Balancing nature and nurture in education

February 13, 2007

Many teachers, myself included, wish they did not have to grade students. Grading can be wildly subjective and mean different things in different fields. Grade deflation in the arts is rampant, and I suspect and have heard that grade inflation is the norm in the sciences.

In teaching composition, the way I teach undergraduates is different than the way I teach graduates. The higher the student progresses in academia, the more we tighten the screws and challenge them. With young composers, I tend to favor urging them to write as much as possible and not to worry about major revisions, but rather move on. I overlook “the follies of youth” and offer critiques where I see that they are open to learning. I have seen the results of overly strict expectations on young composers from one of my predecessors. He was famous for ripping up the music in front of the student and telling them to start over. The students were completely traumatized. They could hardly write a note without worrying whether it would be acceptable. Artistic constipation should not be a problem with a young composer unless s/he has been terrorized by a bad teacher.

Discipline in a pack or flock is enforced with physical domination. In academia, physical anything is not part of the process. Discipline is achieved through grading. The more honest the grading is, the more effective the discipline.

I am quite detached from the grading process and how it may color my perception of the student. Meaning, I don’t run into the student later in life thinking, “oh, there is Suzy Creamcheese, why I remember she was a C+ student.” I always remember their faces, and am lucky if I remember their names.

If I were to articulate the spectrum of nurture to nature in college education, my own trajectory has been to nurture the young scholar through encouragement and appropriate intellectual challenges. As they get older, nurture less, and by the time they are doctoral candidates, we need to be brutally honest and direct––as close as a teacher can get to pack domination. A doctoral candidate needs to be equipped to handle any question that could be asked of them in their field, whether they know the answer or not. This kind of heads-up intellectual grilling is essential for the pinnacle of the academic progression: the qualifying exams and the doctoral dissertation.

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