The day before President Trump was inaugurated, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Michael B. Smith, Rebecca S. Nowacek, and Jeffrey L. Bernstein challenging universities to “teach citizenship.” They encourage professors to help students learn “how to become more comfortable with ambiguity and complexity, how to disagree without being disagreeable, and perhaps above all else, how to be more empathetic.” To these very worthy goals, I would add one more: teaching media literacy. Informed citizens should be able to look beyond the trappings of electoral spectacle in order to better evaluate policy. With the explosion of politicized media and political advertising in the past twenty years, it is imperative that we give students tools to think critically about the ways candidates and other political actors package their message and their identity. As musicologists, we are in a unique position to help students assess the ways candidates present themselves to the public given that music is such a prominent part of electoral politics in the United States.
The media circus surrounding the 2016 election—with its highly-charged rhetoric and with emotions (still) running high on both sides—presents a good case study to introduce these skills. To that end, I designed an assignment and discussion based on the two political conventions in my “History of American Popular Song” class in Fall 2016, which took place about three weeks after Donald Trump was elected president. Before the discussion, I held a meeting with my graduate teaching assistants (Mary Helen Hoque, Hanna Lisa Stefansson, and Cameron Steuart) to brainstorm strategies for both effective teaching, and for keeping the discussion from becoming too heated—to encourage students to “disagree without being disagreeable.” We found Jay R. Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom a particularly good resource in this regard. The rest of this post is a summary of that meeting, as well as the TA’s reflections on what strategies were most effective in the classroom.
Even if this assignment is not appropriate for most classes, my hope is that these strategies will help us encourage our students to think critically about media of all stripes, and help our students approach controversial situations with an open mind. So much has happened since November 2016, and giving students the tools to understand how political figures use sound, music, and media to engage with the electorate is becoming more urgent almost every day.
My “History of American Popular Song” course is a large lecture (140 students), with smaller break-out sections of 35 students each, which are taught by graduate student TAs. The size of the class ensured that we had a variety of political opinions represented, and as a general studies course, we were limited to mostly non-technical discussions of music. We decided to focus on the presidential nominating conventions because they gave us a single moment in which parties and candidates try to distill their message and their identity, and because musical choices and performances often play an important role in that process. To prepare for the discussion, students were given the following assignment:
In your November 30 sections, you will be discussing the roll music has played in the 2016 presidential campaign. More specifically, you will be analyzing the music played at the two major political conventions, as well as the roll musicians themselves should have in how their music is used in contemporary politics. In order to prepare for the discussion, read the following articles, listen to the following spotify playlist, and answer the following questions.
Anastasia Tsiolcas, “Come Together (Or Not): Music at the Democratic National Convention,” The Record: Music News from NPR, July 30, 2016. Note: watch all the videos embedded in this article.
Eric Kaspar, “How Music Fits Trump’s Campaign Message,” CNN, July 28, 2016.
Spotify playlist of songs played at the Republican National Convention
Answer each of the following questions in 2–3 complete sentences:
How do the Democrats’ musical choices reflect the message they are trying to send to the American people?
How do the Republicans’ musical choices reflect the message they are trying to send to the American people?
Leaving legal issues aside, is it ethical for candidates to use an artist’s or group’s music against their wishes?
We found that it was very important define the scope of the discussion clearly. First, we reiterated that our classrooms were “safe spaces” where we challenge ideas and not people. We then made clear that we were discussing politics, not policy—ideas that students often conflate. We defined politics as the ways we identify ourselves in relation to our larger culture, as well as the range of tactics we use to convince each other of the rightness of our position. Policy, on the other hand, we defined as specific legal or governmental initiatives; in terms of the 2016 election, this meant items such as Trump’s proposed border wall, or Clinton’s tax plan. We made clear that such topics were outside the scope of this discussion. By making this distinction, we helped steer the class towards evaluation of messaging rather than the details of the party platforms. It also helped ensure a civil atmosphere by taking some of the most controversial statements of the campaign off the table. While these are certainly worth addressing in a university context, a political science or sociology course might be a better venue than a music class for such a discussion. We also made clear that we were not discussing whether one candidate was better or more effective than the other. Some of the TAs also asked students to keep their own political affiliations private to facilitate more objectivity, although this was not true across all discussion sections.
After defining the terms, the TAs employed several different strategies. Ms. Hoque broke her section into four smaller groups, each assigned to explore one of the following questions: “How was music effective in aiding Trump’s message?” “How was music not effective in aiding Trump’s message?” and the same two questions for Clinton. She assigned the groups randomly, and told students that if they found themselves in a group discussion about a candidate they disliked, they should consider it an exercise in empathy, in trying to see the world from another point of view. After the small group discussion, she asked students if anyone in their group had said something particularly insightful. This might encourage shy students to speak up in front of the larger group, and further encourages empathy. Although neither Ms. Stefansson and Mr. Steuart opted use small groups for their classes, both also found that breaking down the topic into very specific questions helped keep the discussion limited to music: (What is the Democrats’/Republicans’ message? How does the music convey that message? Is the music effective in conveying that message?).
