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date: 28 March 2020

Feminist Pedagogy in the Undergraduate Music Survey Course: A Reflective Essay

Abstract and Keywords

This article considers the pragmatic difficulties of implementing feminist pedagogy in the undergraduate music history survey course. Drawing on the author’s teaching experience at the Aaron Copland School of Music, the article tackles the question of what counts as feminist pedagogy. It considers the fundamental problem of feminist scholarship and its application to the music history survey and provides pragmatic examples of how the author teaches, bridging the theoretical/practical divide that often fractures musicology in general and pedagogical speculation in particular. It also explains the author’s syllabi and a particular set writing assignments given as part of a music history survey, considering their effectiveness as components of a distinctly feminist pedagogy and how feminist goals might result in pedagogical choices that themselves seem less obviously feminist. Finally, the article reflects on whether the idea of a feminist history survey is a useful, or even feasible, goal.

Keywords: Feminism, teaching, undergraduate, music history, survey, pedagogy, higher education

I have fantasized the ideal feminist incarnation of my music history survey class. There are about fifteen or sixteen students (far fewer than the twenty-four I typically have), and they come to class with fire in their eyes and words in their mouths. They do the reading—of course—but what’s more, they bring with them academic and activist writings from their other classes and their own research. They make connections between the past and the present, between the work of music history and their other academic classes; they recognize the ways in which power and prejudice limit the very possibilities of thought, and they work hard to forge new modes of interaction. These students are interested in music history as a narrative about real people—people who once had hopes, dreams, and desires of their own. They’re invested in the historical circumstances of a given time period and in the ways that musical sound can resonate with the formal and political assumptions that differ from those of the present day. While we spend plenty of time thinking about the few documented female musicians of the Western past, the feminism here is focused on critiquing modes of knowledge and on pushing beyond the well-rehearsed narratives that naturalize culturally sanctioned behavioral limits. It goes without saying that the students of this fantasy class write wonderful essays! Well-researched, beautifully written, and impeccably documented, their essays are the product of an engaged and collaborative process of writing and draft revision. Under my guidance, the students have developed a feel for historical argument and an instinct for the academic evidential process, and they situate their work within the field of extant scholarship with an aplomb unusual in such young scholars. I imagine that in the final class (if you will forgive my descent into hyperbole) some students become quite emotional that the semester is over. They bring in homemade gluten-free vegan cookies and write thank-you cards to each other on sustainably sourced paper. Probably they continue to drop in to my office from time to time, even years later, to update me on their lives and their wonderful careers: some work in academia, others at nonprofits; some are professional musicians. None lose their idealistic and endlessly optimistic fervor.

This is—of course—a preposterous scenario. Even if such a scene might be the rare and utopian outcome of a women’s studies class at a small liberal arts college, it is absolutely inconceivable that a music history survey at my particular college (perhaps at any large public college?) would unfold in such a fashion. Not only does the content of a history survey itself erect a number of rigid barriers to progressive pedagogy, but the compulsory status of the survey class as course offering—and thus the broad demographics of the student population—minimizes class cohesion and erodes student engagement. This is true at least at the Aaron Copland School of Music (ACSM), Queens College (QC), City University of New York (CUNY), where I have been teaching for the last five years. While there is a large literature about feminist pedagogy in the college classroom, including a solid contribution from music scholars, and a considerable disciplinary awareness of the difficulties and pitfalls of adding women to the grand narrative of music history, the question of how to be a feminist teacher of music history remains murky, fraught with issues of required course content, student satisfaction, assessment, and teacher job security (whether adjunct or tenure-track related), as well as an enormous amount of material that ideally should be covered. Indeed, the question of feminist pedagogy is a recurrent topic of discussion by the Committee on the Status of Women of the American Musicological Society.

I always imagined that I would teach a revitalized form of music history, imparting all the useful stylistic and historical information that has ensured the permanence of the survey course—even through the most tumultuous years of “new musicological” revolution—and yet bypassing the limits and problems that remain. Now that I’m actually in the trenches of teaching music history, I don’t always feel that I’m particularly successful in my feminist pedagogical goals, though I do try, tweaking and changing my syllabus each semester. Every now and then something clicks and connects for my students, and when it does, my joy is indescribable. This is an article about my ongoing quest for the most successful and appropriate way to teach music history to my undergraduate survey classes. I don’t pretend to have an answer to the question of how one should do so; in fact, I’m inclined to believe that it is the constant struggle toward a better pedagogy that itself constitutes an appropriate pedagogical practice. In my particular circumstances, however, I have come to rely on a range of teaching tools that are not in and of themselves feminist. Even when they work, this disjuncture sometimes raises doubts (for me) about their place in my classroom; this conflict is part of my focus below. This is a very personal piece of writing, and where I think it might be useful to others is precisely in its honest admission that I find it difficult to teach in a way that gels uniformly with my political and ideological leanings. As such, I hope that this essay provides a space within which other feminist pedagogues can recognize the process of struggle—if not necessarily the same specific difficulties—and find within it the encouragement to keep up the good (feminist) fight. I have also provided pragmatic examples of how I go about the teaching itself, bridging—in the process—the theoretical/practical divide that too often fractures musicology writ large and pedagogical speculation more specifically.

