Monday, February 27, 2017

Teaching Citizenship: The 2016 Election in the Classroom - Teaching Under Trump Series

[Ed. Note: This is the fourth of five posts in a series where teacher/scholars reflect on the challenges and opportunities of teaching music after following the election of Donald Trump.]

By Naomi Graber, with Mary Helen Hoque, Hanna Lisa Stefansson, and Cameron Steuart

The day before President Trump was inaugurated, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Michael B. Smith, Rebecca S. Nowacek, and Jeffrey L. Bernstein challenging universities to “teach citizenship.” They encourage professors to help students learn “how to become more comfortable with ambiguity and complexity, how to disagree without being disagreeable, and perhaps above all else, how to be more empathetic.”[1] To these very worthy goals, I would add one more: teaching media literacy. Informed citizens should be able to look beyond the trappings of electoral spectacle in order to better evaluate policy. With the explosion of politicized media and political advertising in the past twenty years, it is imperative that we give students tools to think critically about the ways candidates and other political actors package their message and their identity. As musicologists, we are in a unique position to help students assess the ways candidates present themselves to the public given that music is such a prominent part of electoral politics in the United States.

The media circus surrounding the 2016 election—with its highly-charged rhetoric and with emotions (still) running high on both sides—presents a good case study to introduce these skills. To that end, I designed an assignment and discussion based on the two political conventions in my “History of American Popular Song” class in Fall 2016, which took place about three weeks after Donald Trump was elected president. Before the discussion, I held a meeting with my graduate teaching assistants (Mary Helen Hoque, Hanna Lisa Stefansson, and Cameron Steuart) to brainstorm strategies for both effective teaching, and for keeping the discussion from becoming too heated—to encourage students to “disagree without being disagreeable.” We found Jay R. Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom a particularly good resource in this regard.[2] The rest of this post is a summary of that meeting, as well as the TA’s reflections on what strategies were most effective in the classroom.

Even if this assignment is not appropriate for most classes, my hope is that these strategies will help us encourage our students to think critically about media of all stripes, and help our students approach controversial situations with an open mind. So much has happened since November 2016, and giving students the tools to understand how political figures use sound, music, and media to engage with the electorate is becoming more urgent almost every day.

The Assignment
My “History of American Popular Song” course is a large lecture (140 students), with smaller break-out sections of 35 students each, which are taught by graduate student TAs. The size of the class ensured that we had a variety of political opinions represented, and as a general studies course, we were limited to mostly non-technical discussions of music. We decided to focus on the presidential nominating conventions because they gave us a single moment in which parties and candidates try to distill their message and their identity, and because musical choices and performances often play an important role in that process. To prepare for the discussion, students were given the following assignment:


In your November 30 sections, you will be discussing the roll music has played in the 2016 presidential campaign. More specifically, you will be analyzing the music played at the two major political conventions, as well as the roll musicians themselves should have in how their music is used in contemporary politics. In order to prepare for the discussion, read the following articles, listen to the following spotify playlist, and answer the following questions. 

Anastasia Tsiolcas, “Come Together (Or Not): Music at the Democratic National Convention,” The Record: Music News from NPR, July 30, 2016. Note: watch all the videos embedded in this article.
Eric Kaspar, “How Music Fits Trump’s Campaign Message,” CNN, July 28, 2016.

Spotify playlist of songs played at the Republican National Convention

Answer each of the following questions in 2–3 complete sentences:

How do the Democrats’ musical choices reflect the message they are trying to send to the American people?

How do the Republicans’ musical choices reflect the message they are trying to send to the American people?

Leaving legal issues aside, is it ethical for candidates to use an artist’s or group’s music against their wishes?

