“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.