My teaching and course designs are founded on two main beliefs. First, that there is a difference between being good and getting better – that the goal of teaching is to foster tenacity and curiosity in students as they navigate the space between success and failure and learn to recognize and cultivate progress. Second, that we must challenge our inherited assumptions and be critical and self-aware of our context and how it colors our understanding of music and sound. By structuring a course so that students have early and frequent opportunities to experiment and, potentially, to fail in low-risk environments, both objectives can be realized.
When perfection is not always expected, intellectual courage has room to flourish and students feel empowered to adopt new methodologies. Being able to try on a new worldview without risk of a grade penalty creates the opportunity for critical self-assessment. In a recent discussion of how reactions were divided along racial lines at the premiere of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, I saw this process in action with my own students. After studying scholarship addressing the issue of authenticity surrounding the potential of a white composer from New York to accurately represent black life in the South, we paused to reflect. Why was the question of authenticity so closely tied to this opera, but not, for example, to Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, (which we had recently studied)? Both Bartók and Gershwin were approximating folk songs, both researched the sound of folk music and worked to incorporate it within their own compositional voice, both heard these folk melodies for the first time as adults.
After a lengthy pause the pieces began to fall together. Each student inherently knew the two situations were radically different, but struggled to articulate these differences in a coherent way, paralyzed by the weight behind the question. Gradually we spun out an answer. Along the way, a few students voiced their frustration that they could not reconcile the style of jazz with the genre of opera. The implications of race and high art bubbled just beneath the surface. Having designed a course titled “Music and Scandal” and taught theories of nationalism and performative gender the previous semester in communist China, where homosexuality was considered a mental illness until 2001 and dissent against the state is strictly controlled, I was familiar with teaching controversial subjects and mediating passionate discussions. In the syllabus and on the first day of class, I set the expectation of respect during disagreement by including this statement:
Self-awareness, respect, and honesty are critical during our discussions and writing practice. Being able to use language – whether spoken or written – to communicate with and appreciate disparate viewpoints is an invaluable skill in our increasingly globalized world. Hateful speech and bullying will not be tolerated.
At the point that we break past discomfort and begin to engage with difficult topics, whether it is feminine sexuality in Salome or rape culture in “Blurred Lines,” my role is to foster a productive discussion. When a problematic assumption arises – like the incompatibility of jazz and opera – I ask students to pause and write down their thoughts. This action serves a number of purposes. It allows a moment for students to collect a rebuttal, it empowers introverts to enter the discussion, and it develops students’ ability to respond to alternative perspectives and engage with each other. When I took this step during the discussion of authenticity and Porgy and Bess, it gave another student the space to formulate a response that skillfully exposed her classmate’s assumptions about how opera should sound and who it should represent. By stepping back as the authoritative voice, I was able to create room for a conversation between peers. One that was ultimately a more successful teachable moment than my own interjection would have been.
The students that have been enrolled in my classes come from a multitude of backgrounds. They are going to college in the town they lived in all their life, they are non-native speakers excited to improve, they are performers skeptical of music history’s place in their life, or they are scientists and mathematicians, eager but uncertain. But in all my courses, one thing remains the same: we steer into the curve.
In an effort to improve my teaching skills I regularly seek feedback from peers, students, and faculty. Both as part of the Certificate in College Teaching and my role as an instructor for the Thompson Writing Program, I have observed and been observed by many peer graduate students from a variety of disciplines. These reviews have allowed me to address inefficient teaching methods and foster those that are helpful for students. Just before midterms I also ask students to fill out a short mid-semester review of the class so I can make changes before the course is over. In the freshman writing seminar, for example, mid-term reviews indicated that students were interested in adding more popular music and contrasting pop and art genres. As a result, we brainstormed a number of topics to incorporate into the course. In the module on morality, we contrasted Strauss’s Salome with music by Black Sabbath; when discussing identity we studied both Dvořák and Lady Gaga. In the future I plan to continue gathering student feedback on courses throughout the semester, inviting commentary from skilled teachers and instructors, and continuing to develop my own understanding of theories of learning and teaching in order to provide an effective and fair classroom setting that speaks to a variety of student personalities, interests, and strengths.