At the ASCM, we are lucky enough to require a four-semester history survey.1 I am regularly assigned the first and second of these classes—which roughly align with medieval/Renaissance and baroque/classical period boundaries—often at the same time. The student body at QC is diverse. As a large, state-funded university, CUNY attracts a mostly local demographic, including a large number of first- or second-generation immigrants, many first-generation college students, and a high proportion of English Language Learners (ELL students). Racially and ethnically, the college boasts a wide spread: only 41.3% of the undergraduate body identifies as white/non-Hispanic, and more than half of the student body was born overseas. Some 8% identify as black, 19% as Hispanic, and 26.8% as Asian-Pacific Islander.2 This breadth is visible in my classrooms, yet like many classical music departments, the student demographics do tend to hew marginally “whiter” and also comparatively wealthier than the university at large.

This is my sixth year teaching at CUNY, after a postdoc at Columbia University and several years of graduate teaching at New York University during my doctoral studies. When I first arrived at Queens, I was struck by the sharp contrast between the student populations I encountered at the public institution and those of the private universities. At Queens my students are far less articulate than their Ivy League peers. Most are underprepared for college writing and reading; a significant number learned English as a second (or third, etc.) language, but just as many are US English speakers from working-class families, educated in the New York City public school system, who lack a solid grasp of grammar or essay construction. In addition, like many of the music schools at which I have taught, the ACSM includes a large proportion of students who ignored their academic development in favor of the practice room. Many of our music majors dream of a future as professional musicians; for some of these students, any class that isn’t focused on performance figures as a rather tedious hurdle, to be completed with as little enthusiasm and energy as possible.

For the instructor, this demographic poses certain challenges, but also offers unique rewards. Those students who are academically inclined—and those who can be lured into thinking they might be—respond with an enthusiasm that puts the cool and sophisticated denizens of Columbia’s hallowed halls to shame. If and when I can connect with the academic interests of my students, I find a dizzying excitement and joy; there is a real sense of discovery, of their having found something precious that they didn’t know existed. As a teacher this joy is a reward in and of itself, though the simple fact remains that most of my students lack the fundamental skills that would allow them to research, write, structure, and revise a decent research paper. The majority have so little experience with academic writing that they struggle to understand the thesis of any given article, let alone construct and argue one of their own. In such circumstances it would be a poor pedagogue who expected incisive historical analysis (feminist or otherwise) without sufficient groundwork.

Indeed, this fact alone points up the yawning chasm that separates my fantasy class, described in the opening paragraphs, from my actual class. It’s not that my imaginary students are quantitatively or qualitatively more intelligent than the real ones, but they are far better prepared for a traditional (if utopian) collegiate education and motivated by a well-articulated and entirely conscious intellectual and ideological agenda. My imaginary students begin from a place far advanced from that of my real students, and this has come to define my pedagogical practice and the underlying infrastructure of my syllabi and lesson plans. Much of my teaching is constructed around concepts of how to read and write academically and why learning to do so is a valuable pursuit. I am convinced that my focus on skills is itself a feminist decision, though it might take me the rest of this essay to articulate why.

Feminist Pedagogy

The fundamental crisis of feminist scholarship and its application to the music history survey was well articulated in a 1988 panel discussion hosted at the American Musicological Society Conference in Baltimore; the panel was summarized in considerable detail by Susan C. Cook in her 1989 article for the College Music Symposium, “Women, Women’s Studies, Music and Musicology: Issues of Pedagogy and Scholarship.”3 The crucial problem is not the recognition that the history survey is ripe for feminist intervention (an issue on which all “thinking people” agree), but rather three fundamentally different approaches to the issue of how such an intervention might unfold.4 The first approach, typified on the panel by James R. Briscoe, is to add “models of successful women composers and performers” to the established canon of music history.5 Briscoe labeled this practice “mainstreaming,” and it points up the rather terrifying degree to which “women as composers, as original creators,” are absent from widely used music appreciation and music history textbooks.6 The situation persists today. On several occasions I have heard Wendy Heller joke about the need to take women “out of the box,” for even where they have been added to survey texts, women typically appear in the colorful sidebar section of the printed page, literally peripheral to the main narrative arc of the text. What we are left with, in the words of Claudia MacDonald, is “a series of great composers with detours to accommodate contributions by a few females whose names may be unknown to many and whose oeuvre may be slight.”7

A second approach, personified in 1988 by Susan McClary, is to “see music as a social discourse within which people articulate, impose, or reproduce ways of making sense…. McClary stressed the irony of musicology’s [traditional] unwillingness to tackle the topic of pleasure, even though most people—musicologists included—turn to music precisely to experience feelings of delight.”8 This technique—of grounding questions of gender, sex, and sexuality within a broader turn toward social context—means that few (if any) changes need be made to the stalwart pillars of Western musical canonicity; the same great (male) composers and their same great works can still be taught. What changes is the questions that are asked and the issues that can be addressed. I think it safe to say that this style of feminist consciousness has had the largest impact on the field of musicology as a whole. A quick romp through recent issues of the Journal of the American Musicological Society shows that while most scholarship continues to revolve around canonic elements, there is also a genuine interest in the thick social and historical meanings of musical works, including and incorporating questions of gender at times, but also of race, social class, cultural identity, and ideological constructs.9

A third approach, represented in 1988 by the voice of Elizabeth Wood, seeks to apply the discursive critiques of postmodernist feminism to the entire edifice of music history:

We continue to operate within a conservative methodology, whether compensatory or contributory, that is not necessarily feminist and not specifically female. Rather it tends to relate and relocate women to the accepted canon of great artists and great works, without necessarily rethinking or reexamining, to quote from Myra Jehlen, “the way certain assumptions about women and the female enter into the fundamental assumptions that organize our thinking.”10

For Wood, the potential to radically revise received patterns of knowledge emerges from her experience teaching in a women’s studies program rather than a music department. “Such a view,” elaborates Cook, “challenges hierarchies, origins, and representations of ‘the real’ in order to generate more accurate representations of past and present and the diversity of culture and experience.”11

