“Imagine a college student”

By Esther M. Morgan-Ellis, University of North Georgia

Note: This activity was mentioned by Kunio Hara during his presentation “Ways of Addressing Diversity in the Music History Classroom” at the 2018 Teaching Music History Conference. I’ve written it up here for anyone interested.

I conduct this activity with my Music History II class right before we encounter the music of Chopin. On the one hand, my purpose is narrow: I want to introduce the concept of “marked” vs. “unmarked” states before embarking on a discussion of identity in 19th-century music, with Chopin—whose music is variously marked as Polish, nostalgic, exotic, sorrowful, and sick—pitted against the unmarked German composers who control the narrative. At the same time, this activity has obvious ramifications beyond the topic at hand, and it might be applied in a variety of contexts.

Here are my verbal instructions:

Close your eyes and imagine a college student. Please picture this student in as much detail as possible.

So, what does a college student look like?

Is the student a boy or a girl? What ethnicity is the student? How old is the student? What kind of clothes? What kind of bag? Hair color? Hair style? Glasses? Etc.

I make a list of attributes on the board until a picture of a College Student emerges.

I’ve been doing this exercise for a number of years, and I am fascinated by the extreme regularity of the outcome. The student is always a boy (even though most of my students are women). The student is always about 19 (even though we have a large non-traditional population). The student is always in civvies (even when pictured by cadets in uniform). The student is always white. He wears khakis and a polo shirt, carries a backpack, has short blond hair, no beard, and no glasses.

Then we look around the room and try to find a College Student. There usually isn’t one present.

I explain that we have constructed a picture of an unmarked college student: an individual who doesn’t deviate from socially-constructed expectations in any way. We then list some of the attributes that might mark a college student. I usually find one or more students to pick on (those whom I know won’t be offended). If we have a cadet in the class, for example, I talk about how that individual’s appearance might mark them in different ways for different audiences. We might assume that the student in question is particularly patriotic, or disciplined, or fit. Whatever the case, they’re not quite. . . “normal.” They’re marked.

The class is immediately able to understand that the unmarked college student is fictitious. He, like all other students, has defining attributes—they are simply taken for granted instead of commented upon. They become invisible. But my students know that they are each fully “college students,” even if they don’t match the picture conjured up on the board. Our construct becomes absurd.

Then I use these terms to discuss 19th-century historiography and to position the composers we have been discussing and will discuss at various distances from the unmarked (German) musical ideal—but I always hope that my student take more away from the activity than two new vocabulary words.

My Composer Interview Project

At the recent Teaching Music History conference, I presented a research project that my Music History III (1900-present) students complete every year. In this post I will describe the project and speak briefly to my objectives. I have had great results, and I encourage anyone who is interested to give it a try.

In the first week of class, I pair students with professional composers whom I have recruited to participate in the project. Each composer has previously submitted a piece of music and agreed to be interviewed by phone or Skype. Here is the assignment—complete with my deadlines for the coming semester—that I distribute and review on the first day of class:


