News Flash: Classical Music Is HARD

That's my violin. I was trying to do a depth of field shot, but I don't know if I succeeded.
That’s my violin. I was trying to do a depth of field shot, but I don’t know if I succeeded.

When I was studying at university, I took weekly violin lessons. Every Friday, I would pack up my violin and my music and make my way to the music building (which was inexplicably located off-campus) for an hour-long lesson with Mrs. S. For each lesson, I had to prepare a scale or two and work on the solo part of a concerto or other work for violin. We also worked on the dreaded and difficult topic of music theory. Obviously, that meant I had to practice during the week. For my lessons, I received three credits a semester, which is the same amount I received for regular classes that met for three hours a week (either in three one-hour increments or two one-and-a-half hour increments).

For some reason, this really bothered my friend B. She was not (and is not) a musician. (This fact may seem unrelated, but I suspect it explains a lot.)

“I can’t believe you get three credits for doing that!” she’d fume when I went off to my violin lessons. No matter how much I tried to explain that I did the same amount of work (if not more) for those one-hour lessons as I did for my three-hour lecture and seminar classes, she just couldn’t believe it.

Now, it’s pretty hard to explain actual violin playing to someone who doesn’t play an instrument. Basically, you’ll play something for thirty seconds, if you’re lucky, before your teacher stops you and tells you everything you just did wrong. Then you have to play it again and fix what they just told you was wrong. And believe me, there’s always a lot wrong and it takes a lot of tries to fix it properly. That sounds really negative when I put it that way, but it’s actually fun if you like the instrument and want to get better (which I did, and I do).

However, I can partially demonstrate the difficulty of music theory. I’ve been learning some music theory on my own—I’ve never taken a formal class in it and want to learn more beyond the basics than what I know—and one of the resources I’ve used is this “Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People.” This stuff is hard, everyone. That’s not news to me—and probably isn’t news to most of you!—but in case there are any people out there with friends like my friend B. who think music is a “soft option” or whatever—well, now you can set them straight!

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Academia: The Last Refuge Of Idiots

Apologies to any intelligent, normal people working in academia, but this article I read about a month ago just begs for an insulting title. It’s called The Problem With College Tenure and contains some of the more idiotic statements made by those working in the venerated, strange institution that is academia today.

Middle-aged Steven G. Salaita of Blacksburg, Va., recently suffered every working stiff’s nightmare. He quit his job for a better one, but before starting at the new place, his employer checked out his social media persona—and withdrew the offer.

Now he has no job at all. His friends think he got hosed.

This tale of woe has a couple of twists, however. The first is that Steven Salaita was a tenure-track college professor, and they almost never get canned. So what did he do? That’s where his presence on social media comes in. These didn’t turn out to be compromising photos of Steven at a party looking smashed or Steven on a camping trip smoking a blunt.

No, this was Salaita, formerly a professor in the English department at Virginia Tech, slamming Jews, U.S. soldiers, and “rednecks” on Twitter—and relating his plans to introduce future classrooms of 19-year-olds to his obsessive hatred of Israel.

Seeing this, University of Illinois officials reconsidered letting Salaita teach two classes in the school’s American Indian studies program. One might sympathize with him—hey, he was just blowing off steam and the war in Gaza is upsetting—until looking at his Twitter feed. There, Salaita reveals himself to be a foul-mouthed fanatic whose antipathy for Israel is so thorough that he calls for the country’s destruction, fantasizes about the mass murder of Jewish settlers, blames Jews themselves for anti-Semitism, and says that anybody who disagrees with him “is an awful human being.”

There’s more—much more—if you go read the entire article. It’s actually frightening. I’m happy to say I escaped such idiocy during my education. Sure, many of my professors had a definite leftist tilt, but none of them expressed anything remotely anti-Semitic and they were always open to people expressing their own views in the classroom.

Occasionally (okay, it’s been more than just occasionally in recent months), I mourn the fact that I’m not an academic or on track to have an academic career. Then I read nonsense like the article linked above, and realize perhaps I dodged a bullet. After all, I work with pretty cool people—most people I’ve met at The Bank so far have been very nice and don’t have an obsessive hatred of things I like.

I propose we abolish tenure and replace it with multi-year contracts. But that is a post for another time, if you’re interested.

How (And Why) I Learned Russian, Part 3

If you haven’t already, you should read part 1 and part 2 of this series!

The summer before I started college found me holed up in the upstairs sitting room, hunched over my Mac, reading strange letters and listening to recordings of said letters. I was teaching myself the Russian alphabet. I knew that the alphabet, like our own Latin alphabet, has different forms for printed and cursive writing. I didn’t understand cursive, so I focused on learning to how read the print.

