Becoming a Freshman, Again
Julie Wollman, a university president, shares what she learned about teaching and learning by taking a course -- in an unfamiliar subject -- with undergraduates.
It’s the start of the spring semester and I walk across campus to my first Beginning Bagpipe class, wondering if I can learn to play an instrument that is so important to my university’s Scottish heritage -- our pipe and drum band plays at every major event. It was the undergraduate pipers who had talked me into taking this class while I was chatting with them before our December commencement.
As soon as I get to class, I realize I am the student professors abhor. I look around and every undergraduate — all 23 of them — has the required book and practice chanter (on which beginners learn to pipe). I have never taken college-level applied music, but rather than finding out what was expected before class or checking the bookstore, I felt like my part was just to show up. How many of our freshman students feel like their responsibility is simply getting themselves to class?
The professor takes attendance; “Julie Wollman,” he calls out, just like I am any other student. I think for a desperate moment that maybe I can take the class undercover, but they all know who I am and I clearly did not come to class prepared. I have no pen to take notes on the syllabus — important information about assignments, the required Facebook page, and upcoming classes. I have not gone to the bookstore. I hadn’t even considered that I should come to class with the necessary materials or that there would be a book. Like the stereotypical undergraduate, all I brought was my iPhone. I find myself silently voicing a phrase that my younger daughter used frequently, as a teenager, in new situations: “How was I supposed to know...?”
“How was I supposed to know?” In the 25 years since I was a doctoral student, I have rarely had a learning experience — a professional development seminar, a conference, a retreat — where I wasn’t provided with everything I needed before and during the experience or told ahead of time exactly what to bring and even what attire would be appropriate. It strikes me that this direction is much like what our students experience in high school. Why, then, are we so troubled by first-year students who need far more guidance than we think is appropriate for a college student?
Fortunately, the professor is patient and experienced and he has us all playing a simple scale on the chanter before the first class ends. I also learn that each week one beginner will be called up to the front of the circle of chairs and music stands and be asked to play the day’s lesson. Potentially having to be “in the center” and embarrassing myself makes me practice as much as possible during the week before the second class, but I really don’t know if I’m doing it right. Tackling something brand-new makes me feel terribly inept, but we regularly encourage our first-year students to explore new fields without acknowledging the inevitable stress.
Fortunately my professor places each beginner with a more experienced undergraduate mentor; we are to meet weekly in between classes. I have always doubted the value of study groups, but on Sunday I trudge through the snow to the Music Building where I meet my student mentor in one of the second-floor practice rooms — a place on campus I would never otherwise venture to, but I came to understand our music students pretty much live there. Neil, my peer mentor, spends an hour with me, patiently and gently correcting, praising, joking and instructing. All week it has been so hard to get the breathing right, never mind the fingering, but by the time I finish with Neil I feel much better. “Maybe I can do this?” Without Neil’s encouragement and help every week throughout the semester I would have felt incompetent and out-of-place in class, and would have learned far less from my professor. For novices there is great value in building skill and confidence outside of class through peer mentoring and instruction.
Still, I’m really nervous about going to the second class, afraid I’ll be the only one who isn’t any good. I’m not taking it for credit or a grade, but the thought actually crosses my mind that I should skip class; after all, I can offer a good excuse. I am shocked to realize that, 36 years after I started my freshman year of college, being in a simple but challenging class well out of my comfort zone, I am again looking for excuses to miss class. So I go, despite my fear. Before class, waiting for the professor to arrive, I chat with my classmates about how hard it is to breathe right and make a sound come out and I feel less alone in my incompetence.
The professor gives us a full song to play in class number two, even though we haven’t even learned to play the scale well. “What is he thinking??” I know it’s not just me who is challenged because I am no worse than the student he brings to the center of the circle to demonstrate the lesson. I actually feel better after class because I’m not noticeably worse than the other beginners (how perverse to delight in others’ incompetence), but I’m certain they must find it easier than I do. Still, I can now attempt to play a real song! It is a genuine relief to learn that others are challenged by the class, too, and I wonder if we need to spend more time reinforcing for freshmen that they are not alone in finding new skills difficult but that there is a reason we push them to apply the skill early on.
