Monday, June 26, 2017

Failure and Resilience

These are the code words these days.  You've probably read the recent article by Jessica Bennet in the New York Times, about an initiative at Smith to help students deal with failure.  It's an interesting article, with discussion of not only Smith's initiative, but several other schools' work in the same area.

The basic idea is that the students at these schools have never really experienced failure, and then when they get into college and don't do as well at something (they're talking B-land grades and such as failure), the students have difficulty dealing with it.  First recognized, according to the article, at Stanford and Harvard as "failure deprived," these students basically haven't fallen down and picked themselves up enough to shrug off the next fall.

The article talks about programs at Stanford, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, U of Pennsylvania, U of Texas-Austin, UCLA, and Davidson College, all of which encourage students to try things and be willing to fail at them.

I gather from Meansomething (in a facebook conversation, mostly) that there's so much pressure and competition to get into the right college that High School students are being taught to focus primarily on what they're good at, and not to try as much new stuff that they're not already good at.  That way, they get to show how wonderful they are on transcripts and stuff, and don't have to risk having that poor grade in [subject they aren't already good at] to hold them back.

I guess I have a couple issues with the idea.

First and foremost: The schools listed above pretty much are all way elite.

NWU isn't elite.  But I've had relatively few students in my time at NWU who have emotional difficulty when they fail.  Usually, they mess up on something, get a little upset, and either work harder, figure out how to do better, or get over it and mess up some more.  If the colleges told their admissions offices that they want students who've demonstrated an ability to fail and deal productively with that failure, they'd get a different population of students, probably including some like my own.  Those schools can change their perceived problem if they decide they're willing to risk admitting students who've demonstrated failure and resilience.

In fact, I'm guessing their really exciting students have already experienced lots of failure and recovery.

Which brings me to my second point: if you're doing anything difficult and working to your capacity at it, you're failing a fair bit.  That goes for athletes, musicians, scientists, humanists, everyone.

I bet every single day, Yo-Yo Ma fails at something in his cello practice/playing.  His failure's probably pretty much at the level of not playing quite as he wants a given piece, or missing a fingering slightly, or whatever.  But he's a darned good cellist, and yet working at his level, challenging himself, he probably fails a lot.  And then he practices more, and in performance, most of us wouldn't hear the slight imperfection that he knows is there at some point or other.

The same goes for athletes.  How many incompletions did Joe Montana throw.  A lot.  But he also threw some amazing, beautiful passes.

A high school musician who's really doing their thing is failing a lot, and then practicing some more, and dealing with it.  The same with an athlete.

But if all the science students are doing is cook book science, following recipes in the chem lab and getting an A for following directions well, then they aren't really doing science, and they aren't really working at a high enough level.  Of course, there's a point at which chem students have to learn basic stuff without being in danger of blowing up their schools.  But somehow, they aren't doing in their field what the musician or athlete is doing in theirs; they aren't figuring out what's been done before, a bazillion times, on just some level for themselves.

The musician playing a C major scale isn't doing something new.  And they should have guidance.  And yet, they're doing something cognitively different than following a chem class recipe book, no?

That Girl Scout who plans a camping trip, even with adult guidance, is doing the cognitive work, and may fail on some level, in fact, probably will.  And hopefully, she'll learn from that failure.

I'm guessing the really exciting students at Stanford or wherever, are the ones who've done something like music, athletics, scouting, started a business or community project, failed, and figured out how to go on again.

And I'm guessing the ones who are less resilient, less able to deal with failure, are the ones who've done really good work at cook book chemistry (or whatever).  They've followed directions really well, and worked hard to do things just right.  And they did things just right.

So how do high schools teach students to fail?  Or would it be enough for colleges to look for signs of successful failures when they're admitting students?

I'm not picking on chemistry, but it seems to me, from my own experience, that beyond learning basic lab safety and procedures, I didn't do much chemistry in my chemistry labs, not in two years in high school, not in several years in college.  And I don't know if there's a way that could be done differently, since there's so much pressure to teach large numbers of students in lab classes.  But somehow, in biology, we did little actual experiments, often trying to grow some plant with this or that different condition, and sometimes, they failed.

Can students productively fail assignments/exercises in my courses?  There's certainly lots of room for students to fail at their research projects on some level and still get an A on the project for failing well.  (When they really try to learn something and run into a brick wall, and learn something else, for example.)  But other work?

What about you?  Did you fail and learn from it early?  Or no?

Do you teach students how to fail?

***

Learning violin is taking me to whole new levels of failure these days.  But Strings says that she's never satisfied with her performance at a concert, even though other folks don't even realize she's made a mistake or something.  She just has expectations about the level of playing she wants, and doesn't (she says) ever quite get there fully.

The good news is that I'm improving on violin by failing and working through difficulties.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Progress: Floors and Summer Projects




As of last night, the floors are laid, sanded, and stained.  At this moment, the floor folks are putting on the second coat of finish.  Then it dries for the weekend, and on Monday, they'll come put up baseboards and such.  It looks every bit as good as I hoped!

In other progress, here's what I had to do, with the done parts stricken out.

Now I need to finish a third hurry-up project, and then I can begin the real summer projects!

1.  Studying Victorian lit and culture  (I should probably make a whole list for this!)
2.  Repainting some woodwork on the back, outside of the house.  (Last year I did some in the front of the house.)
3.  Finishing a paper and sending it out.

