Roundtable | Diverse Musical Traditions, Diverse Students

Carol J. Oja
Harvard University

I want to begin by articulating one of my most heartfelt credos as a teacher: I believe that confronting complex social and racial topics is a fundamental responsibility for those of us who work in American music. We have an ethical obligation to address the troubling histories of the music we love. When we’re in the classroom, we are most often totally on our own, yet we face many of the same challenges. 

My own teaching career has encompassed two public institutions and one private. It began at Brooklyn College, one of the senior colleges of the City University of New York, where most students come from working-class families—that is, if an intact “family” exists and at least one parent is even employed. The school provides an important gateway for the newest waves of immigrants, and the racial and ethnic make-up of the student body is constantly shifting. When I taught there (which I did beginning as a graduate fellow in the early 1980s, continuing through 1997), a high percentage of black students came from the Caribbean (with some from African countries); there were growing numbers of Russians and Ukrainians; and the Asian population was primarily Korean. There were also blacks of US descent and white students from longer-established immigrant communities, especially Irish and Italian. And there was a substantial Jewish population, which over the decades had grown increasingly conservative, in part through its own immigration patterns.

In other words, Brooklyn College provided both an ideal environment for exploring racial and social questions and an exceptionally challenging one.

A lightning-rod moment for me came in 1991, during a class session about the synergy between rhythm-and-blues and early rock, when I focused on Big Mama Thornton and Elvis Presley’s recordings of “Hound Dog.” This took place in a large class of 60+ students, which was an arts component of a required core curriculum. Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian rabbinical student (a Hasidic Jew) had recently been murdered in Crown Heights (a Brooklyn neighborhood) in retaliation for the death a few hours earlier of a seven-year-old African American child, who was hit by a Jewish motorist. Racial tensions were painfully high, and suddenly I wasn’t dealing with distanced, academic questions about race but was in the middle of the action. 

As soon as I introduced the notion of a “cover” and started parsing the racial and musical implications of Thornton and Presley’s performances, the class discussion exploded. The level of anger—and a sense of things being momentarily out-of-control—was pretty frightening. The students immediately became polarized by race, and the session required a level of facilitation far beyond anything I had been trained to handle. Over the course of that class period—and the remainder of the semester—the students and I worked to find a productive language for such discussions. It was neither easy nor consistently effective, but we were persistent.

Since then, I have made it a focus of my teaching to develop techniques for enabling students to discuss racial inflections in American musical repertories. At the same time, I have moved on from the rich diversity of Brooklyn College to work at two predominantly white institutions, which alters the dynamics of such discussions considerably. There are no more fireworks, yet confronting race and gender remains just as important. Just recently, my undergraduate seminar at Harvard on musical theater (a largely white group that also included one native Hawaiian and a Chinese-American) discussed Paul Robeson’s performance of “Ol’ Man River,” together with Irene Dunne’s blackface rendition of “Galavantin’ Around,” from the 1936 film Show Boat. There were the usual moments of discomfort and silence and surprising insight. Two-thirds of the way through class, one student got a bit tangled in his words, threw up his hands, and said, “If you’re going to have a discussion about race, you’re going to end up offending someone.” That’s true. But in the process, everyone—including the teacher—learns a bit more about people different from themselves.

Following are some classroom strategies I have found helpful. A recent collection of essays about pedagogical strategies—titled Race and Higher Education (see below) —was especially useful in articulating these techniques. Most of these steps need to be implemented well before any potentially fractious topics are raised. I need to say, though, that for me this particular pedagogical mission remains very much a work in progress.

First, when developing a syllabus, I define all classes as “diverse” in terms of the material covered and the issues raised. This is separate from student demographics, and it means that choices reflected in the content of the syllabus need to challenge the assumptions of whiteness and maleness that underlie so much of the history that we pass on—and on and on. It also means that it is often difficult to match course content with existing textbooks.

Second, I have experimented with a variety of techniques for managing discussions about potentially divisive topics. For example, I never begin a class on minstrelsy—which for me, as a white, is the single greatest challenge—without laying down ground rules and declaring straight out that the topic about to be discussed will probably make everyone mighty uncomfortable—including me. Before leaping into this, I try to make sure we’ve reached a point in the semester where an environment of trust has been established in the class. I then share my own ethnicity and family background to model how we all speak from particularized perspectives. (After the session at the Society for American Music, Judith Tick said to me: “Yes, it’s important to identify your own ethnicity, but then it’s also crucial to say, ‘No matter what my background, you really don’t know how I think and act as an individual.’”)

I then ask that all statements be couched in first person—never “they do this or that”—and I ask that students try to address one another by name. I also ask that they respect one-another’s opinions, no matter what flies out of a classmate’s mouth, and that there be no put-downs.

Finally, I stress “positionality”—operating from the premise that white students make up a race as much as black students or Asians or any other definable racial group. I work to make them aware of “insider” assumptions and language. (There’s often something in the news that helps make this point, like all the recent talk about the 2004 presidential ticket, which had two Yale alums on it from affluent families. I heard a comedian say that since both Kerry and Bush were members of Skull & Bones, maybe their version of “insider” language involves using weird hand-signals during the debates!)

When a discussion starts to become problematic—or occasionally unpleasant—I stop it and ask the students to writedown their reactions. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t have the sense to take that step thirteen years ago in Brooklyn, and I’ve kicked myself ever since.

In reading through Race and Higher Education, I was struck by a quotation from Adrienne Rich, who articulates the fundamental reason why discussions about difference are so important for our students.

When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. (73)

To me, that puts a finger on our obligation as teachers: to shape a classroom environment where our students can remain firm in their own sense of identity at the same time as they explore their very particularized position in relation to the glorious—but racially charged—musical traditions that we place before them.

Next Essay (Link to A Question of Class? Teaching Mountain Music at Virginia Tech”)

Works Cited

Books and Articles

Howell, Annie and Frank Tuitt, ed. Race and Higher Education: Rethinking Pedagogy in Diverse College Classrooms. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Review, 2003.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Sound Recordings

Billboard Top Rock ’n’ Roll Hits—1956. Rhino R2 70599, 1989.

Robeson, Paul. Ol’ Man River: His 25 Greatest. ASV/Living Era 5276, 1998.

Thornton, Big Mama. Hound Dog/The Peacock Recordings. MCA MCAD 10668, 1992.


Show Boat. Dir. James Whale. Universal, 1936.