The Discussion
We found that it was very important define the scope of the discussion clearly. First, we reiterated that our classrooms were “safe spaces” where we challenge ideas and not people. We then made clear that we were discussing politics, not policy—ideas that students often conflate.  We defined politics as the ways we identify ourselves in relation to our larger culture, as well as the range of tactics we use to convince each other of the rightness of our position. Policy, on the other hand, we defined as specific legal or governmental initiatives; in terms of the 2016 election, this meant items such as Trump’s proposed border wall, or Clinton’s tax plan. We made clear that such topics were outside the scope of this discussion. By making this distinction, we helped steer the class towards evaluation of messaging rather than the details of the party platforms. It also helped ensure a civil atmosphere by taking some of the most controversial statements of the campaign off the table. While these are certainly worth addressing in a university context, a political science or sociology course might be a better venue than a music class for such a discussion. We also made clear that we were not discussing whether one candidate was better or more effective than the other. Some of the TAs also asked students to keep their own political affiliations private to facilitate more objectivity, although this was not true across all discussion sections.

After defining the terms, the TAs employed several different strategies. Ms. Hoque broke her section into four smaller groups, each assigned to explore one of the following questions: “How was music effective in aiding Trump’s message?” “How was music not effective in aiding Trump’s message?” and the same two questions for Clinton. She assigned the groups randomly, and told students that if they found themselves in a group discussion about a candidate they disliked, they should consider it an exercise in empathy, in trying to see the world from another point of view. After the small group discussion, she asked students if anyone in their group had said something particularly insightful. This might encourage shy students to speak up in front of the larger group, and further encourages empathy. Although neither Ms. Stefansson and Mr. Steuart opted use small groups for their classes, both also found that breaking down the topic into very specific questions helped keep the discussion limited to music: (What is the Democrats’/Republicans’ message? How does the music convey that message? Is the music effective in conveying that message?).

By posing specific questions rather than asking students for their opinions, we hoped to prevent ad hominem attacks; the students understood that their colleagues were presenting views that may not align with their personal beliefs. This technique also helps students look beyond their own experience by helping them to understand the appeal of the opposing candidate. It is worth noting that some students may resist trying exploring issues from a point of view with which they disagree (although this was not a problem we encountered). In these cases, we should remind students that understanding the opposite position is not the same as agreeing with it, and that it also helps you make your own argument more convincing. Still, this strategy may not be appropriate in some cases because it risks endowing unethical or immoral views with false equivalence. A black student should not be asked to imagine the world from the point of view of a white supremacist, for example. There is such a thing as too much objectivity, and my TAs are instructed to (gently) shut down comments that were overtly sexist, racist, classist, etc. 

In most cases, TAs found that the discussion moved beyond the conventions in productive ways. Ms. Hoque guided her students through a discussion of the larger uses of music and politics, with the class exploring how, why, or even if music was an effective tool in political campaigns. Ms. Stefansson’s class was more focused on the issue of whether it is ethical for a politician to use music against a musician’s wishes, and connected those issues to the idea of political messaging.  For example, they speculated that Trump’s continuing use of songs by musicians who had denounced him was a way of showing his willingness to flout “rules” and do what he pleases.

The TAs also developed strategies for defusing tension. We found it important to develop some questions for that purpose in advance, such as “are there any similarities in the candidates’ approaches?” or “how do these strategies compare with other uses of political music that we’ve studied?” Mr. Steuart found that changing the topic with pivot statements like “We’ve explored [this issue] quite a bit, but we haven’t thought a lot about [this],” or interjecting some humor also helped maintain a civil atmosphere. By briefly poking fun at Bernie Sanders’s musical career, for example, he kept the discussion from becoming too heated. 

We did encounter some problems. Some students in Ms. Hoque’s class felt that the discussion was too apolitical, and wanted a more vigorous debate. It might be that our specificity was too constricting for students, and prevented them from exploring the more controversial aspects of the campaign. Given that this discussion took place only three weeks after Trump was elected, we erred on the side of caution, but some distance from the events of the campaign season might help students process the more difficult moments in an academic setting. Mr. Steuart discovered that students often defaulted to a position of “Trump won, therefore his tactics were more effective,” which was difficult to overcome. He feels that emphasizing that music is only one device in a candidate’s toolbox, and that music did not swing the election, would be a good strategy for avoiding this problem in the future.

