Ban the Handout (Save a Tree)

Some time ago, I picked up a turn of the century theory manual at a library book sale. The manual was in many ways out of date, occasionally inaccurate, and also clumsy. And it was not longa bit over eighty pages in length, and pocket sizedonly slightly larger than a 3x5 card. Surprisingly, it covered the same material as would be found in current Theory I textbooks of some two hundred full-sized pages or more.

Over the past years, I have thought quite a bit about this manual and sometimes brought it to freshman theory classes to show students how little they have to know for the course. But if this were really true, why the discrepancy in size between past and present texts? What is so special about our current knowledge that demands this extra bulk.

There are good reasons of course. Most modern day theory courses aim to impart some aspect of Schenkerian theory, and this demands an added layer of analysis and text. In addition, many students who now come to music programs lack familiarity with basic music theory, the classical repertoire, and even music notation. I do not wish to hearken back to the good old daysthey never existed, but my impression is that public school music programs were able to accomplish a good deal more back then, if in selective ways. Finally, we as teachers are now more sensitive to pedagogical issues and seek out user friendly textstexts that explain and clarify, that introduce and lead rather than simply present the facts. Such an approach takes time and space.

Last year while teaching at the University of Connecticut, I was somewhat stunned when Professor Richard Bass told me how he now tried to pare down his theory courses to the essentials"What is it that we really want them to know," he said.

The essentials then. I wonder how many of us have had the following experience? Having thought of a fun device for learning a theoretical or historical principle, we find that students remember the fun device but not the principle. Or similarly, that students tend to lose or misplace the great handouts we work so hard to perfect; or that students can't understand the user friendly textbooks we search for so hard and long.

This final example brings me full circle, but I do not wish to blame the text. Our problems seem to lie more in the shear abundance of material. For my Theory I course this year, students will purchase a textbook, anthology of excerpts, course packet (generously given me by a more seasoned teacher), and supplemental guide: the first two are necessary; the last two are useful extravagances that help to relieve the high work load and to organize classes quickly and efficiently.

Possessing more than a few years of teaching experience and a stack of past material, I was going to add to this bundle my own handouts with topic outlines and additional examples, but I have since stopped dead in my tracks. It began to appear to me that rather than teaching the material, I would be in effect teaching around it. What could be more confusing to a confused student than three different versions of the same information? To be sure, all students learn differently, but on that point there is no end.

I often feel that lurking behind at least some of my handouts (and perhaps those of other teachers too?) is the belief that the textbook, music excerpts, etc., somehow got it wrongit's the "I'd have done it better" syndrome. Thus, we teach what we want to see, not what is there, and leave the students with piles of material they find to be useless and inaccurate ("If the professor doesn't bother to go through all the examples, why should we?"). It is precisely this misinformation that I want to combat this year, both in my students and in myselfthat is, to teach the material as presented, not only the correct answer but also how and where to find ithow to "read" the textbook and how to understand the excerpts as given.

As a quick example, our current theory text begins each chapter with a summary of terms and concepts. Though helpful, this summary imposes rather than simplifies; it is in alphabetical order with like terms and concepts grouped awkwardly separate. I could draw up a handout to correct the problem, but why not take five minutes to explain to students the difference. Reordering the summary might even make for a nice review project or homework assignment.

Significant benefits to such an approach include the opportunity for second and third hearings. I have often wondered if some students fail to comprehend new concepts and material because they are overwhelmed by the flotsam and jetsam of new excerpts. Limiting the handouts means reusing past and already known musical examples, and these music students will learn to analyze thoroughly and from multiple perspectives. Nabokov once quoted Flaubert: "What a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half a dozen books." The final topic in most theory programs: analyzing a small handful of complete works in all dimensionswhat we call "form") is thus built into the introductory curriculum.

Another benefit is to foster active learning. Although handouts greatly simplify a student's task, they also remove some of the most important tools for learning, such as note taking and copying analyses and voice-leading solutions from the blackboard. At a recent talk on artificial intelligence by Douglas Hofstadter, one of its foremost authorities, I was surprised to see that a scholar so immersed in computer intelligence would use old technology for his presentation. His only "high-tech" instructional aid was (or looked) fifty years old: a set of transparencies and an overhead projector"no computerized images, no handouts. Yet certain parts of his talk are as clear to me today as they were that evening; the transparencies forced me to comprehend the material, to digest it then and there. The crutch of a handout would have diluted the meaning and substance of his words and thoughts; I wouldn't have had to pay attention or think about what he was saying.

I doubt that I will ever reach my new ideal: the miniature harmony text of yesteryear. Preparing my Theory I syllabus, I already feel the need for and have prepared additional material and handouts to make the class flow smoothly and efficiently; better be safe than sorry. Others may put hope in computerized classrooms, downloadable texts, and class web sites, but technology does not in general simplify. In past eras, large texts and course packets were luxuries; clarity and concision reigned because they had to. Without such constraints we are free to expand and indulge, but at what cost to ourselves, and at what cost to our students?

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Last modified on Wednesday, 01/05/2013

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