And some other projects, small and large:

1.  Learning the next violin song.  (and working on shifting, vibrato, and double stops)
2.  Planting my garden (yep, it still isn't in.  Maybe tomorrow...)
3.  Updating hard drives.
4.  Getting rid of some old electronics stuff (after checking the hard drive and emptying it...  I hope!)
5.  Doing a book of pictures for my friends' kid's third birthday
6.  Making all my reservations for the UK

I've made MOST of my reservations for the UK. 
Flights
Birding
Hotels for August before birding and December (for the British Library)
Between Birding and Starting << suggestions?  I'll be in Scotland for birding, near Cairngorms National Park.  Should I go to Glasgow?  Inverness?  (I've been to Edinburgh, and while it's wonderful, I'd like to see something new.)

In the violin world, at my last lesson, my teacher agreed that I'm ready to start memorizing and working towards my Book 3 test.


So, lot's to do this weekend, and then in the coming week, I get to move back into the rest of my house!

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Arrival!

The wood has arrived!  This is a lot of red oak, and from the great North Woods, I'm told.


(My sliding glass door is super dirty, but it seems silly to clean it before it gets exposed to all the more dust.)  

I submitted my syllabi for the courses at the Abbey today.

I still have some paperwork to submit (emergency info, for example), and have to have a physical so a doctor can fill out a form (because they won't fill out a form if you haven't been in within the year, seems).

Now I need to finish a third hurry-up project, and then I can begin the real summer projects!

1.  Studying Victorian lit and culture  (I should probably make a whole list for this!)
2.  Repainting some woodwork on the back, outside of the house.  (Last year I did some in the front of the house.)
3.  Finishing a paper and sending it out.

And some other projects, small and large:

1.  Learning the next violin song.  (and working on shifting, vibrato, and double stops)
2.  Planting my garden (yep, it still isn't in.  Maybe tomorrow...)
3.  Updating hard drives.
4.  Getting rid of some old electronics stuff (after checking the hard drive and emptying it...  I hope!)
5.  Doing a book of pictures for my friends' kid's third birthday
6.  Making all my reservations for the UK

I think it's time to stop, drop by campus to pick up a book (because parking anywhere near my building during working hours during the week is impossible this next month) so I can work on the third hurry up project.

Then time to practice.


Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Emptying the BardiacShack

As I've posted before, I'm getting new hardwood floors in part of the BardiacShack.  That means I have to empty out about half of the main floor, and put everything either in the basement or in the areas that are tiled.

This is the empty living room (the last picture was taken at night to avoid some of the window glare from afternoon sun).  I'm thinking next year, I may paint a new color...  (taking suggestions, please!) (The floor folks are going to move the heaviest of the furniture, which includes empty bookshelves.)




Here's a view of my home office.  I'm the only academic I know who actually has plenty of bookshelf space at home.  (There's a case behind the door on the right, and additional cases in the master bedroom, a bedroom downstairs, and the great room.)


This last is my red room, which is where a lot of stuff is piled.  There's also more in the dining area.  And in the basement.  (I put plastic over the windows in the red room during winter, and haven't taken them off yet...)

Editing to add a few more empty house photos:









The Hive Mind is Magic

I've put out several calls for suggestions on facebook recently, and it's amazing how helpful the hivemind is, and how much people know and are willing to share knowledge.

I've found a hotel that looks good for when I want to work at the British Library.

I've found texts.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Things are Getting Real

I've gotten some of the official paperwork to go teach at the Abbey!

So that's feeling more real.  I've started working on syllabus stuff, and book orders, and now have to do more, and fill out official forms and such.

Before there was any hint of going to the UK, I'd arranged to have carpet taken out of half of the main floor of the BardiacShack (tm) and hardwood floors put in.  (The other half is tile.)  We've firmed up a date, and it's coming soon.

I started packing up that half of the house last week.  One day, a friend came and we had a good time packing my office (many books).  It's so much more fun with a friend.  I still have some to do, but it's within easy reach now.  But the house looks increasingly strange, with empty walls (because art needs to come down to avoid dust and such), and empty rooms.

The floor folks are going to move the few big furniture pieces, but smaller ones I've moved or will move ahead with a little help from my friends.

I'm working on a new violin piece.  It's beautiful, a Bach piece, but pretty darned difficult.

On the other hand, I started going back through my early Suzuki books (#1 so far) and it's surprising how easy those pieces are now.  They were really hard when I started working on them, not so very long ago.  So that gives me hope.  (Regular Suzuki kids are expected to practice their older pieces at least once a week, but I don't do that.  On the other hand, I also work through the easier parts of new pieces in practice sessions because I can read music and, well, because I do.  So I don't have everything by memory the way regular Suzuki kids do forever.  But I'm learning in a way that's not frustrating to me.  Early on, I asked my teacher if it was okay to work on the piece just ahead if I felt like the current piece was going well, and she was fine with it, so I did, so now she gets me started on the hard parts, and I work on the easy parts, too, and then she helps me with those in lessons, and I work on making them better.)

One of my musician friends plays violin as a second instrument, so we're talking about working on a duet.  But it's way harder than I can do now, and Strings suggested to hold off starting on it (it's the last piece in the next book) so that I don't teach myself bad habits.  That makes sense.  She thinks it will be a year or two before I'm ready for it.  (And thinking how much I've learned this past year, that gives me some sense of how far beyond me this piece really is right now.)