I’ve made it to the third week and I know I’m practicing as much as any student but when I’m in class it’s hard to perform. I know what to do and I’ve done it at home and in the practice room, but I can’t do it right in front of the professor. I wonder if this will be like the experience of reading professional journals as a beginning graduate student — it’s like a foreign language and then one day it just clicks and you feel like an “insider.” It’s not clicking today, though: my professor gives us a harder song this week, much harder. As a teacher, I understand what he’s trying to do. As a student, I think he’s crazy. When I try to practice it later I just can’t do it.
My younger daughter — a real freshman — calls to tell me about struggling with her physics homework and being afraid to go to class because she thinks she’s the only one who will have had trouble with the work. “I know. That’s how I feel about my class, too. The homework is too hard. I can’t do it and he might ask me to play the song in class.” She laughs and reassures me that I’ll be fine.
Trying to be supportive, a colleague notes that the professor wouldn’t fail the president but, just be sure, she suggests I take the class on a pass-fail basis. I think seriously for a few minutes about whether it’s too late to drop the class before I realize that I’m not really registered for it and what kind of a message would that send to the 23 undergraduates in the class? I continue to struggle through the new song but I need help and I’m losing any flicker of confidence I may have had. It would be so much easier to just give it up now and stop pretending I can learn this.
Again, when we meet later in the week, my student mentor saves the day, saying the song I have battled all week was too much for week three and our professor won’t expect us to know it. Instead he photocopies and goes through various scales with me and this soothes my wounded self-confidence. I leave this meeting grateful for the help and moral support and for the fact that I have a “friend” in class, even as I worry that he’s probably mortified that I am his assigned partner.
During weeks four and five I have to travel for meetings in Washington, Harrisburg and then, a few days later, Florida to meet with donors. I have been excused from class but I pack my chanter and practice daily, amazed that I’m not evicted from hotels. On the trip to Florida I’m with my husband and an advancement colleague and they laugh incessantly as I practice in the car while we crisscross the state between donor visits, but I find the extended practice time helps me a lot so I ignore the laughter and press ahead.
Because of these trips I miss two classes and I’m worried about falling behind. But I meet with my mentor on the one day I’m home between trips and then again when I get back and these focused one-hour meetings prove extremely helpful as Neil reviews what I missed and keeps me moving ahead. He builds my confidence and, hopefully, in some small way I am building his confidence as a teacher. He adjusts to my challenges and is responsive and supportive and always tries to get me one step ahead of the class. He wisely pushes me to not stop but continue to soldier through when I make a mistake. I’m still worried about going back for week six but can’t imagine how worried I’d be without Neil’s help. At the same time, I’m eager to go back because the professor is relaxed and funny but also serious and attentive to each individual. He realizes when we are confused and switches gears to explain or demonstrate in a different way or change the lesson plan entirely. How many of us appreciate the need to adapt to our students’ needs or risk losing them forever after they have missed a class or two?
Near the end of week five I realize that I no longer have trouble with the breathing and that my fingers don’t cramp up any more when I play. Why is it I know how to do things while practicing but then make mistakes in class? In class on Monday I realize that while I can play the notes I need work on the timing, and Neil tries to help with several different strategies. This is another hurdle, like the breathing, that I just need to work through by practicing. And now, when I have developed a little faith that I can learn this instrument, Neil ups the ante and is paying a little more attention to my fingering technique so I don’t develop bad habits. Progress requires meeting a student where she is and gradually increasing the expectations.
I practice Tuesday but count on lots of time Wednesday through Friday since I have to travel to Harrisburg with a colleague who is driving, so I will practice in the car. It is not until we have been in the car for over an hour that I realize I forgot my chanter. What a sinking feeling. “I’ll fall behind. I’ll never catch up... .” I am disgusted with myself. At the same time, I feel genuine sympathy for student-athletes, performers, and others who travel frequently and have to remember everything and keep up with classes while on the road.
