Climate Change

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m very concerned about climate change and have decided it’s time for me to actually do something about it.  My plan for the immediate future, therefore, is to get involved in climate change activism.  But don’t worry, this blog isn’t going to become a climate change blog.  Although I’m sure I’ll mention climate change on occasion, I still have plenty of other things I’m interested in and want to write about.  Thus, my posts will continue to be about a wide range of topics.  However, I’ve recently learned several things about climate change that are worth sharing, so this post is about climate science and the next one will be about climate change activism.  Since these topics are on the main focus of my attention right now, it makes sense to write about them.  I’ll warn you in advance that climate science is kind of a downer, so this post may be a bit heavy on the doom and gloom.  Fortunately my next post will balance this out with a far more positive message.

I should probably start by quickly defining what I mean by climate change.  According to Wikipedia, the term climate change can be broadly defined as “a significant and lasting change in the statistical distribution of weather patterns over periods ranging from decades to millions of years.”  These days, the term climate change is often used interchangeably with the term global warming, to refer specifically to long term variations in climate that are caused by human activity, as opposed to changes caused by the Earth’s natural processes.  This man-made effect on weather patterns is what I mean when I say climate change.

Humans cause climate change when they release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  These gases act like a blanket around the Earth.  They trap energy in the atmosphere, which causes the planet to warm.  The majority of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere come from humans burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas.

To really understand what climate change is, it’s important to understand the difference between climate and weather.  Weather is what you see outside from day to day.  Most places experience a mix of weather conditions, depending, in part, on what season it is; sometimes it’s hot and sunny, sometimes it’s cool and rainy, and sometimes it snows.  The term climate, in contrast, refers to the average weather in any given location.  A region’s climate includes typical patterns of weather, such as average temperature, average precipitation, average humidity, average wind, etc.  Some variations in climate are normal, but the warming of the planet that is happening right now is not.

Since the planet is warming slowly and on a global scale, the daily weather in any specific place can’t be used as a reliable indicator of long term shifts in climate patterns.  It is, therefore, incredibly misleading when climate change deniers say things like, “It’s snowing like crazy in Virginia today!  I guess we don’t need to worry about global warming!”  Statements like that are quite simply absurd.

The most important thing I’ve learned recently about climate change is that the problem is even bigger and more urgent than I had thought.  Besides the fact that climate change is already increasing the incidence of extreme weather events all over the world, including in the U.S. (e.g., major storms, flooding, drought, etc.), it turns out that even if we were to cut carbon emissions to zero today, the planet will still heat up about 2º Celsius.  This might not sound like much, but it’s enough to make many places where people current live uninhabitable, either because they will be too hot, or because they will be under water.  A 2º temperature rise will also threaten agriculture and supplies of fresh water, and almost certainly lead to the extinction of many species.

Anyone who tries to say that the science on this issue isn’t settled is quite frankly full of shit.  They are either ignorant, deluded, or dishonest.  Over 97% of climate scientists agree that (a) climate change is happening, (b) human activity is the primary cause of this warming, and (c) the consequences of global warming are likely to be catastrophic for all species, including humans.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is a group of thousands of the world’s leading climate experts, has recently issued three reports describing what climate change is and what its effects will be.  The first report confirmed that climate change is caused by humans burning fossil fuels, and to a lesser extent, deforestation.  The second described how climate change is already effecting our environmental systems in extremely alarming ways, while also warning that the worst is yet to come.  The third report basically said that if we stay on our current track, the world is going to heat up more than 2º Celsius, which would literally threaten our survival as a species.

So this is serious, people!  We need to hurry up and do something to slow climate change, or we are all going to be completely and totally screwed.  I apologize for the alarmist tone of this post, but this issue is truly alarming.  Climate change is not a distant problem, happening way off in the future or in a different part of the world.  This stuff is happening now and is going to get much, much worse within our lifetimes, unless we take serious action very soon.

