By Laura Pruett
As the co-editors write in their closing remarks, this book, which “was in progress well before the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency,” was produced in part as a response to the cultural moments of terrorist attacks, police shootings, #BlackLivesMatter, the Syrian civil war, and college protests that have shaped our world over the past ten years. The chapters in this timely volume are organized into three parts: (Dis)comfort, Fragility, and the Intersections of Identity; Embracing Embodiment and Emotion as Pedagogical Praxis; and Radical Pedagogy in “Neutral” Places. The contributors to Difficult Subjects tackle not only subjects listed in the book’s title but also White privilege, fat studies, intersectionality, and diversity in the STEM classroom. Most of the writers come to their topic from a clearly articulated left-leaning perspective; frequent references are made to the “neoliberal university” and its challenges for the professoriate dedicated to teaching and learning within the framework of social justice and interdisciplinarity, and with an eye to the current political and cultural climate.
Three chapters most engaged me as a musicologist looking for ways to utilize these lenses and frameworks within my own classes. “Addressing Incivility in the Classroom,” by Chavella Pittman, provides anticipatory strategies as well as specific, practical responses to both indirect (eye-rolling, texting) and direct (verbal outbursts) student incivility, notably including for faculty with marginalized social status. In “The Least We Can Do: Gender-Affirming Pedagogy Starting on Day One,” Erica Chu defines terms including gender variant, heterosexism, cissexism, gender identity, and gender attribution, and recommends “coming out” to your students on the first day of class, giving your own preferred pronouns both verbally and on the syllabus, and making space for students to do the same in a written format, rather than out loud. (As a southerner, I also appreciated her suggestion to use the collective “y’all”.) In the book’s final chapter, “Uncomfortable Learning: Teaching Race Through Discomfort in Higher Education,” Jasmine L. Harris defines “safe spaces” and “brave spaces” but goes on to challenge them as “raced and gendered” (252), offering an alternative (along with specific examples) in the practice and cultivation of an Uncomfortable Learning Approach, which loosely follows Bloom’s taxonomy using the tenets of remembering; understanding; applying, analyzing, and evaluating; and synthesizing (254) as progressively challenging modes of learning.
The co-editors’ introduction, with the delightful title of “When the Shit Hits the Fan, Do We Throw Out the Lesson Plan?” also resonated with me. When a national news event occurs, whether it directly relates to our curriculum or not, should we as educators acknowledge and process it together with our students? I taught Music History the day after 9/11. As I attempted in class to both address the attack and find a meaningful way back to our syllabus, I reflected that as musicians, we ourselves are part of (music) history; yet without studying it, we can’t fully understand who we are or, further, how we as individuals and as a society move forward following such a national tragedy.
I suggest that Difficult Subjects shares pedagogical tools and methods with a similar goal: to help us discern where to go from here. While all the topics, ideas, and tools might not connect directly with the music history classroom, there are many that are applicable or at least potentially noteworthy. I, for one, will definitely be using Chu’s suggestions for gender-affirming pedagogy in my fall courses; it may be a small step, but from my perspective, it’s one worth taking.