Blog: The Jigsaw

Diversity and Inclusion in the College Music Classroom

By John Spilker[1], Nebraska Wesleyan University (Lincoln, NE)

During the “unconference” seminar discussion at the 2016 Teaching Music History Conference, participants spent considerable time discussing questions, challenges, and opportunities related to diversity and inclusivity in the classroom. One strand of conversation addressed classroom strategies that proactively consider the needs of students with disabilities, depression, and anxiety. Although I routinely grapple with taking care of my own struggles with depression and anxiety, I recognize that my students may have completely different experiences that require different types of patience, mentoring, boundaries, compassion, and encouragement. The other strand of the TMHC unconference conversation dealt with engaging our students in important conversations about societal systems of privilege and oppression. They are well aware of the current headlines in our nation related to racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and ableism, to name only some areas of intersection with underrepresented groups in our nation.

Regardless of the various pedagogical approaches we use to design our music history courses, music remains a core part of the humanistic tradition. Therefore, as part of our daily teaching, we are positioned to help our students identify systems of privilege and oppression, examine historical processes and rhetorical strategies that seek to uphold systematic discrimination, discuss scholarship and music that address these issues, and design ways to have conversations that can spark change and healing. Through our course design and teaching, we can make powerful contributions to recent AMS conversations, some of which are summarized in the “Statement of Fair Practice and Representation in the American Musicological Society.”[2] We can collaborate with students and colleagues to question received narratives, traditions, and practices. Together we can discover and utilize in our classrooms vast musical repertoires that address issues related to diversity and inclusion. Although our graduate training and research may not have included issues of social justice and diversity, we can learn this information “on the job” along with pedagogical techniques to engage our students in conversations. I want to use this post to open a space for people to share their questions, challenges, opportunities, and strategies related to diversity and inclusion in the classroom.

I use two strategies to provide a framework throughout the semester and help me lead challenging classroom conversations: (1) a diversity statement in my syllabus and (2) shared guidelines for class discussion. My syllabus states “Nebraska Wesleyan University affirms its commitment to provide programs, resources, and policies that broaden perspectives on humanity and its diverse cultural expressions locally, nationally, and internationally. This classroom community represents a safe space on campus. In our discussions and behavior, we will respect all aspects of people including (but not limited to): race, ethnicity, gender expression, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, age, religion, and ability.” During the first day of class, I remind my students that an important part of cultivating a safe space involves speaking up and learning from one another when we say or hear something that is insensitive.[3] We are all learning together. Below are the guidelines for class discussion that we used in one of my courses from the spring 2016 semester. In the interest of time, the activity is not fully constructivist. We do not build the guidelines from a blank sheet of paper. We begin by looking at the guidelines from the last time the course was taught and the students make changes (additions or deletions) before we agree on the guidelines. Everyone in the class, including myself, signs the guidelines document.

The following ground rules will help cultivate a safe environment in which everyone can practice being open and taking responsible risks.

  1. Conversations should focus on open, earnest, academic discussion.
  1. Everyone must show respect and patience for each other. No gossiping about people (in person or on social media).
  1. Listen carefully to what people say. Think about the significance of their comment(s). How may someone’s comment(s) influence or shape the comment(s) that you want to add to the discussion?
  1. We understand that nobody is trying to intentionally hurt someone’s feelings, attack, or upset them. If someone feels offended, judged, hurt, or uncomfortable, they should feel free and committed to say something in class so that the situation can be clarified and resolved. If you feel unsafe addressing it in class, please meet with Dr. Spilker to resolve the situation.
  1. We will deal with a variety of sources that use slang, profane, and derogatory words. We will engage in academic discussion about the choice to use these terms, and may say them in the context of quoting a source. However, no student should feel forced to say a slang, profane or derogatory term. In our discussion comments, everyone should use correct technical terminology and refrain from using slang, profanity, and derogatory language (unless quoting a source or experience). Class discussions should be framed within the academic respect and maturity befitting college students.
  1. Students may wish to enrich class discussions with personal observations or experiences related to the topics at hand. Avoid mentioning erotic or prurient content, specific names, or admissions to breaking the law.
  1. No judging other people’s ideas or practices. We will all certainly make judgments about concepts for our own life, but we should not judge others for their ideas and practices.
  1. Personal values are important, but they should never prevent or hinder open academic dialogue, inquiry, or understanding. It is okay to maintain your personal values, but you must be willing to understand, investigate, and discuss ideas from a scholarly perspective that may be contrary to your personal beliefs.
  1. Be open-minded during class discussions. Student should learn to recognize and evaluate their own set opinions and preconceived ideas and also set them aside in order to promote open, academic dialogue.
  1. Immerse yourself in the content, expand your perspective, and have fun.

I, (print name) ______________________________ , agree to abide by these ground rules throughout the entirety of the semester. I understand that the violation of these ground rules may result in sanctions that will be determined by the instructor.


Signature                                                                                Date


[1] Several experiences have shaped my ideas and practices regarding teaching and diversity, including: watching my advisor, Denise von Glahn, model feminist pedagogy in her courses; collaborative teaching meetings and informal conversations with faculty in the NWU Gender Studies department, chaired by Gerise Herndon; service on two NWU committees: the President’s Council for Cultural Diversity, chaired by Candice Howell, and the Action Council for Diversity and Inclusion, chaired by T.J. McDowell; and my work with NWU New Student Orientation, chaired by Karri Sanderson. Two books I use to teach topics of race, gender, and systems of privilege and oppression include: Christie Launius and Holly Hassel, Threshold Concepts in Women’s and Gender Studies (New York: Routledge, 2015) and Kenneth Prewitt, What is Your Race?: The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

[2] See

[3] Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the term “safe space.” I am open to other suggestions for terminology that reflects open discussion in a respectful, responsible, and safe manner about concepts that may feel uncomfortable to some people.

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!