I sincerely hope climate scientists are wrong when they say climate change is a problem.  I like my lifestyle the way it is and don’t want to change it.  I also don’t enjoy worrying about this issue and would prefer to ignore it entirely.  However, the evidence that climate change is happening is just too compelling to ignore.  In addition, the possible consequences of climate change are far too extreme to accept without a fight.

Please take a moment to indulge in a brief thought experiment with me: Imagine that after studying it for decades, thousands of the world’s most respected fire safety experts said your house was going to burn down.  They were also quite certain that you, your family, and everything you value would be destroyed in the process.  You’d probably want to move, right?  If that weren’t an option for some reason, you’d probably do everything in your power to prevent your house from burning down.  You’d also probably invest in the best homeowner’s insurance policy that you could possibly afford.

Why should preventing the destruction of the planet be any different?  It is our home, and we can’t move to a different one.  I’ll leave you with that thought for today, but please check back in a week or two for my next post, where I’ll discuss some strategies for how we can fight climate change.  Until then, happy learning!


Beginning a New Stage in Life

With the completion of my doctorate and birth of my baby, I’ve entered a new stage in life.  This transition has provided a much-needed opportunity to reflect on what’s important to me and make deliberate decisions about what I want to do with my life.  In this post, I’m just going to talk a bit about how this self-reflection has shaped my future plans.

As I mentioned in my post on resource flows in social networks, I now think of pretty much everything in terms of resources.  Anything that can pass from one person to another can be considered a resource.  Unsurprisingly, I have received and used enormous quantities of resources, both musical and non-musical, over the course of my lifetime, almost certainly more than my fair share when considered from a global perspective.

Of course I am very, very grateful to have had access to these resources, and I wish I could adequately express my gratitude to the people who provided them.  Unfortunately though, accounting for resource availability and distribution isn’t such a straightforward task.  Many of the opportunities and advantages I’ve benefitted from were made available to me simple because of the social position I occupy.  Now that I recognize this, I feel compelled to start rebalancing the resource distribution scales in my own life.  In other words, since I’ve already used more than my fair share of resources, I want to focus on giving back.

For the most part, it’s not practical to try to literally “pay back” people who have provided me with resources in the past.  So instead, I plan to “pay it forward.”  This has required me to think quite a lot about what resources I have that can be shared or given away, and who could benefit most from them.  As I see it, my most valuable personal resources are my time, energy, money, knowledge, and social connections.  Thanks to my dissertation research, I now recognize that my personal resources are finite, so I should spend them very carefully.

If resource exchanges take place during social interaction, and I’m trying to decide where to spend my resources, I need to know who I interact with and who I want to interact with.  In general, I interact with family, colleagues, and students on a regular basis, and with causal acquaintances and strangers, such as grocery store clerks, during infrequent or passing encounters.  It is obviously not appropriate to provide the same types or quantities of resources for all of these people.  For example, it would be weird to give the grocery store clerk the same amount of time and energy that I give my son and husband.  But for the sake of my mental health and theirs, it’s probably best if Jeff and Dax don’t get too much of my attention either!

It’s also worth considering which of the people I interact with already have plenty of resources and who might need more.  Most of my students, for example, come from relatively affluent, supportive families and have tons of resources available to them.  In addition, I know a number of people who, in one way or another, waste the resources they have.  From my perspective, this is truly a problem.  In a world where resources are scarce, waste is inexcusable.

So you’re probably wondering where I am going with this, and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure yet.  As regular readers/viewers of this blog will know, I am very concerned about climate change and other environmental issues.  I see climate change as the most critical issue of our time, and I figure that music teaching will become totally irrelevant if the planet heats up too much.  Therefore, in the interest of doing the most good with the limited resources I have, I’ve decided to put aside my music education specific career ambitions for now to focus on climate change activism.  Although music teachers can certainly have a positive impact on the world, I’d like to take a more direct approach to addressing some of the world’s big problems for now.  Of course I will continue teaching, because I like my students and need to pay the bills, but I won’t try to get a prestigious job or make a name for myself in the music world (as would be expected of a newly minted Ph.D.).