Of these three approaches, it is the third to which I cleave the most strongly, though in practice I incorporate elements of all three. (I discuss, for example, Hildegard von Bingen in my medieval survey, and Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi, and the Venetian orphans in my baroque class; similarly, I talk about “great works”—such as the Eroica symphony—in social terms.) Regarding the third approach, “Wood stressed that feminist thinking, whether about society or musical culture, is not simply different, it is also critical, ultimately supplying a critique of what counts as evidence.”12 My conception of history is a postmodern version thereof. I’m leery of overarching narratives and the implicit teleology of most survey classes. I want to teach my students how to interrogate the stories they are told and the information that is reported to them as if it were fact. I want them to critique what counts as evidence. Thus Wood’s articulation of the transformative power of feminist thought rings a potent siren song of desire—even as I continue to teach my courses in roughly chronological order and to mention many of the “great works” and “great men” of the established canon.

In a lateral sense, Wood’s quote encapsulates several sides of my particular methodological dilemma. She illuminates precisely what it is about feminist scholarship that resonates so strongly (namely, the way in which a legitimate accounting of women and female experience changes fundamental conceptions) and precisely what it is that most of my students are lacking (critical awareness of the ways in which knowledge is shaped), as well as precisely that gray area in which “feminist” thought shades over into critical thinking more broadly (and thus other progressive pedagogical strategies). If I ask myself what it is that I hope my students will take from a history survey—a question that I pose in the weeks that lead up to each semester as I sit down once again to contemplate my syllabus—somewhere very close to the top of my list of answers is the hope that they will leave with a sense of history. By this, I mean a sense of what constitutes history: what counts as evidence and how arguments are made. To my mind this is itself an intrinsically feminist mode of understanding the past—a position that perhaps (historically speaking) is truer in relationship to musicology than to most other disciplines.

Arguably, it was feminist scholars who catalyzed the historiographical upheaval of the new musicology and who first initiated the kinds of pedagogical questions addressed here. This inheritance maintains an influence even in more recent reformist teaching texts. The edited collection Teaching Music History (2002) was compiled by Mary Natvig, who herself contributed the chapter “Teaching ‘Women in Music’.” The genre’s even more recent (and more affordable) exemplar, Vitalizing Music History Teaching (2010), “derives from a multi-year series of workshops and sessions sponsored through the C[ollege] M[usic] S[ociety] by the volume editor, James Briscoe, and others”—the same James Briscoe who participated in the 1988 pedagogy panel in order to argue for the importance of female role models in music history.13 Though Briscoe’s “major research emphasis is not women composers, his primary career goal has been the teaching of music history at the graduate and undergraduate levels, an activity that led him to a central question in women’s studies.”14

Yet even while progressive pedagogy within music scholarship remains conceptually linked to the fundamental question “Where are the women?,” the solutions offered by the discipline’s protagonists typically fall short. Pragmatic solutions—such as “mainstreaming” female figures à la Briscoe—are disappointingly superficial; radical ideologies—such as Wood’s evidential critique—are inspiring, but vague on details and notoriously difficult to embody within the pockets of institutional inertia. Andrew dell’Antonio points out in his review of Vitalizing Music History Teaching that “those seeking systematic pedagogical methodology will not find it in these pages.”15 The book is much better at raising questions and encouraging change than in offering specific solutions; the case studies, which are individually excellent, have a limited utility. The questions that remain unanswered include how one might measure the success of one’s own efforts and how to negotiate within the permissible deviance of the individual institution. Much as many of us might dream of overthrowing the yoke of departmental regulations and the circumscribed assumptions of the survey format, for “early career” scholars and adjunct faculty of all ages the actual implementation of such goals is a largely laughable proposition. Even individual tenured faculty have little leeway within a required curriculum. Without the support of an entire music department, wholesale changes to the teaching of music history pose formidable challenges.

Beyond musicological borders, the literature on feminist pedagogy focuses less on adding women into the curriculum and more on the stratified power structures of the traditional pedagogical relationship:

Feminist pedagogy is a theory about the teaching/learning process that guides our choice of classroom practices [… including] the extent to which a community of learners is empowered to act responsibly toward one another and the subject matter and to apply that learning to social action. […] Feminist pedagogy is engaged teaching/learning—engaged with self in a continuing reflective process; engaged actively with the material being studied; engaged with others in a struggle to get beyond our sexism and racism and classism and homophobia and other destructive hatreds and to work together to enhance our knowledge; engaged with the community, with traditional organizations, and with movements for social change.16

I find such literature inspiring, and some of it—for example, bell hook’s work on the erotics of pedagogy and Ann Pellegrini’s work on the student-teacher relationship—achingly, heart-shatteringly beautiful.17 But though it motivates me to want to change the standard format and outcomes of the music history survey, it doesn’t provide tangible advice on how to effect such change. Indeed, as Roberta Lamb has argued, some of the ambiguous and decentered authority practices of feminist pedagogy can work to undermine the fragile authority of the female music professor—particularly in relation to the persistently sexist models of music authority such as the orchestral conductor and the great composer.18

In the process of searching for methodologies that could help shift my classroom and my students’ skills closer to my imagined feminist ideal, I have turned elsewhere. Ironically, the two arenas from which I have sourced my most frequently used classroom tools are not necessarily feminist and tend toward a kind of intellectual handholding and rule-learning that is—at least superficially—opposed to the freewheeling independence advocated by feminist pedagogues.

