I’ve been pretty swamped with work these days, so haven’t had a ton of time to work on my blog. Somehow my writing career hasn’t dried up, but I’ve mostly been focused on teaching.

Since my classes have been occupying a lot of space in my mind lately, I figured I would write a post about three of my more interesting teaching projects. All of them reflect many of the issues I’ve been thinking about these days.

1. Theory Seminar II: Analyzing Popular Music

The first class I wanted to mention is a theory seminar I’ve been teaching at Temple this Spring. The course is titled “Theory Seminar II” (though, oddly enough, there is no Theory Seminar I offered at TU). The class is meant as an upper level course for students who have completed our theory and history sequence.

The class has two major functions. First, it is meant to help students prepare a portfolio for graduate school admissions. They write personal statements and other similar projects, and we spend over half of the semester polishing a term paper that can be used as a writing sample. So, the class is pretty writing-intensive. We do a lot of in-class peer review and other writing exercises. I’ve learned a lot about how to teach writing, and it’s been a lot of fun. (It’s also been a lot of grading.)

The second function of the course is to give students a taste of the grad school experience. Each seminar is topical, and tends to focus on some advanced issue in music theory/analysis. For example, my colleagues have done classes on Rhythm, Musical Meaning, Boarders, and other topics that help broach the questions of what music theory is and what it can be beyond the “drawing Roman numerals on a score” skills taught in our lower level theory courses.

I chose Analyzing Popular Music as my topic. Partially, I’m trying to introduce my students to classic and recent texts in popular music studies and music theory, giving them a sense of what a professional theorist who works on pop music (or, any focused topic) really does all day.

More generally, I’m asking my students to think about the relationship between pop music and analysis. We’re broaching a lot of big questions:

  • What actually is popular music, and is it a different kind of musical category compared to ones such as “jazz” or “classical” music?
  • Can music theory as a discipline actually make sense of pop music, or should we seek answers elsewhere?
  • How can we talk about aspects of music that are usually ignored by music theory (e.g. rhythm, timbre, voice, performance, groove)?

The goal, then, is to give them a taste not only of the fun questions that we get to ask in graduate school, but also the ever-encroaching sense that everything we were told in college is a lie :)

On the first day of class, I learned that a number of my students are performers (mostly in the jazz orbit) who don’t plan to apply to research-based PhD programs. For this reason, I modified the class slightly. We’re still blasting through journal articles each week, but I tweaked assignments and topics to better encompass the types of careers my students might have. I said that people could choose to write either a personal statement or a cover letter of the sort they might send to a prospective employer, and also worked on pitching popular press pieces alongside abstracts for journal-style articles. I further broadened the questions we were discussing, asking my students to think about what sorts of practical knowledge theory creates: does theory helps us get closer to music or estrange us from it?

Check out my syllabus here.

2. Music Since 1900

This is a class that I taught at Westminster Choir College last Fall. It’s the standard “End of the Grout, End of History” music history survey course. WCC’s sequence is Antiquity-1750, 1750-1900, and 1900 to Present. I was also teaching the first course that semester, so I regularly felt like my days were spent traversing Adorno’s path from the sling shot to the atomic bomb.

At WCC, most of the students are singers with strong performance backgrounds. It’s an interesting experience teaching those kinds of students, because they know a lot more about Med/Ren topics than the average conservatory student (since half of them sing in early music ensembles or churches). But they don’t necessarily spend the same amount of time on the greatest hits of the common practice, mashing out warhorse concertos or memorizing instrumental music by the three Bs.

The more interesting factor at WCC was that I had a number of music education majors as students for my 1900-present class, many of whom weren’t really tied into the classical music orbit at all. They were not in music school because they liked Josquin or Beethoven—mostly, they had stronger interests in popular music and the like.

Given this fact, I felt the need to move my syllabus away from the standard Great Masters template that usually structures twentieth century music courses. I did feel some professional obligation to showcase some of the repertoire they will need to know as grad students, performers, or teachers. A lot of the semester was spent talking about Mahler, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Cage, Reich, and other canonic composers. It was really fun talking about this stuff with such smart students, and I actually thought our conversations were better because some of the students came in without deep affinities or biases related to some of the topics.

