Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 5

Table of Contents

Reflecting Upon Five Years of Engaging Students

Bryn Hughes, University of Lethbridge; Philip Duker, University of Delaware; Anna Gawboy, Ohio State University; Kris P. Shafer, University of Mary Washington

Engaging Students was born out of discussions between Anna Gawboy, Phil Duker, Bryn Hughes, and Kris Shaffer, along with those who attended the first FlipCamp Unconference in Charleston, SC in 2012. Below is an informal “digital roundtable” between Anna, Phil, Bryn, and Kris, the original coordinators of the group, in which they discuss their thoughts on the journal and its future.

Why is Engaging Students important to you?

AG: From the beginning, it was a place where people felt comfortable sharing diverse viewpoints and pedagogical experiments. The collected essays showed that music theory pedagogy was not a single immutable tradition, but rather a living, evolving practice influenced by educational research happening outside music. I think there were several reasons ES attracted the type of essays it did, but one reason may have been its newness and the fact that it was edited by people who were all untenured at the time of its founding. I think the blessay format and the journal’s editing process allowed a wide range of contributors to participate, including graduate students, various types of tenured and untenured faculty, and master pedagogues.

PD: While essays have ranged from explaining how to use a technique in the classroom to more abstract meditations on why we do what we do, I think there is a sense of adventurous spirit which has attracted people trying to explore new and different ways of doing things. I see the journal as an important space for the ongoing discussion of music pedagogy.

KS: Engaging Students demonstrates how readily a group of committed scholars and teachers can use the web to have a positive impact on the world of university teaching. As more and more music theorists find themselves in teaching-heavy positions and working at institutions with digital initiatives (both formal and informal), there is increasingly an appetite for thoughtful writing about new modes and tools for effective teaching. Engaging Students not only provides great content for thoughtful teachers wanting to try new things, but it also provides experienced teachers with heavy teaching loads an accessible, short-form outlet to share their insights with others. And with approximately 95,000 page views since we launched the first volume, it seems like people are finding a lot of value in what Engaging Students has to offer!

BH: With every volume, I read Engaging Students and become inspired and excited for the forthcoming semester. So many of the essays have caused me to re-evaluate the philosophy and methodology behind my teaching. As a space that enables this, I think Engaging Students is invaluable to my career, to my discipline, and to academia in general. I am also passionately supportive of the means by which we publish this journal. Open access collaborative peer review is fundamental to the growth of scholarship, and the success of this journal helps push these ideas further into mainstream academia.

Which essay(s) have had the largest impact on your teaching?

AG: I’ve learned a lot from essays that suggested better ways to teach traditional skills, such as Brian Alegant’s call to create significant learning experiences through “scuba diving” rather than superficially “snorkeling” through a large amount of material and Carla Coletti’s advice on how to create a conceptual workshop. Now, I’m attracted to essays that suggest changes to the content and goals of music theory pedagogy, not just the methods we use to teach it. I’m thinking of Deborah Rifkin’s essay on teaching creativity, David Kulma and Meghan Naxer’s rationale for expanding the curriculum beyond partwriting, and Sam Richards’ suggestions on how to better equip students for the challenges of an increasingly diverse contemporary musical landscape.

PD: There are quite a few essays that have proven useful in my teaching over the years. I am consistently impressed and inspired by Peter Schubert’s contributions to our journal (2013, 2014, 2015, and the current issue where he has partnered with Justin Mariner). I also agree with everyone that Brian Alegant’s “scuba diving” is a great article and was reassuring for me since it came at a time when I was questioning the mandate of coverage (and, after grading graduate theory entrance exams for years, also wondering how much of the theory core was being retained by students). In addition to some of the more abstract essays, I’ve also been inspired to just try different techniques; from Self-grading to using Jazz to teach rhythm, many practical approaches to teaching have proven quite helpful in my classes. There have even been cases where I mostly disagreed with the ideas advocated in an essay, but they nevertheless spurned me to try something new that ended up going quite well. Although it can sometimes feel exhausting, I think that trying new approaches and experimenting with different ways of teaching help my classes feel more fresh and exciting for me and my students. And each volume has given me a nice menu of things to try and think about as I strive to become a more effective teacher.

