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.


  1. Thanks for these posts on teaching during Trump, but could you please include posts on this topic by scholars of color, scholars who are not male, and scholars who teach at other kinds of schools, including community colleges, institutions with higher rates of non-citizen students (like many conservatories), and other, more diverse institutions? You've now posted 3 pieces by white men at elite institutions, the very demographics and institutions least likely to be affected personally and materially by the administration’s policies.

  2. Kendra: Thanks for this comment, in which you raise a totally valid point, a point which I personally appreciate, and one which will help us to avoid involuntary membership at

    In general, we are attempting to reach out to a wider range of voices to populate the blog, and this, I can attest from personal experience as we try to do it, takes time. Teaching under Trump is going to be an ongoing feature, and we will definitely strive to achieve diversity of experience, job situation, and subject position as we proceed. (The opening salvo of five posts is just the first.)

    The editors of Musicology Now consider ourselves to be facilitating a group endeavor that speaks, we hope, to as many of its readers as possible. For this to work, feedback is not just helpful, it's essential, and we're grateful for it.

    [Robert Fink,]

    1. If this is the first group in an ongoing series and the editors are seeking more varied voices (critical for this topic)—maybe the editor's note should be updated to indicate that instead of saying "this is the third of five posts"? I can see how people would not understand if it was truly intended to continue.

      Louis Epstein’s post from 2/19 says that the Musicology Now editors invited these five authors to write these posts. That also doesn’t really signal openness to more contributions, especially from newer or more marginalized voices in the field—folks who might be less confident about sending off a proposal or post unsolicited. (Assuming that is welcomed.) If anything, it looks a bit from Louis’s first post like the goal was to drive people with ideas to a Google Doc.

      The Musicology Now “Directions to Contributors” page says nothing about who is invited to contribute to this blog—many on social media wondering if they should submit if they’re not currently an AMS member or identify primarily as a performer or composer, for example.

      Epstein’s post also says that the “Teaching under Trump” series came from “Facebook-facilitated conversations,” which means that anybody who isn’t connected on Facebook with the organizers would not have known about it while it was in the works. Research shows that our personal social media communities tend to be fairly homogenous and algorithms determine what people see in their feeds—so I would think those factors would make that space less than ideal for continuing this work (once an idea is generated, anyway).

      If the editors are looking for more diverse voices on a given topic, perhaps we need something like a good, old-fashioned CFP circulated more publicly (i.e., by posting on organization listservs, sending an e-mail designed to be forwarded to colleagues and students, utilizing more public social media options, putting information on the blog itself, etc.?) I may have missed something, but the only notice I recall seeing resembling a CFP for this blog in its new guise went out quietly on a major US holiday. (, which doesn’t really match what’s on the blog’s own mission statement/contribution pages.)

      Generally, I think Musicology Now has done a much better job with diversity lately, although I'm also disappointed in this particular series so far. Even an “opening salvo” sets the tone for potential future contributors—especially when the overall messaging regarding contributing looks like what's up now.