My first major resource has been the general education writing program at Queens College. The college’s writing curriculum is administered by Writing at Queens, which provides a host of teaching resources for interested faculty members.19 All four of the music history survey semesters required by the ACSM are designated as “writing intensive” classes, a general education category that limits class sizes to twenty-five students, presupposes at least ten to fifteen pages of evaluated writing distributed across three or more writing assignments, calls for direct attention to writing instruction during class, and requires exams (if given) that include essay questions.20 Queens College undergraduates are required to take a minimum of two “W” courses to graduate, and since all four of our compulsory music history survey classes are designated as such, our students fulfill this requirement without ever leaving the department.21 Because of my nearly perpetual engagement in the teaching of W classes, I have been able to participate in a number of events hosted by Writing at Queens, the most important being a yearlong syllabus development seminar, and currently a working group focused on evaluating what works and what doesn’t with regard to the W class system.

The teaching techniques advocated by Writing at Queens are heavily influenced by the Princeton Writing Program and the ideas disseminated by Kerry Walk in her short (and freely available) text, Teaching with Writing.22 Several cornerstone strategies from Walk’s book have become an integral part of my own syllabi, particularly scaffolded directions, a focus on certain mechanics (such as verb choice or thesis construction), and the peer workshop; I write in more detail about my syllabi below.

While each of my classes includes a handful of students who write adequately, as well as the occasional gem with a gift for lyrical prose, the overwhelming majority of my students struggle with the written word. I am inclined to believe that this problem is on the rise throughout North American institutions, even at those with a higher socioeconomic makeup than my own. I confess that I am with Foucault when he said, “I write precisely because I do not know yet what to think about a topic that attracts my interest.”23 I believe that the structural complexity of a well-ordered essay allows the habits of mind that are fundamental to sophisticated analytic thought. Without these skills, my students are ill-equipped to formulate the kind of foundational critique to which I would have them aspire.

In many cases, however, the problems run even deeper, and it is for this reason that I sought out and—perhaps surprisingly—found inspiration in a literature aimed at charter and public school teachers of disadvantaged populations, a literature intended to teach (elementary and high school) teachers how to teach children in order to prepare them for the rigors of a collegiate education. I became interested in the genre after reading Elizabeth Green’s long-form article for the New York Times Magazine, “Building a Better Teacher.”24 I am quite naturally interested in being a better teacher, but the paradigm-shifting realization engendered by that article was that by many of the markers discussed by Green and the pedagogues she interviewed, my students were far below the benchmark of “college readiness.” In one sense, this wasn’t a new realization, but something about the fervor and proselytism of those she interviewed infected me with a new zeal: I could be one of those curmudgeonly college professors who bitched incessantly about the failings of my students, or I could actively try to teach them what it is that they don’t yet know.

Inspired by reading Green, I ordered and read through Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College (K–12).25 Though not all of the techniques proposed in the text were relevant, I compiled lists of those that were and of those that could be modified to suit my—older, though not necessarily more qualified—student population. The theory behind Lemov’s book is based on hours of classroom observation, comparing effective teachers to those who get poor results. The outcome is a series of highly pragmatic tools, from the best (and most time-efficient) way of handing out materials in class, to verbal scripts that call on and then re-engage with students until they can arrive at the correct answer to a question. Lemov’s encouraging belief is that such techniques themselves are easily learned and that any teacher can improve at teaching.26 Lemov also argues, persuasively, that students who begin at an educational deficit require the wholesale inculcation of specific, concrete skills of comprehension and task completion before they can move on to the critical thinking targets that are the acme of progressive educational methods.

This idea, that I need to teach my students the ways and means by which they can then take responsibility for their own learning, has become an integral part of the way I construct my class and assessment tasks. I worry, for example, about the ability of many of my students to take effective notes—a skill deficit that affects their knowledge retention and then their preparation for exams. As a consequence, I try to teach them how to take good notes. They are required to hand in their lecture notes at the start of the final exam, and a not-insignificant portion of their final grade is based on the completeness and quality of the notes they submit. (I do permit students to copy the notes of their classmates when they were absent and even just when the quality of their own notes is inadequate; they must, however, copy them out by hand and provide an acknowledgment of whose notes they have used.) Furthermore, at the start of each semester we talk for five or ten minutes about what constitutes good note-taking practice, and at several points during the semester I call on people to read from their notes—particularly after broaching a complex or multifaceted idea. I also try to leave a few minutes of active note-taking time after particularly dense moments of class discussion or lecture, directly encouraging students to summarize the important elements of the conversation that has occurred. The notes themselves are surprisingly easy to grade. I make a simple rubric that quantifies the number of lectures for which notes are provided and qualifies how well the notes represent the class content; grading the portfolios keeps me occupied while students are completing their final exam, and I return them as students leave. This portion of the final grade substitutes for an attendance or participation grade, and in one sense, it provides an elegant solution to the penalty that shy students often face with regard to “participation.” I know that the task works only to the extent that my students have better notes at the end of the semester than they otherwise would. I don’t know how effective it is in terms of inculcating long-term habits of listening or information processing, but I am hopeful that the technique of note-taking will trickle down into their other classes and thus their college experience as a whole.

The other assessment tasks of my syllabus are structured along similar principles, with a focus on the basic skills of academic reading, comprehension, research, argument construction, and writing. In the next section of this article I discuss the writing assignments that I currently set in my music history survey classes. I then consider their effectiveness as components of a distinctly feminist pedagogy and try to answer (for myself, at least) whether the idea of a feminist history survey is a useful, or even feasible, goal.