KS: I left the discipline of music theory a little over a year ago, so my teaching has taken a different direction than the others in this “interview”. However, many of the pieces in Engaging Students are applicable outside of music theory and continue to influence my teaching in digital studies and faculty development across disciplines. Like the others, I have found Brian Alegant’s comparison of scuba-diving pedagogy with snorkeling pedagogy to be a helpful framework for the choices I (and my students) make in my digital studies courses. In my work as a faculty developer, I have often referred to Jan Miyake’s idea of the “mini-flip” – a helpful place for faculty to start when wanting to make their course more student-centered without completely reworking their syllabus all at once. I also find myself returning to ideas borne out of discussions with Anna Ferenc at FlipCamp Music Theory 2014 in Boulder, some of which she published in Volume 2. The idea of students as disciplinary practitioners is an important one. Whether in music theory or digital studies, as first-semester college students or upper-level and graduate students, everyone in our classes comes in with expertise relevant to our studies – sometimes decades of experiences. Helping them see themselves as professionals not only can instill in them the mindset and disciplinary practices that are common to the field they are studying, but it can also help them see themselves as people with something to offer the world already and give them channels for sharing their insights with a broader community.

BH: So many of the essays published in Engaging Students over the past 5 years have impacted my teaching in one way or another that I could simply list the Table of Contents for each volume as a response to this question. That wouldn’t be particularly interesting, so I’ll instead mention a few highlights that I have recently gone back to in preparing for my upcoming semester. Chris Stover’s “Strange Changes” has provided me with a wonderful new context with which to present mode mixture; complementing my typical battery of examples from German lieder. Deborah Rifkin’s essay on the analysis of timbre and form in Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral provides a great example of how to engage a post-tonal music class by attending to non-pitch parameters. I would also like to recommend the essays by Sara Bakker and Tim Chenette , and Jan Miyake, both of which provide compelling reasons for including writing in the music theory curriculum. Over the years, Engaging Students has constantly reminded us that music theory is more than just pushing notes around on a page, or identifying chords with Roman Numerals, and I think these two essays in particular give us examples of concrete ways in which we can expand our repertoire of tasks which we assign to our students. Last, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few of the essays we’ve published that directly challenge what has been traditionally done in the music theory classroom. Daniel Stevens’s essay on “breaking things” as an act of music criticism, and especially Meghan Naxer and David Kulma’s essay on moving the theory curriculum beyond part writing stand out in this regard.

What is the place of Engaging Students in our discipline going forward?

AG: I think music theory pedagogy is on the verge of a major transformation. Many teachers are employing research-based strategies drawn from other fields of education and moving away from the idea that the goals of music theory instruction are fixed and unchanging, identical with common textbook content. I hope Engaging Students continues to be a resource that inspires music theorists to try new things and gives them the courage to question unexamined assumptions. Only through spirited exchange can our discipline move forward.

KS: Music theory is no longer my discipline, so I’ll respond from a more interdisciplinary perspective. I hope (and think) that Engaging Students will become a model for how other disciplines can use the web to build more channels for thoughtful teachers to improve their teaching, to find kindred spirits, and even to find collaborators. We modeled the non-blind-peer-review process on Hybrid Pedagogy, an interdisciplinary journal of teaching and learning, and the fast-paced editing and publishing model on the interdisciplinary, crowdsourced book, Hacking the Academy. Engaging Students sought to bring the best of those new-media publishing models into a discipline-specific context, and coupled with the Engaging Students (formerly FlipCamp Music Theory) unconference series, has promoted a strong sense of community for many in music theory. I hope that community and critical self-reflection will continue, but I also hope that other disciplines will follow – and improve upon – the Engaging Students model, so that we can all offer our students the best we can give them.

BH: More than anything, I hope that Engaging Students continues to challenge our approaches to teaching. In the foreword to our third volume, Peter Schubert wrote that Engaging Students “confirms the need for change and the willingness of music teachers to embrace new ideas.” If our journal can play a central role in offering an environment in which this can happen, I will consider it to have been a tremendous success.

