Saturday, December 26, 2009

Beatles Projects [Original Post Restored]
Sorry, Christmas got in the way of finishing this. I'm curious what you all think about what The Beatles' best song is - the usuals and the lurkers - if you are a Beatles fan especially. This post is stupidly long, so I can't blame you if you just skip down to the end to see what my students came up with and why.

First, I have to back up a little and bore you a bit with the actual rationale and theme for the class, and why i had the kind of students I did. At my school, all students now take a core Gen-Ed curriculum that includes a series of classes designed to spread across all four years, based not on subject matter as much as different learning emphases.

In their first year, every freshman takes a writing class from an English professor, and a "first year seminar" that could be taught by a teacher in any department. Every first-year seminar is held together by a theme and a central text (Different every year. This year, all freshmen read Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma") and a handful of films they all watch. As sophomores, they all must take 2 classes one term that are "linked" together: professors will have made some effort to coordinate. Some History professors link with Literature classes, for example; there are lots to choose from.

I'm not sure what Seniors are required to do (some kind of "capstone" experience), but the Junior seminar class is one that emphasizes collaborative, and "problem-based learning." The idea is to make the course interdisciplinary in a way that invites them to bring their own majors, perspectives, knowledge to the subject matter (students are encouraged to take Junior seminars outside their major), with the task of approaching a central problem, in dialogue with others presumably bringing their own perspectives. My Beatles class was one of these Junior seminars. Assigning a problem for the semester, and emphasizing group work, are not things I would ordinarily do, but were required elements that fulfilled general education goals.

As for the content of the class, I had my own interests in approaching The Beatles as subject matter, mindful that my students would not all be music students (5 of the 20 turned out to be), or necessarily be musicians of any kind. I couldn't make it a class with any technical music discussions, and didn't want it to be an overly history-ish class (which still would have been interesting), or turn it into a Beatles trivia festival (which would not have been). I wanted the class to be somehow focused on the appreciation of the music: the experience of listening to it, thinking about it, knowing it, while considering important context that helps shape that level of appreciation.

So, my starting point was this: consensus says The Beatles were great. The Greatest Band Ever, even. If that's true, what makes them so? What is the substance behind the canonization? Is it in the DNA of the music itself? Is it just their personalities? Just George Martin's (Geoff Emerick's) expertise? Just Brian Epstein's brilliance? Just the luck of the right worldwide musical attitude at the right time? To be a true exploration in this direction, we had to be open to the possibility that in fact they were not so great after all, and open to the likelihood that they at least weren't always great.

This is a concern I have that's not limited to The Beatles. We regularly teach and assume greatness in the arts, and in music especially. Yet, we rarely say why, at least not with anything more than what can sound like trivia (Beethoven expanded the orchestra; some of his symphonies have more than 4 movements; sometimes there is no break between them, blah blah). Once in the canon, it's just assumed worthy of praise. Music education rarely criticizes, say, Beethoven's 8th Symphony for being a bit lame compared to the others. It's even more rare that we ask why the 7th is so great in comparison. And it's easy to see why we don't: it's hard to say why. Really hard. And puts the person leading the charge in a pretty vulnerable position, which teachers rarely enjoy.

It would invite conversation that doesn't have a simple or, surely, fact-centric answer or conclusion. It asks students to be aware of and develop what they think about the merit of a song, rather than asking them to remember what we tell them is important. It's harder to grade. And it shows some Very Serious Evaluations to be based on little or nothing that can be demonstrated, or based on reasoning that can be asked away by a determined (and usually miserably cynical) adversary. That's because no matter how you answer the question "What Makes [insert music] Great?", they can respond by firing back: "what's so great about that?", as they can to any response you give that question, and so on. That approach can be an important turn designed to explore deeper and expose our own assumptions, or it can be a rhetorical ploy without constructive purpose except to question the whole notion of musical value in the first place.

And on some lame level, these cynics do have a point. After you dig through enough "what's so great about that" questions, the support for artistic evaluation will indeed show itself to be resting on essentially groundless belief - like all values. (It is - as the story goes - turtles the rest of the way down.) The issue really is whether you take this realization to be the end of the conversation (as some do - It's all just opinion, they scoff), or take it to be the beginning, the opening that makes the conversation possible at all (as I do).

On another level, I wanted to subtly raise the issue of what any of that stuff means to regular people like us who just like music. Is saying a song is good, or great, the same as saying I like it? How do we think about differences or overlap between those two kinds of evaluation? Is close listening necessarily the best? Or the best indicator of great music? What's the other way to listen?

