at the end of the story, just before finally being accepted and appreciated by the swans and feeling the greatest happiness of his life.

Also today, we began Professor Blazar's famous "name chain" exercise. I can't believe I have never seen it used before. The first person in the circle says her name, then the next names her and gives his name, and so on, until the final person names everyone. Those in her prior classes groaned when she mentioned it, but we all seemed to enjoy it. The person who volunteered to start was right next to me, which meant I would be last and need to remember all the names. I concentrated intently, because I figured it would be especially hard on someone if I forgot his or her name. Remarkably, we all came through with shining colors, and the names have stuck.

At our most recent class, I shared with the students that this journal entry would be coming out soon. We had some photos taken and all agreed to be included. Then I commiserated with them that not only did Professor Blazar find all the errors of grammar and punctuation in their papers (which I have been reading), she also did the same with my first draft of this piece. She is quite the talented editor and a very thorough, careful grader of papers.

I had one observation about "The Ugly Duckling" that I kept to myself, simply because I'm trying to let the students discuss without offering too many of my own opinions. Before the ugly duckling was born, his mother grew weary of sitting on his large egg. All the other ducklings had long ago hatched, and she almost gave up on him. In fact, a close friend encouraged her to stop incubating the egg, to abandon it. Then the duckling was born and did not fit in at all. He faced severe rejection by the other ducks, the turkeys, the cats, the chickens, and a myriad of other barnyard creatures. Growth takes time. It is painful. We face rejection and self-doubt. Often our best work takes the fullness of time to blossom. Sometimes our best selves only emerge through hardship and suffering.

Philip Lee, Javi Mendez, Ryan Heenan, Susan Zucco
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Tuesday, May 1

A Fishing Expedition

We have talked about many dimensions of identity, now two-thirds of the way through the class. We looked at the human being as a biological creature, with a body, physical characteristics, instincts. We discussed culture, ethnicity, race, religion, and language, and tried to understand what these terms actually mean. Perhaps most interesting to me were the autobiographies that the students wrote.

Our class is relatively diverse along the dimensions that we normally consider: two students with Puerto Rican roots, one Peruvian by way of Miami, two Jewish students, many Catholic and Protestant, one African American, one Korean American. They come from a dozen U.S. states.

More interesting than these categories, though, are the students' life experiences. One grew up working in the family restaurant and endured a sequence of tragic circumstances among family members; one was in several homeless shelters as a young child; one was prom queen of her high school; one experienced the disintegration of his family, living with a parent, a sibling, and friends, and not really knowing where home was; another became an avid BMX biker; one a skateboarder; one a competitive fencer; one was offered a Division I baseball scholarship after having played in a national baseball tournament as a young person. Many describe their childhood as idyllic and sheltered, while others have already experienced some of the most severe trauma life can offer—assault, depression, and the death of loved ones. Some had very unusual experiences, such as a Native American coming-of-age ritual atop a mountain or an intense pursuit of yoga as a preteen.

Reading the papers, I was struck by the consistent role music had played in the early adolescence of the students in helping them, both with these struggles and with the normal anxieties of those years. As a simple exercise, we asked the students to graph on a timeline their worst year, and then their best, and then the time music became important to them.

The vast majority said ages 12 to 14 were the worst, with a few indicating that the later years were tough. For most, this was almost precisely the time that music had become an important pursuit and a key part of their identity. In terms of best years, 18 years old was the most frequent choice and the scatter was closely concentrated around 18, with several in the early 20s. The tough times were ones of confusion, not fitting in, estrangement from parents, anxieties about the future, and insecurities about identity—the very topic of our class. The good times were characterized by starting to find friends; emerging as a confident, strong person; asserting oneself in the world; finding a musical voice; and letting go of fear.

Almost all found great comfort and confidence in their musical abilities. Many had received awards and accolades, won competitions, inspired avid teachers and mentors, or won battle-of-the-bands competitions. A few had to go against the grain of family academic traditions to pursue music, especially in college.

Joey Sulkowski, Michelle Vento, and Roger Brown
Photo by Nick Balkin

Reading about their musical journeys made me eager to see them in action. I was able to catch Leslie Echevarria in a performance at Singers Night. I remember Leslie because two years ago I was part of the ceremony at which she received a scholarship through the Boston City Music program. This program offers private lessons, ensembles, and music theory courses to aspiring middle and high school students in Greater Boston. Those with exceptional talent and motivation are given full scholarships. We are currently expanding this program to several other cities, including Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and Seattle. A number of other sites are under consideration, as well.