I don’t yet know what form my climate change activism is going to take.  Over the past few months, I’ve been exploring different options, but still haven’t figured out what type of activism will allow me to make the best use of the limited resources I have.  I am particularly excited about about one idea I’ve come up with, which would simultaneously address a number of issues I’m concerned about, but since it’s too soon to say whether this idea is practical or doable, I’ll keep it to myself for now.

I’m also not sure what this means for the future of my blog.  I simply don’t know how much time I’ll have available for blogging.  Although I’ve accumulated a long list of topics I’d like to write about and someone recently requested a post about willpower, my brain is busy with other things right now.  I’m definitely not going to stop blogging, but I can’t make any promises about how often I’ll publish new posts.

One thing I will say is that I feel very good about my decision to pursue activism.  Although I’ve gotten a few raised eyebrows when I tell people what I’m planning to do after graduation, this path feels very “right.”  I’ve been worried about climate change for a long time, but have never done much to try to improve the situation.  Of course I recognize that my efforts may have little to no effect on averting the impending climate crisis, but at least I’ll know (and my son will know) that I did the best I could.

That’s all for today.  Thanks so much for reading this post.  Until next time, happy learning!


How Developmental Trajectories in Music are Constructed

Good news everyone!  I am now Dr. Abby!  Over the past few weeks, I defended my dissertation, made the few small changes my committee requested, and submitted the permanent copy.  Now I’m just waiting to graduate and trying to figure out what to do with myself next.

My last several posts have been dissertation-related, and in this post, I’ll summarize the findings of my study by describing my theory of how developmental trajectories in music are constructed (i.e., how people become musicians).  Although I tried to create a diagram that would help readers understand my theory, I just couldn’t seem to do it.  Instead, I ended up using a somewhat silly metaphor to illustrate my theory, so I will start by telling you that story.  Afterwards, I’ll explain what it means.

Imagine there is a ship that is ready to begin its journey.  The captain and crew determine where the ship will go and set it on its course.  They fuel the ship’s fires with resources that power the ship’s movement toward their desired destination.  The ship does not have an agenda of its own.  It could equally well go to any possible destination at this point.

(The ship metaphor quickly breaks down, unless our imaginations allow for a rise-of-the-machines type of storyline.  So please suspend your disbelief for a moment and hang with me.)

Imagine the ship develops a mind of her own and gradually learns to navigate her own course, thereby diminishing the power of the captain and crew.  The ship continues to need resources to fuel her movement toward her desired destination, but as the captain and crew take increasingly less responsibility for feeding the ship’s engines, the ship must figure out how to access and use resources on her own.  If the ship’s fuel runs out, progress toward her desired destination will halt.

As our merry ship gains knowledge of the world, she learns about more and more places she would like to visit and adjusts her path accordingly.  Each adjustment leads to new adventures and encounters that reveal other possible paths and destinations.  Although it’s always possible for the ship to change course, as the ship gets closer and closer to one particular destination, other destinations may become less reachable.

In addition, our ship must function within the confines of the ocean.  Though on one hand the ship’s location in water allows her to move, on the other hand, her aquatic setting strictly defines the boundaries of where she can go.

Inevitably, storms and other mishaps will occasionally force the ship to change course.  At that point, it’s up to the ship to decide whether to redirect herself back to where she was initially headed, or go with the flow and head in a new direction.

Lastly, imagine that our vessel is being pulled by a similarly self-aware tugboat.  If the tugboat benevolently helps our ship move toward her desired destination, she will be content and appreciative of the support.  If, however, the tugboat decides to tow our ship toward a different location, the ship will be very unhappy indeed.  If the tugboat is too strong and refuses to allow the ship to go where she wants, the ship may lose hope and give up on trying to reach her goal.

Okay, so basically..

