Teaching in the humanities is like training musicians for performance. Both are processes of equipping students or singers with the skills they need for creative expression and artistic excellence. Success is a collaborative project, the final performance the result of both the teacher’s training and the student’s investment in their own technique and knowledge. As an instructor, my pedagogy stems from an understanding of my role as that akin to a voice teacher or choral director. Drawing upon my long experience in musical performance, then, my commitments as a teacher are threefold: practice, student leading, and performance.
Practice. The familiar phrase from introductory music lessons, “practice makes permanent,” is equally applicable in collegiate education. Practicing skills in listening, analyzing, and writing habitually is crucial, but practice without thought does not make “perfect.” Practicing needs to be intentional, deliberate, and regular, with conscious understanding of the skills being applied, rather than rote and mindless repetition or stressful periods of last-minute work. Therefore, my classes emphasize frequent no- or low-stakes small assignments that build skills and student confidence before larger projects and papers. I use three levels of writing assignments: informal blog posts, multiple short essays, and a large final project that involves multiple stages. Readings serve as models of both content and presentation. I consciously build in repetition when designing courses in order to enable student practice, and as in the case of the three consecutive Reflection Papers in “Sound in Sacred Spaces,” increase the difficulty of my grading as students respond to my specific suggestions for improvement.
Student leading. When students lead in class, they are invested in their own skill-building and knowledge acquisition. Thus, while I’m a good lecturer, my preferred mode of teaching centers on student-led discussions and activities. The professors with whom I worked as a teaching assistant and the peers and supervisors who evaluated my teaching as instructor of record of “Sound in Sacred Spaces” consistently praised my interactions with students, particularly my ability to lead students in discussion. Each class period in “Sound in Sacred Spaces” asked students to discuss readings, the big ideas of the course, and each others’ writing in groups of deliberately varying sizes. I have been most successful at empowering students to interact with each other rather than with me when I ask them to consider discussion questions individually or in small groups before coming back together as a class. I often ask my students to first spend a few minutes writing on their own or engaged in dialogue with one to four other students. This helps them identify and organize their thoughts and also gives them the confidence they need to speak up in the more intimidating setting of the full class discussion.
Effective teaching requires bringing student interests into dialogue with the professor’s expertise. In that way, instructors can pique students’ curiosity and provide a structure for further study in the topics students have already identified for themselves as particular interests or commitments. In “Sound in Sacred Spaces,” the students themselves crafted a question that proved to be a central narrative of the course: “How do music and culture influence each other?” Following one early conversation on this topic, they asked me to show them an example of music influencing culture (rather than the other way around). In the next class, I provided an opportunity for them to investigate this question, bringing several video recordings of protest chants I had taken at a local political protest. I asked them to collaboratively describe the videos—what did they see? what did they hear?—and then posed several open-ended questions concerning the nature of these chants and the actions and intentions of the people creating them (see the lesson plan later in this portfolio). Unless intervention or additional details were immediately needed, I stayed out of the subsequent discussion, which was among the most animated and thoughtful of the entire course.
Performance. For a singer, “performance”—the culmination of training and practice—is located in the concert or recording. For an academic or student, performance as scholars takes place in research and writing. My role as a teacher is to equip students for these tasks and give them practice in researching and writing, with the twin goals of competence and confidence.
I strive to include performance in the literal sense in my music courses, in addition to listening. “Sound in Sacred Spaces,” a course for non-music majors, nevertheless incorporated group singing, a hand-clapping exercise allowing experimentation with syncopation, and a mass performance of John Cage’s 4’33’ with discussion before and after. As an ethnographic course, “Sound in Sacred Spaces” also trained my students in the performance of ethnography, teaching them the practice of responsible and respectful participant observation.
One of the central components of my pedagogy is the craft of writing. My courses include a great deal of metacritical and self-reflective discussion of the writing process, including small informal assignments asking students to explore and evaluate their own preferences, habits, and methods, with an eye towards improving them. In “Sound in Sacred Spaces,” I sought writing improvement at many levels: low-stakes public feedback on small writing assignments, involving discussion of both the strengths and weaknesses of the piece and the author’s reflection on what he or she would change in revisions; short papers with my instructor feedback carefully aimed at building skills and improving particular elements of good writing; and peer-review that was not open-ended and formless but involved training to be a good peer-reviewer as well as guided questionnaires. In all cases, peer and instructor feedback were intended in the service of extensive revision, offering students purposeful opportunities to master academic argumentation and deepening their understanding of writing as thinking.
I viewed my “Sound in Sacred Spaces” course, a freshman writing seminar, as an opportunity to prepare freshmen for collegiate work. This meant I made sure to include close study of academic abstracts, the thesis statement, introductions and conclusions, the convincing body paragraph supported by well-chosen and well-organized evidence and analysis. We talked extensively of conventions within the field of musicological writing, and I took special effort to make sure that students understood the importance of such expectations within academic disciplines in general and within textual genres. The ability to think critically about music, to analyze primary sources and secondary literature, and to write a compelling argument, not only deepen students’ engagement with and understanding of music, but are skills that will benefit them in many other fields they may choose to pursue.
An individual recital is not the end of a soprano’s practice or training; nor is a final paper the end of a student’s engagement with a field of study. A performer uses both the audience’s response and her own critical self-evaluation to continue her work beyond that single moment. In viewing my teaching as akin to musical training, I strive to be a good first audience but also to instill in my students the kind of performance practice that will keep them improving beyond the end of the semester.