Sunday, September 1, 2013

Pedagogically Speaking

by Stephen C. Meyer

At the forthcoming annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in Pittsburgh I will conclude my three-year term on the AMS Teaching Fund Committee by presenting this year's award. The various applications that I read in the course of these three years provided a kind of window—albeit a very limited one—onto the pedagogical landscape of our discipline. It's not surprising that this landscape should be dominated by the discussion of new digital technologies. A teaching fund application that did not in some way reference these technologies was almost as rare as a colon-less title for an AMS conference paper. It's no exaggeration to say that all of us who teach music history are thinking about how and when to use these technologies, and how they might enhance or detract from the teaching and learning experience. What struck me most was not the diversity of responses that we have to these new technologies (this, I think, goes without saying), but rather the way in which they have come to dominate thinking about music history pedagogy.

I found myself ruminating about the history of our discipline, and wondering how a similar set of applications might have looked a generation ago (well before the teaching fund was established). My guess is that the majority of applications would have been concerned with course content, rather than with issues of content delivery. I could imagine proposals to develop new courses, for example, on women and music, on various aspects of popular music, on film music, or on the intersection of music and politics. Of course, the curricular transformation of the late twentieth century—the “pedagogical turn” of the 80s and 90s—was rooted in larger discussions (or debates) about value; about the intersection of music and gender or race, about canon formation and cultural hegemony: in short, about all of the ways in which music is bound up with the messy world of individual and social identity. These kinds of discussions had little or no bearing on the teaching fund applications of our own day. We have witnessed another pedagogical turn, but one of a distinctly different kind.

It is fairly easy to discern the links between the “pedagogical turn” of the 1980s or 90s and the “new musicology” of a slightly earlier time period. The connections between the pedagogical turn of our own day and analogous trends however, are more difficult to see. Many of the applications that I read were rooted in some newer research into learning strategies and pedagogical effectiveness, and one might even draw further connections to the relatively new fields of music and cognition or music and neuroscience. From my perspective, however, the most important context for the pedagogical turn of our time is not these scholarly developments, but rather the uneasy awareness of fundamental shifts in higher education, and in our society at large. There are deep fears that our pedagogical practices are not keeping pace with those of sister disciplines such as art history or textual studies. There are concerns about continuing decline in the numbers of humanities majors; about the viability of graduate programs in an era in which higher education is seen as nothing more than a training ground for a well-paying job; about the general financial health of the institutions in which we work. Digital technologies are changing the ways in which our students learn and process information, and many of us fear that these changes are not all for the good. The rise of MOOCs causes many of us to wonder about the future of our profession: to imagine a potentially impoverished future in which music history pedagogy would essentially be the province of a highly specialized and elite corps of master teachers.

I share all of these fears (and more besides), and I wonder sometimes if the professionalization of music history teaching—its place as a discipline of higher education—will appear to future generations as the relic of a strange or anomalous historical period. But if my involvement with the Journal of Music History Pedagogy and my brief stint on the AMS Teaching Fund Committee has not eliminated these fears, it has at least given me a different perspective. I've been deeply impressed by the diverse ways in which colleagues are responding to new digital technologies; I've been heartened to see our discipline turning to pedagogical issues with seriousness and intentionality. And I wonder if perhaps our position as practitioners of music history (as opposed to some other kind) gives us a unique voice in the larger discussion about the role of the humanities in higher education, and more generally about the intersection of learning and technology.


Stephen C. Meyer is Associate Professor of Music at Syracuse University and assistant editor of the Journal of Music History Pedagogy, published online by the American Musicological Society.


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