All three TAs reported that the discussion was productive and collegial, with students able to explore complex and emotionally charged issues without attacking each other. No one seems to have felt marginalized or unheard. Although no students mentioned this assignment and discussion in their anonymous end-of-the-year evaluations, those reports were very positive, with students telling us how much they appreciated our willingness to discuss difficult topics in a collegial manner.

Because of the increasingly polarized and rancorous political environment since the election, some students are increasingly wary of expressing their views in class. In those cases, I would recommend some form of anonymous response. One technique (drawn from Howard) is the anonymous “minute paper,” in which instructors have students anonymously respond to a question in writing, then select a few to read and discuss.

More broadly speaking, this exercise proved to me that some discussions are best understood as explorations of an issue rather than as a debate between opposing sides. While argument certainly has a place in college classrooms, too often students are asked to attack or defend each other’s positions. When students do not constantly feel that they may be put on the defensive at any moment, they may be more open to exploring alternative ideas and points of view. Framing discussions as group investigations helps students to listen to each other with open minds. To borrow an idea from Stephen Covey, debate encourages students to “listen with intent to reply,” while exploration encourages students to “listen with intent to understand.”[3] By maintaining a cooperative rather than adversarial environment, we found that students feel safer on several levels: they feel more confident asserting themselves, and more comfortable admitting that they might have been mistaken. After all, in today’s social climate, teaching students that it’s okay to change their mind might be one of the most important skills we can give them.

Naomi Graber is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Georgia.  She earned her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a dissertation on Kurt Weill’s early American works. In addition to her research on the pre-Oklahoma!  Broadway musical, she is interested in musical theatre and film of the post-9/11 era, particularly in issues of gender.  Her work appears in Studies in Musical Theatre and at Trax on the Trail, and is forthcoming in the Journal of the Society for American Music and the Musical Quarterly.

[1] Michael B. Smith, Rebecca S. Nowecek, and Jeffrey L. Bernstein, “Don’t Retreat, Teach Citizenship,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 19, 2017, available online at
[2] Jay R. Howard, Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online (San Francisco: Wiley, 2015).
[3] Stephen R. Covey. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Miami: FranklinCovey, 2015), 304.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Social Resilience, Curricular Design, and the Liberal Arts - Teaching Under Trump Series

[Ed. Note: This is the third of five posts in a series where teacher/scholars reflect on the challenges and opportunities of teaching music after following the election of Donald Trump.]

By Dale Chapman

I write the present post as a faculty member at a small liberal arts college, who is interested in looking at various  ways in which curricular design can help to render our academic institutions more robust in our present cultural moment. Here, I use the term curricular design to refer to a variety of strategies for crafting innovative connections between course materials, whether at the level of the course syllabus, in the forging of interdisciplinary programs or majors, or in developing broader “general education” programs for the student body as a whole.

I believe that issues of curricular design become especially important as we confront the troubling cultural and political environment in which we find ourselves. That environment has taken on features that are striking in their departure from accepted norms. It is an environment given over to a toxic discourse of racialized aggrievement, in which overtly expressed misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobic aggression have come to inhabit the texture of daily life in the United States. It is an environment characterized by a generalized level of chaos and anxiety, as the impact of Trump’s executive orders in the opening weeks of the administration makes its presence felt.  

The moment is made more daunting for the difficulties we all face in documenting the details of its unfolding. Twelve years ago, Bruno Latour pointed to what he saw as the efforts of political actors to wield methodologies first theorized by poststructuralists – the critical unpacking of culturally constructed realities – in the service of dismantling stable truths.[1]  In his account (for example) of the contemporaneous discourses surrounding public perceptions of anthropogenic climate change, Latour anticipates the contours of the present moment, where the veracity of publicly stated facts has become an issue.

