Monday, September 24, 2018

A Masterpiece Isn't the Goal

There is no such thing as a masterpiece school year. And it shouldn't be the goal.

I've been getting deeply into Frank Zappa recently. Zappa was an American musician and composer famous first for the Mothers of Invention and then his solo work who released a gigaton of material during his life. He was an incredibly interesting, problematic, brilliant, and complex man. If I were telling this to my students the next part of this brief biography would go like this- "Yes, he's dead. It doesn't matter how. Of cancer. Yes, that's sad, you're right. Pancreatic cancer. In 1993. What? Yes, he's dead. Yes. No. No, he's alive and living on a farm in Colorado with other musicians. Moving on..."

Zappa released over 60 albums during his life, and no two are exactly alike. They range from experimental instrumentals to doo-wop to orchestral to parody to "Jazz From Hell". The only thing they all have in common (on the surface) is a hyperbolic level of complexity and being exceedingly weird (for example, on the album of guitar solos called "Shut Up and Play Your Guitar" there's a track called "Gee, I Like Your Pants" named such for no reason except that it made Frank laugh. And this is the PG example.)

EXCEPT, that's not true. Not at all. Frank believed in something he called "conceptual continuity". Certain concepts and ideas would transfer from one album to another in subtle ways. He created a character named Suzie Creamcheese who was around for years. Poodles popped up all over. Weird sounds would be repeated ("snorks" and such). Even hooks and riffs could reappear on albums years later. Not as acts of self-plagiarism but as purposeful calls backs and reflections to previous work. Frank remembered what he had done and wanted to express, honor, and evolve those things in on-going ways.

I know what you're thinking. "Doug, this is all very interesting and all, but what's it got to do with teaching?" Thank you for indulging, my dear reader. You know I love laying the groundwork clearly, and now we're getting to the (Uncle) meat of the matter. Plus, many of you are probably ahead of me.

From Zappa: A Biography by Barry Miles- "This way of working became Zappa's 'project/object' concept: the idea that each project is part of a larger object, and overall body of work in which every individual part is changed , if only slightly, by the addition of a new part...He reinforced this 'conceptual continuity' by the re-use of identifiable themes from one album to the next..."

When I read that I had to stop and put the book down. The "Project/Object" concept is teaching. It's the unit I'm teaching. It's the semester. It's the school year. It will be my entire career. But that's not when clarity struck the hardest, dear reader. No, that came two paragraphs later.

"Is is the abandonment of the idea of a masterpiece in favor of a series: Monet's endless haystacks or waterlillies, each one a different aspect of the same work, rather than one final statement. It is the idea of process...rather than fixed composition."

Another thing Zappa was known for was taking the musicians in his bands to their extreme. To paraquote (he said basically this, but not word-for-word) guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, "Frank would find where your talent was, and then find ways to push that talent to its furthest extreme. He used everyone in his band as efficiently as possible."

We should abandon the idea of a perfect school year. That isn't the point. It's impossible. Instead we should do the best with what we have each year, using pieces from the previous years in different ways to reinforce our own conceptual continuity. This means that evolution is built in, it's assumed. Things have to change, even if the basic building blocks remain in place in some form. Everything informs everything else, nothing should be tossed aside, only reinvented, recycled, rethought. And we should abandon the idea of the perfect classroom set up, perfect tools, the ideal situation. That's not possible, and it never will be. (Please note- I'm not saying we can't improve things and inequality isn't something to be battled and corrected. Frank constantly fought for rights and freedoms and to improve his world. He brutally and intelligently spoke against the PMRC and anyone who might be considered "brain police") So we take what we're given- textbooks, computers, whatever- and use them as creatively as we can, pushing them to do what we want rather than what they were designed for. Frank called this giving the song "eyebrows". That is, "Ok, it's good, but it's not interesting. Gotta give it some eyebrows." Give the school year eyebrows.

I can't imagine that I'll think of my final year of teaching, however far into the future that will be, as a final statement. It will be another piece of the wider whole. I've heard the metaphor of the mosaic that, as you lay each tile you can't see, but once you're done and step back you can see what you've created. Every book I write, every blog post, every lesson I teach, every session I present, these add up and create my Project/Object, my conceptual continuity. And they become a part of my students. A part of yours. Linking us together.

Let go of the idea of the "best teacher", the "best school year", and even the "best lesson", and embrace the whole, the process, and the series being more important than one great thing. And do it with eyebrows.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird TeacherTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

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