  • The ship is the developing musician
  • The captain and crew are family members or other people a young child might interact with on a regular basis
  • The “fuel” is any type of musically-significant resource that a developing musician uses to further his/her musical development
  • The ships decisions about where to go and use of fuel (i.e., resources) represent acts of human agency
  • The “confines of the ocean” are social structures
  • “Storms and other mishaps” are chance events
  • And the tugboat is any person who purposefully tries to shape the musician’s development (possibly including family members, so the tugboat and captain/crew roles might overlap)

In other words, during early childhood musical development is almost entirely directed by family members and/or other caregivers (i.e. the captain and crew).  These people determine what music a child is exposed to and they model musical behaviors that the child begins to imitate.  Thus, a child’s developmental trajectory in music typically begins with learning about whatever music his or her family members like.  The child’s family supplies musically-significant resources (i.e., the fuel) that help the child develop musical skills.

As children get older, they start taking more initiative for directing their own musical development.  They decide what musical activities they are interested in pursuing and can seek out musically-significant resources, such as information about music and musical instruments, on their own.  They become progressively more and more able to exercise personal agency to intentionally shape their developmental trajectories.

However, social structures (i.e., the ocean) both enable and constrain musical development.  If a child’s school music program only provides instruction on traditional band instruments, he or she isn’t going to learn to play ukelele in school.  If every radio station plays the same over-produced pop songs all day long, the child is unlikely to develop a taste for other styles of music.  But social structures can be helpful too, because they provide more or less clear guidelines for how musically-significant resources can be accessed.  In other words, social structures help musicians know where/how to find and acquire the resources they need.

Musical development is also shaped by chance.  The time and place you are born, for example, dramatically influence your musical development.  Random events can shape development later in life as well.  Imagine if you wanted to be a cellist, but lost your arm in a car accident.  There goes your cello career!  (Probably)

Of course you might be so determined to be a cellist that you decide to do whatever it takes to achieve your goal.  You respond to the unfortunate loss of your arm by designing a bionic cello-playing limb replacement.  Everyone tells you it can’t be done, but after practicing very hard for many years, you go on to have a successful career as a cellist.  In other words, human agency can, to some extent, mitigate the effects of chance and social structures.

As for the tugboat part of the story, sometimes other people (e.g., teachers or parents) try to steer a musician toward a particular musical goal.  If the musician wants to move toward this goal because it coincides with his or her personal goals, everyone will be happy.  However, if the other person is trying to get the musician to pursue goals that the musician isn’t interested in, some disharmony will likely result.  If the other person is so insistent or powerful that the musician can’t follow his or her desired path, the musician’s motivation to pursue music may suffer.

There’s a bit more to it, but that covers the gist of my theory.  If you want to know more, the entire dissertation is posted on my blog.  This theory is discussed in chapter ten.

One last thing: I believe I promised in my first dissertation-related post that in this post I would present my definition of the term musical development.  Here it is…as I currently define it, the term musical development refers to individuals’ unique, life-long trajectories toward personally valued musical outcomes that are mediated by chance, agency, and the musical behaviors of individuals with whom the musician interacts.

Thanks so much for reading this.  Until next time, happy learning!


Agency, Chance, and Social Structure

Way back in April of last year, I wrote a blog post about human agency.  For those of you who missed it, the term agency basically refers to our human ability to make choices that influence the course of our lives.  I love the concept of agency, because after learning about it, I felt empowered to make changes in my life that seem to be working out quite well.  It gave me (and still gives me) a sense of control over my own destiny that I find very reassuring.

However, I have read quite a bit more about agency since then, and I now know that agency is not quite as powerful as I would like it to be.  An individual’s agency is typically constrained by a number of factors, including chance and social structures.  Many scholars (e.g., Harris, 2012; Pinker, 2002; Wegner, 2002) argue that agency and related concepts like freewill are merely cognitive illusions.  They say we don’t have the power to shape our own lives, mainly because our biological predispositions and social groups are so much more powerful.

Although their arguments are quite compelling, I personally believe that agency exists, in part because I want to.  It would just be too depressing to feel that I couldn’t control my actions.  Furthermore, I truly believe that I have acted as an agent of change in my own life, though the agency doubters would argue that this is because the illusion of agency is so compelling.