We as musicologists – scholars versed in the close reading of texts, in the careful analysis of social history, and in the critical engagement with media, spectacle, and the aesthetics of politics – have a particular responsibility to help make this cultural moment legible, to position it in relation to broader historical narratives, to inhabit the moment from perspectives that might otherwise elude casual engagement. In the context of pedagogy, this task takes on particular urgency, as the classroom becomes the site where the immediacy of students’ experience, the daily flow of newsworthy events, and the longer temporalities of historical inquiry are placed in conversation with one another.

It is against this backdrop that I would like to suggest that those of us who work in academia find ways to advocate for intensified connections between musicology and the liberal arts at the level of curricular design. In the present context, the importance of such connections extends beyond the laudable goal of forging exciting new interdisciplinary directions in research and pedagogy. Rather, forging links between disparate fields of inquiry becomes a necessary bulwark of resilience for intellectual freedoms and for civil liberties. In its ideal form, such a design enacts something close to what William Cheng has referred to as an ethic of care in academia: a commitment in each isolated disciplinary node to attend to the ways that other nodes, too, and their constituents, are matters of concern for all of us.[2]

In this respect, I find myself particularly appreciative of the curricular model employed by institutions like my own, that of the small liberal arts college. In these SLACs (as the unfortunate acronym has it), points of interdisciplinary connection can be inscribed at a variety of levels: most obviously, cross-listing music courses with other academic programs or departments allows faculty in the relevant units to build intellectual bridges to other fields; similarly, institutions such as my own rely heavily upon interdisciplinary programs, academic units that locate their intellectual underpinnings at the intersections of the disciplines they bring together.  Finally, general education curricula, which impose a set of loose requirements that all majors must adhere to, can enable powerful connections between different disciplinary perspectives. These features are, of course, also present in the arts and science divisions of large research universities, where they can become an effective means of linking schools of music and other professional schools to the interdisciplinary work of the undergraduate college.

In my view, one model of general education becomes particularly salient for faculty and students interested in harnessing the integrative potential of interdisciplinary collaboration: in this model, concentrations based upon a central theme (film studies, diasporic cultures, public health) serve as fulcrums around which coursework from a variety of disciplines can center upon an overarching intellectual question.[3] 

In interdisciplinary concentrations, faculty can also elect to coordinate instruction around a given subtopic, spread across several different classrooms. Seen from this perspective, musicology becomes harnessed as part of a broader intellectual apparatus: a coordinated unit on #BlackLivesMatter, for instance, spread across courses of instruction in departments of Music, Sociology, History, and American Studies, could tap into close readings of work by Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar, historical and contemporary analyses of systemic disinvestment, a contextualization of Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem, or the cultural history of nonviolent resistance. Another such unit might entail coursework devoted to the Mexican-American border as a contested site of political, cultural, and economic activity, with scholars devoting a week of classroom time to the discussion of everything from corrido ballad traditions in the borderlands to the legal, cultural, and political factors shaping braceros as a class of migrant workers in the U.S. since the 1940s. Such a unit could be a powerful springboard for classroom discussions of immigration policy in our contemporary moment.  

In my view, it is these integrative approaches to undergraduate liberal arts curricula that may help students to respond to this singular moment. Students’ classroom experiences are themselves embedded within semester-long syllabi, and ultimately within curricular structures, broader latticeworks of disciplinary and interdisciplinary connections that we engineer in order to spark intellectual resonances, to facilitate students’ capacity for epiphany. In times of upheaval, such latticeworks cease to be merely salutary side-effects of socially conscious pedagogy. They become, instead, a precondition of democratic governance itself. 

Dale Chapman is Associate Professor of Music at Bates College. His research focuses upon issues relating to culture and political economy in jazz and contemporary popular music. His work has appeared in the Journal of the Society for American Music, Popular Music, the Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Digital Media, and the Grove Dictionary of American Music (2nd ed.). He is presently at work on a book manuscript entitled The Jazz Bubble: Neoclassical Jazz in Neoliberal Culture.

1. Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004): 226–228.
2. William Cheng, Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2016), 6–12.

3. For instance, an analysis of the system of General Education Concentrations at Bates College (my institution) is available at Jill Reich and Judy Head, “Creating an Integrative General Education: The Bates Experience,” in New Directions for Teaching and Learning 2010/121 (Spring 2010): 69–78. Williams College employs a similar curricular structure, with interdisciplinary concentrations standing in for minors.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A View from the Ivory Cornfields: Ethical Teaching at a Public University After the 2016 Election - Teaching Under Trump Series

As is typical at academic institutions across the nation, there are certain iconic locations on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) that have become de facto public forums for exercises in civic action.  Most weekdays during the academic year, the historic central quadrangle is a riot of conflicting voices. Passers-by are urged by student groups, union organizers, itinerant preachers, and countless sidewalk messages (drawn in a rainbow of chalk colors) to pay heed to any number of causes animating the more than 50,000 students and staff that comprise the social body of this venerable 150-year old institution. A few dozen steps to the northwest of the quad and in front of the Henry Administration building, the extended arms of the beloved “Alma Mater” statue beckon the bustling crowds of the commercial “Campustown” district inward, her twin attendants “Learning” and “Labor” providing an evocative backdrop both for graduation photographs and for frequent public protests seeking to capture the attention of the campus leaders meeting nearby.

However, not every member of the UIUC community feels equally comfortable participating in these activities. In general, students and community activists form the core of the attendees at politically-charged events, as UIUC’s interpretation of a passage in the State of Illinois Constitution stating that “public funds, property or credit shall be used only for public purposes,”[1] and a corresponding section of the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act prohibiting university resources for activities connecting to political campaigns cautions faculty and staff to be vigilant in keeping such work separate from their fulfillment of their research, teaching, and service obligations.[2] Though the university Campus Administrative Manual explicitly states that these prescriptions apply only to political campaigning and “certainly are not intended to limit discussion among scholars and others regarding political or campaign issues or candidates,” many untenured faculty and staff nervous about continued employment choose to limit their participation to avoid the appearance of impropriety.[3]

This year, something changed. Donald Trump’s success in the national political arena posed urgent questions regarding the civic obligations of educators and state employees, and academics of all disciplines and levels of seniority at Illinois started grappling with what their jobs mean in this new reality. As scholars and stewards of a public educational project, we are entrusted with shaping the trajectories of the next intellectual generation. Moreover, though the rhetoric of academia emphasizes distance and objectivity, it is impossible to discharge this responsibility apolitically; significance adheres to inaction as well as action.

As I walked toward UIUC’s School of Music the second week of November, every surface of the square surrounding the Alma Mater and her plinth was covered with chalk graffiti. Energy radiated from every surface, as message after message proclaimed "Trump speaks for us," "Lock her up," "POC: I think for myself," and various expressions of white supremacy. A few steps further along, the central quad was similarly decorated with heartfelt chalk slogans, this time broadcasting sentiments such as "Muslim lives matter," "Undocumented students: there are no walls here," "Love trumps hate," and the like. It was my impression that there were roughly equal numbers of slogans in both places, but depending on the location one stood, only one sentiment came through at a time.

Music has historically prided itself on being a discipline that thrives on collaboration and collective agency, and musicology (variously configured) has many roles to play in articulating the ways these group dynamics shape our classrooms as well as our culture. We constantly urge our students to draw connections between what they are doing as players and scholars, model the respectful exchange of ideas in our seminar rooms, and seek to demonstrate how careful thought shapes heightened creativity and self-expression. And certainly we have long reconciled ourselves to the reality that even our most attentive students may use the tools we have given them in ways we did not anticipate or may not approve of. Yet it is not enough to simply hope that these virtues will be self-evident, or self-sustaining away from the supporting lattices of our curricula and degree requirements. The 2016 election revealed an American electorate set on screaming to all hearers that self-interest is better defended through conflict than collaboration.  As Brecht and Weill had the ensemble sing gaily in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (as their city is threatened with destruction), “If someone is doing some trampling, that’ll be me, and if someone is getting trampled, that’ll be you.”[4] Music(ology) needs to share responsibility for demonstrating that this position is neither inevitable nor permanent.

