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This week, I told my friend I was going to make my next column about something even better than sex. To which she responded, “So… like…orgasms??” No, dear friend, no more blatantly risqué pieces… at least not this week.

This week’s column discusses self-love. Self-love is arguably better than sex. If you have self-love, technically, you really don’t need anything else. Realists who have studied International Relations would agree.

These realists believe that states are the main power players in international politics. They argue that the world is an anarchical system, in which no single authoritative power can enforce laws so as to protect one state from another. Realists believe states institute a “self-help” doctrine. This doctrine suggests that states rely on their own resources and capabilities to protect their own sovereignty, with the ultimate goal of survival or sovereignty.

I think people should be more like the states in realists’ theories. Simply put, we need to stop hating ourselves. If you hate yourself, you inevitably cannot protect yourself from the world you must reside in. Once you recognize your own resourcefulness and capabilities, you take your first steps towards implementing a “self-help” doctrine of sorts. Only in seeing and utilizing your own value can you survive external threats.

These external threats are undeniable constants of our every day life. Sometimes you are choked by the guilt at the bottom of an ice cream tub, or you wrestle with unprecedented loneliness that you just can’t quite satiate. Sometimes great loves come to an undesired end, blinding you with remorse. On the other hand… sometimes you are ahead of all of your assignments, or you are unashamedly doing nothing and enjoying the sweet reprieve of relaxation. Sometimes you find a jewel of a person who makes your cheeks hurt from grinning and is steadfast in their friendship, unable to be scared off by trivial anxieties.

However, in all of these examples, there is only one main character. That is a creative way of saying, no one is going to be able to experience these events in exactly the same way as you, and therefore no one is going to be able to protect you from them except yourself. Your only strategic move is to love yourself first. Focusing inward on your development will yield progress with time, inevitably giving you the strength to deal with the bullshit that surrounds you.

I know I sound cheesy, but let’s look back at our realist state model. Alliances break, economies crash, victories are won, and sometimes people learn how to get along. But states only survive because they work through their domestic problems first, and then begin to tackle their international ones. Colloquially: weak states usually get crushed in international politics. Sure, other actors influence an individual state’s development, but ultimately it boils down to that state’s innate ability to survive the unique circumstances it has been placed in.

Self-love, or self-help, or whatever you want to call it, is the beginning. It is the first defensive move in international politics, the first step towards survival, and the first step on the journey to progress.

Well, friends, it’s been a hell of a week. Last Thursday, I accidentally scheduled two super important meetings for the same time and had to reschedule. On Friday, I lost my wallet and found myself stranded at a downtown grocery store with bags of chicken I could no longer pay for. Add all that to the typical CU/BC student stress-level and I’m sure you can imagine how I was feeling on Sunday, when I finally sat down to watch my beloved Jane the Virgin.

[If you’re a fan of Jane’s (as well you should be) and have not yet watched the past two episodes, stop reading now. I repeat: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.]

For those of you who did watch, though, you’ll know that last week, the evil writers of television’s smartest comedy killed off Michael, Jane’s beloved, wonderful, sweet, cute, all-around-amazing husband. They were married for all of a few months, after they finally got back together at the end of last season and he survived a gunshot to the chest. And then, this happened.

I waited for the next week’s episode to cast judgement. Despite my heartbreak (and I’m talking literal crying on the subway), I still had hope that Jane the Virgin’s smart, funny writers wouldn’t let me down. The show had always been a satire of a telenovela, so I figured they might use this plot twist in a satirical, funny way to revamp the show’s lighthearted nature. (Of course, this was after I read countless interviews with the producer which assured me Michael was actually dead, because for a long time I was really hoping this was all just some kind of sick joke).

So, last Sunday, I turned on my computer, hoping desperately for another lighthearted episode to put me in a better mood. But I was disappointed. Instead, it was three years later, and Jane suddenly had a new life with her son Mateo and her baby daddy Rafael. Michael was gone, Jane was fine, Mateo was fine, Rafael was fine– everyone was FREAKIN’ FINE. And here I was, staring at the screen helplessly, desperately crying for Michael to come on screen and remind everyone that it was NOT FINE. The show had lost its sweetest, most genuine character, and they thought they could just move on? Skip ahead three years as if their fans weren’t still reeling from the loss of their number one guy?