[As an aside (yet another), this last issue was a difficult one for me, influenced by a book I read over the summer in preparation called "How The Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll" by Elijah Wald. You have to read a book with that name, right? As it turns out, it's a bit inaptly titled (inapt if the point is to indicate the content, maybe not if the point is to sell books). The subtitle is more on point: "An Alternative History of American Popular Music." The Beatles aren't even really discussed until near the end. There, he makes the case that popular music was on the precipice of a huge cultural breakthrough, bridging the black-white divide, when - inspired by Bob Dylan mostly - The Beatles stopped making rock and roll music and started making rock music, leading the masses of white American youth toward music that wasn't for dancing but was for listening, reopening a huge cultural gash that persists today as strongly as ever.

That's a huge oversimplification of his argument, but the basics. He notes that in 1964, for the first time, Billboard stopped segregating charts with a separate list for "R & B" and "Pop", because so many of the same tracks had come to be on both lists. But by the end of that year in which The Beatles conquered America and first heard Bob Dylan, things had changed drastically enough that Billboard separated them again in 1965, and they remain so. It doesn't help, he says, that pop music histories and criticism are written primarily by white men who, well, don't really dance. So naturally this development toward "popular music as art" is constantly reinforced as one of great progress, rather than one of great cultural divide, as he sees it.]

Of course, in Beatles class, we didn't have philosophical discussions like that every day (what might be great about this? what might be great about that? what's the meaning of great?); in fact, we almost never did, directly. But that was sort of the underlying terrain the class was designed to walk across. My goals were for them to develop an intense familiarity with Beatles albums, and to develop an awareness of ways of listening and ways of evaluating. When the class was over, I wanted them to have thoughts and opinions and experiences to bring to the question "What's So Great About The Beatles?" (that was the name of the course).

So, instead of picking and choosing their most influential albums to study (which would have presumed the answer to the question), we went through every studio album and major single (at least the A-Sides). They had to know the music well enough to pass listening quizzes along the way, and for most albums (we did about one a week), they had to bring 2 paragraphs: one explaining their favorite lyrical moment and the other their favorite musical moment. What do they like, but also why do they like it. Many of them (like most of us) have lots of answers for the first part of that question, and not many for the second. Others have trouble with both halves.

Each week, they discussed their choices in their groups first and then we talked about them together as a class, trying to pull out the most astute observations, and I usually shared my favorites as well. That gave me a chance to introduce some very basic musical concepts to build on over the semester they could all appreciate and experience, regardless of musical background: meter, song form, instrumentation and texture, mode, melodic contour, things like that, as well as introduce them to some musical context - other recordings that especially seemed to inspire certain songs of The Beatles. Without really telling them explicitly how to listen, I was covertly trying to suggest ways of listening that I think all are rewarded by The Beatles at times.

All of that to say, I wanted the class to focus on their listening experience - both to enhance it hopefully, and to empower their evaluations and opinions with vocabulary and, well, practice.

That's the background for their project, which I told them about early in the semester and was presented by them during final exams earlier this month. They had 2 tasks. The first - which was due weeks before - was to develop a theory or set of criteria for what makes a great song, and argue for it, anticipating and answering obvious objections. Then, using the criteria, they had to determine which of The Beatles' original tracks was their greatest, and defend their selection. That was the problem for them to solve, essentially: which Beatles song was their greatest? Obviously, depending on their criteria, it could require research, could require contemplation, argument, or just judgment.

I had 4 groups of 5 and they all chose marvelously different approaches, emphasizing vastly different values. They had varying degrees of success justifying their choices, but they all offered substantial attempts to support their theories and final decision. All groups chose to list several criteria for greatness, which proved to be a difficulty in some cases: finding a song that did all of those supposedly important things well. But each had a different focus and priority. Here's a summary:

1. One group emphasized the issue of a timeless and universal message. They felt that to be a truly great song required a certain amount of simplicity within a unique perspective, so that there could be both honest personal expression that makes it different from every other song, but with wide accessibility and appeal, and a relatable message. I read their theory and predicted they would come up with "All You Need is Love", or "Hey Jude". Instead, they argued for "In My Life" and made a decent case.

2. Another group focused on the need for creativity, but emphasized that it be restrained enough that it could be appreciated by a wide audience. They were concerned with both musical and lyrical creativity. They chose "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". When I found out they were picking that song, I thought it would be the hardest defense, but they did the best job of any group.