Writing Assignments from My History Survey Syllabus

When I first started at Queens College, I required all the students in my history survey classes to write a research paper. Those who already knew how to write such an assignment rose admirably to the challenge; those who didn’t failed dismally. There was, however, an interesting variety in the means by which they failed. I had broken the task into a series of steps (choose a topic, develop a bibliography, refine a thesis, complete a draft, revise the paper), which meant that the attrition rate was clear. Some students balked so badly at the whole idea that they were incapable of handing in anything; others wrote pages and pages without any evident research and with no trace of an argument to tie the whole together. Some wrote effective reports summarizing a composer’s biography; others stumbled at the bibliographic stage and retreated in distress; and still more handed in incoherent first drafts and then, with no noticeable improvement, the same material as a final draft. I was worried by the outcome and spoke discreetly with several more experienced members of the faculty. They grimaced sympathetically and explained that, yes, they used to set research papers, too, but the results were so dispiriting that they no longer did. In effect, I have now made a similar decision, but with the idea that since I teach the earliest classes in our history sequence, I can set the students up for research paper success in later classes.

Given that at the ACSM we require a remarkably generous four semesters of the history survey (in addition to the two semesters of college writing required by the CUNY Pathways general education regulations), it seems almost criminal (to my biased and idealist mindset) that we graduate students who can’t write a passable essay. My intention, in modifying the written assessment of the two classes I regularly teach (Music History I and Music History II), was to establish a cumulative curriculum over the sequence as a whole that could culminate in quality research work. The concept of a unified—sequential—sequence over the course of the four-semester program is one that my department has greeted with interest but not yet implemented in any real sense.

In Music History I, therefore, I currently require four written assignments, each of which focuses on a separate musicological skill. For Writing Assignment I, each student is assigned a composer or theorist from the period and must compare the encyclopedia entries from Wikipedia and the New Grove Online. This task allows us to discuss questions of tone, authority, and factual evidence versus inference. My point is not that Grove is necessarily a better source than Wikipedia (though most students conclude that it is), but that different types of material are suitable for different purposes, and academic material requires a certain authority. For Writing Assignment II, I assign two short readings, each about ten pages long, that present conflicting opinions on a given musicological issue. Students are required to summarize the readings and then write a four- to five-page paper in which they take a position on the issue, arguing for a certain interpretation of the evidence and citing from the two set articles to support their claims. In this assignment I focus on academic reading—for content and for argument, on understanding what a thesis is and how to articulate one, and on using quotes from secondary literature to represent the field and support a claim. Writing Assignment III is an annotated bibliography. Students return to the composer/theorist they were assigned for Writing Assignment I and use research tools such as RILM to compile a list of ten sources. They are not required to read the sources (or write a paper on the individual concerned), but their annotations should explain why that source looked promising and include the steps they would take to get hold of the source. I also require them to hand in a cover letter tracing the process through which the bibliography was compiled: What resources did they use? Which keywords did they use to search? Writing Assignment IV is the most substantial: the class reads a full-length academic paper, and students have to write a six- to seven-page paper on a musical genre of their choice, applying the methodologies and ideas of the given article as a theoretical lens with which to think about a different repertoire. Once again, this assignment allows me to raise questions about how to read an academic paper and how to craft an argument about musical evidence. Students are required to use musical details to support their claims; they also need to reference the theoretical approach of the original article and, where necessary, conduct research to explain the background of the music they have chosen.

Often in Music History II I have the same students that I taught the previous semester in Music History I, and my goal for the assessment here is slightly more ambitious. Students complete two major assignments, each of which is broken up into a series of small tasks, with small quantities of written work due almost every week. The first assignment I call their Primary Source Project. At the start of the semester, each student chooses a piece in facsimile (manuscript or early print) from the rather extensive collection held by our library. In lieu of a midterm exam, students perform a five-minute excerpt from this music for the class and hand in a set of program notes. In the preceding weeks they have written a biographical sketch of the composer, completed a modern edition of their excerpt (with commentary), discussed the performance context, provided a descriptive analysis, and described the process of learning the piece. The program notes, which are worth 10% of their final grade, are supposed to be a revision and integration of the earlier written components, which I mark up with editorial suggestions but do not give a grade for. The second assignment, in contrast, is a Secondary Source Project—or a research paper by another name. I have removed one of the big hurdles of a research project by providing an initial bibliography that students are required to read. Students must choose a topic from four broad areas (this year they were castrati, the “invention” of opera, dance and the music of J. S. Bach, and improvisational practice vs. composition) and then read ten associated sources of my choosing, all of which are limited in length to about forty-five pages and are available either on the class blackboard site or on reserve in the music library. After completing summaries of the ten readings, students develop a thesis statement, write a draft, and then submit a final paper in the final week of the semester. I do not require that they complete extra research beyond the initial ten sources, though I do encourage them to do so; a portion of their final grades is based on the drafts they submit, and a further grade is provided for the improvement measured between the draft versions and their final papers. The three elements that I am most interested in seeing emerge through the completion of this project are the construction of a feasible thesis, the use of sources and evidence to support their claims, and evidence of revision (and ideally, improvement!) between the two versions of the paper.

Of course none of these assignments is necessarily feminist, though I do try to slant all of the set readings (for both classes) toward questions that destabilize the foundational assumptions of traditional Western music history narratives. In Music History I, for example, the two perspective readings that I set this semester (and last) address issues of cultural appropriation and historically informed performance. Students read John Haines’s “The Arabic Style of Performing Medieval Music,” published in 2001, followed by Kristen Yri’s response, “Thomas Binkley and the Studio der Frühen Musick: Challenging ‘the Myth of Westerness’,” from 2010.27 We discuss both articles at some length in class. For the Haines article in particular, this has proved necessary, as few of my students understand his perspective on the performances upon first reading it; the terminology, particularly the word “orientalism,” is not familiar to many of them, and it takes a considerable amount of contextualization before they can interpret beyond the description of the performance practice in order to understand the argument that Haines is making about such performances. In the best iterations, these have been far-ranging conversations, touching on the ellipses of the historical record, questions of “authenticity,” the Western-centric repertory of classical music, the racist implications of primitivism and orientalism, and the sometimes subtle distinction between fact and implication.