Now, maybe I’m a little bit more invested than your average TV watcher. From day one, I’d always been Team Michael (Rafael is hot and all, but he was no match for Michael’s love for Jane). He made me cry, he made me laugh, and he felt so genuine that I found myself falling in love with him too. I saw traits in him I see in the people I love in real life, and in the hilarious but non-believable satire that was Jane the Virgin, he often felt like the only real person on the show. He had faults, but they weren’t overly dramatic, like the embezzlement cases Rafael was swept up in, or the premise that Jane was accidentally artificially inseminated. Michael was a normal guy, desperately in love with a woman, living a normal life.

As I watched this week’s episode, my heart ached for the one vein of normalcy I had experienced in this show. I cried for Jane’s sorrow, but I also cried because I felt the show had lost something– and I fear it’s something they can never get back.

The Must-Binge List: This week, I encourage you to watch Amazon’s new original series, Z: The Beginning of Everything. It’s a show about F.Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and their epic and completely insane love story. Christina Ricci is fantastic as Zelda– she’ll catch your ear with her electrifying Southern accent and hold your attention with her dazzling performance of the emotionally torn and conflicted woman who tried desperately to hold the attention of one of the greatest writers in our time. David Hoflin’s F. Scott has some trouble holding his own against Ricci, but when she’s on screen, who needs him anyway? Booze, dancing, and sexual exploits galore, this show is definitely worth your time. My grade: A-

 

Photo courtesy of Marilyn Nonken

Marilyn Nonken’s Fight for “New” Music

As two star-crossed lovers sang pleading lines of despair, I took a survey of the audience around me. Besides the gentleman fast-asleep on my right (he got started five minutes into Act I) and the three composition students I recognized from Music Theory III, there was a noticeable dearth in the Met Opera’s seats. Maybe it had something to do with it being a lethargic Wednesday night, or perhaps it was indicative of declining ticket sales. More likely, though, the timeliness of the opera was to blame: it – Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin – was written in 2000.

Contemporary music is thwarted by negative stereotypes. Concert-goers think of it as generally unpleasant and discordant – something to be avoided as much as possible. Concert programming confirms these negative beliefs. “Beethoven, Mozart, and ever more Beethoven!” ticket sales scream.

So, what is a contemporary performer to do? The pianist and musicologist Marilyn Nonken (GSAS 1999, Historical Musicology) believes acceptance problems can be solved through education.

Nonken’s recent book, The Spectral Piano: From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age, challenges the “unmusical” claims about modern music.

“I think there are misconceptions about what contemporary music is, that newer music simply isn’t musical in the same way,” she explains with a tone that shows her passion for the music.

“I suppose why I talk so much historically about contemporary music relating to the past is to try to get away from that idea.”

Nonken presents challenging ideas in her work. She believes that musicians can look back at composers such as Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy and find “through-lines” to the present-day. Their music works through ideas similar to the ones electronic music composers are grappling with today; “New” Music is not as new as some may think.

Not many musicians see “New” Music the same way that Nonken does. Instead, most musicians prefer to play what she calls “great” music, i.e. the standard, traditional repertoire of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven et al. Nonken believes pedagogues are responsible for this trend.

“Within any music school there will be teachers who will tell their students don’t waste your time [playing contemporary music]. Don’t do that, it’s not worth it,” she tells me, sarcastically pantomiming the uneasiness of teachers telling their students not to touch “New” Music.  

“There’s this idea that if the player is really gifted and really talented that they should be playing ‘better,’ older music.”

What Nonken describes as the “business of piano” – to prepare for and win competitions – is the culprit for these teachers’ beliefs.

“You can’t play Feldman for the Van Cliburn,” Nonken jokingly gibes.

Pianists will not prepare programs including much music written post-1945, such as Feldman’s works, for the Van Cliburn competition because of the ideas on what “great” music is. They simply won’t win if they do.

As the Director of Piano Studies at NYU, Nonken fights against misconceptions about contemporary music. For instance, she requires graduate piano students to play a work written after 1945 for their auditions. One student, who did not have any music post-1945 in their repertoire, suggested “playing” an especially famous silent work.

“Someone wanted to bring in Cage’s 4’ 33” — I would take it!” Nonken enthusiastically yet with a hint of frustration exclaims.

“Bring that to your audition just to make that statement — if that’s the best you can do, play that! It’s the mindset, so I think that’s something always to fight.”

Nonken’s interest in championing new works began while she was at The Eastman School of Music. Unlike many of her peers, who were spending hours practicing “great” music, Nonken was giving life to the scores of her classmates — in practice rooms, dorm rooms, and cafes. She was excited by these collaborations.

“I actually found that this music was really interesting — this process of working with composers is interesting. You can actually make a difference, you could play a piece that’s never been played,” Nonken fondly recalls.