It was hard. It reminded me of the time in third grade when my friend and I made up a secret code. A symbol stood for each letter of the alphabet and we planned to pass notes to each other in our super-secret language. When we actually tried this, we found that it wasn’t so easy to read the code, so we had to painstakingly decipher each symbol and write down what letter it represented. Learning Cyrillic was like this. I had almost the entire alphabet memorized in a couple of days, with the exception of the hard sign, the soft sign, and a sound we don’t have in English that’s usually represented as “y”. (A Russian politician disparaged this sound and I wrote about it here.)

I learned to read a few simple words, like привет [privyet; means hi], пока [poka; means goodbye] and the like. I even managed to decipher a whole sentence, though I didn’t understand the grammar behind it: Вместе победим [vmeste pobedim], which was Dmitry Medvedev’s campaign slogan for the 2008 elections. It means “Together we will win.” But reading whole words, much less sentences, was so difficult. It wasn’t automatic in my brain, the way reading the letters of the Latin alphabet is.

In July, something happened that almost made me stop studying Russian: the arrest of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić. I learned all I could about the Balkans and wanted to study Serbian. The only thing that prevented me from doing so was the nonexistence of a Serbian program at my university.

(To be continued…)

How (And Why) I Learned Russian, Part 2

Three major things happened between the time I first read Anastasia and my first day of college. First, I developed a passion for politics; second, I was accepted to my dream school during March of my final year in high school; and third, Dmitry Medvedev was elected third president of the Russian Federation.

"Together we will win!" Some of the first native Russian material I could read.
“Together we will win!” Some of the first native Russian material I could read.

My political awakening came in October 2007. A bunch of people on a group of blogs I used to read (ironically, I do not read a single one of those blogs today) started debating a Belgian political party. I researched the party in question and discovered an interest in politics, international relations, and that sort of thing. Previously, I had found politics boring. Once, at a party in high school, a small group of my friends and I lamented how our parents followed politics. We couldn’t understand why, since we all found it quite boring. When I told my mom about this later, she said, “Politics is life.” As usual, it turns out she was right. 🙂

I’ll skip to the third point next: while I was still in high school, Russia held a presidential election. Suddenly, I kept seeing tons of news articles about the president-to-be, Dmitry Medvedev. People wondered if he was more liberal than Putin, more flexible, more willing to work with the West. I was very interested in him, too. I read everything I could about him and once he was elected, I watched his inauguration. I was eager to see what this new president would be like and if all the esteemed analysts’ predictions would come true.

It was around this time that I took a look at the course catalog for my university. I saw there was an elementary Russian class offered. I knew I couldn’t register for anything yet, but I started to wonder. Maybe, just maybe, I would sign up for that Russian class and attempt to learn Russian.

(To be continued…)

Cyborg

I wish I could become a cyborg and assimilate all the knowledge of my university’s library into my brain. The library is one of the few things I like about this school. It is an impressive collection. There are shelves upon shelves of Russian history books.

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Isn’t that amazing? And that’s just one small part of a shelf (keep in mind there are many such shelves).

College: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Tom has a blog post about whether you should go to college. Overall, it’s funny and pretty good and he says pretty much what I think about the subject. The only thing I take issue with is this paragraph at the end.

College should produce an educated, literate man or women who are capable of clear expression in English, who are well read in a spectrum of literature, who possess a grasp of Western civilization, who have learned at least one foreign language (no, not Spanish, one that’s in demand), and who are competent in at least a baseline amount of social and scientific knowledge.

The emphasized part is mine because that’s what I want to focus on. Pretty much every college in America fails on that account. I’ve met people from all sorts of schools: Ivy League schools, wannabe Ivies, state schools, and everything in between. Some schools have a foreign language requirement; some don’t. The point is this: to this day, I have met maybe five people, if I’m generous, who have successfully learned a foreign language to a decent degree at university. It just doesn’t happen that often. Foreign languages are hard (I’m the first to admit this) and you have to really, really want to learn one in order to successfully do it.

Basically, we need a major overhaul in university curricula in this country. And the first thing I would do (were I in charge of such a thing) is stop having TAs teach classes. (The second thing I’d do is make the curriculum intellectually rigorous—there’s no slacking off in Natasha’s world, you know?)

Incompetent Professors

There’s nothing I hate worse than incompetence and today I want to focus on incompetent professors, who are especially galling (because you basically have to pay money for the privilege—I’m being sarcastic here—of being exposed to their incompetence).

Everyone in my investments class is perpetually confused. That’s because this class, which started this semester, is a direct continuation of an investments class we took last semester. Apparently, we didn’t really learn very much last semester. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that I’ve learned more in four class periods of investments this semester than I learned in the entire investments class last semester.

If you divide it out, my parents basically paid $2,800 for me to learn… nothing. Nice, right?

(Actually, let’s look on the positive side. I could argue that it will all even out because I learned a lot in my other classes last semester, and am learning a ton right now. In fact, the energy class I’m taking is well worth the entire year’s tuition for my program.)