Thursday, January 29, 2009

Voiceless Lecturing

In our last episode, we explored the idea of wireless page-turning. This morning, I got to explore a yet braver new world: voice-less lecturing. No, I don't mean that creepy University of Phoenix-style distance learning thing. I mean standing up in front of a group of students and teaching - without talking. Actually, the students would probably prefer that I'd done no talking because, during the passing moments when I managed to phonate, it wasn't pretty. As I wrote on Facebook earlier this morning, finding my voice was like trying to dial in some distant radio station. For a second it would be there, and then...nothing. The only reliable register was a Chipmunk-like falsetto. 

I knew the voice was in bad shape when I woke up this morning, but I didn't feel that awful otherwise (like I did a few days ago), and it's a real pain to miss a class that only meets twice a week. And, of course, I knew the students would be devastated to have class cancelled, especially since we were set to open with a quiz. Why, they'd already missed a full day of classes yesterday with a snow day. No, I had to find a way. So, I set sail for work, first putting the chords to the test at Dunkin Donuts. (We're going to ignore for now the fact that I recently said I'd given up my Dunkin addiction.) I smiled and tried to place my order. Nothing. Frighteningly, the woman knew me well enough to say, "Medium black coffee?" to which I silently assented, deciding it wasn't worth the trouble to figure out how to mime "decaf." Somehow, she intuited the rest of my order as well, but none of this bode well for a 100-minute class. As the old saying goes, it's easier to gesture for a bagel than it is to gesture about early Baroque style.

The quiz was a good way to get started, of course, since I didn't really have to say much. I seriously thought about just ending things right there, but I had a guest student coming in to sing some Monteverdi and Cavalli for us - at the end of class, naturally. I made a few feeble attempts to get something going lecture-wise, but I pretty quickly had to audible to an opera DVD. (Cool - I'd audibled because I was inaudible.) In retrospect, I just wish I'd spent a little more time planning for this. I was playing the DVD from my laptop, so I slowly improvised a system whereby I had Notepad open off to the side (with the video not in full-screen mode) and I started typing commentary as we went along. It was kind of like watching L'incoronazione di Poppea with the Mystery Science Theater guys - except not nearly as funny, and only marginally more educational.

I've always found it difficult to type in front of people, but I slowly got into a groove, even tossing off a cheap one-liner about how Ottone's countertenorism probably explained why Poppea had left him for Nerone, who in this video was being sung by a tenor. (As it happens, Nerone originally would have been sung by a castrato, but why let that get in the way of a bad joke?) It was actually kind of fun - in some ways better than me talking over the singing. Since I was using my Tablet PC, I also tried scribbling notes for the class, whiteboard style, but I quickly realized I type much faster (and MUCH more legibly) than I write. (At one point, I even tried writing whiteboard-style on the whiteboard, but that's so pre-millennial.)

Unfortunately, while it seemed kind of cool to type during the movie, it just felt stupid to "lecture" that way during the actual, you know, teaching part of the class. So, I stumbled back and forth between various registers, typed on Notepad, scribbled on the virtual whiteboard, and tried desperately to get the students to talk. This, actually, is turning out to be a fantastic class, but I think they were too traumatized by the whole experience to really get good discussion flowing, and I don't blame them. They were genuinely sympathetic and seemed sincerely to appreciate my pitiable efforts, but they also looked a little bit frightened, especially since the only truly dependable mode of communication I had was the Chipmunk. 

Well, it's a day I won't soon forget - and someday I'll even be able to talk about it.

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