3. The third group prioritized universal appeal and impact, and took a...transcendent view of "greatness", one that showed itself in the enormity of its effect on culture and the public. They picked "Hey, Jude" after studying global sales charts, number of cover versions, press mentions over time and a few other things like that.

4. The last group - somewhat similar to the 2nd - argued for the importance of creativity, but was less concerned that it be accomplished within a widely appealing framework. What was more important to them was that, to be great, a song had to challenge traditional boundaries. They found in "A Day in the Life" multiple genre-busting, somewhat experimental elements, from song structure to orchestration to narrative voice and other things.

We had a decent discussion about their process of deciding, and of coming to a consensus as a group. Most of them expressed some surprise at their group's final answer - like they didn't come out of it with a song they expected going in, but were pleased with it. Pretty much everyone agreed that the song they identified as the Beatles' greatest was not their favorite personally. And we finished with me arguing that what makes The Beatles so great is that just about no matter what your definition of great music is - as the diversity of philosophies in the final projects demonstrated - they offer shining, powerful examples in their catalog that would qualify as a good candidate.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Early Christmas Gift
From the US Senate, passing health care reform early this morning. We're only a conference report and couple of votes away from sending it to the President where it will become the single biggest progressive achievement during my lifetime. Jon Chait says it better. Merry Christmas everybody.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Did God Miss?
I believe this is a hoax, because - well I just have to - but decide for yourself.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Teaching Children Math
Lots of Movie Watching To Do
Ebert offers his top ten movies of 2009. Only there's 21 in the list. He explains. I've only seen two - ouch. Side note - I guess his glowing review of "Knowing" wasn't a joke.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Deal
I've said it before, but looks like a deal in the Senate. Could it be more fragile? Not one vote to spare, Lieberman could change his mind at any moment, and if the House uses its prerogative to change the bill in any way - or a handful of Democratic Reps decide it's just not progressive enough to support, then the whole thing could blow up.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Deep Thought Friday
In-fighting and ideological purity battles are supposed to be ruining the Republican Party forever.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Cold Shoulder
C-Span worth 2 minutes of your time.
I Read Ezra
I may be ignorant, incompetent, negligent, and have an embarrassing blog (see commenter below), but none of those things can be said about Ezra Klein, who explains the cost controls that *are* in the Senate bill but nobody really talks about (one of which Howard Dean has been inaccurately saying isn't even there). I only hesitate to champion anything in the bill, since every time it looks like liberals can get behind some part of it, Lieberman makes us take it out. (I only wish I thought this was part of Dean's current jujitsu.)

And while I'm at it, will let Ezra explain why reconciliation is not an option right now.

Hopefully he won't mind me copying and pasting his whole answer to a reader questioning his take on reconciliation. You should read the entire discussion:

I think there's no chance of it. First, the bill would likely lose the insurance regulations, much of the delivery system reforms, the exchanges, possibly the mandate, and more. In return, you'd get ... what? A weak public option? Medicare buy-in? You're talking about bulldozing the infrastructure of the bill so we can put back in some of the interior furniture.

But putting that aside, the politics of it are baffling. You go back to the drawing board. You're closer to the election. You seem like you've suffered a massive defeat. Poll numbers continue to drop. There's more industry opposition. Vulnerable Democrats want to move to jobs. There's huge controversy over whether reconciliation is legitimate. The final bill will have parts that we can't predict stripped from the legislation.

And aside from all that, if you think we can get these pieces in reconciliation, why not pass the bill and then go back and get these pieces in reconciliation? If reconciliation is a good strategy, it's a good "and" strategy, not a good "or" strategy.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Beatles Post Warning
Taking this break from my massive grade-a-thon to let you know that tomorrow (to reward myself for finishing), I will post more than any of you ever wanted to know about the end of the Beatles class: final projects. Will you care? Probably not, but it will give me a chance to get some final thoughts down somewhere, and I'd like to do that while it's still fresh.

In the meantime, so you will be ready, you can be thinking about your own answer to the basic task I gave my groups. It's a little more complicated than this, but the essential question is: of all the original songs released by The Beatles (on UK studio LPs plus Magical Mystery Tour LP, and singles), which is the greatest and why?

