Arrogant Teaching

Today I heard back from a student I am working with who has weak keyboard skills (is a vocalist) and is quite challenged to be in a required college musicianship class of keyboard harmony.  He was given an assignment to play a series of secondary dominant chords [I, V/ii- ii, V/iii-iii, V/IV-IV, V/V -V, V/vi-vi, I-64, V, I]  and to play it in three keys of his choice up to 4 #s or flats.   He worked hard to get this ready and came to me for help but only had 24 hrs to prepare from when the assignment was given.  So next class he told the teacher he could only play it in two keys so far.  The teacher's response was: "Then I don't want to hear it."  and skipped him.  This is not a student with attitude but one who is trying his best to learn.

This seems so arrogant and aggressive -- so opposite of teaching -- it is humiliation, not teaching.  The bitter pill is, this is a well paid faculty member at a major university.  My student's comment was, "and I'm PAYING for this!"

Perhaps this inappropriate to post on the composer's forum.  But many of us are teachers and this kind of experience is what gives the formal and traditional studies in music a bad name.

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  • If this same professor were a plumber or a brain surgeon, s/he would still be arrogant, rude and thoughtless.   It's not teaching or traditional studies or music that is creating this arrogance, it's the ego of that particular person.  I used to have an unreasoning prejudice against college professors, doctors, politicians, etc etc because some of them have the qualities you described.  When I felt that way, I found all kinds of real life situations to prove my prejudices.  Now I practice "beginner's mind" - being clear of opinion and pre-judging, but instead being open to what each new situation brings.  It's amazing how I now find professors, doctors and others who are selfless, generous, creative, inspiring, nurturing.  I can't say I've come to any great new place with politicians.  ;-)  

    Formal studies / university professors aren't the root of this behavior - instead, it's the ego run amok.   If we can keep objective and not paint the entire profession with a tar brush, even that particular professor may prove to have some great qualities.  Learning how to deal with such people may be one of the greatest skills a person can learn.  My approach is to forgive them.  They really and truly don't know what they're doing.   Part two of the approach is to make sure I myself don't become like that.  Part three is to keep away from those types of folks to the extent that I have a choice - and I usually do have the choice.

    Hope your student continues being eager and wanting to learn.  Again, I'm so glad he has you as a counter balance.

  • Thanks Julie.  This is the 3rd incident, each a different teacher and class, from that department.  My comment to my student was -- at least it builds character! (dealing with this).  Its just a pity it happens because it represents a style of teaching that fails.  I'm not sure why I'm posting here about it except I see many of you as friends with insight.  Or maybe it will start a thread about appropriate teaching?

    I suppose I could help you with your effort re politicians -- a relative of mine was district judge for 40 years and appreciated by both parties.  When ever I encounter the political corruption that disgusts I remember this person and remind myself that there are people who truly do serve in politics (too).


  • I hope it's not the actual culture of the department. That's nearly impossible to deal with, for both students and faculty. Even "good" faculty who work in such an environment have difficulty fostering a positive teaching style when it's counter cultural. I was *so* blessed by the culture in my university's music department. There were still arrogant teachers, where incidents like this occurred, but they were relatively rare, and stood out. I had the opportunity to know several professors new to this department, arriving from another competitive (and arrogant) university. It was a wonder to behold, as they found their peers to be helpful and non-threatening. Of course, the student body was also supportive of each other. The general culture was one of actually wanting others to succeed. We cheered for each others' success, and were empathetic about our struggles, both staff and student body.

    Are there any professors your student trusts to discuss these events with? He may be able to discover whether this is the very culture, or random events. If it's the culture, it may be worth considering other schools.

  • Amen, Janet.  The energy from a group usually comes from a) the top, ie those in charge and/or b) the community, the majority.   How lucky you were, Janet, to have such a nurturing environment!   The schools I attended as a student were somewhere between Janet's school and the classes/teachers Bettina's students are experiencing.   I did see very quickly that my dream of teaching theory and composition in college wouldn't be a happy life for me, because of the very things Bettina is describing.  That's what made me decide to teach on my own turf, with a large and vibrant musical family/community instead of the hierarchy and politics of a formal university.   I don't have tenure, but neither do I have to wear shoes.  ;-)

    It really does sound like that entire department is toxic, Bettina.  Yikes.  What a bad situation for your students.  Maybe they really should consider a different school.  That really is a tragedy.  Teachers are so important to young folks just starting out, not only for learning music (obviously!) but also for self-image, social skills, learning to support and not tear down - all the things that make a real difference in life. 

    Some people can't survive the building character stage without a crippling number of scars.  My best friend went to Indiana University and encountered similar "character building" opportunities.  It took her about thirty years to recover and heal from that, and she missed a huge portion of her musical life as a result of teachers who didn't so much teach as they did simply tear her to shreds. 

    Thanks for telling me about the Good Politician, B.!   It is so nice to hear that!

  • Well, yes, I didn't want to concede that it could be the entire department at first, when I began hearing these stories but it seems that it is the prevailing "culture." (lack of one).  It is a "big name" school and like your friend's experience at Indiana (another big name) apparently that kind of attitude more common.  Your story of your friend rings true to my experiences.