Back on campus on November 2016, I found myself facing a class of 100 students who were most of the way through a survey of western European music before 1750 CE, telling them that the morning after the election was the first time in a long while that I had felt truly glad that I had given early music serious study. I was glad that I had studied how anonymous people working within top-down authority structures found ways to make their voices heard (though almost certainly misinterpreted), through such means as marginal glosses, tropes, and contrafacta.  I was glad I had the opportunity to read about people like Philippe de Vitry and Martin le Franc, who roughly 100 years apart both saw themselves standing at the edge of a new age, and that as a scholar I had developed the critical ability to see how that perspective proved both right and wrong. As a scholar who has worked on the Roman de Fauvel, I was glad that I had seen people feel like the end of the world was coming, and do amazing things in spite (and occasionally because) of it. And I was glad that I had seen how music defined communities that could transcend other boundaries.

It was not just in my class’ discussion of early music that these exercises in “socially aware musicology” were occurring. Elsewhere in the Music building, a colleague who studies music in Brazil was talking about how during the military dictatorship of the mid-twentieth century, jazz and popular music were shaped both by political authority and by musicians using music to covertly express explosive ideas. After the Society for Ethnomusicology conference, members of the School of Music and the larger campus community came together around the topic of music and protest, discussing what makes a good protest song and singing together in a large classroom with bay windows that face outward onto a busy commercial street. As a result, almost all of us are thinking about how the music we choose to highlight in class speaks to themes of how our nation looks at itself and the world beyond.

What does this mean for public education in the wake of the November election? On its own, not much. It is in the nature of aggregates that every individual component is infinitesimally small when compared to the larger body operating on a different scale. But at the same time, those small actions add up. Our voices are heard by our colleagues and our students, and we can be politically engaged without (as the Illinois statutes warn) “promoting a particular political campaign.” As individuals adding up to a collective, indeed this may be critical to our success in research, teaching, and especially the service of our public university. Our Alma Mater.

Christopher Macklin is an Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is interested in the scientific and religious framing of music as a corporeal practice, with articles appearing in periodicals such as Plainsong & Medieval Music, Early Music History, and the Journal of the Royal Music Association. He is also a devoted student of Hindustani classical music, studying tabla with Rushi Vakil with the blessings of Pt. Divyang Vakil.

[1] Article VII.1.a.
[2] 5 ILCS 430/ 5-15.
[4] “Wenn einer tritt, da bin ich es, und wird einer getreten, dann bist’s du.“

Monday, February 20, 2017

Music History Pedagogy and the Political Present - Teaching Under Trump Series

[Ed. Note: This is the first of five posts in a series where teacher/scholars reflect on the challenges and opportunities of teaching music after following the election of Donald Trump.]

By Louis Epstein

In the wake of the election, faculty across the country debated whether and how to address election results in their classrooms. Like many, I was torn between two responses. I wanted to carve out time in a packed syllabus for students to reflect and, in some cases, grieve. At the same time, I saw reasons to carry on as planned. After all, talking about the election could be a minefield for teacher and students alike; some students would be happier pursuing course topics as scheduled; keeping calm and teaching music history - myriad facts, critical thinking, and all - now carries new ethical and political significance.

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.[1] 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.[2]

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 #2: Students write op-eds or letters to their elected representatives arguing for or against eliminating the NEA, perhaps in the style of this one. Again, they draw on examples from class to support their argument, including precedents for productive and destructive intersections of music patronage and politics: Charlemagne’s efforts to standardize chant; Lully’s monopoly on opera granted by Louis XIV; the WPA’s Federal Music Project; mid-century support for High Modernism by American academic institutions.

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.[3] 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.[4]
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.[5] 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 ( 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.