By posing specific questions rather than asking students for their opinions, we hoped to prevent ad hominem attacks; the students understood that their colleagues were presenting views that may not align with their personal beliefs. This technique also helps students look beyond their own experience by helping them to understand the appeal of the opposing candidate. It is worth noting that some students may resist trying exploring issues from a point of view with which they disagree (although this was not a problem we encountered). In these cases, we should remind students that understanding the opposite position is not the same as agreeing with it, and that it also helps you make your own argument more convincing. Still, this strategy may not be appropriate in some cases because it risks endowing unethical or immoral views with false equivalence. A black student should not be asked to imagine the world from the point of view of a white supremacist, for example. There is such a thing as too much objectivity, and my TAs are instructed to (gently) shut down comments that were overtly sexist, racist, classist, etc.
In most cases, TAs found that the discussion moved beyond the conventions in productive ways. Ms. Hoque guided her students through a discussion of the larger uses of music and politics, with the class exploring how, why, or even if music was an effective tool in political campaigns. Ms. Stefansson’s class was more focused on the issue of whether it is ethical for a politician to use music against a musician’s wishes, and connected those issues to the idea of political messaging. For example, they speculated that Trump’s continuing use of songs by musicians who had denounced him was a way of showing his willingness to flout “rules” and do what he pleases.
The TAs also developed strategies for defusing tension. We found it important to develop some questions for that purpose in advance, such as “are there any similarities in the candidates’ approaches?” or “how do these strategies compare with other uses of political music that we’ve studied?” Mr. Steuart found that changing the topic with pivot statements like “We’ve explored [this issue] quite a bit, but we haven’t thought a lot about [this],” or interjecting some humor also helped maintain a civil atmosphere. By briefly poking fun at Bernie Sanders’s musical career, for example, he kept the discussion from becoming too heated.
We did encounter some problems. Some students in Ms. Hoque’s class felt that the discussion was too apolitical, and wanted a more vigorous debate. It might be that our specificity was too constricting for students, and prevented them from exploring the more controversial aspects of the campaign. Given that this discussion took place only three weeks after Trump was elected, we erred on the side of caution, but some distance from the events of the campaign season might help students process the more difficult moments in an academic setting. Mr. Steuart discovered that students often defaulted to a position of “Trump won, therefore his tactics were more effective,” which was difficult to overcome. He feels that emphasizing that music is only one device in a candidate’s toolbox, and that music did not swing the election, would be a good strategy for avoiding this problem in the future.
All three TAs reported that the discussion was productive and collegial, with students able to explore complex and emotionally charged issues without attacking each other. No one seems to have felt marginalized or unheard. Although no students mentioned this assignment and discussion in their anonymous end-of-the-year evaluations, those reports were very positive, with students telling us how much they appreciated our willingness to discuss difficult topics in a collegial manner.
Because of the increasingly polarized and rancorous political environment since the election, some students are increasingly wary of expressing their views in class. In those cases, I would recommend some form of anonymous response. One technique (drawn from Howard) is the anonymous “minute paper,” in which instructors have students anonymously respond to a question in writing, then select a few to read and discuss.
More broadly speaking, this exercise proved to me that some discussions are best understood as explorations of an issue rather than as a debate between opposing sides. While argument certainly has a place in college classrooms, too often students are asked to attack or defend each other’s positions. When students do not constantly feel that they may be put on the defensive at any moment, they may be more open to exploring alternative ideas and points of view. Framing discussions as group investigations helps students to listen to each other with open minds. To borrow an idea from Stephen Covey, debate encourages students to “listen with intent to reply,” while exploration encourages students to “listen with intent to understand.” By maintaining a cooperative rather than adversarial environment, we found that students feel safer on several levels: they feel more confident asserting themselves, and more comfortable admitting that they might have been mistaken. After all, in today’s social climate, teaching students that it’s okay to change their mind might be one of the most important skills we can give them.
Naomi Graber is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Georgia. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a dissertation on Kurt Weill’s early American works. In addition to her research on the pre-Oklahoma! Broadway musical, she is interested in musical theatre and film of the post-9/11 era, particularly in issues of gender. Her work appears in Studies in Musical Theatre and at Trax on the Trail, and is forthcoming in the Journal of the Society for American Music and the Musical Quarterly.
 Michael B. Smith, Rebecca S. Nowecek, and Jeffrey L. Bernstein, “Don’t Retreat, Teach Citizenship,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 19, 2017, available online at http://www.chronicle.com/article/Don-t-Retreat-Teach/238923.
 Jay R. Howard, Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online (San Francisco: Wiley, 2015).
 Stephen R. Covey. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Miami: FranklinCovey, 2015), 304.