For Writing Assignment IV, I typically assign Laura Macy’s article, “Speaking of Sex: Metaphor and Performance in the Italian Madrigal,” from 1996, and again, we discuss the article in considerable detail during class time. Here are the instructions that I give the students:

Written Assignment 4: Genre Analysis

MUS 246W • Fall 2014

In this project you have the opportunity to think and work like a musicologist: combining musical evidence and historical context in order to build an argument about how music signified during its time. As I did for the second assignment, I have broken this task down into several intermediate steps in order to make it easier to tackle. The various components of the assignment and their due dates are listed below (the due dates also appear on the calendar included with the class syllabus).

Bear in mind that you need to choose a genre to write your paper about; you can choose anything that we have covered over the semester (medieval or Renaissance). To provide two examples from the last week of classes alone, you might want to write about mass settings written by recusant Catholics in Elizabethan England or about the unison hymn tunes of the Calvinist protestants.

  1. 4a] Read and summarize Laura Macy’s article, “Speaking of Sex: Metaphor and Performance in the Italian Madrigal,” Journal of Musicology 14 (1996): 1–34. [Note that the article is available on the class blackboard site.]

To do this properly, I ask that you think through the same steps that you used in assignment 2a, when you printed out the article and marked up the pages with different colors. The point here is to differentiate among evidence, analysis, and argument as they appear in the paper. Make sure that you can answer the question of which is which.

Summarize the thesis of the reading in one or two sentences. Write the thesis down and bring the thesis statement + your copy of the article to class on WEDNESAY, NOVEMBER 19.

  1. 4b] Choose a musical example that demonstrates the typical features of your chosen genre. Work out how to embed the example into a word processing document. Describe the relevant musical elements in as much detail as possible; your description should be about five hundred words long. Bring this component to class on WEDNESAY, NOVEMBER 26.

  2. 4c] Write the paper itself: using Macy’s article, “Speaking of Sex,” as a theory lens, consider the question of how your chosen genre facilitated social interaction; refer to at least one specific musical example. Explain how the values of the performers and listeners are represented in the musical texture.

Consider the following statement, which sums up the ideals behind this paper quite nicely:

As listeners and composers negotiate and agree upon the defining features of a given genre, they are also implicitly communicating to each other (and to us) the things that they find important—in their art, their systems of belief, their culture, their own identities. This concept opens many doors for interpretation, because as we start to understand what a culture values about the genres it creates and consumes, we can learn a great deal about contemporary experiences of specific works made to fit within these generic patterns.28

The final paper is due on the last day of class, WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 15.

Macy’s article is unquestionably a product of feminist musicological thought, and it provides enormous scope for a discussion of social context, identity formation, and the relationship of music to constructions of authorized sexuality. The instructions above also demonstrate an attention to skill-based details: I want my students to learn to read consciously and to identify the thesis of a paper with ease; I also want them to know (and to practice how) to embed a musical example neatly into a word processing document. Those students who grasp the point of the assignment and who pay attention during our class discussion write really interesting papers. I do get a higher proportion of completed papers than I did when I required a fully fledged research paper from the same class level; I also seem to get a higher proportion of papers that engage with social context and that support their claims with musical detail and references to the secondary literature.

There are still obvious problems with this approach. Not least, I worry about “spoon feeding” my students. It is unclear how many of them are genuinely concerned with questions of critique, rather than merely replicating the behaviors and steps of the process in order to pass the class. I also worry that the broken-down format and the (deliberately) precise instructions that I offer for each step stifle the creativity of that section of my class that is already operating at a level of “college readiness.” And even during the most encouraging moments of class discussion and debate, when issues raised by the readings come into momentary focus and the students are visibly pushing up against the limits of their previous assumptions, the situation remains starkly divided from my fantasized “feminist” class. Those imaginary students were thrilled by the political implications and the potentially destabilizing qualities of (feminist) critique; these real students are frequently ambivalent and often hostile. The only students who leave enamored of feminist musicology are those who were feminist (and academically motivated) to begin with, and I can’t help but regard that as something of a disappointment. Logically, it shouldn’t be. I myself discovered feminist musicology in my music history survey class, but I was raised as a feminist by my mother, a process that was only intensified by my relatively young coming out and the lesbian separatists whom I admired at college.

By 1998 I was a second-year vocal performance major with a shaved head and unshaven legs. I wore a mix of colorful clothing creations whipped up on my mother’s sewing machine, T-shirts blazoned with radical feminist and queer activist slogans, and an old, baggy pair of jeans that were patched to a hyperbolic extreme and held up by willpower and my old school tie. In classes I was bored. My singing lessons had reached a standoff between my teacher’s conviction that I should sing high soprano and my own baby-butch insistence that my voice was as deep as my love of pants roles. After a secondary education at a magnet high school for academic excellence, the required classes for the BMus offered few challenges, leaving me with good grades but little intellectual fulfillment. Still, I loved being at university: while the educational side was somewhat lacking, my experience was amazing. I sang in multiple choirs, played women’s soccer, and hung out in the Womyn’s Room and the Queer Lounge; I drank with everybody. I had more friends, more fun, and more interesting conversations than I’d ever had before. I was loud, I was proud, and I was convinced that I could change the world.