Explanation, details, and their choices to come. For the most part, it went amazingly well.
Smoke and Mirrors [UPDATED]
Nobody around the NHL thinks the Predators are too good this year. And doubters have some arguments in the stats. The team is 21st in the league (out of 30) in goals scored, 27th in power play conversion, and a dreadful 29th in penalty killing. And yet, the team is somehow tied for first in the Central Division, is in 5th place in the Western Conference (the top 8 go to the playoffs) and tied for 7th place in the entire league with a record of 20-11-3. Go figure.

The Canadian media love nothing more than to taunt the Predators for both their boring play and their (lack of) fan base, and the futility of both as they see it north of the border. The Preds make a Western Canada road swing this weekend where I'm sure all of those creative reporters and pundits will dust off their old stories and try to make them sound like new discoveries.

Ron, I await your e-mails, and hope the stories begin: "Despite beating the (Canucks, Flames, Oilers) last night, Nashville is not very good." But it will be a tall order. Those are some tough buildings. 3 points in the 3 games would be a success.

[UPDATE: Preds come from behind and win the first game at Edmonton 6-3! Stay tied for first in Central, and now only 2 points behind first place in the Western Conference. Next 2 games are even tougher. Notice the Edmonton Sun reporter - calling the loss to Nashville "flabbergasting" gives essentially zero credit to the Preds, who suffered a 2-0 blitz in the first 5 minutes, switched goalies, then took over the game, dominating the ice for most of the rest of the game, especially 5-on-5. After the start, Oilers players thought it would be an "easy game" (after 5 minutes against a team 9 spots ahead of you in the standings!?), and believe they must have "rolled over" or been "complacent" to get beaten so thoroughly. Hopefully the winning streak and the underestimation continues!]
In Praise of Reid
I reiterate a question I asked weeks ago with respect to health reform and everyone on the left demanding the public option: what is Harry Reid supposed to do?? Lieberman will not play ball. He's one of the 60 and we have no Republican help. Zero, toward a public option. And yet weak-kneed Democrats are railing about the failure of the health reform process because we lost the public option - a concession that has frankly been pretty clear from the beginning of the process. And yes, we lost the Medicare buy-in too. But nobody even dreamed that would be a part of the bill before one week ago when it was floated as a compromise that Lieberman has now shot down. *That only puts us right back where we were 2 weeks ago.*

I was hopeful too that we could get something truly amazing done. But there is no margin for error in the vote counts. The idea that this could be rammed through somehow with pressure or arm-twisting or whatever just seems ludicrous. We should get the best bill that we can and be mindful of the dreadful state of medical access for the poor and the sick in this country. I am inclined to reject on its face any complaint that the reform bill we will end up with somehow makes the overall situation worse.

Remember Sicko. And note how many of the horrors profiled in that film would be in a different place under the insurance regulations proposed here. That, plus the large number of uninsured, used to be what we liberals most cared about. And both of those are addressed - if less dramatically than we would all like - in the Senate reform that eventually God-willing will pass.

Really, though I didn't mean to get on that rant when I clicked "New Post". I only meant to link to Matt Yglesias' post on Harry Reid, which you should read if your love for Democratic leadership is waning.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Just got the Top Ten Religious Liberty Stories of 2009 up at the other place. Go check it out. Whether you care or not.
Film Award Season
LA Film Critics are out with awards. Big winners are "The Hurt Locker" (picture and director), Jeff Bridges for Actor ("Crazy Heart"), Yolande Moreau for Actress ("Seraphine")
...for the words to describe what I'd like to do to Joe Lieberman today in a way that accurately reflects my anger but won't get me in trouble with the FBI, or whoever. Any ideas?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Kudos to Houston
For electing an openly gay Mayor.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Obama's Nobel Speech [UPDATED]
is here. Already been arguing with some about it that I would normally agree with. I'm a big supporter of the President obviously, but find this speech a bit depressing. What do you think?

[UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan, as usual, was quite taken with the speech and frames it in a compelling and beautiful way, but one which is no less depressing to me than before. I think that highlights what I'm feeling about it, not that I disliked, or especially disapproved of it, just that the reality of it was depressing in a way that I am not sure was necessary for the occasion. Makes me think that either the President or I didn't really understand why he won the award in the first place.]

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Stimulus 2.0
Stephen Pearlstein likes some things about the President's new jobs bill approach.
As the president explained Tuesday in his speech at the Brookings Institution, there is nothing irreconcilable about paying down the deficit and investing in economic growth. The choice between them is a false one, but figuring out the right balance is as much art as science.