Leslie was phenomenal. I was so proud of her, in part because I had known her at the beginning of her Berklee career; in part because I felt our scholarship support was clearly directed to a deserving musician; and, perhaps most of all, because she is in my Identity class and I now strongly identify with my Identity class.

Most recently, we have been discussing race. It was only a century ago that serious thinkers considered the Scottish, Irish, and Welsh to be of a different race than the English. Race is one of those identifiers that seem to be clear until you press yourself to say what it is, beyond the construct itself. Clearly we are all one species and can produce offspring across all racial boundaries. Race is today largely associated with the big three—people with the defining features common to Asia, Africa, or Europe. Yet this ignores the vast amount of diversity within those categories and the intermingling among them not just recently, but for millennia. Scientifically, race is an illusive, perhaps even nonsensical, concept.

For many people, these categories seem absurd when examined closely, yet they have had such social significance for so long—being used to deny citizenship and basic rights—that we would be naive to ignore the social consequences of these divisions we have imposed on ourselves and one another. Through our class and small-group discussions, we have seen how often those in the majority, in this case white students, can be oblivious to their own race and its consequences.

At a recent class, we watched an amazing video called A Class Divided, about a third-grade teacher in a small Iowa town, Jane Elliot, who created an exercise for her class in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. She divided the all-white class into those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes. She proceeded to tell the blue-eyed children that they were superior intellectually, gave them more privileges (though nothing of great substance), reinforced the negative images of the brown-eyed children by publicly calling them out for mistakes, and made them wear an identifying collar.

Almost immediately, the children began to read from the script that is familiar to us all. The "superior" children looked happy and attentive, were supportive of the teacher, and performed much better than the other group on a phonetics exercise. Some shunned their former best friends and called them names. The "inferior" children were sluggish and withdrawn. One picked a fight with a blue-eyed child who teased him, and they performed much less effectively on the academic exercise. Their sadness was palpable.

The next day she reversed the arrangement. And the children immediately shifted their roles, despite knowing the drill at this point. The brown-eyed children set a record time for completion of the task that the day before they had performed so poorly.

We had a discussion of what a world would be like in which distinctions between blue- and brown-eyed children were institutionalized, not just for three hours, but for three centuries. How would wealth be distributed? Who would have political power? How might that political power be used to reinforce the very stereotypes that created it?

Last week, Professor Blazar and I treated the students to a lunch at the Atlantic Fish Company restaurant. I used the opportunity to ask them for advice about how to make Berklee a better college. They had lots of ideas: more bike racks, more fitness and gym options, help with graduate school applications, training in professionalism for students, vocal classes for non-vocal principals, revising proficiency requirements, and expanding recording studio capacity.

Will Cady, Joy Daniels, Joey Sulkowski
Photo by Nick Balkin

This led to a good discussion about what drew them to Berklee, what they have found rewarding, and what they hope we can continue to improve. They all liked the idea of more dorms and more study-abroad opportunities (in fact, 85 percent said they would want to study abroad). They were effusive in their praise of the many professors who they say go the extra mile, are always on time for lessons, are welcoming during office hours, and are just gifted teachers. They were also critical of some who are late to lessons, spend too much time just chatting in lessons, or are impatient with students.

I was interested in the comment about graduate schools. Carl Beatty, chief of staff in the Office of the President and a faculty member for 17 years before that, has done some interesting work pulling together a list of graduate schools that Berklee graduates have attended. It is a very impressive list, including Brandeis, Brown, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, UNC Chapel Hill, UC Berkeley, Indiana, NEC, Juilliard, and Yale. Many Berklee graduates went on to pursue advanced degrees in music, but a surprising number are pursuing academic or professional degrees outside music. Many have become lawyers, some have become doctors, and one is pursuing a PhD at the MIT media lab. I am virtually certain that the average parent of a prospective Berklee student has no idea that so many options are open to our graduates.

Indeed, that is one of the reasons I consider the liberal arts at Berklee so vital. Our graduates cannot know what the twists and turns of the music industry—or any industry, for that matter—will be. Berklee gives them a powerful musical tool kit, and I'm convinced it is the richest and most diverse one available with its strong emphasis on music technology, core elements of theory and ear training, extensive and wide-ranging ensembles, gifted private lesson instructors, and a breadth of major options, from film scoring to music business. Our liberal arts offerings are much stronger than I would have guessed before I became president, and they have the potential to become even stronger still.