Without her, their music would have remained black dots and lines on a page. By realizing their works, Nonken gave her classmates the chance to develop their skills.

She even won competitions for her peers with her recordings. Nonken found value and meaning performing their works — an importance she says she would not have felt as “the nine-millionth person that year playing” famous, traditional repertoire.

Nonken has continued performing and premiering new works since her years at Eastman. When I walked into the lobby of her East Village studio, I was amazed by the number of CDs on display. Recordings of modern works by Morton Feldman, Tristan Murail, and Joshua Fineberg stared back at me – all physically representing Nonken’s support for modern music.

CDs on Shelf

Nonken’s recordings become the definitive versions of each new work. With that she sees a definite responsibility – a duty perhaps not as apparent in playing the standard repertoire.

“I don’t think that responsibility is there when you’re playing music of Chopin or Beethoven because there’s a million recordings out there,” she explains to me, recognizing that that may sound sacrilegious to many musicians.

“But if you go out there and play a piece that people might not have another chance to hear and don’t really do it well, in a way that’s representative – if you turn people off – you’ve blown that opportunity for that composer to make their case.”


Recent portents seem to indicate newfound acceptance. Despite Nonken’s quip, the 2017 Van Cliburn competition is commissioning Marc-André Hamelin to write a piece for the preliminary round. Miller Theatre is continuing their “Composer Portraits” series this season, which highlights the works of living composers. And the Met Opera, ever a bastion of “great” music, has staged works by contemporary composers, such as John Adams’s Death of Klinghoffer, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, and the aforementioned L’Amour de loin, in recent years.

Yet, these are exceptions. Musicians and audiences still maintain a preference for “great” music. They want it to be played as much as possible in concert halls, with “New” Music ousted as a distantly removed, unapproachable Other.

Nonken continues to crusade against the notion that “New” Music is not worthwhile to listen to – in her teachings, writings, recordings, and performances. Championing the music of today, Nonken is building the “great” repertoire of tomorrow.

She encourages you to hear her play music by Tristan Murail at Spectrum on February 11 at 7 PM. Come listen as she continues her fight against misconceptions about “New” Music.

“How Eye Hear It” runs alternate Sundays. To contact the writer or submit a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com

If you haven’t read my last column advocating social learning in large lecture courses, I recommend reading that first — that’s where I explain why I think this technique could be so successful in a lecture-based classroom. This article is for the nitty-gritty, actionable advice for both students and professors to incorporate social learning into their experiences.

For students:

1. Study groups are more than an excuse to hang out with your friends — they’re an excellent way to incorporate social learning into your study routine. Quiz each other, force full explanations by eliminating vague words, and don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Social learning works best when you’re with a group you’re comfortable with. To prevent non-productive chit-chat, place your study group in an environment more conducive to studying, such as a reservable library room or a study lounge space.

2. If allowed, work with friends on problem sets. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to actually do the problem first – don’t just rely on a friend who’s already done the work to explain it to you. Mull over a tricky problem, try your best, and explain your reasoning to a friend; often, in the act of explaining you’ll find where you went wrong. You can adapt this strategy for reading-based courses too — try finding time once a week to meet up with a classmate and talk over difficult parts of the reading, or explain a sequence of events.

3. Frame things as a story and anthropomorphize the characters. Give those cellular processes motivation and give the movement of atoms a plot. Humanizing inanimate objects may feel silly, but in the long run you’ll find that they become easier to remember. This technique works best when ‘telling’ the story out loud to a group of friends also in the course.

4. Is your professor receptive to new ideas or open to suggestions in office hours? Try talking to them about the ease and benefits of incorporating social learning into their courses! Change often comes from within, and I choose to believe that most professors care about the quality of their teaching. If they seem receptive and want more information, the experience of Eric Mazur (a physics professor at Harvard who pioneered large lecture social learning techniques) might be a good place to start — try here for a casual article and here for a peer-reviewed report.

 

For professors:

1. You’ve read this far and clearly have an interest in improving the quality of your teaching, and that’s great! If going ‘all in’ and flipping the classroom seems like a lot of work, start small. Try breaking your lectures up into more meaningful chunks. Three to four usually work best. Separate those segments with productive socialization by asking your students open-ended questions, or telling them to discuss what you just explained. Giving students a break to talk to their neighbors might seem counterintuitive, but research shows that you’ll increase engagement and information retention this way.