PD: There seem to have been a lot of changes in the world of Music Pedagogy (and certainly Music Theory Pedagogy) since Engaging Students began. Overall, I have heard and seen a lot of positive developments where music teachers are finding ways to better connect with their students (often putting student learning as the primary focus). Increasingly instructors are also willing (and eager) to share the things that are going well in their classes. As a result, pedagogy doesn’t feel like a fringe area of research anymore, and I think our teaching will only improve as a consequence. My hope is that Engaging Students will keep on providing a thought-provoking space to explore music teaching and learning.

For the current editors: what is there to look forward to in volume 5?

This volume of Engaging Students once again offers a wide variety of essays that are sure to inspire our readers. In keeping with the journal’s tradition of not shying away from controversial ideas in pedagogy, Michael Buchler’s essay offers a persuasive argument about teaching post-tonal music and the role of set theory. He provides some provocative questions and challenges to the status quo that deserve consideration by all who teach 20th- and 21st-century music. Kyle Gullings’ essay on Open Educational Resources and his accompanying resources is both thought provoking and gracious; undoubtedly useful for teachers inspired to take and adapt in their own classes. Some of the metacognitive activities that Anna Ferenc discusses in her essay can help students and instructors understand how learning is taking place in a very deliberate way. Allowing students to take deliberate and positive steps to improve their learning is a key theme in Melissa Hoag’s contribution, where she shows how adopting strategies and skills often taught in first-year-seminar courses can have very positive benefits for students. Lastly, Scott Strovas and Ann Stutes offer a structured approach to oral examinations, or colloquies, throughout the undergraduate theory sequence, where students are able to discuss pieces and demonstrate their understanding of topics in their own words, resulting in a move from a hierarchical relationship to one that is more similar to mentoring.

Turning from the more philosophical aspects to more practical ones, we are happy to include a number of essays that discuss particular activities that engage students. Jason Fick and Timothy Johnson both provide intriguing insight into teaching non-standard repertoire. The essays by Rebecca Jemain and George Lam offer means by which a teacher can engage a class in analysis without initially getting bogged down in the details of formal terminology, serving as a gateway to more in-depth analysis. Justin Mariner and Peter Schubert discuss their method for facilitating the development of improvisation and sight singing using out-of-class, online assignments, enabling students to invest more time practicing, and allowing instructors to focus more intensely on difficult tasks during class time. Similarly, Daniel Stevens shares his method for applying approaches from inverted pedagogy to dictation. Judith Ofcarcik’s fantastic, interdisciplinary activity in which doodling is used to support engaged listening will surely inspire teachers with a new way to introduce repertoire to their students. And finally, Maria Purciello addresses issues of relevance and points of entry in history survey courses, and presents an alternative, problem-based learning curriculum that resonates with many of the pedagogical philosophies found throughout this volume, and previous volumes of Engaging Students.

The essays collected under the title From Classroom to Community reveal a growing trend of college-level music educators attempting to reach a wider audience. Braving the non-standard locations of both retirement and online communities, Janet Bourne provides examples of how to connect student learning with the general public, enriching the experience for students and instructors. J. Daniel Jenkins has contributed an essay that explores a course he taught on Public Music Theory. In it, he offers an extended discussion on the assignment of writing program notes. If you have ever wondered about programming a lecture-recital in a retirement home that would also feature an interactive discussion between performers and audience, then Crystal Peebles’s essay will offer sage advice on how to pull off this feat. Further impressive is that she presented pieces of contemporary music, winning over both students and some audience members to appreciate these challenging styles. Lastly, Natalie Williams presents a wonderful program she created that connected elementary school musicians with college level composers and further a community orchestra. While resource intensive, this essay shows a breadth of venues that could be engaged when one begins exploring beyond the borders of the classroom. All in all, this collection of essays seems important and timely, and we are proud to feature this work here.

We hope you enjoy the volume!

All best,

Bryn and Phil

Co-editors, Vol. 5