By Louis Epstein
I tried out two different responses to the election. In my early music survey, I didn’t facilitate in-class discussion, but ended class fifteen minutes early and invited students to stay if they wanted to talk. Of 62 students, only 25 or so - those hardest-hit by the election results - took me up on my offer. In my upper-level seminar on music and religion, I asked students to apply lessons from the class to hypothetical Thanksgiving conversations about the election. This wasn’t an open-ended invitation to vent, grieve, or gloat; rather, students had to ground their points in readings - one student pointed to Bruce Holsinger’s writing on Hildegard von Bingen as an example of sacrilegious, “liberal” scholarship - and musical examples. The second approach proved to be the more successful of the two. For one thing, it created an opportunity for students across the political spectrum to contribute. Given the fractured and fractious nature of political discourse today, it seems so much more important to facilitate reasoned discussion between individuals with opposing ideologies.
Likewise, it seems all the more pressing to teach music history (and teach it well) given the opportunities it provides to connect historical examples to the political present. And the scholarship of teaching and learning supports such efforts. Teachers who relate what students are learning to current events do two things that researchers have shown to be beneficial: they create authentic learning goals (as opposed to performance or grade-oriented goals); and they demonstrate the value of their course to students’ lives outside the classroom. Studies have shown that authentic learning goals and high value course material both generate greater student enthusiasm, engagement, and motivation.
Inspired by the ethical and pedagogical benefits of addressing current events in my classes, I’ve been developing classroom activities and assignments for use in my survey and topics-based courses. Below I offer a selection of these ideas in the hope that one or more might be useful for faculty in various contexts, recognizing that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all teaching strategy. These are designed to engage students from across the political spectrum and all of them require students to use the content and methods likely already being taught to answer the ever important question: how can what we teach and learn in music history help us engage issues faced by society right now?
Activity #1: Students debate the ethical responsibilities of musicians commissioned or invited to perform by someone whose politics, religion, or identity they oppose. This could take place in class or in a paper. Ask students to prepare by researching historical and contemporary figures (Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Paul Hindemith, The Dixie Chicks, etc.) who have found themselves in similar situations. You might also have them read an article about all the artists who declined invitations to perform at Trump’s inauguration, and about those who accepted but faced controversy.
Activity #3: In class, link concepts like nationalism, xenophobia, diaspora, and exile to repertory whenever possible. Assign scholarship and repertory that fuels discussion of Otherness in music: exoticism, mimesis, hybridity, diaspora, etc. To turn this into an assignment, ask students to imagine they are legislative staff for the local representative or senator and they’ve been tasked with writing a brief on the impact of restricted immigration on American musical life (or musical developments more broadly). What examples from music history would they draw on to argue for tighter or looser immigration control?
Activity #4: Students create their own pre-inauguration concert program featuring an annotated selection of pieces they’re currently studying. Students might create a “patriotic” or “American” program, an internationalist program, or a resistance-oriented concert program. To prepare students for this assignment, ask them to compare the introduction from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “My President was Black”, which opens with a review of the music at President Obama’s BET-sponsored farewell party, with a review of Trump’s pre-inauguration concert (Emily Yahr's Washington Post review or the more expansive Musicology Now coverage). Reading excerpts from Sheryl Kaskowitz’s God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song or Dana Gorzelany-Mostak’s recent Musicology Now post and posts by others writing for the excellent Trax on the Trail project could inspire energetic in-class discussion about appropriating music for political ends. In addition to the repertory you’re already teaching, you might have them listen to selections from Will Robin’s “No Ban, No Wall” Spotify playlist or Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Rise Up Eyes Up Wise Up” playlist.
Activity #5: Students construct a textbook-esque “history of the present” focusing on intersections of music and politics under Trump from the perspective of a future musicologist looking back. How will the classical music world fare under the new administration? How will “America first” policies translate into sound? What music will be performed at the White House, who will be honored by the Kennedy Center, how will music education change? Students could aspire to a humorous take, along the lines of the below video or they could write in the style of a particular textbook author, or both.
For some of these assignments, imposing an ideological perspective (rather than let students choose) may be useful. Ask students to write or debate from the perspective with which they most disagree, taking a lesson from this study. Or ask students to present both sides of an issue (creating an “American” canon, or restricting musical immigration) before taking a position. And if students resist your efforts to connect music history to current events, take the time to explore the reasons for their resistance. After all, like our society, our classrooms should remain places where reason and historical perspective constitute our most cherished values.
Louis Epstein is Assistant Professor of Music at St. Olaf College. His articles appear in Music & Politics and La Revue de musicologie and he is the 2016 recipient of the AMS Teaching Award for his Musical Geography project (www.musicalgeography.org). Louis received his PhD in Historical Musicology from Harvard University, where he received a thorough education on the intersections of music, politics, and activism in seminars led by Anne Shreffler and Sindhu Revuluri.
1. I teach at St. Olaf College, a liberal arts institution of approximately 3,000 undergraduates and 280 faculty located in Northfield, Minnesota. The majority of students hail from the Midwest and Washington state with rising numbers from California, Texas, and Florida. 30% of the student body identifies as Lutheran (St. Olaf was founded by Norwegian Lutheran immigrants and is currently affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) and 18% self-identify as students of color. Normally the hardest thing about teaching at St. Olaf is getting students to disagree with each other; I’ve found the task to be much easier when I’m getting students to relate music history to current events.
2. Barron, K., and J. Harackiewicz, “Achievement goals and optimal motivation: Testing multiple goal models.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80 (2001), 706-722. For a general overview of the literature on motivation, value, and student learning, see Susan Ambrose et al, How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 66-90.
3. Consider assigning Brinkmann and Wolff’s Driven into Paradise or Edward Said’s Orientalism (and, in a graduate seminar, this excellent roundtable on Said in JRMA featuring contributions by Brigid Cohen, Sindhumathi Revuluri, Martin Stokes, Rachel Beckles Wilson, Kofi Agawu, and James Currie).
4. I found this video in Michael Scott Cuthbert’s MIT Open Courseware materials.
5. If you find it difficult to do this yourself, if you have concerns about false equivalencies, or if you worry that relating music history to current events might impinge on the impartiality you usually bring to your teaching, consider the point made by Benjamin Justice and Jason Stanley in an article in Social Education 80(1): teaching is never neutral and cannot aspire to neutrality in an educational system that prepares students to become citizens in a society aspiring to democratic principles (40). It is therefore our responsibility to do the difficult work of connecting our course content to our students’ lives, to problematize false equivalences, and to be transparent about our inability to remain fully impartial as teachers.