Thoughts on teaching Music History in large-enrolment undergraduate situations

These comments, insights, and dicta emerge from a panel discussion held by the Pedagogy Study Group at AMS-Quebec meetings in November 2007. Points were raised by all participants, but particular credit goes to Professors James Briscoe, Marjorie Roth, and Jose Antonio Bowen.

Assignments to address writing-intensive requirements:
o Writing outside class:
  • Consider creating an initial writing assignment which focuses on critical thinking and writing skills, not on musicological data. A good first topic is an issue about which you also want the students to examine their own opinions: an essay on grade inflation, academic integrity, or similar; gets them started on forming and articulating opinions
  • Students creating program notes or lecture recital scripts; e.g., alternatives to the “traditional” historical research paper
  • Similarly, creating program notes for university ensembles
  • Consider a relatively conventional research paper assignment but require submitting thesis statement, abstract, short-bib on notecards instead of as printout; this cuts down on plagiarism and encourages students to treat knowledge as ongoing, portable, and accessible (more like an iPod than a one-time experience, in other words)
o Writing during class:
  • Teach critical thinking and writing—and boost assimilation of new ideas from lectures—through use of individual response and reaction papers; 5-minute essays on notecards, then submitted and reviewed for themes to follow up in class
  • The “telephone essay”: begin by giving a position or interpretation to which students are to respond. On a blank sheet, each student writes A: paragraph in direct response (3:00 minutes). Then students pass the sheet one person to the right. Each student then appends a B: paragraph responding to and critiquing the A: paragraph (3:00 minutes). Then they pass again to the right. Each student then adds C: paragraph synthesizing and summarizing A and B. Then lecturer selects one sheet, puts up on Elmo camera, and leads group in discussion. Use other sheets in quotation to inform responses.
o Writing (general observations):
  • Further to thinking and writing critically as a separate skill to historical investigation: use free/subjective writing (e.g., emphasizing articulation, rather than data) on topics like zeitgeist, influence of the other arts upon music, responses by students to short excerpts from primary sources, etc.
  • Students don’t necessarily need to work on both new data and critical thinking/writing in the same assignment. Parse them out instead: have one assignment emphasize critical writing skills (subjective, personal opinion) and the next emphasize data accession (research, resources, etc)
  • Choose topics which resonate with their own professional goals: teaching, performance, etc.
  • Responding to readings: provide shorter primary source excerpts, and have the students engage more actively with them to each other, typically by one explaining to the other, in return for critique. Then reverse roles.

New student profiles:
  • Recognize new definitions of literacy; use their existing media literacies (web 2.0, collage, online search, ability to follow templates, etc)
  • Recognize that ease/difficult of expression can itself impede execution: if it’s a literacy method (conventional expository writing, for example) they dread, they won’t do the assignment; if it’s a method they know well (free-writing, dialogue, prose married with images, for example), they’re more likely to do the work. John Steinbeck commented, in assembling his modern retelling of the Arthurian legends, that he felt as Dante must have done when he realized he could write in the Florentine dialect, rather than Latin, and no one would put him in jail. Or, like Chaucer, that he could write in Middle English. These were equally radical redefinitions of literacy.
  • Students live an on-demand lifestyle: exploit this rather than lamenting it. Make as much un-bootleggable material available for download and student-use as possible.
  • Similarly, use new media to work outside class time
  • Recognize and respond to the tension b/w time spent on skills versus time spent on content: more time spent on presenting and honing skills (especially in class) necessitates less time on digesting comment

Thinking about lecturing:
  • Prioritize lectures as interaction between viewpoints, not dissemination of concrete information
  • “Lectures should be about questions, not answers”; it’s far better to lay out for students the dimensions of a historical question or dispute, and then develop methods (mock debates, discussion, 1-on-1 point-counterpoint discussions) which shape and help them internalize interpretative positions
  • In all size classes: pair up students 1+1 and have them practice articulating evidence supporting versus contradicting interpretations
  • In seminars: each student do a short position paper rebutting or debating positions, not just summarizing, (5 minutes) at end of each meeting; then type up and upload to blog
  • Idea of using de-facto undergrad TA’s (serving as discussion leaders outside class, small-group leaders inside class); meet with them outside class time to brainstorm presentational methods and models. Find ways that motivated students can serve as such peer-group leaders (if not Honors students, then volunteers?)

Grading papers swiftly:
  • Break into multiple submission stages (topic idea, three-source bibliography, background 1-page summary, thesis statement, 15-item bibliography, background paper, final draft); in all but last stages, try to use student assessment of one another
  • On final drafts: use aural comments
  • On final drafts: use comment numbering and generic menu of feedback (same as abbreviations)
  • Read the first time w/out pen in hand: in other words, do not grade for style, expression, grammar, etc; this takes away from time for assessing critical thinking

Using students outside-class time effectively, in order to buy in-class time for more interactive work as described above:
  • Make online sources much more interactive: not just reading or listening, but also writing, also video-games, also team interactions, etc
  • Testing: set up multiple-choice questions which call, not for identifying factual versus erroneous responses, but for identifying that answer which is most to the point. E.g., “all these answers are accurate statements, but which one is most relevant?”; this would necessitate re-design of online quizzes
  • 100-Question practice exams; have them open first. Then follow these with much smaller actual exams (drawn from the same pool?).