2. Switch it up – one surefire way to lose a classroom is by throwing a lot of information uniformly at your students. I get that there’s often a lot to cover, but if none of it is retained, or worse, your students give up ten minutes in, a high throughput approach won’t work. Try emphasizing that all of the material won’t be covered in lectures, and instead focus on the difficult concepts. Trust that your students can learn the easier stuff on their own.

3. For Tip #2 to work, you have to have a pretty good sense of what’s actually difficult for your students. As a professor, what you think is difficult and what your students are confused by may be two very different things. Often times, students will feign knowledge of a previous topic to avoid embarrassment if the class has already moved on. The best way to get past this is to foster an open environment where it’s encouraged to discuss what problems they’re having with the material. Take the pulse of your course frequently, and take advantage of your TAs. Not only do they interact with students more frequently and more informally, they’re closer in both age and experience level to your students and likely will have a better sense of where the material is difficult.

4. Use exams better. Too often, students will cram information a day or two before the exam, knowing that they’ll never need to access it ever again. Try to reward long-term learning by giving students an opportunity to get some credit for revising exams and spend time going over concepts where many students were incorrect. Administer low-stress and high-frequency mini-quizzes to both get an easy straw poll of where the class is and to lower overall test anxiety. Strive to ensure that all quizzes and exams are testing content and not process. While students are familiar with memorizing steps to solving a problem, many of them will not comprehend the underlying logic that you’re ultimately trying to test. Check out Eric Mazur’s physics concept inventory for an idea of what this sort of exam might look like.

5. Feeling good about the changes to your class so far? Think about diving into a full flipped classroom model for your next round of teaching. It’s more work up front than a traditional lecture, but the resulting increase in student engagement and exam scores should speak for itself. Review and edit the structure and organization of your lectures for digital format, and then pre-record shorter lecture-like segments explaining each topic to be assigned before in-class time. Make attending class required, but also make in-class time useful. Provide spaces for your students to work in structured small groups on practical assignments, and use both yourself and your TAs as roaming sources of assistance.  

This is only a short list of some easily-implementable ramifications of social learning – there are dozens more which I don’t have the room for in this column. To summarize all of the above into one comment it is this: socialization is a natural impulse and should be taken advantage of in the classroom accordingly.

Photo courtesy of James Xue (SEAS ’17)

This past week, my younger sister created a blog documenting her trek through Christianity. Being that I greatly appreciate stark contrasts, my first column of 2017 is just straight up about sex.

In short, I have come to believe that international agreements and sex are basically the same thing: the more complicated, the kinkier.

Alright, to begin, I’m sure you’re all wondering, “what the hell does she mean by international agreements?” Instead of dumping a long, wordy, and quite frankly boring definition (that is likely to be contested anyway) on you all, I am just going to use a type of “realist logic” to provide a basic glimpse of the subject.

From what I have gathered so far in my Rising Great Powers class, state-on-state interactions are mainly concerned with balancing power. When a state begins to enter into dialogue with another state, they are mainly concerned about their own survival and survival of their interests. Therefore, in order to not be threatened by another state, states must explicitly lay out what they want and what they are willing to do in order to achieve this. As more and more states begin doing this, compromises, treaties, laws, etc., begin flowing readily with a wide range of complexity. All in all, at a very basic level, these agreements are just simple declarations of trust and limitations.

I am going to use that last statement to gracefully segue into talking about sex, the real reason you’re probably reading this piece. If you have seen the new trailer for the Fifty Shades of Gray movie, or even watched desperate sophomores at 1020 hit on women, you know exactly what I am talking about. Sex, at its very basic level is a power play. Each player establishes what he or she wants through initial dialogue and subtle actions. A hair flip here, a risky statement there, and BAM you have begun your journey down the path that ultimately culminates in copulation. Be it a quick, drunk, hookup twenty minutes after meeting or a more meaningful act of “making love” after the pre-established three dates rule, sex is dependent on trust. Trust that the other player will adhere to what you want, and even more importantly respect what you don’t want.

This is pretty doable in what millennials are nowadays calling “vanilla sex”, or a relatively uncomplicated sex session. Vanilla sex is representative of Canada-U.S. agreements (pre-Trump…) on the international spectrum, if you will; simple, rather uncomplicated, but still dependent on a basic trust between the two. More is put at stake when more uh, “goods”, if you will, get involved. Like the JCPOA (or the Iran Deal), with BDSM or just good ol’ kinky sex, more is at stake, becoming a more serious game of trust.

Like sex, sometimes international agreements can be bad, culminating in war and breakups, but are still necessity in this wild world of ours. No matter the type, both agreements and sex, teach us about coexisting, and when done correctly, make life just more enjoyable.