[…] Continuation of: IV. Pros and cons […]
What are the dangers of this plan? What if it is taught badly?
This is undoubtedly unchartered territory for most of us, and yes, there are some vagaries that can seem terrifying even to seasoned teachers. To a certain extent, we all have to be ready to plunge into the unknown. Most of us are not trained to do this. I think it’s completely legitimate to seek help where we can. Invite an expert over to Skype into your class. Explore new territory together. Even working through difficult passages together, and exploring these difficulties together, is an opportunity for a teaching moment. Learn to formulate good questions and seek answers together. As the old adage has it, the path may be the goal.
And yes, there may well be a few treacherous cliffs ahead. Here’s an example that I encountered in planning this course. For the longest time my draft syllabus ended with the American experimentalist Henry Cowell—I was hoping to include at least one representative of the LGBTQIA+ community, and I had long been interested in Cowell’s theoretical ideas. Cowell lived at a time, not too long ago, when deviations from heteronormativity were criminalized. In 1936 he was arrested on charges of Section 288a of the California Penal Code. His loyal wife, Sidney Robertson Cowell, whom he married soon after his release from prison and who maintained his legacy after his death, was reluctant to comment on this aspect of his life.
But the more I tried to imagine what this particular discussion would look like in a teaching situation, the more I came to the conclusion that Cowell was not the right figure in this scenario. The terms we use nowadays don’t map cleanly onto the legal situation in the early twentieth century—the specific crime Cowell was charged with was oral sex; the other party was a seventeen-year-old male. A discussion dissecting the distinctions between a modern perspective on gay identity and what would now be considered statutory rape might be interesting, but it just harbored too many risks in this context. If the discussion somehow ended up reinscribing the false prejudice that homosexuality and pederasty were somehow connected, then this lesson would have spectacularly backfired. I considered other music theorists, who might provide a less conflicted picture. But in the end I decided with regret that my syllabus would have to remain without an aspect of LGBTQIA+ history for the time being. Perhaps others will be more successful.
Who exactly is this course for?
Or, asking more pointedly, are the criteria for inclusion in the course based on INS guidelines? The answer is—all hyperbole apart—yes, to a certain extent that is the case. The task of representation that is front and center here is shaped by the particular makeup of contemporary US society. There’s an undeniable civics component here. (The issues surrounding Cowell in the previous question similarly indicated that the issues are determined by twenty-first-century debates.)
The make-up of the syllabus may not be an exact match, but it’s useful to think through the history of music theory within different parameters. This is the subtle difference between the purposes of a global outlook and a diverse syllabus that I am proposing here. It is less relevant that the syllabus cover all world cultures than that diverse groups of students see themselves reflected in these figures—or, turned around, that the history of music theory is not an exclusive white male affair.
Follow-up question: if this comes down to civics lessons, why not go further down the road of actual representation? Where are the African Americans and the Indigenous Americans?
This is where the syllabus, like most syllabi, ends up being a compromise. Most syllabi try to tell a more or less coherent story. I just haven’t found materials—and I probably have to plead ignorance to some extent—that would bring in those cultures in a way that would allow us to tell a more or less coherent story. As far as I can tell, there are probably other ways in which these particular issues that arise from African American or Indigenous Americans can be better addressed. I am eager to hear what others come up with. After all, this should ideally be a collective project.
Isn’t five cultures in one semester a bit much? Won’t this be superficial?
Yes, that’s probably true. There is definitely an It’s-Tuesday-today-so-this-must-be-Paris aspect to the journey taken in this syllabus. But then again, I would argue that this is a broader problem of the American educational system. For one, it seems to me that this criticism would equally apply to most History of Theory surveys, whether culturally diverse or not.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the Five-Classics structure I wound up with in my thought experiment is the result of the particular constraints of our program. If we had two (or even four) semesters at our disposal, the syllabus would look quite different. Other programs may have more flexibility in this regard.
In any case, we should definitely make use of any help that we can get. If this were to become a teaching reality, I would absolutely invite specialists from other departments in my institution, or invite guest lecturers from elsewhere to talk to us on Skype or Zoom, to help us with specific figures or contexts.
This is quite a responsibility. Are we ready for this?
To begin by stating the obvious: diversity and inclusivity cannot just be proclaimed, and then everybody moves on with their regular business. That would be a sure way to fail. The responsibility comes with the specific ways in which such ideas are implemented. The next answer makes a few further suggestions on this topic.
Must we do this? What other models might work?
To answer along similar lines to the previous question, no one should feel forced to do this. This blueprint is, after all, nothing more than a thought experiment at the moment. I believe this syllabus, or something like it, would quite work well for our program. But that’s not to say that this would be true for other graduate programs. There’s nothing sacrosanct, for instance, about the focus on “Five Classics” (unless you’re an orthodox Confucian). This was simply a canvas on which this alternative plan could be designed.
There are various ways in which a more diverse HoT could be implemented, and I know that there are some exciting syllabi in existence that include elements of diversity. Some people might feel, for instance, that focusing on five marginalized figures might be confusing or overwhelming. They may decide that the inclusion of one non-European theorist offers enough contrast. And they may be right. Even one figure who interrupts the white-male predominance will go a long way in inviting diverse thinking. Or they could focus the entire semester on certain specific aspects of HoT that invite cross-cultural thinking. The question of tuning in different cultures and at different times may be such an angle.
The most important aspect in all this is that this is a collaborative and open-ended project. My perspective, like that of any one person, is limited, and others will likely have had ideas that haven’t occurred to me. I share this draft with the wider community in the hope that it might spark some further ideas with others, and to launch a wider discussion on how ideas about diversity and inclusiveness can be implemented in our teaching of HoT.