Professor of Music, Emeritus
University of Michigan
In March 2004, I attended the session of the Society for American Music meeting in Cleveland at which these statements, and others, were made. It was a memorable occasion, with an overflow crowd and electricity in the air. Sources of the buzz included the format (a plenary session, rare in SAM annals), the subject (promise of controversy can draw a crowd), and a ploy by session chair Deaville who, framing his opening remarks around “academic freedom,” started the festivities by quoting from university websites the stated policy of each speaker’s home institution. Whatever this move may have meant to others, for me it has opened up a path of reflection on American music as an academic specialty that I had not considered before.
Jim Deaville’s needle—or at least it felt like one to me—forced me to recognize that, having spent more than four decades as a classroom teacher, I had never thought of my courses as related to the issue of academic freedom, nor could I remember even reading the codes governing my institution’s position on the subject. Moreover, for more than thirty years, I taught Musicology 509 at the University of Michigan, which focused on how to teach an Introduction to Music course; academic freedom never came up there either. While encouraging each 509 student to design a course around his or her musical passions and preferences, I never urged them to single out “controversial aspects” of music making as part of their course’s agenda. The point here is that throughout my years as a college teacher, I cared deeply about teaching, worked hard at it, even taught a course centered on teaching, and continued exploring fresh ways of framing musicological research pedagogically.1 But as I have read the statements of my colleagues Deaville, Oja, Garrett, Saffle, and Wright, and recall the spirit of the session at the Cleveland SAM meeting, it’s hard to avoid the feeling of having missed an opportunity.2 (As a retired person, I can report that the teaching gene keeps functioning even after the need to use it is gone.)
If I had it to do over again in the classroom, I would probably place less trust in my ability to foster students’ historical imagination as appreciators without allowing them first to indulge their intuitive responses, whether positive or negative. A question that I often asked students to address in their listening journals was: What is there to like in this music? That question was rooted in my suspicion that each new generation of students was increasingly better at explaining what they disliked than what they liked. Learning that “What do you think of this music?” might evoke such remarks such as “I can’t stand this kind of singing,” I also learned that “What is there to like?” tended to open students’ ears rather than closing them. It’s true that the strain of coming up with something positive was sometimes palpable in journal entries. But, in the spirit of Professor Oja’s comment on raising “positionality” to a level of consciousness, I found that an approving position fostered acute listening better than did its opposite.
Yet I believe that now I would ask students, at least in some exercises, to take an adversarial as well as an approving position. And here is where “controversial aspects” could prove a powerful force. Let’s take the Regular Singing controversy in eighteenth-century New England as an example. Having sung through a few hymns from notation, simulating what a congregation of that time may have aimed at, the class might then listen to and discuss a twentieth-century field recording of a lined-out Protestant hymn.3 Although we don’t know how such performances sounded in the 1700s, recordings like these do share traits with the disparaging accounts of the practice that eighteenth-century reformers delivered in their published sermons. If students were asked to take the position of both an advocate and a foe of the so-called “Old Style,” they would have a better chance of grasping how a practice as seemingly ordinary as congregational singing could become a site for debate passionate enough to divide entire congregations.
The list of subjects in American music history that could be framed pedagogically around controversies is long. The Regular Singing episode is probably too deeply embedded in the past to invoke a present-day challenge to academic freedom—which, by the way, the American Heritage Dictionary defines as the “liberty to teach, pursue, and discuss knowledge without restriction or interference, as by school or public officials.” Yet it is not hard to imagine a roiling classroom debate today about the implications of Christian sacred music as “edification” or as “praise” (Crawford, America’s Musical Life 136–36; Crawford,Introduction 81–88).4 American music intersects with many of the most contentious issues in American history: gender, class (as Professor Saffle’s paper dramatizes), race (as noted in all the papers reproduced here), democracy as an arena where elite and populist values vie for representation and respect (not to mention the tug of war between cosmopolitan and provincial impulses), and the commercial marketplace’s impact on the art of music. Indeed, it would be possible to teach as a series of controversies the entire sweep of music making in America from the European arrival on this continent. Such an approach would certainly invite an intensified level of student engagement. Moreover, by tapping into the emotions that go with opposing something as well as advocating and loving it, the experience would confirm the power of music, in a variety of historical settings, to embody as well as to suggest what it has felt like to be—and to have been—alive in America.
Next Essay (Link to “Response by Ruth A Solie”)
Books and Articles
“Academic freedom.” Def. American Heritage Dictionary. 4th ed. 2000.
Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.
_____. Introduction to America’s Music. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.
Folk Music in America, Vol. 1: Religious Music Congregational & Ceremonial. Ed. Richard K. Spottswood. LP. Library of Congress LCM 2073, 1973.
- During the 1980s and 1990s, I was invited to other campuses by groups of student musicologists to present mini-versions of my Teaching an Intro to Music course. These invitations reflected an obvious fact: although teaching is the livelihood of choice for most musicologists, learning how to teach tends in many academic programs to be left to the individual. I found it gratifying that in the academic year 2003–4, both the American Musicological Society and the Society for American Music devoted prominent sessions at their annual meetings to the art of teaching. ↩
- Charles Garrett’s account of how, as a new teacher, he has sought to engage twenty-first-century students would have astounded all but a very few of my own teachers in the 1950s and early 60s. For them, in a world where a body of research-based English-language information on music history was just taking shape, to teach was to identify, organize, and convey such information to their students. My generation and the next saw an explosion of the college-age population, the amount of musical information available, and the range of musics studied in the academy. Accordingly, we tended to feel more responsibility for communicating with our students, a trend has grown even stronger today. In Professor Oja’s quotation from Adrienne Rich, academic study is imagined as a mirror in which the identity of each student ought to be reflected. I read this as evidence of the high expectations present-day teachers are asked to meet and added incentive to teach the controversies. ↩
- One that I used in teaching was “Hosanna! Jesus Reigns,” sung by Elder Walter Evans and the congregation of the Little River Primitive Baptist Church, Sparta, NC, recorded ca. 1961. See Folk Music in America. ↩
- I have vivid memories of such debates in American music classes, beginning in the 1980s after “Contemporary Christian Music” took hold with members of the student body at Michigan. In one, for example, my assumption that most students would appreciate the poetic impact of the language of the King James Bible was roundly rejected by a group of born-again class members. Explaining that this older text obscured the meaning of the gospel for modern English speakers, these students insisted that—perhaps for the sake of my own soul—I read and compare passages in the linguistically stripped-down New Testament with which they presented me ↩