Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Teaching Next Door to Trump - Teaching Under Trump Series

[Ed. Note: This is the last 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 James Deaville

My response to the Trump campaign, and in particular to his mocking a disabled reporter in November, 2015, took a pedagogical form, specifically an upper-level seminar on music and disability. My experiences in the seminar led me to share some reflections on teaching disability and, more generally, on teaching “next door to Trump.”

At the time of the election, I was also teaching a first-year, first-term undergraduate course called “Introduction to the Study of Music.” The seminar and the first-year lecture course were offered in the School for Studies in Art and Culture: Music at Carleton University. Carleton is an undergraduate/graduate post-secondary institution of 29,000 students located in Ottawa, Ontario, less than one hour’s drive from the U.S. border at Ogdensburg, New York. This geographical proximity underscores the cultural bonds between the nations (we receive American television programming, have many of the same products and franchises, even almost share a spoken language). Because of these many connections between countries, and since I grew up and studied in the U.S., I feel that my experiences teaching “next door to Trump” fits into this pedagogical discussion.

Our students, faculty, and administrators reacted strongly to the radical change in the White House. There were no signs of Canadian smugness on campus but rather alarm and concern, and so the next issue of the student newspaper The Charlatan (November 16) led with student reactions to the election results and featured a letter (by an American student) entitled “Trump Is an American Fascist.” Students and colleagues attended the post-Inaugural women’s march in Washington, D.C. and a smaller event in Ottawa.  But it was the immigration ban that most mobilized the university into action, leading to demonstrations on campus and at the U.S. embassy. The full university administration – the President, Provost, and all three of the Vice-Presidents –  distributed a campus-wide message that refers to the “consternation” and anxiety the executive order has caused, and while primarily giving advice for travel to the United States for members of the Carleton community, it notes, “We must now work together to celebrate our diversity.”

Meanwhile teaching continued, and music was no exception. At least at Carleton, music students are not known for their political engagement, so faculty members felt challenged to make reference to the political events in the United States. In my Intro course, I took the opportunity to insert campaign ads into the curriculum, since students are familiar with the main candidates and the styles of stock music used for such commercial productions. We were able to talk about what the music was doing and how it was drawing upon the persuasive capabilities of (campaign) advertising. After reiterating to the class my guidelines for the informed analysis of audiovisual media, we screened and discussed several election ads. One was the Jeb Bush attack ad against Marco Rubio called “Vane.” It illustrates a hybrid approach that first attacks the opponent and then builds up the sponsoring candidate, drawing upon affects that the production tracks clearly underscore. The other ad we analyzed was also from the Bush camp, this time illustrating the effectiveness of parody through a (well-known) song, Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” fitted out with new lyrics. We were able to have a fruitful discussion of how parody in music works and of the emotional appeals this ad draws upon (nostalgia, humor, anger).

I was able to use these campaign spots in my classroom because of the Trax on the Trail database edited by Dana Gorzelany-Mostak – it is still available for any colleague who wishes to take their students down the campaign trail and speculate about candidate musical strategies. With exception of the fan-generated parody videos that are still being produced, these ads have been relegated to the so-called “dustbin of history” (Trotsky?). Yet, it is still possible to teach students about the intersections of sound and image in politics using Trump (and others). I had them compare Trump’s manner of public speaking with Obama’s, especially in terms of pitch, rhythm, and pace. (Musical translations of the presidents’ respective spoken cadences have already been undertaken by in his “Yes We Can” video from 2008 and by Iggy Jackson in his bass cover of Trump saying “China.)”That might be a traumatic experience for some, however, so a trigger warning might be necessary (and some of you might have trouble with the exercise as well). For me, the important lesson is for students to be aware of the role of (musical) sound in shaping the persuasive possibilities afforded by spoken language.  Where better to illustrate the point than through politicians and their surrogates  (press secretaries, advisers, etc.), whose job it is to convince us?

For the upper-level Music and Disability seminar, teaching “next door to Trump” meant something quite different than for the first-year students. We were half-way through the course when the election happened, which had a tangible impact on the students, even though none of them (16 in all) were Americans. We had been talking about stigmatization and the Americans with Disabilities Act all term, even though disability rights here fall under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Human Rights Act (the government is working on federal disability legislation). However, the border is fully porous in terms of the stigmatization of disability, and legislation is only as strong as its enforcement.

As a seminar on disability (and music), we had to talk through these issues. We had heard rumors about the loosening of regulations in the United States, given Trump’s mocking of a disabled reporter and other stray campaign-trail comments on disability. Americans with disabilities have expressed serious concern over actual and potential actions of the White House. I asked students to keep a journal of disability-related stories from the news and to report to class any incidents they observed that might reflect stigmatization or discrimination. I also encouraged them to consider writing term papers on the intersection of music, disability, and politics, although only two ended up writing this direction since they had already had their topics approved,. At the end of the course, we took political action by sending to the administration a list of recommendations for the improvement of access on campus, not as a formal assignment but rather as an act to benefit our community through what we have learned.

This was only one small specialized course in Canada, but for me it sets out an agenda for teaching disability under Trump, a task all the more urgent because of developments in the Cabinet and White House. Accordingly, here are some concrete steps I recommend for engaged disability pedagogy:

1) Participate in campus-wide initiatives relating to disability and access, including (new) programs in Disability Studies and campus planning committees.

2) Press for curricula in our departments that include lectures and seminars in disability and music (here is my course outline and a link to syllabi posted on the AMS Music and Disability Study Group).

3) Introduce composers and performers with disabilities into all courses, and for those already on our syllabi, adopt a disability-sensitive approach.

4) In courses provide an awareness to students with disabilities of resources available to them and advise all students about ableist language and attitudes.

For a collection of articles on teaching disability, see the 2016 special issue of Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy,

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