Around midterm I was feeling smug about how busy we keep our students in my department. I was fully aware, but newly reminded, of how much our music students are balancing. They are working diligently at their full-time course work, have part-time employment, are involved in multiple ensembles, and practice their instrument several hours per day alone or chamber groups. They say yes to opportunity and rarely complain. I find out from time to time about ways they are involved in non-musical ventures across campus and am further impressed. I am amazed at how well they balance these demands.
I was also feeling smug about my own level of activity and that it is good that I model the juggling of teaching and administrative work, a family life, involvement with a church community, and a commitment to my own writing and musical growth. Sure, I deal with stress, don’t always get enough sleep, and wish I could give more time to most tasks, but generally it’s good. Life is good. I’m blessed to be busy and fulfilled and there is a certain thrill at that manic part of the semester when the pace is fast and ridiculous. I thrive on it. At least, I think I do.
There is this nagging worry, though, that maybe we are teaching and practicing the wrong thing. What if this ability to manage so many varied responsibilities, more than are really possible in one day, is not what we should be nurturing? Too often any real exploration of an idea or in-depth problem-solving doesn’t happen because there simply isn’t time or space for the immersion that is required. Too often we are doing too much with not enough sleep, exercise, time, or focused attention.
I know this extreme busyness is part of the semesterly cycle. Papers, exams, juries, and grades will soon be done, next term a safe distance away, and we will all breathe. We will have, as a friend once described it, a good collapse. We may even find some time to focus on a task we yearn to explore more fully.
In the meantime, what types of lives are we modeling and promoting? I told a colleague about my smugness leading to a chastened state and she laughed and said, “Well, smugness is usually a warning.” College students struggle with anxiety like never before. I may post articles about the benefits of caffeine on Facebook, but just as much research is out there about the dangers of inadequate sleep. What if some normally dependable students turn in sub-par work a little too often, have too many weeks of weak practice, or show signs of substance abuse or other harmful ways of handling the stress? At what point will I demand that there be less on their plate and less on my own so various tasks get the quality time they deserve?
As per usual, I offer no real answers. And I don’t want a conclusion that says a liberal arts degree scatters our attention too much, nor a finding that we need to lower expectations of our students’ musical growth. I’m convinced that one can experience meaningful study in one’s primary discipline while being broadly educated and involved. I also recognize that any discussion of scattered attention today is incomplete without addressing technology and constant connectivity. I’m encouraged by ways we do have of capturing immersion and enabling focus in education. Certain projects, like a senior recital or thesis, demand it. Intensive January or May terms and curricular requirements like a Study-Service-Term in another country are the definition of it.
But during the primary seasons of life we keep asking for more and glorifying the ability to do it all. Chastened a bit, I will keep thinking about what current and future habits we are shaping with this glorification.