I am reunited with my chanter on Saturday morning and practice extra over the weekend so that I don’t humiliate myself in class. I meet with Neil on Sunday and he starts me on the next song, just when I’m finally catching on to the last one! Oh, yeah, that’s right — I believe in always stretching students by moving them toward the next challenge. But I don’t want challenge; I want the sweet, elusive taste of mastery.
I’ve made it to the halfway point and I am lucky to meet with Neil on Wednesday before I leave for a brief vacation. First thing I pack is my chanter. I love practicing looking out onto the beach and notice that being relaxed and unhurried compared to my usual routine improves my playing. I even try to play Amazing Grace for fun. Neil has been encouraging me to try playing new songs for fun, but is it fun when you can’t do it? When I’m relaxed and have time, I actually enjoy it. How can we help our students overcome their stress and achieve this kind of freedom to learn?
After spring break I’m excited to go back to class — I missed it. But Monday morning I forget my chanter and book and don’t have time to turn back and get them before my first meeting. I realize how easy it is to forget materials for class even with the best intentions. The difference for me is that I live on the edge of campus and can get what I left behind if necessary. For commuter students that’s not possible. Again, I am humbled and ashamed that I have ever assumed a student who came to class unprepared just doesn’t care.
The professor has selected several of the songs we composed for homework to use as examples in class and I see that one of the three written on the board is mine. I am uncertain. Will it be used as a good example or a bad one? For once when he asks someone to come up to the front and play this song I cannot avert my eyes, bow my head, and hope he doesn’t notice me. No one else offers to come forward, and it is my song, after all. So up I go and play in front of the class for the first time this semester. I actually learn a lot from this class, which is focused on typical bagpipe music composition. This bit of music theory helps me think about how the songs we’re playing are composed and why and makes reading the music more predictable. Theory really does guide practice and can be helpful to a beginner.
Soon after spring break the course evaluation is administered. I can’t fill one out because I am not registered for the class, but I wish I could. I have so much appreciation for what the professor is doing to push, cajole, and trick us all into doing what we thought we couldn’t.
New this week — playing together. Of course, that’s what pipe band is all about! Why hadn’t I anticipated this? I can’t keep up. “I just need to play a little slower.” I realize later, I just need to practice more so I can play a little faster. I talk to Neil about this challenge and he starts having me play more with him when we meet. Still, I really lost any confidence I had after trying to play with others in class. I realize that what happens in class really impacts how students feel about their ability to succeed. Just a couple of moments of uncertainty or “failure” can shape a student’s approach to class for the rest of the week.
At the same time, I finally feel like I blend into class and can sit with different peers. People are friendly. The importance of this is not lost on me as I think about our freshmen who never make friends or feel like they belong and end up dropping out early in their college careers.
When we meet, Neil introduces me to his new electronic bagpipe that sounds like the real thing. He lets me play it a few times and I love it — I know the fingering and don’t have to worry about breathing, and it actually sounds like I’m playing a real bagpipe. I can do this! I wonder if too often we fail to provide students with the sense of accomplishment necessary to tackle the challenges of another semester ahead; this may be a fundamental reason for attrition.
It’s the night before our last class — the very last day of the spring semester — and I am busy finishing up my reflective journal for the semester, thinking about the “final exam” tomorrow, and wondering why I waited until evening to start working on the final journal entries?! Maybe because it has been such a busy couple of weeks with the usual whirlwind of end-of-semester events, projects, never-ceasing emails to answer. Maybe because as much as I want the semester to end I’m going to miss class and the forced break from my daily work that comes with having to practice. I wonder what my fellow students are doing and if they too left things until the last minute because other responsibilities crowded out bagpipe homework. Becoming a freshman again has helped me understand them in a new way and has taught me so much about their experience that I’ve decided to teach a freshman seminar in the fall.
Julie Wollman is president of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.
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