We are well on the way to implementing many of the ideas students suggested. Our study-abroad program in Athens, Greece, has been very successful, and a second option in Freiburg, Germany, is soon to follow. Our new coffee house, Café 939, should open next winter, and it will provide not only a great place for students to hang out, but also a cutting-edge performance venue programmed by the Music Business Department, allowing more public performance opportunities for students. The new piano/vocal dual principal has been very well received and guitar/vocal is likely to follow soon. But perhaps the greatest need is for more of the discussion and dialog that Professor Blazar has been able to inspire in this class. We need to keep finding ways to encourage students to know one another in deeper ways.

Wednesday, August 29

Cheddar Cheese: A Metaphor for Identity

Shortly after the middle of the semester, many of our students suffered some "senior-itis." They regained some steam as the end of school approached, and rallied for their final project. Many chose to do a presentation on a topic of identity of their choosing, while others wrote papers on various topics.

We had presentations on twins, women's roles in the 1950s, siblings and the effects of birth order, early childhood development, Native American coming-of-age rituals, adoption, and schizophrenia, illustrating the incredible range of the topic of identity, far beyond issues typically thought of as concerning identity, such as gender, ethnicity, and culture. Again, I was impressed by the thoughtful presentations and the level of creativity and understanding the students brought to their work.

Professor Blazar and I became quite close through the process. We talked between classes about some of the issues of co-teaching—maintaining balance, figuring out who would take the lead, fears about being the disciplinarian or, as Sally called it, "the nice parent/mean parent" syndrome. I still marvel at the thoroughness and care with which she reviewed and commented on papers. I realized that students are not likely to realize how valuable it is to get that kind of individual attention and clear feedback on their writing. I believe our in-class dynamic worked quite well, with her most often taking the lead and me directing a wrap-up discussion about a particular topic that emerged during the class.

Our final class was a celebration. I had been waiting all semester for this. I went to the best cheese store in Boston, Formaggio, and bought four different cheddar cheeses. The people at this store have voluminous knowledge of cheeses, so I got a dissertation from a nice young man about how cheesemaking had progressed from Italy, through France, to England, and then to Canada and the United States. He recommended two wonderful British cheeses from Somerset, which is right next to the village of Cheddar where the originals were first made, one from Canada, and one from Vermont.

He explained that the type of dairy cows, the food they eat, the type of cheesecloth, the curing in wax or other methods, and the aging all affect the flavor of the cheese. We had a cheese tasting, and we graded the cheeses. All four were very fine, widely admired cheeses, but predictably, the class was divided on favorites. As I recall, the Vermont cheese won the competition, but we all had strong likes and dislikes within this fairly narrow category of foods.

Inadvertently, in our cheese tasting, we had a metaphor for the topic of identity. On the one hand, how much variation would you expect among four fine cheddar cheeses? Yet our tastes and preferences are strongly differentiated. We experienced the paradox of homogeneity and heterogeneity. The most common criticism of a musical style outside one's area of interest is "it all sounds alike." I've heard people say this about jazz, rock, hip-hop, classical, and Latin music. Yet for someone who is a connoisseur of an art form, the most subtle differences are interesting and important, even down to the kind of grass the cows are eating or the gauge of the strings the guitar player is using. To someone who loves cheddars, the subtle hints of apple in a Somerset Keen contrast sharply with the tang of the Black Diamond.

This has helped me understand the sometimes rigid barriers that exist within music. People are often fiercely attracted by a style of music and dismissive of others. That seems strange until one understands that part of what makes people love music is the sense of identity it offers: the anarchical rebellion of a follower of heavy metal, the brooding poetics of the folk rocker, the sense of elevation and transcendence of the tawdriness of modern life by the lover of opera. In a world of six billion people, we need to stand for something, to identify with something, to feel connected and yet be different.

I learned at the last class that while I'd been looking forward to surprising the students with the cheddar cheese gala, they had been busy putting together a surprise for me, as well. They presented me with a gift of a class picture, framed and with a mat signed by them. Only one student wasn't in class for the picture taking, no small feat for classes at the end of the semester, when everyone at Berklee has a tremendous number of projects to finish up. A friend of one of the students came to photograph all of us, under the guise of needing a group picture for a project in another class. The picture is now hanging on a wall in my office, and it will be a fond reminder of my experience this semester.

I was wistful at the end of the class, though somewhat relieved, because the time commitment in addition to my other activities was a bit overwhelming. I knew that the special chemistry we had in that classroom would be gone. We'd try to stay in touch, but it would be hard. The students would scatter to Los Angeles, to New York, to San Juan, to Nashville, to their yet-unknown destinies. I can say for sure, though, that this special group of students will continue to inform my aspirations for Berklee for years to come. I am glad that Sally and I will have a special bond and continue to see one another. But most of all, I feel privileged to have a job that gives me the chance to be at least a small part of the lives of such interesting and talented young people.