Occasionally students complain about homework. I’m sure that I did. I’m not very sure where I fit into the spectrum on workload for students. I simply attempt to give them enough exercise to accomplish the tasks that they need to achieve. When I used to teach history, I would occasionally get a comment on my evaluations that said preparing for my tests was “a monumental task”, but I always took it as a compliment. This week, upon hearing a few grumblings, I thought back to my Masters program at SMU. Two incidents in particular came to mind.

#1 – Dr. Carol Reynolds Hughes (check out her website here) was a brutal teacher, and I mean that as the highest compliment I can give. Her bibliography class was easily one of the top two hardest classes I have ever taken. After having us memorize the Library of Congress catalogue numbers for music, we began to work our way through them. One day, she started class like this, “In three weeks time we will be having a test on the ML134s. I will place several thematic catalogues around the classroom, and you will go from station to station and answer questions about them. Some of the catalogues, like the K√∂chel catalogue for Mozart and the Deutsch catalogue for Schubert, are in German. So, if you don’t read German, I suggest you learn some before the test. Here is a worksheet with 150 German words that you will definitely need to know if you want to pass the test.”

#2 – Dr. Donna Mayer-Martin (gone from us too soon) normally assigned about 1000 pages a week for reading. I was in her history of music theory class, and we met on Tuesday and Thursday. The class consisted of me, a particularly brilliant composer named Peeter Tammearu who is a polyglot with about 7 or 8 languages and is now a priest, an extremely bright musicology student named Maureen Adde who is now an attorney in Toronto, and two music therapy students. DM-M, as she was affectionately known, said on Tuesday, I want you to read the Boethius treatise for Thursday and some other article that I don’t recall right now. In any case, it was about 300 pages of reading. One of the music therapy students dared to complain saying, “We can’t read that much by Thursday. We have other classes aside from yours.” DM-M blinked at her several times in her inimitable way while she tried to comprehend what the girl was saying. She then said, “You are in graduate school! Do you know how few people in the world get to go to graduate school?! What in the world can you possibly be doing beside reading for my class for 4 or 5 hours a day?! You aren’t watching TV are you?! I expect you to be reading 4 or 5 hours a day for me.”

I don’t think I’ve ever had the courage to assign 300 pages in two days. I know I haven’t told students that they better learn how to read some German in 3 weeks. I do know that I still value being pushed so hard by two of the best teachers I ever had.