    He is investigating changing schools. He went to talk to faculty at another music school nearby and began to see that there are other ways than the one he is experiencing. 

    And yes -- I too am remembering why I didn't want to go down the path of university teaching years ago.  However just like your comment about remembering there are good professional experiences too, perhaps we need people to get in there and make changes.  I happen to know socially a couple of the professors in that department and when I get a chance to make a relevant comment or two, I am resolved to attempt sticking in my "oar."  In the mean time the best revenge is excellence -- I told him we were going to make him the best student in the class!

  • Some people are just strange, or have a very specific view about how the university must be. 

    I can think of at least 2 profs of mine that are very good teachers, but are rather awful persons, quite strict, and sometimes even rude and arogant. But I can actually understand that they don't mean bad, not at all (even if they make my life miserable and I hate them, lol), but they think "THIS is how a university must work. THIS is how you as a student must function and work. I do everything in my power to change things for the best (my version of best)."

    In that sense, this particullar prof. might just have a specific attitude towards homework. He might think (and it could even make sense) that if you are going to work on something, be it an assignement, or, later on, a commission, you will present it finished, or not present it at all. Think of this situation-what if your student, later on in his carreer, had to complete a commission? Someone asked something, he accepted, and then, on the day of the deadline, he delivered half the piece. You can't tell the client "I'm sorry, but that was the best I could do for now." because then he'll reply "allrighty, I'll go to mr X here that is willing and able to complete that for me when I need it as I need it.". It sucks to think like that when trying to teach, but I believe that when facing a situation you don't like that involves people, you need to get in their shoes, try to understand why they say or do something, and eventually try to learn something from their attitude, even if it is awful.

    I don't agree with that method at all. You are there to learn and the proffessor is there to help you do that. Unless you are obviously neglecting your uni. work, you do not deserve to be treated that way. But I do not let that touch me. I learn what I can from all of them, even the bastards (and we've got quite a few), and just move along. But it is impossible for me to change schools, so thats the only possible strategy really.

  • Thanks Spiros, and yes I have been down that thought pathway myself.  Discipline and some degree of strictness is required at times.  But to be fair, the strictness can only come when the professor has done an adequate job of setting the situation up for success -- then it is the student's obligation to do his/her share.  In this case, and in many, the teacher has failed but makes the failure the student's.  To be precise, they were not given a practice exercise (at least from what I can determine) that made this a logical next step in the progression of assignments.  Rather they were thrown into it as a sink or swim problem.  Those who have had plenty of prior keyboard experience could figure it out fairly quickly, those who did not --and there are plenty of good musicians who are not keyboard players -- sank.  I asked my son who has attended this same university set up in a different department (Physics) and he said, yes this university does not teach, it just aims to filter out those who have been able through life experience or random luck to learn the material already, and those who haven't.  It is not a place to actually LEARN the material first hand. And that seems to be a fair assessment.  My student is encountering the material for the first time and wants to learn it.  Given half a chance he would learn it too.  (And is privately with my help.)  But that should have been the job of the professor -- she is being paid well to teach.  Saying the class is too crowded or too busy is an excuse. 

    I went on line and found a keyboard harmony text that actually does give progressive assignments in advance of each chapter's new concept and would have set them up to be ready.  I will be taking my private student through these exercises retroactively. 

    Teaching by humiliation is never good.  Discipline and strictness -- which is good in my opinion -- is based on predictable demands.

    But we are taking this forum into a teaching forum  :-) 

  • For the record, I went to a public state university, not a private one. It is demographically diverse in age and race. I was 52 went I graduated, and was often older than many of my professors. Many professors preferred to be called by their first names. The quality of the education was good. Many of the adjunct faculty also taught at the more prestigious private universities. The president of the university describes the student body as "scrappy"... these are people who do not feel entitled, and have often struggled against all odds to get their education, and are grateful to be there. I have overheard the faculty discuss their personal joy in being able to teach students who are eager and grateful. There are several professors who thought they would teach a little while there to build their resumés and then move on. Decades later they are still there as their joy of teaching trumped prestige elsewhere. I don't know if this is typical of a public university, or if I happen to strike it lucky by enrolling in that particular school!

  • Thanks Janet.  This is the kind of school my student is looking to transfer into--the one like what you described.  The school he is at currently is a very large public university with a top national ranking but . . .quite an "education factory" type experience.  It works for some.  As an example someone who is a keyboard major would not be having the problems he is having, so perhaps the professors would react better to him.  They seem to be judging people by what they already know, not what they want to learn.

  • It all boils down to expectations. Some people believe that the do not have to teach you the basics, or take some stuff for granted, not really caring if you ever learned those skills in the normal cource of your education (ie, not resorting to private teaching or personal extra work that goes beyond the school curriculum).

    It is a problem of the academic world that always existed- I'm sure that not even half of my proffessors know what mathematics and physics I was teached back in school when they get into the classroom.

    Sometimes this is understandable. For example in this case, if this is a harmony class, the proff is not willing to involve himself with helping people with keyboard skills. For him this is a waste of his time because this is not his purpose. This should be solved by the faculty, by providing extra help for those who need it, essentially do what you do privately for your student.

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