It is the unfortunate reality of any recession that the burden of right-sizing the economy and industries is borne disproportionately by those who lose their jobs, often through no fault of their own, while others suffer very little. Stimulus 2.0 recognizes that it is the government's role to compensate the losers by extending unemployment benefits to those who qualify -- and provide health insurance and food stamps even to those who don't qualify for jobless benefits.

The new proposal also restores tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure spending that was cut from the first stimulus bill to make room for across-the-board tax cuts that, as some of us predicted, didn't pack much of an economic punch. The president talked a good game Tuesday about making sure that the best projects with the highest payoff will get the money. To walk the walk, however, he'll need to supplement that with a clear veto threat at the first sign of the kind of political earmarking that he's accepted in the past.
Moving On
I just got an email blast from in which they express outrage over Democrats' new plan to ditch the public option in search of enough votes to, you know, have a chance at passing something. I removed myself from their mailing list, and left this as my comment when they asked why:
At this point in the game, outrage over losing the public option is mis-placed and foolish. What do you expect??! It simply will not pass because it does not have 60 votes. Period. I'm as liberal as they come, but I prefer some progress to no progress. The bill being discussed would be progress. MoveOn is counter-productive for essentially rallying liberals against elected Democrats who are trying to deal with Lieberman et al. Have we *already* forgotten how bad it can be when Republicans are in power??
Democratic leadership and the President have been very consistent in wanting a public option. Reid put it in the Senate's bill even. What are they supposed to do? Obama has done more than could be imagined the last year to try and woo Lieberman into being a team player. He's practically bowed down to Olympia Snowe. They are saying no to the public option. We don't have 60. Was there a better way to play it from the beginning? I don't know. But we are where we are, and I'm getting tired of my fellow liberals who refuse to acknowledge it.
Looks Like a Deal
A public plan could still be triggered, under an unlikely scenario, but the big story here is the Medicare buy-in for those 55-64 who aren't covered by employers, and the enhanced regulations on insurance companies who may be required to spend as much as 90% of premiums on health care, in addition to the other regulations widely discussed. Read the NYTimes report here.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Follow Health Care Debate: Be the Smartest on Your Block! [UPDATED]
TPM has created a news wire to follow developments in the Senate health care debate. Just keep a window open and hit refresh every couple of hours between now and Christmas and you will be the most informed person you know on the negotiations, amendments, and political jousting.

Meanwhile, if you want some educated policy analysis, you know better than to look to me. I keep my eye on Ezra Klein these days, for helpful posts like this one from this morning on public option alternatives, considering its likely defeat.

[UPDATE: And this one.]

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Best of...
Lists must help sell magazines. Paste Magazine is out with their best (albums, movies, books, tv shows, you name it) of the last decade. They're a little bit snooty over there, but still, check it out.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Final Beatles Discussion
We are done with the book, and made it through basically all of the studio albums. All they have left are group projects, which I'll leave for another post. Having trudged through the depressing Beatles breakup the last week, and playing students the earliest solo work of each Beatle, my question for the class was a simple one: Is there a lesson to be learned from the band's demise? A pitfall to be avoided?

And the related follow-ups: did the breakup of the Beatles really cut short a musical career? Or is their ouevre complete? Could the end of the Beatles have been as much an artistic, musical reality as it was the result of personality conflicts and business troubles? Supposing the pitfalls had been avoided, or overcome, then what? Had they gone as far as they could as a group anyway?

On the other hand....

While it's very easy to tell the story of the Beatles' musical output with a beginning, middle and end, is there something real in that progression? Or just the tidiness of a historical perspective that knows from the beginning how the story turns out?

Earlier in the semester - can't remember if I posted about this here or not - I asked them to presume that The Beatles simply ended at that point: right after Rubber Soul, maybe deciding that with touring impossible, it wasn't worth going on. Of course, we realize now that something important would have been missing (no sgt pepper's. no revolver. no white album. no abbey road. no all you need is love.), promise would have been unfulfilled. But, what if we didn't know? Would they still have be considered great if Rubber Soul was the pinnacle of their career? More important, wouldn't historians have still offered an arc to their story? One presenting Rubber Soul as a proper, even inevitable end?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Glass Half Full Tuesday
When President Obama announces his Afghanistan mission tonight increasing troops by 30,000, reports suggest he will also discuss an exit strategy with something like a time table. If that's true isn't it possible this could be received as an announcement of the end of the war too, and not just an escalation?