I also felt it was important to go beyond the standard rep that might be covered in a course like this. I supplemented canonic material with a number of topics related to jazz and popular music in particular. We talked about Tin Pan Alley and “Race” Records, the rise of popular music as an industry around the world (reading Michael Denning’s Noise Uprising), bebop, free jazz, Motown, and other popular music genres. Most of these topics made it possible to talk about alternatives to classical music, the complex metabolism between classical and vernacular culture, and about important topics like race, class, and geopolitics.

Another major thing I did was bring up problems related to music History with a capital H: What makes music “new”? What does it mean for music to be “since” or “after” the common practice era? Does classical music have any relevance to our contemporary world? At the end of the semester, we had a discussion about whether classical music was dead or not. I’m pleased to report that one of my students quickly said the obvious answer was “yes,” that most of my students said I was asking a silly question, and that we then had an hour-long discussion about how the answer was ultimately something like “Yes, no, and…”

Here is my syllabus for the class.

3. DSA Night School

The third project I wanted to talk about is actually not directly related to my professional teaching career. Since I began graduate school, I’ve been really involved with a number of volunteer projects, including LGBTQ activism and other kinds of political work. When I moved back to Philly, I became pretty involved with the organization DSA, and eventually ended up developing a large education program for them.

At the time, I was looking for ways I could still be involved with the community, requiring some rethinking now that I wasn’t fully attached to a university anymore. This desire aligned with a more general interest in thinking about how to teach outside of the standard models provided by higher education. DSA has been a really rewarding outlet for these concerns. I’ve since become the chair of Political Education for the organization, and just last week, became an editor for DSA’s blog platform.

Many branches of DSA around the country have been trying to think about ways to build education programs, both to help their members learn more about political theory and to provide community-focused forms of free teaching. Some chapters have started to read large books like Capital, others are organizing Jacobin Reading Groups, and still others are experimenting with all sorts of topical groups.

During grad school, I was involved with a number of reading groups that would meet regularly to discuss texts from philosophy, social theory, and other areas of politics. I started to think about what virtues that model offered, and what limitations it had built into its structure. It seemed pretty obvious that the intensity of such groups was an obstacle to large-scale participation: as much as I loved spending semesters reading Capital and the Frankfurt School, I had a suspicion such projects wouldn’t be a huge draw. (We also have a Capital group, so it’s not like I’ve turned against big German books altogether!)

I began to collaborate with Melissa Naschek, one of the Co-Chairs of Philly DSA, to design a regular education group. We wanted a program that had a comprehensive scope and systematic design, so would meet regularly and provide at least a solid introduction to political issues. We further wanted to make sure that that range of issues included things from the more densely theoretical, such as Marxism and social reproduction theory, to the practical—things that DSA members were actually working on, like the Medicare for All campaign.

Even so, we also wanted a program that would be larger and more dynamic than the usual 5-10 person university reading group. So it had to be accessible enough to someone who wasn’t the usual grad student-type.

This dual concern meant that we had to be very careful about the choice of materials, the density of texts we used, and the topics we programmed. We spent months pouring over possible readings, debating teaching strategies, and pruning a syllabus for the group.

Ultimately, we developed the Philly DSA Night School, a yearlong, biweekly education program. Using about 40-60 pages of reading per meeting, our sessions include topics like the Russian Revolution, prisons, education, imperialism, environmentalism, gender, race, and healthcare. We use a mixture of large group discussion, lectures, breakout discussions, and other approaches to teaching. Our first session brought out about thirty people to a space that held about half as many people; we’ve regularly needed to upgrade spaces, as we’ve regularly attracted crowds of 30-50 people.

In the end, one of the members of our Political Education Committee developed a tagline that I think nicely sums up our ambitions for the program: “an approachable but rigorous series of ideological discussions.”

Soon after launching the Night School, Melissa and I started receiving messages from other people doing similar work around the country, asking for help or offering suggestions about how to improve the program. We eventually decided to put together a kit for people who wanted materials. We wrote an essay summing up our design philosophy, and included sample materials and templates people could adapt for their own political education projects.

Check out the Philly DSA Night School Kit here!