Remembering a Terrifying and Brilliant Teacher
Since I became an adult many years ago, I have meant to thank those pedagogues who equipped me, challenged me, called my B.S., and treated me like I had a mind that mattered. I haven’t yet. Whatever excuse I might offer, those important people have not received my gratitude. Yesterday, I learned that one of those invaluable people passed away. While she knew the value of her craft and was highly respected by her colleagues and feared by her students (her colleagues may have feared her a bit too,) I missed my chance to say thank you. It is a shame to eulogize someone, much better to honor them when they are around to enjoy it.
What makes an excellent teacher: A love of one’s subject, an standard of excellence from oneself and one’s students, an expectation that students can and will do more than they are initially willing to do? That is the crux of it: to push them, stretch them, force them through the growing pains that will leave them stronger and lithe.
In Dr. Alice Hanson’s case, the metaphor of broken bones healing stronger is more fitting than that of growing pains. That’s baby stuff. She didn’t mince words and didn’t bother being nice, but she was honest and demanded mature scholarship from her 20 year-old students. Ultimately, because she was such an effective teacher of such high standards, her honesty was more honorable than kindness. If you gave a wrong answer in class, she’d make the sound of a buzzer, cross her arms in the shape of an X and say, “No Credit.” Then she’d ask your neighbor the same question and your neighbor would curse and drop her pen from the nerves. Dr. Hanson would make passing comments that were so far from my realm of reality and knowledge that I couldn’t even tell if I should know of what she was speaking or not. I gave plenty of blank stares as answers.
As a sensible person, I was terrified of her. When she strode down the dimly lit halls of the music building, she reminded me of the giant stone ball from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom– unyielding, unstoppable, careening down a fixed course toward her office where some student was waiting to have his paper thesis ripped to confetti. I always appreciated her loud shoes; I like advance warning for tornados and Dr. Alice Hanson.
Dr. Hanson taught music history at St Olaf College and she was a force of nature. You showed up to her lectures alert, sober, and on time. She could not abide anyone walking in front of her once she began. She trained us to fill the seats furthest from the entrance so fate-tempting latecomers could take the seats closest to the door. I don’t begrudge her this idiosyncrasy. Walking in front of Dr. Hanson while she was giving an impassioned account of a Beethoven symphony was like sauntering past of the Queen of the Night during her vengeance aria. It wasn’t done and it certainly wasn’t wise.
We took copious notes during lectures. That was the stuff we needed to know later. She was wickedly precise, deeply analytic, maddeningly pedantic, and meticulously linear. Her lectures flowed like outlines, making note taking effective and easy. Seldom did I ever have to go back and add in information, or draw arrows back to something mentioned three minutes previous. We had textbooks, but her lectures were better: information distilled to its most basic and potent elements. Her listening and written tests were harrowing, and everyone studied for them, everyone, even those who didn’t crack a book for anything else. You could not wiggle around an answer. If you answered an essay question indirectly, demonstrating that you didn’t really know what you were talking about, she was not above crossing the whole thing out and writing, “BULLSHIT” in all caps across the page. Of course, you got no credit.
I was required to take two semesters of music history surveys from her. I have never worked that hard for a B+ before or since. While my biology majoring friends were sweating over organic chemistry, I was getting hives about Palestrina. Dr. Hanson was terrible for my GPA. If I had avoided her after those first two semesters, I may have graduated magna cum laude. But I would not have learned as much. I traded a stellar GPA for learning and took five semesters with Dr. Hanson.
I have always learned most from teachers I feared, and I learned a lot from Alice (as we called her only behind her back. She used to say that only her parents called her by her first name, and they were both dead.) I learned piles of music history. Even better, I learned her specific and effective way of reading music as poetry, history, and psychology. How to write an academic paper proved my most difficult lesson.
Every “Alice” class ended with a big analytical paper. I was a decent writer. My language was clear. I painted lovely word pictures and constructed artful and smooth transitions. I went in for my first draft conference with her. She already had a red pen in her hand when I walked in the door. There may have been 6 others in the wastebasket, having been bled dry on other first drafts. She eviscerated my introduction; striking through sentences saying, “State your thesis. Say how you’re going to defend it, points 1,2, and 3. Then get to it!” She muttered, “blah, blah, blah,” while crossing out an entire paragraph. (Remember, I was sitting right there.) She wanted me to write like she lectured- without airs, facts and analysis only, please. If she wanted to read beautiful writing, she certainly wouldn’t pick the offerings of a sophomore with a head full of mush.
I pared it down, realizing that without flowery writing, I would have to do a lot more musical analysis. Poop. I did more analysis, but I couldn’t bring myself to write the way she wanted. A double handful of English and history teachers before her had spent years training me not to write the way she wanted. I left in my transitions and linguistic curly cues. I got a B-. I struggled through every paper I wrote for her, unwilling to comply with her style requirements and her crossing out all my fluff with maddening regularity, until my fifth semester with her.
I chose seven minutes of Copland for the subject of my last paper. I wrote the entire paper as an outline. It looked just like my notes for her class. Then, I made each point a complete sentence and strung them end on end, like a paper chain and just as artful. No fluff, just twelve pages of analysis, musical examples, and a thrice-checked bibliography. It irked me, but I turned it in just like that. When I got it back, I waited until I was out in the spring sunshine to open it up. Across the entire last page was written, “You finally got it!” I have never been more pleased with a grade, because that ‘A’ took me five semesters to earn. I learned to write to purpose, to bend my style to meet the demands of the moment.
Music history in graduate school was a lark. I met my requirements with such ease that I barely remember what classes I took. I remember reading a journal article on Stravinsky and thinking, “blah, blah, blah. Get to the point” with Alice-like impatience. My opera professor commented that my paper was nothing but analysis. Of course it was, because an academic champion trained me.
When I need a refresher on Schubert, I don’t go to the Internet. I crack open a 15 year-old notebook full of lecture notes and re-read Dr. Hanson’s clear and precise distillation of the man and his music.
She was hard and suitably unusual for someone so brilliant. Her standards were high and rigid. She goaded us toward them, nipping our heels and exclaiming at our ineptitude, but never giving up or letting us settle for less than the summit. All of us who passed her classes became reasonable musicologists in spite of ourselves.
Resting in peace is not Dr. Hanson’s style. May Heaven possess enough interest and joy to meet the fervor with which she taught and thought. I hope, for his sake, Beethoven knows what his own music is about. If not, Alice will tell him.
She would hate this remembrance; it’s far too long. This is what I would have sent to her.Dear Dr. Hanson, Thank you for holding us to standards that were so high that we didn’t think we could meet them, but we did, with your help and your inspiring and clear teaching. In my eyes, you are largely responsible for redeeming the academic credentials of a performing arts department. Forever in your debt for my knowledge of sonata form, C.W. 241, 242, American, 19th Century, and 20th Century Music. (You gave me an A one time.)