University of Michigan
- To explain why I have chosen to address this topic from a slightly
different angle, a few comments about my teaching experience may be
helpful. After serving as a teaching assistant in graduate school for
nine courses, I have since taught four courses of my own at large public
universities, UCLA and the University of Michigan, both of which attract
a fairly sophisticated, liberal-minded, and diverse pool of students.
Featuring manageable enrollments (between fifteen and forty, primarily
undergraduates) and drawing from a wide spectrum of students across
many disciplines, my courses have offered ample opportunity for class
discussion and debate. Given this type of environment, what has surprised
me so far in my relatively brief career is the lack of controversy in
the classroom. My difficulties in teaching potentially controversial
material have not involved run-ins with my department chair, school
administrators, or upset parents. Nor have I encountered any noticeable
resistance from my students. My problem has been quite the opposite.
On many occasions I have presented class material that I thought might
prove controversial or disturbing, yet my students have appeared on
the surface to be unfazed, unaffected, and unmoved. I sometimes feel
as if nothing will get a rise out of them—as if they are too worldly
or too jaded for anything to make an impression. In my experience, instead
of spending energy worrying about damage control, teaching such material
has meant trying to help students engage with and understand what is
controversial, what is at stake, with such material in the first place.
This presents a very different kind of pedagogical dilemma—perhaps
one encountered most often by new professors, especially those fresh
from experiencing heated debates in graduate seminars—and I wish
to describe some strategies I have used to address it. For the most
part, these suggestions are common-sense tactics, successful methods
employed by my own professors, but it was not until I started to face
these issues myself that I began to think about them in a more systematic
Preparing the foundation
- Instead of confining discussion about a potentially controversial
topic to a single day, I try to prepare my students in advance. For
instance, rather than jumping into a presentation about musical orientalism
by displaying overheads of anti-Asian imagery and lyrics—which
I have done without a tremendous amount of success—I now find
it more useful to introduce broader concepts, such as musical exoticism,
earlier in the term. It’s my hope that this practice enables students
to consider new material in relation to familiar concepts. I also consciously
plant seeds for future discussions in advance: “It looks like
we’ve run out of time today to talk about composer X, but we’ll
return to him next week when we discuss the significant role of gay
composers in creating an expressly ‘American’ music.”
In other words, I adopt a matter-of-fact attitude toward topics that
some students might find controversial, but also give them time to process
these ideas. I realize, of course, that this kind of strategy may contribute
to what I have identified as a problem—that students appear unfazed
by certain course material—but I think that in the long run the
benefits of advance preparation outweigh any drawbacks.
Shock tactics and Visual Aids
- I am not one to use shock tactics, in part because it doesn’t
really match my style, and in part because I am not always sure what
I personally would accomplish by doing so. I do know of a professor
who, in the process of lecturing on blackface minstrelsy, blacks up—demonstrating
from start to finish the process of burning cork and applying it to
himself—and I imagine that this image stays with students
for a lifetime. While that’s not an approach I am comfortable
taking myself, it suggests just how bold a strategy one might employ
in the classroom. Along these lines, however, I find that students respond
much more quickly to visual or audiovisual examples than to print accounts.
Trying to describe Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer or David Bowie’s
video for “China Girl” is far less effective than simply
showing a clip. My colleague Mark Clague has inspired spirited class
discussions by showing footage from the films Amistad and Bamboozled.
And I have provoked similar responses in my courses by projecting the
cover images and lyrics of Stephen Foster’s sheet music, material
that is easily accessible via
Figure 1. DVD cover for Bamboozled
Finding past controversies
- Primary sources can also help students to identify and contextualize
past controversies, to understand why certain musical developments created
such an uproar.
I assign readings that capture early reactions to ragtime and jazz,
such as those contained in Robert Walser’s collection Keeping
Time, or show video footage that documents the backlash that met
rock and roll. To address the problem of students who arrive unprepared
for class, I have also found it useful to design brief assignments that
require students to analyze potentially controversial material ahead
of time. For instance, this semester my students briefly compared Big
Mama Thornton’s rendition of “Hound Dog” to Elvis
Presley’s rendition, first from the perspective of a 1950s
record executive, and then from the students’ own 21st-century
perspective. Requiring them to take a personal stand and to be ready
to defend it in class generated the vigorous discussion I hoped it would.
Figure 2. Big Mama Thornton
Figure 3. Elvis Presley [bottom]
Relating older controversies to contemporary ones
- I think it is crucial to help students understand music of the past
on its own terms, but I have also found it valuable to demonstrate how
“old” controversies persist today. At the end of a lecture
on blackface minstrelsy, I showed my students a promotional poster for
an annual meeting of the Al Jolson Society,
which featured a large image of Jolson in blackface. The image itself
did not surprise them, considering what we had just covered, until they
learned that the Jolson society meeting had occurred last fall in a
town located about thirty minutes from Ann Arbor. They were just as
quick to comment about the ongoing celebrations of minstrel Dan
Emmett, via a Music and Arts Festival held each year in his Ohio
Returning to controversial material
- In some cases, it seems that no matter what I do, students remain
unwilling to speak in class about controversial material … at
least the first time. But returning to such material later in the term,
after students have had a chance to process it, can be very productive.
My students seemed pretty quiet and subdued in response to their first
exposure to blackface minstrelsy, but at the start of our next class,
devoted to Stephen Foster, I reopened what became a very active discussion
that carried through the entire class as we traced the arc of Foster’s
Learning Outside the Classroom
- I am also starting to discover that silence in the classroom is not
always a bad sign, that it does not always indicate that provocative
material is failing to reach students. This has become more obvious
to me in the process of designing short writing exercises that allow
students to engage with such material on their own time. Recently I
gave my students an open-ended assignment that asked them to choose
any form of musical exoticism on the syllabus and to discuss its musical
and cultural relevance in a few paragraphs. I was struck by how many
students who had not spoken up in class chose to write about blackface
minstrelsy and produced thoughtful, perceptive, passionate mini-essays.
After the term ended, one student wrote me to say that his most lasting
impression of the course involved the time we spent on this subject.
Not knowing anything about this aspect of our musical past made his
jaw drop, he confessed, but the experience enabled him to gain a new
understanding of American musical history.
- Like other participants in this discussion, I believe it is my responsibility
to learn how to help my students wrestle with controversial material
in public class discussions, and I hope to enhance these pedagogical
skills over the years. At the same time, I take comfort in knowing that
this material is touching some students deeply even when it’s
not always readily apparent in class; their writing assignments suggest
that they are much more engaged than I initially recognized. As a result,
I have come to understand that sometimes my expectations as a teacher
have to change—that I will need to work harder to gauge what is
proving effective in and out of the classroom, and that my students
have much to offer that can help me improve as a teacher.
Essay • Next
Walser, Robert, ed. Keeping Time: Readings in Jazz History. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Billboard Top Rock ’n’ Roll Hits—1956. Rhino
R2 70599, 1989.
Thornton, Big Mama. Hound Dog/The Peacock Recordings. MCA MCAD
Amistad. Dir. Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks, 1997.
Bamboozled. Dir. Spike Lee. New Line Cinema, 2000.
The Jazz Singer. Dir. Alan Crosland. Warner Brothers, 1927.