 Music History III Research Project

  1. Listen to the pieces of music linked at the end of this document. Choose three that you think are especially interesting and/or enjoyable. Submit your choices, along with a 100-word reflection for each choice in which you explain what you find attractive about it. Due August 28.
  2. Based on your selections, I will assign you a piece of music and give you the contact information for the composer.
  3. Prepare for your composer interview.
    • Read his website thoroughly. Google her. See if you can find any additional information about the piece.
    • Prepare a list of questions (although also be prepared to move beyond it). What do you want to know about this person’s biography? Her interest in composition? His reasons for composing this piece? Her ideas about this piece? We will also brainstorm questions in class. Due before your interview, October 2 at the latest.
    • Give some careful thought to how you are going to document this interview. (Don’t forget to get permission from the subject.) I recommend putting your phone on speaker and recording on your computer, but be sure to test it out first.
  1. Complete the interview via phone or Skype.
  2. Reflect on your composer interview. What did your composer tell you? What did she NOT tell you? Do you feel like he had any sort of agenda? Was she downplaying any issues, or overemphasizing others? Is there more to know about the piece? Was he trying to push a limited interpretation? Etc. Write a 300-word reflection. Due October 9.
  3. Outline your paper. You are free to structure the paper however you please, but keep the following things in mind:
    • You must craft a thesis and state it in your outline.
    • You must include details about your composer, but please restrict yourself to information that enhances our understanding of the piece.
    • You must discuss the context in which the piece was conceived, composed, and premiered.
    • You must place your composer and the piece in the context of recent compositional trends and the New Music scene. What does this case study tell us about art music composition today?
    • When you discuss the music, have a clear idea about what points you want to make about it. Refer back to your reflection from Step 1. Why is the piece interesting? Due October 16.
  1. Draft your paper. This is a conference-style paper that you will read aloud before an audience. It should be about 3000 words. Remember, the introduction is really important. You need to do three things: capture your audience’s attention, tell them what you’re going to do, and explain why they should care. End with your thesis statement. Due October 30.
  2. Revise your paper based on feedback. Due November 13.
  3. Create a PowerPoint or Prezi to go with your paper. Include images. Limit the text you display on screen—outline what you have to say clearly and simply. Decide which excerpts from the piece you want your audience to see or hear, and then embed video and/or sound clips into the presentation. Due November 20.
  4. Rehearse your 20-minute presentation for our afternoon symposium. You will read your paper and display your slides, complete with audio or video clips. The symposium is Saturday, December 3, 2-5 pm.

I explain to my students at the outset that this is a substantial and ongoing assignment that will require their attention throughout the semester. The progressive deadlines—most of which are accompanied by feedback, either by email or in person—are meant to keep them on track and ensure a polished final product. This is the first year that the presentations will be public, but I have been very happy with the quality of work produced in the past and I expect to assemble an appreciative audience. I also encourage students to submit their papers to undergraduate research conferences both on and off campus, and I hope that the symposium experience will increase their confidence. In addition to the presentations, I plan to arrange for performances of some of the pieces discussed.

My top objective for this project is to promote awareness of living composers and their work. At the very least, I want my students to know that there is a diverse and vibrant New Music scene, and that the history of art music does not end with the survey sequence. It is my hope, however, that my students will make personal connections with the assigned composers and develop a lasting interest in New Music. I am in the middle of completing a survey-based study to assess the project’s success in achieving these ends, and I intend to publish my findings next year.

This project was first inspired by my concerns about our textbook, the Oxford History of Western Music: College Edition. I chose this text, and I’m terribly fond of it. I worry, however, that it leaves my students with the impression that contemporary composition is in a state of hopeless disarray. We start the semester by reading the last chapter, which offers a whirlwind tour of recent compositional trends. While the textbook offers necessary context for the research project, it inevitably endorses a problematic view of recent history. The (mostly old) composers are included because each has contributed something to the development of art music, with the implication that we must value progress above all else. At the same time, the inclusion of recent works in the Anthology promotes a canonic view of contemporary composition, whereas I see canon disruption as being a great strength of the New Music scene.

My research project serves as an antidote to the text. The pieces represent a wide range of styles and ideologies, while the composers offer a variety of perspectives on their craft. One of the pieces on my list was composed as an exercise by a woman who is primarily a musicologist; another was premiered by the New York Philharmonic after its author won a prestigious competition; and another was commissioned by a college choir from a composer with an academic post. Some of the works have political or personal content; some are intended to be weighty and groundbreaking; and some are simply beautiful. My roster of composers also introduces diversity into a curriculum dominated by White men. Anyone who implements a project like this one has the opportunity to seek out underrepresented voices and promote a broader concept of the “composer” in Western art music.

If you are interested in implementing this project, you are welcome to use all or part of the assignment included above. I continue to refine the assignment as I seek to inspire deeper engagement and better presentations. I designed this project for use with small classes in an undergraduate-only program, but it could be adjusted to suit a variety of circumstances. Please let me know how it goes!