Force of Habit

Fifteen years ago, I sat in a freshman course on “Sight Singing” (now trendily renamed “Aural Skills.”) Call it what you want, but I was terrible at it. In hindsight, I have kinder answers for myself as to why, but at the time, I was just frustrated and afraid, and thought that I was predestined to be awful. Every time an individual was to be called upon to sing an example for the class, I felt a growing tremor of anxiety build up within me. When the worst happened, and I was the student chosen, the results were rarely acceptable. Over time, as tends to happen, I got a lot better at the skill areas addressed by the class, but that was a rough year. I was not the only student to struggle, but many others in the class had been exposed to sight singing and solfège before getting to college, and had enough of a head start to be able to thrive early on. I simply couldn’t compete, especially with the favorites that this professor rapidly chose.

This wouldn’t be much of a story but for the fact that one day, early in the fall semester, the professor teaching the class heard me attempt an exercise, and then told me, in front of the whole class, that he didn’t think I would graduate. I don’t know about you, but that is the kind of thing that I would never in a million years dream of saying to anyone in private, let alone in front of a dozen of his peers. It simply wouldn’t occur to me, in no small part because I know what it feels like to hear someone so dismissively, publicly, and emotionlessly express doubt in my future success. We can learn as much from a bad example as a good one… What is bizarre about this story is that, after years of avoiding this professor, never taking another class with him, moving to another city, and then another one, and along the way not only graduating, but going on to earn two more degrees from a much more prestigious institution than any he had attended, all the while harboring in the background a simmering resentment, I came to meet him again. And I liked him. We had a nice conversation. I doubt he remembered his words to me. It seems likely that if he said what he said to me, he said it to others, so I was probably one of a forgotten many to receive his public scorn. Perhaps he had a longstanding habit of making this kind of comment. Had this happened in today’s era of “microaggressions” and “triggers,” I might have been encouraged to report the professor for…something. What would I report him for? Being an asshole? Teaching professionally not out of love, but practical necessity? Setting a crystal clear example of the kind of person and educator I swore long ago I would never become? If those were fireable offenses, a good percentage of academia would be out of a job.

Contrast this man with another teacher in the theory department at that time. Almost universally feared, loathed by some, but respected by most, she exemplified a dying trend in this world: She possessed, and spoke with, true authority. She did not mince words, and she did not lie to students. If you did well, you knew it; if you did poorly, the same was true. If you asked a question, not only did she know the answer, but she could contextualize it and relate it to tangential material in a way that made the information concrete and easy to draw upon in the future. In short, she was brilliant. The downside to her honesty was that many students found their fragile egos bruised every time she very rightly pointed out their mistakes. Could she have been a little gentler sometimes? Sure, but I can’t help but think that a man saying exactly the same things would have been regarded as simply a demanding teacher. She was widely villainized for it. I learned a lot from her about music theory and sight singing, and enrolled in her sections of courses when possible. There were times when I felt embarrassed in her classroom, but not as a result of verbal abuse. It was just that she made me care about the subject enough that I developed an intrinsic desire to do better.

Hindsight being 20/20 and all that, I think that my own habits as a teacher have been informed by both of these professors, and of course by the many others I’ve encountered over the years. I try to strike a balance between brutal honesty and gentle encouragement. In classroom teaching settings, I make it a priority to communicate with the students early on and tell them that errors are not only inevitable but necessary, that it is more important to try than to succeed, that we all must go at our own pace, that every honest question deserves and will receive a thoughtful answer, and that intentionally humiliating people is simply not allowed in my classroom. I firmly believe that there is room to be simultaneously exacting and emotionally sensitive, and that great teaching is born of generosity. As with sight singing, music theory, trumpet playing, or anything else, if this doesn’t come easily, we don’t have to give up. We just have to cultivate some new habits.

Nikola Tomic