Certainly, where and when you are born determines what your life will be like to a large extent.  The language you speak, the foods you eat, and the education you receive are just a few examples of how your life is shaped by “the lottery of birth.”  More importantly, your genetic makeup and family relationships are matters of chance.  If you happen to be healthy, attractive, intelligent, and born into a family that wants you, can support you, and lives in a safe place, lucky you!  If not, bummer!

On a separate note, I recently saw a documentary called The Lottery of Birth that I highly recommend.  If you’re the kind of person who reads or watches blogs like this one, you’d almost certainly enjoy it, though not in the “Haha!” or “Yippie!” sense.  It’s kind of disturbing, but also inspiring and very thought-provoking.

Anyhow, your ability to deliberately shape your own life is constrained by a variety of factors.  Part of the issue is that many of our daily “decisions” are not decisions at all, but rather the product of our habits and social conditioning.  So it’s not clear to what extent people “choose” their actions and beliefs, and to what extent are our actions and beliefs are unconscious mimicking of what the people around us do and believe.

However, regardless of whether agency truly exists or not, humans undoubtedly have the ability to experience a sense of agency.  According to a variety of scholars (e.g., Bandura, 2006; Ryan & Deci, 2006) believing we can deliberately influence our lives is good for our mental health, even if our actual control over our life circumstances is extremely limited.  Bandura (2006) also argued that people are better able to influence their life circumstances when they believe they can.  Even if agency is an illusion, it’s an illusion that improves people’s lives.  So I, for one, am happy to be deluded.

You may be wondering what all of this has to do with my dissertation.  In a nutshell, chance and social structures contribute to shaping musical development.  People are born with physical and mental characteristics that either enable or constrain their musical abilities.  They are also born into social groups that (1) have certain musical beliefs and values and (2) support or discourage specific musical activities.  If you are born in India, you will probably learn about Indian music.  If you are born in China, you will probably learn about Chinese music.  Etc., etc.

Furthermore, chance and social structures continue to influence your development throughout life.  The musical development of one of the participants in my study, for example, was shaped by the untimely deaths of three of his music teachers (on separate occasions).  He had no control over these events, and when they occurred, he had no choice but to find new teachers.

The developmental trajectories of the participants in my study were significantly influenced by whatever musical opportunities and activities were available in their social environments.  The classical, jazz and musical theatre participants had plenty of opportunities to learn about their chosen genres in school. whereas the rock and hip hop participants had almost no opportunities to make music in school.

According to my research, agency also contributes to shaping musical development.  As I mentioned in my last post, developing musicians access musically-significant resources through their network connections.  However, just having resources is not enough.  For significant development to occur, a person has to actually use his or her resources.  One participant in my study, for example, grew up in a very musical family and took some guitar lessons at a young age when his mom signed him up for lessons.  However, he wasn’t at all interested in learning about music at the time and never practiced.  As a result, his skills were unremarkable.  When he reached eighth grade, he suddenly decided that he wanted to be a rock musician and started teaching himself to play guitar.  He practiced a ton and became amazingly good in a very short amount of time.  Although he’d had the resources available to him all along, they didn’t produce any significant musical growth until he decided to take advantage of them.  In other words, musicians contribute to shaping their own developmental trajectories by using available resources and seeking desired resources.

I could go on and on, but this post is too long as it is.  In my next post, I’ll describe my theory of how developmental trajectories in music are constructed, which basically draws together the ideas I’ve presented in my last several posts.  You’ll probably have to wait a couple weeks for that though, because next Tuesday I defend my dissertation (Yay!) and after that I’ll probably have some editing to do (Boo hiss!).  So thanks for your patience.  Until next time, happy learning!


Resource Flows in Social Networks

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the goal of my dissertation was to understand how social relationships influence musical development.  To accomplish this goal, I compared the social networks of 5 young musicians, using a qualitative form of social network analysis (SNA).