One day, ensconced in the back of the Old Pathology lecture hall, my attempt to eat a Chuppa Chup sideways while vaguely following along with the “Music in Society II: 1750 to the Present” lecture unfolding below was short-circuited by the presence of a new lecturer—female, leggy, and red headed—who interrupted my irreverent inattentiveness with the electrifying words, “Pay attention, class, we’re going to move very quickly because I want to leave some time to talk about feminist musicology.”

  • Feminist.

  • Musicology.

  • My life would never be the same.

The first symptoms of my new interest were physical. To begin with, I started waving at my professor, Linda Kouvaras, from the back of the hall—telegraphing my enthusiasm. This quickly progressed to interrogative emails, sent from home via a dial-up modem that clicked and chirped each time I logged on—just to check—if she’d replied. And respond she did, with articles and reading suggestions that I ploughed through, then demanded more. At the end of that year, when I won an award for academic excellence, I took my book voucher to the university bookstore and ordered a copy of Queering the Pitch, the very first academic book I ever owned. And owning it felt like contraband. At the beginning of the next semester I switched my major from performance to musicology and left behind my dreams of singing opera with nary a backward glance.

Coming of musicological age when I did, musicology was not merely new (to me) but “New.” Susan MacClary’s polemics were fresh—and her occasional vitriol was well justified by the responses of my own (established, white, male) professoriate, who warned me not to jump onto the feminist bandwagon or to taint myself by association with a scholarly “fad.” One particular essay over which I’d labored long—a (no-doubt rather obnoxious) manifesto about the pervasive feminization of musical practice over the course of Western musical history and the concomitant masculinization of scholarly discourse—was returned with the comment, “You don’t get the grade you deserve, but it’s your own fault.”

If feminist musicology came into my life like the dawn of possibility, it is crucial to realize that I was drawn to it because I was already a feminist. In the rage and the struggles of early feminist music scholarship I recognized myself. I was interpellated as a full person, with a body and a mind, impinged upon by the weight of rules and expectations against which I wanted to fight. I saw myself, too, in the academic labor of the task—in the reading, writing, researching, and thinking of the scholar, I rediscovered a part of myself that had been dormant in my singing lessons, aural studies classes, and theory instruction. I enjoyed the complexity of academic theory. I discovered a visceral pleasure in forcing my brain around ideas and concepts that were foreign and complex, in learning to read Judith Butler, in learning to articulate the interface of desires and politics, people and systems, bodies and sounds. Furthermore, somewhere in the midst of my feminist-musicological awakening, I discovered history. Not history the way in which it had always been taught to me, as a vast array of names and dates or an ever-evolving set of musical stylistic norms, but history as the material traces of people (of musicians) who had once been alive—people with bodies and minds, desires and politics.

For me, this sense of history is inseparably feminist, as are the physical and mental pleasures of scholarly work. The leap away from the consideration of scholarship as a practice of disembodied minds parallels the leap away from the consideration of music history as a story about disembodied pieces of music. This sense of history is the reason I have stayed a musicologist, and stayed a feminist musicologist, even after the first thrill of discovery faded and several of the fiery fronts of feminist musicological fervor have died away. It is this—feminist—historiographical mindset that undergirds my scholarly work, marking it (to my mind, at least) as “feminist,” even when the topic bears little direct relevance to women, to questions of gender or political equality. And the same motivations emerge in my teaching, too.

Indeed, it is in the field of classroom teaching that my early revolutionary enthusiasms find their surest expression. I will be honest: each semester I walk into the classroom buoyed up by the naïve and optimistic belief that what happens in my music history survey class just might change the world. Despite the slim evidence for such disproportionate effects, I remain hopeful that my students will absorb critical theoretical analytics that will help to identify the complex forces at work in their own lives. I hope that their writing skills will improve dramatically, increasing their ability to articulate their ideas and their desires and raising their prospects in the subtle way that higher-level educational skills demonstrably do. I hope that they will discover or recover their joy in learning, in understanding the facts and ideologies behind any given viewpoint. I hope that they’ll recognize the humanity of historical figures and modern-day “Others” alike, heading back out into the world as fundamentally ethical beings. Some of these things do happen some of the time, but not to such a high degree that I could legitimately believe my class or my pedagogical practice to be the decisive factor of change. Furthermore, while I see the pedagogical changes that I practice and the historiographical methods that I am attempting to teach as inherently feminist, most of my students do not, and independent observers might not either.29

These observations raise questions about my teaching practices in general—what counts as feminist pedagogy, for example—and about the specific circumstances of the undergraduate music history survey. This article has been my attempt to think through these issues, particularly as they play out in my own pedagogical circumstances. It is not an essay that provides a wealth of statistical data or a broad set of perspectives on a given issue. Instead, I have focused on my own experience, on my motivations and my hesitations, on what has worked and what has failed. It is my hope that an unfolding and a thinking through of my struggles with curriculum and classroom practice—which happen, for the most part, in the private spaces of my head, in the classroom itself, and in the various anonymous coffee shops in which I regularly sit to work—will resonate with other feminist teachers.

To close, I want to return to a Foucault quote that appeared in passing in the text above; I offer it here in slightly more expansive detail: “[T]he books I write constitute an experience for me that I’d like to be as rich as possible. An experience is something you come out of changed…. I write precisely because I don’t know yet what to think about a subject that attracts my interest. In so doing, the book transforms me, changes what I think…. When I write, I do it above all to change myself and not to think the same thing as before.”30 The same is true about teaching. In focusing on writing skills as a feminist practice, I hope to teach my students the gift of changing themselves and the ways in which they think the world into existence. I don’t always succeed, but the process of trying is—in and of itself—an actively feminist practice of pedagogical method. Even if nobody cares in the end but me.


I would like to thank Suzanne G. Cusick and Kimberly Francis for their helpful comments on draft versions of this paper.


(1) The downside of our substantial compulsory curriculum is that it leaves very little time for academic music electives, and the vast majority of our students get no opportunity to study musicology outside of the history survey.

(3) Susan C. Cook, “Women, Women’s Studies, Music and Musicology: Issues of Pedagogy and Scholarship,” College Music Symposium 29 (1989): 93–100.

(4) The phrase “thinking people” is a reference to the wonderfully titled anthology, The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People, ed. Mieke Bal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

(7) Claudia MacDonald, “Are We There? Women’s Studies in a Professional Music Program,” Women & Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture 8 (2004): 43.

(8) Cook, “Women, Women’s Studies, Music and Musicology,” 96. Note that Cook presents this as the third approach (echoing the order of the panel itself); I have chosen to rearrange the order here for my own nefarious purposes.

(9) A good example is Elaine Sisman’s “Haydn’s Solar Poetics: The Tageszeiten Symphonies and Enlightenment Knowledge,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 66 (2013): 5–102. While this article is not predominantly feminist in and of itself, it is predicated on the kind of research that the revolution of feminist musicology and the “new” musicology made possible.

(10) Elizabeth Wood, unpublished comments, cited in Cook, “Women, Women’s Studies, Music and Musicology,” 95. The embedded quotation comes from Myra Jehlen, “Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism,” Signs 6 (1981): 575–601.

(13) Andrew dell’Antonio, review of Vitalizing Music History Teaching, Journal of Music History Pedagogy 2, no. 1 (2011): 99.

(15) Dell’Antonio, review, 99.

(16) Carolyn M. Shrewsbury, “What Is Feminist Pedagogy?,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 15, nos. 3/4, Feminist Pedagogy (Fall–Winter 1987): 6–14. This definition is intentionally broad and thus encompasses the teaching of any subject, whether that subject revolves around women or not. Significantly, even when music scholars have attempted to apply these broader notions of feminist pedagogy to the music classroom, the importance of women is often reinscribed; see, for example, Barbara Coeyman, “Applications of Feminist Pedagogy to the College Music Major Curriculum: An Introduction to the Issues,” College Music Symposium 36 (1996): 73–90. Coeyman’s definition of the term emphasizes the applicability of such methods to teaching about women and gender in particular: “Feminist pedagogy, rooted in feminist theory, addresses subject matters, teaching methods, and personal dynamics in and out of the classroom which are particularly conducive to study women and gender issues by using vocabularies which address aspects of gender and sexuality as integral components of this subject matter” (76).

(17) See, for example, bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (New York: Routledge, 2003); and Ann Pellegrini, “Pedagogy’s Turn: Observations on Students, Teachers, and Transference-Love,” Critical Inquiry 25, no. 3 (1999): 617–625.

(18) Roberta Lamb, “Discords: Feminist Pedagogy in Music Education,” Theory into Practice 35, no. 2, Situated Pedagogies: Classroom Practices in Postmodern Times (Spring 1996): 124–131.

(20) Guidelines for teachers and students of Queens College “W” courses can be found at

(21) The large number of required classes in our music sequence (including theory, ear-training, private lessons, ensembles, and music history) leaves students little room for elective classes, either within or outside of their major. There are obvious disadvantages to the lack of interdisciplinary exposure that this system encodes.

(22) The volume can be downloaded from several sources on the Internet, including the Princeton website:

(23) Michel Foucault, “How an ‘Experience-Book’ Is Born,” in Michel Foucault, Remarks on Marx: Conversations with Duccio Trombadori (New York: Semiotext(e), 1991), 27.

(24) Elizabeth Green, “Building a Better Teacher,” New York Times Sunday Magazine, March 7, 2010, MM30. (I read the article online, where it was published on March 2, 2010,

(25) Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College (K–12) (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).

(26) Lemov’s practice is based primarily in the charter school system. While I am strongly supportive of the motivations behind school reform, I confess that I remain dubious about the charter system as a solution to the ills of public education. My own daughter (at the time of writing) is enrolled in the local public school rather than one of the several renowned charter schools in our neighborhood.

(27) John Haines, “The Arabic Style of Performing Medieval Music,” Early Music 29, no. 3 (2001): 369–378; and Kirsten Yri, “Thomas Binkley and the Studio der Frühen Musik: Challenging ‘the myth of Westernness’,” Early Music 38, no. 2 (2010): 273–280. It’s actually a real challenge to find two short articles that take up different sides in any given scholarly argument, particularly when one is limited to a set historical period.

(28) Jama Stilwell, “A New View of the Eighteenth-Century ‘Abduction’ Opera: Edification and Escape at the Parisian ‘Théâtres de la foire,’Music & Letters 91 (2010): 54–55.

(29) To find scholars who suggest pedagogical writing techniques or argue for a more engaged history survey format without invoking specifically feminist agendas, one need not look far. To offer only two examples, see Pamela Starr, “Teaching in the Centrifugal Classroom,” in Teaching Music History, ed. Mary Natvig (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), 169–180; and James Vincent Maiello, “Toward an Extension of Regelski’s Praxial Philosophy of Music Education into Music History Pedagogy,” Journal of Music History Pedagogy 4, no. 1 (2013): 71–108.