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How Teachers can Swing in the Classroom

Douglas Groothuis By

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I am a jazz aficionado as well as a philosophy professor. Being in front of a classroom teaching is my favorite place on earth, second to a good jazz club with hip friends. In the midst of a philosophy class, I may wax enthusiastic about the transcendent qualities of a John Coltrane saxophone solo or the preternatural swing of Buddy Rich's timekeeping or the song-writing and band-leading genius of Duke Ellington. These comments are not merely idiosyncratic. They reflect something of a philosophical theory of pedagogy that is steeped in jazz sensibilities. After over thirty years of teaching philosophy in a variety of settings, I have come to realize that my manner of pedagogy has developed in ways that reflect the sensibilities and philosophy of jazz. This has much to do with my long-time love of jazz: the music, the history, the culture, and the players. The classroom should swing; students and their professor should spend time in the woodshed; the class will jam on philosophical themes deeply rooted in tradition, but be open to new chops. Some of my students learn these terms, incorporate them into their vocabulary, and start using them in relation to whatever subject we are addressing—and not just about jazz.

What is Jazz?

It is difficult to fit jazz into a tight analytical definition in which necessary and sufficient conditions are stipulated (as much as the analytic philosopher in me craves this). The feeling of jazz is not easily corralled into a definition. As Louis Armstrong said, "If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know." Jazz has rightly been called "America's classical music," but that is more of a title than a description. Eschewing precision let me say that jazz is known for at least three salient and laudatory features, all of which translate fruitfully into a philosophy of pedagogy for philosophers (and others).

Mastering a Tradition

First, jazz works from and creatively appropriates a revered and rich tradition, the origins of which are not entirely clear and are matter of scholarly dispute. The call-and-response patterns of African slave songs and spirituals are evident in the ensemble creativity of jazz, for example. It is a musical dialogue. But jazz critic Stanley Crouch claims that indigenous African music does not swing. Swing possesses a certain glide or lightness to its rhythmic propulsion that is lacking in other rhythmic patterns. However, Duke Ellington composed a piece called "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got that swing," which has become a jazz standard and an encapsulation of what jazz is. But "swing" can transcend musical form to mean anything that embodies the deepest elements of jazz, such as improvisation and syncopation. Whatever jazz's genesis, a jazz musician must master the jazz tradition in order to perform this demanding but delightful music. If you listen to the conversations between jazz pianist Marian McPartland and her musician guests on NPR's "Piano Jazz," you will understand this. Crouch also writes that you hear the entire history of the jazz saxophone in the playing of Charles Lloyd. To some extent this is true, mutatis mutandis, for any great jazz instrumentalist or vocalist. Every jazz musician must sit at the feet of the great bands and the virtuoso performers. To learn from such a varied and luxuriant tradition requires extensive study and practice. Jazz musicians speak of this as "time in the woodshed." The angular, odd, and complex structures of many of pianist Thelonious Monk's compositions sent Monk and his band mates into the woodshed for extended periods of time. When John Coltrane joined Monk's band for a few months, he developed a deeper musical sensibility, given the rigor of the music. He said that "Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order." Coltrane, throughout his career, was so fiercely dedicated to practicing that he would often fall asleep with his saxophone; he would practice fingering when he was not in a situation where he could blow; and even sometimes practiced backstage while his band was playing without him.

Philosophy is rooted in a far longer line of tradition, reaching back to the Greek Presocratics and to the Wisdom literature of the Bible (such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes). As such, it demands of its disciples a lifetime "in the woodshed" where they aspire to master its arguments, its historical development, and its applications to all manner of life. The exemplary professor of philosophy (or of any other discipline) immerses himself in that history and finds inspiration from its virtuosi. When one studies what the best philosophical minds have thought about the perennial philosophical themes of the good, the true, and the beautiful, these philosophers become living and talkative residents in the soul. These ideas and arguments are, thus, not static pieces of information. These cats just keep blowing! Teaching classic ideas year after year is never boring if one engages them as philosophical "standards," to use the jazz idiom for the received repertoire that jazzmen must master. These are treasures to which one repeatedly returns afresh. A philosophy professor who knows and savors the tradition can become a philosophical virus, infecting students with a like passion. Just as in a spirited jazz performance, each musician finds inspiration from the others, the classroom may become the stage for an intellectually sparkling and surprising dialogue.

Although I have taught Kant's epistemology for many years, I must return to the woodshed every time I teach it in order to reacquaint myself with this demanding work and to envision novel ways in which to make it clear to students encountering these jaw-dropping ideas for the first time. I also attempt to expose Kant's philosophical clams (a jazz term for musical missteps), such as his rejection of the ontological argument. Time in this woodshed often yields surprises. Just as a jazz musician may deepen his playing unexpectedly after years of performing—as John Coltrane dramatically did from around 1962 to 1965—a philosopher may return to a classic argument and discover something entirely new. After being skeptical of the ontological argument for God's existence for many years, about a decade ago I came under its metaphysical spell—and while teaching introduction to philosophy, no less. I now enthusiastically present the various versions of the argument to my sometimes bewildered students, who are assigned a chapter I wrote on the topic.

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