Sunday, January 4, 2009

Class Blog & Student Blogs Explained

There are two kinds of blogging in my composition courses: (1) The Class Blog (an example of which you are reading right now), in which I write fairly regular entries (36 last term, but I don't plan as many this term), and (2) Student Blogs (to which there are links on the right side of this page), which are akin to journals.

Here's what they are each designed to do:
  1. The Class Blog. My entries are usually an attempt to engender discussion, or at least thought, on topics relating to music composition (something we tend not to have time for in class), and usually fall into any of four main categories:

    1.1 Composition issues that you may find useful or interesting to think about, such as various dichotomies that composers wrestle with (i.e., the expected vs. the unexpected, "less is more" vs. "more is more," "always give them what they want" vs. "always leave them wanting more," etc.), notation conventions (i.e., the importance of clarity in the score and how to achieve this – see On Musical Detail, Musical Detail Addendum, Nuts and Bolts), specific notational challenges (i.e., how to notate chance elements, etc.), and aesthetics (such as Kandinsky's Theories);

    1.2 Further explanation or information relating to class projects (such as "Why Atonal Music?", written to further explain the rationale behind this aspect of the first Mu3100 project last term, or "Using a Musical Style or Gesture as a Point of Departure," which provided further information on last term's second project); and

    1.3 Basic communication, such as reminders of due dates and other course-specific issues, requests for help (i.e., when a student was stuck without a piano player just days before a class concert last term), class cancellations, party notices, etc.

    1.4 Links to articles, audio recordings, or video clips relating to composition.

  2. Student Blogs, or journals are intended to be primarily a record of feedback received on your weekly composition presentations, as well your response to that feedback. They need not be lengthy — point form is fine — and they need not take more than 5-10 minutes per week to write, especially if you take notes on suggestions as you receive them.

    The main purpose of Student Blogs is to get you to reflect on feedback received, which can help you improve your composition. There have been many examples over the years of students getting the same kind of suggestions for several weeks in a row, but never responding in any way to these suggestions. As a teacher, I never knew if this was because the student disagreed with the suggestions, or never really understood them, or maybe just didn't hear/remember them. If a student keeps a journal, however, I can usually figure out pretty quickly whether it's a matter of not understanding, agreeing with, or having heard the suggestions. And if the journal indicates that it's a case of not understanding, then I can try to explain the suggestion in a different way. I have no problem with a student disagreeing with a suggestion, as long as I know they understood it.

    Sometimes students comment on other student journal entries, which some have found to be helpful and/or encouraging.

    For some students, their weekly blogs become much more than a simple record of comments and responses to those comments. This in no way is expected or required, but it is always interesting to me to read some of the deeper thoughts some have about their music, and the process by which it is created. It helps me better understand both the composition and the person creating the composition. But again, if journalling isn't something you particularly enjoy, do not feel the need to make your weekly entries anything more than a record of comments and your responses. Keep it short and sweet, if you like.

• But why make the blogs compulsory? Well, the simple answer is that past experience would suggest that if I didn't, there would be little student participation in them, and, since I believe they are a good idea, I use a pretty simple marks-based incentive to encourage student involvement.

• What is this 'pretty simple marks-based incentive' of which you speak? It is explained in the course outline, but basically, I'm looking for a brief journal entry every week as explained above, and if you do that you get 10 marks (i.e., 10% of the course grade). If you make a weekly journal entry but NEVER record the feedback you received, you'd get less than 10 marks, but it's hard to say exactly how much less without having a concrete example.

I also ask students to make one brief but thoughtful comment on one of the class blogs every week, and if you do that, you get another 10 marks (i.e., another 10% of the course grade). These also need not take too long, although they might require closer to ten minutes to do than five.

• Do you mark for grammar, spelling, and other nit-picky things? No. I need to understand what you're writing, so these things may have some bearing on that, but no, I am not nit-picky when it comes to grammar, etc. Put a little thought into your blog comment every week and you get an easy 10 marks, and ditto for student journal entries.

• Is there any evidence that students in Mu3100 thought this blogging process was a good idea? Yes; quite a lot! Most of the Mu3100 students in the Fall, 2008 semester had positive things to say about it, and, if interested, you can read their thoughts in their blogs, links to which appear on the right of this page. A sampling of comments:
  • "Blogging is a great way for the class to keep in touch and discuss things we can't get around to discussing in class."
  • "Man, blogs are fun! I should have been doing these a lot more this semester!"
  • "I really appreciate this post as a good reminder of what should be included in the final scores of our compositions."
  • "I think the whole blogging thing is a really good idea since it allows us to communicate with each other in a non-classroom setting and we can get our thoughts down in writing instead of passing in papers."
And no, I didn't make those up! Anyway, all I ask is that you keep an open mind about this blogging business and try it on a weekly basis, even if you are skeptical about it. You may find, as I believe most of the Mu3100 students did, that it is a useful and beneficial part of the course, and if you don't, then feel free to suggest changes at the end of the course.

No comments: