Friday, August 14, 2009

Slow teaching movement?

When we bought our piano, Leon generously offered to give Joel a couple of extra lessons, in the manner, I guess, of a personal master class. He had his first one on Wednesday and he was very very nervous. We had to drive way out into the depths of the south-eastern suburbs in peak hour — grey clouds and misty rain.

I sat down on the couch with the PhD I am examining (yes, this is what you do on long service leave if you don't finish it while on study leave), and half-read; and half-listened.

They started working on Chopin's Nocturne in E flat major, a piece J has only just started to learn. Over the hour, they worked through the right hand melody, but I was so struck by Leon's teaching, as they spent a good twenty minutes on the first phrase. There are some nice performances on YouTube, but the wikipedia page has a recording, plus the score of the opening (scroll down to Opus 9, No.2):



Those first two notes for the right hand feature an anacrusis, the unstressed B flat quaver, that reaches up to the (dotted crotchet) G, which is the first note of the first full bar. Leon described the relationship between these two notes in grammatical terms, as the article before the noun. Yes, it's common enough to think of music as a language, but his analogy has really stuck with me as a way of articulating the relationship between the unstressed and the stressed syllables (sorry; notes). They also did lots of analysis of the chord progressions. I'm sure Leon sensed Joel's nervousness (he normally teaches more advanced students), and was able to modulate his teaching as he worked out what Joel could and couldn't do.

But the slowness of the teaching reminded me of the beauties of close reading, a technique that is often reviled these days as apolitical, overly-formalist and privileging a certain aestheticist kind of writing and reading practice. Yet in medieval literature (and in other forms, too), it can be the best way to teach. I do remember feeling quite pleased, one time, that I had spent a good ninety minutes on the first two stanzas of Chaucer's Parlement of Foulys. Partly because this was the way I was taught, and partly because it was so satisfying to plumb so many depths of syntax, language, classical allusion, voicing, etc. Because I've quoted Chopin, I'm going to quote Chaucer, too.
The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne,
Thassay so hard, so sharp the conquering,
The dredful Ioy, that alwey slit so yerne,
Al this mene I by love, that my feling
Astonyeth with his wonderful worching
So sore y-wis, that whan I on him thinke,
Nat wot I wel wher that I wake or winke.

For al be that I knowe nat love in dede,
Ne wot how that he quyteth folk hir hyre,
Yet happeth me ful ofte in bokes rede
Of his miracles, and his cruel yre;
Ther rede I wel he wol be lord and syre,
I dar not seyn, his strokes been so sore,
But God save swich a lord! I can no more.

But am I becoming hopelessly old-fashioned in my teaching? Is there such a thing as going too slowly? Or being too precious? Certainly in teaching for performance, as with the Chopin, it's hard to imagine rushing through at some global level. Conversely, in some subjects and contexts, I'm conscious of going very quickly, to make sure we can grasp the whole of a text, or a good chunk of it, as the full range of meanings aren't always evident — of course! — in the microscopic examination of two stanzas. But perhaps this kind of detailed explication de texte is not as satisfying to students as it is to me.

I realise, now, as I look at those stanzas, that Chaucer is at one level working through the same problem. Life (or love) is so short, like a text that passes quickly, but the skill of reading and negotiating one's way through it, takes years to learn how to do properly. And the text, like love, like life, that slit so yerne (slides away so quickly) under such examination? No wonder I spent so long on these stanzas: they were insisting I did so!

9 comments:

Pavlov's Cat said...

'... close reading, a technique that is often reviled these days as apolitical, overly-formalist and privileging a certain aestheticist kind of writing and reading practice.'

I've always thought this argument was a load of old cobblers, usually used to get out of doing the hard yards. I could never get anyone to explain to me how one could possibly do any other kind of reading properly without being able to do this kind first, as the cornerstone of any interpretation. It would be like saying to Joel 'Never mind the silly old technique, just make me cry, or, better still, make me want to go and die on the barricades.' As a feminist critic I only ever felt things fall into place as a convincing argument when I had begun with micro-close reading, one word at a time, and all the best feminist (and other engagé) literary criticism I've read does the same thing.

But it's so much easier and more satisfying just to tick off the boxes marked Sexist, Racist, Classist and Homophobic -- without having acquired any of the tools to be able to say why, or even to tell in the first place -- and then say 'Look, I'm morally superior, now give me a cookie.'

*SNORT*

"But am I becoming hopelessly old-fashioned in my teaching?"

Only if you don't want them to understand the how and why.

"Is there such a thing as going too slowly?"

I am sure the bean counters think so, but I can't imagine you caring about that, at least not in this context. (I have bean counters on the brain, having recently sat up half the night to finish my own PhD examination report with the university breathing down my neck. Six single-spaced A4 pages -- do you think I overdid it?)

stray said...

I tend to think of it like Slow Food. It's an exercise in investment that makes the difference between an experience and a killing of time.

Anonymous said...

I find PC’s comment about close reading and literary criticism hugely reassuring, and inspiring.

Also, two absolutely wonderful posts about life’s priorities and learning.

Anonymous editor

Stephanie Trigg said...

Stray is right: the slow food movement was absolutely in the back of my mind. Perhaps I'll lead a revival of slow reading...

PC, that's an awfully long report.
Mine was only half that length, but it was an excellent thesis, and there are only so many ways, and times, of saying so.

Thanks, AE: I think it might be another function of my long service leave, to become a little more meditative. I am busy, but do feel a little less rushed.

Sarah Rees Jones said...

I am a boring old historian, but still find 'close reading' the best and most illuminating form of teaching.

In my discipline it is also under attack - from the examiners who cannot see the point in setting 'gobbets' (short extracts from historical documents)- and even regard them as retrograde and elitist. Yet students who do them well are usually both the most imaginative and the most disciplined (a hard trick to pull off).

The analogy with learning the piano is beautifully drawn and very apt - my daughter spent over twenty minutes practising a single phrase of melody yesterday while I prepared veg. At the end we had the beginnings of a new performance piece and a freshly cooked roast dinner - both well worth the concentration and craft. Concentration and craft.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Nice. I am all for slow, close reading -- and have even redesigned one of our intros to the major around the practice: 6 texts (from Beowulf to Shakespeare) in 12 weeks. Having the luxury of time is so refreshing -- especially in a world where students are for the most part superficial in the attention they pay to most things (and who would not be with Twitter, FB, the Net, text messages, etc. all going on at once?)

frog said...

I had the pleasure of listening to my son's primary school band perform and then receive an on stage tutorial from a guest conductor. It was like a close reading - she selected only one passage from one piece - and lead them beautifully and slowly through another interpretation of the syntax of that piece.

If the devil is in the detail, so be it. It's far more interesting and mastering it so much more enriching.

h&t said...

Having completed high school and two undergraduate degrees and now embarked on a PhD, the thing I find frustrating is that I don't even know what you mean by close reading. I've never been exposed to it. It sounds like an extraordinarily valuable skill, but also seems the kind of thing that needs to be learnt from an experienced teacher, rather than picked up DIY style. If you missed it early on then later opportunities appear to be hard to come by. Am I wrong?

Stephanie Trigg said...

Well, you probably have been exposed to it. But it has a bad name in part because in some critical and pedagogical traditions it can function as a form of social exclusion: who has the best classical and literary education to be able to spot allusions? or who has the most finely developed aesthetic sensibility. See Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction, for a critique of some of the foibles of the method.

It's Franco Moretti who suggests a global criticism should encourage "distant reading" instead of "close" reading.

But I want to distinguish "close" from "slow" reading. The latter is a more neutral term, and reminds us that the slow, careful, detailed reading of textual structures and effects need not be accompanied by precious wafflings about our personal responses to the text, but is a great way to teach people how to read for things other than plot lines.