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 http://www.ams-net.org/administration/FairPracticeRepresentation.php.

[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.