There a lot of talk about social networks these days, thanks to websites like Facebook and LinkedIn, though the term is used somewhat differently in academic contexts.  The field of SNA is huge and varied, so I probably should have done a whole post on that before trying to explain how it relates to my dissertation.  But since I neglected to do that, I’ll take a moment here to quickly summarize what social networks are why researchers care about them.

The term social network refers to the composite structure of an individual’s social relationships.  SNA is based on the premise that social life is created by relationships and the patterns they form.  Social network analysts map social relations to understand how “resources” flow from one network member to another.  The resulting diagrams show how people are connected to one another, illustrating, for example, who knows who and how close or distant their relationships are.  Researchers are typically interested in both the content and pattern of relationships.

Although the term “resource” is frequently used in social network literature, it is rarely, if ever, defined.  Because I was struggling to find a definition, I emailed a number of prominent researchers to ask for help.  Many of them were kind enough to respond.  They confirmed my belief that no firm definition exists.  However, Alexandra Marin said, “If you forced me to define it right now I would say it’s something (tangible or not) useful that can pass from one person to another.”  Considering that some social network researchers study how diseases and self-destructive behaviors flow through social networks, I would argue that it makes sense to remove the word useful from that definition.  Researchers use the term resources to describe material goods, services, information, attitudes, beliefs, social support, etc.  In other words, resources can be almost anything, positive or negative, that passes from person to person.

Social networks are significant for human development, because the experiences and learning opportunities we have are largely dependent on who we know.  This is especially critical for young children who typically don’t know many people and cannot independently establish new relationships.  Many children interact almost exclusively with family members during the first few years of their lives.  This means they only have access to their family members’ resources.  If these resources are lacking in terms of quantity or quality, the child’s development could potentially suffer.

To understand how musical development occurs, it’s important to consider what musical resources a person has access to in his or her environment and how he or she makes use of these resources.  In my study, I identified a broad range of musically-significant resources that participants in my study accessed through their network connections.  A partial list of these includes exposure to music, access to instruments and other equipment, musical instruction, transportation to musical events, support and encouragement, practice or rehearsal space, career guidance, website design, respect and/or recognition, discipline, camaraderie, money, etc.  These resources were both tangible and intangible.  Some were directly musical, others were not.

For the most part, the participants in my study had access to plenty of resources, which facilitated their musical growth.  However, one participant was struggling to access the resources he needed to achieve his musical goals.  Specifically, he lacked money to buy the equipment he needed and opportunities to promote his music and pursue a career in music.  His family and friends wanted to help him and tried to help him, but they didn’t have the information, money, and social connections he needed either.  Obviously, network members can only provide whatever resources they have.  The quality and type of resources people have depends in large part on their past experiences and interactions.

In general, resources are finite.  Some people have more resources than others, but with the possible exception of “the 1%,” no one has access to unlimited resources.  Schools and arts organizations in particular often struggle with resource shortages.  Determining how resources should be shared and distributed is, therefore, a tricky ethical question.  If there aren’t enough resources for everyone to have all they want, how should what is available be divvied up?  Although I have some thoughts about how this question could be answered, which I will share in an upcoming post, I don’t pretend to have a perfect solution to this problem.  Furthermore, as I’ll discuss more in my next post, just having resources isn’t enough.  According to my research, you have to USE your resources for development to occur.

Throughout the process of conducting this study, I spent considerable time reflecting on (1) what resources I have, (2) what resources I need, (3) what resources I want, (4) what resources the people I know have that I could possibly access if I wanted to, and (5) how I can use all those resources to accomplish my goals.  I’ve especially been thinking about how my personal time, energy, and money are limited resources that I should spend carefully.  This may sound morbid, but I have become very aware of the fact that I will not live forever.  As a result, I want to be sure that I use my remaining time well.  This has led me to seriously consider what is important to me and what is a waste of my time and energy.  I’ll be talking more about this in a future post, but for now I’ll just say that l’ve already used more than my fair share of resources in life and now it’s time for me to help other people get access to the resources they need .

Anyhow, I’ll leave you with that for today.  Until next time, happy learning!