St. Olaf College | News

Adventures in the New Humanities: The Hill is alive with the sound of music

St. Olaf College Assistant Professor of Music Louis Epstein (right) and Carleton College Associate Professor of Philosophy Daniel Groll perform the music of Louis and Dan and the Invisible Band.

This post is part of a blog series, ‘Adventures in the New Humanities,’ by Judy Kutulas, the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities.

If you’re like me, reading that title makes you want to go out and twirl in the Quad, just like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Who doesn’t love music? It’s been one of my greatest fortunes to wind up teaching at a college with a deep and rich musical tradition, including a fight song in waltz time that is really fun to sing. Not that I’m particularly musical; I’m not. I was one of the least musical members of a pretty musical family growing up and now … well, let’s just say that when my family sings “Happy Birthday,” we are in four different keys. But none of that keeps me from loving music or bringing it into my teaching. So I decided to devote this installment of Adventures in the New Humanities to considering the ways we use music in our classrooms. 

Music is universal. It has been in our lives since our parents first crooned lullabies to us. Across races, cultures, generations, and genres, it serves many functions — as ceremony, as story, as entertainment. And for most of us, music was part of our official or unofficial learning, taught as patriotic or cultural adjunct in our classrooms, in our places of worship, and as an enrichment activity. I suspect that enrichment part is especially true here at St. Olaf, where you can’t wave a conducting baton without inadvertently hitting a pre-med major who also plays the bassoon or a librarian who sings in the Collegiate Chorale. 

For most of us, music was part of our official or unofficial learning … I suspect that enrichment part is especially true here at St. Olaf, where you can’t wave a conducting baton without inadvertently hitting a pre-med major who also plays the bassoon or a librarian who sings in the Collegiate Chorale. 

Although modern technology enables us to control our own playlists and listen to them privately, music still connects us to one another. Did you happen to catch the Instagram post where Louis and Dan and their Invisible Band got students spontaneously singing outside the Cage last December? If you did, you can see how quickly a group of hip college students can turn into a bunch of happy kids singing a silly song. One of my favorite memories of teaching is the day I played disco songs before my U.S. history course. A football player and social studies education major, the late Jake Landsteiner ’02, boogied in, which got others boogying too. It might have been hard to settle the class thereafter, but it was a moment, a spontaneous expression of joy at 9 a.m. toward the end of a long semester. 

I want to stress that I don’t think using music in the classroom is some new-fangled, new humanities technique. It’s always been in our classrooms because music has always been in our lives. But that’s not going to stop me from dissecting it, so strap on your dancing shoes because, like Jake, you might just feel the need to boogie. I can hear the sardonic “OK Boomers” now, even though, Gen Z-ers, I’ve seen you rock out in public to children’s songs.

I don’t think using music in the classroom is some new-fangled, new humanities technique. It’s always been in our classrooms because music has always been in our lives.

I know we have a whole department called Music whose job is to teach our students about music, including its structures, its history, and how it’s performed. We know they do their job superlatively — both the training and the broadening parts of it. Consider, for instance, the Interim Music and Social Justice class taught by music faculty member Tesfa Wondemagegnehu. His class helped lead a unity march across campus for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. They reminded us that every movement has a culture and virtually every culture has music — and that music inside and outside the classroom brings interdisciplinarity and social betterment. 

Unity March MLK Day 2020 Windchime
Music faculty member Tesfa Wondemagegnehu and members of his Interim class help lead marchers in song as they cross campus during a Unity March on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

But Oles don’t leave music to the professionals. There are a lot of us amateurs out there using music for a whole lot of pedagogical or curricular reasons or just because it’s [fill in the day of the week here] and we feel like listening to some music. Apropos of my last post about disrupting, music is the best kind of disruption — although what it does in the classroom isn’t so much disrupting as enhancing.

Quite a lot of us weave music into our curriculum. It’s kind of a no-brainer, right? When Visiting Associate Professor of History Eric Fure-Slocum teaches U.S. History Since 1865, he puts it comprehensively into the whole semester. “Many of our class sessions begin with a seven-minute presentation,” he explains, “in which a group of students talk about and play excerpts from a song or other piece of music that they have selected. The presentation is tied to the time period or some other theme we’re studying that day. At the end of the semester, students are expected to synthesize what they’ve heard in presentations — so they need to listen and ask questions.” 

I really like the way he brings continuity and interdisciplinarity to a historical narrative that most of our students — at least those who grew up in the U.S. — have heard and reheard in school so many times that they think they’ve got it mastered. But did they ever have to intersect culture with politics? With such a seemingly simple assignment, Eric’s students practice research skills, presentation skills, and critical thinking, plus they have to think about inclusion, silences, technology, and cultural appropriation. You can’t get more efficient in the classroom than that.

Professor of English and Associate Dean for the Humanities Colin Wells’s writing classes also practice their critical thinking skills on music as they “analyze, combining musical, lyrical, and (often) visual elements.” That’s a useful takeaway for future classes and future lives. 

I have tried for a number of years now to get my America Since 1945 students to make psychedelic posters about songs like “Woodstock” or “Born to Be Wild” as a way of deepening their understanding of the Counterculture of the 1960s. They generally don’t get the psychedelic art part, but they do find and articulate the links between songs and era — and it’s the kind of thing they are likely to remember later and ask their grandparents about. OK, I’m Boomer sighing.

Some of the posters that students in Professor of History Judy Kutulas’s class made about songs like “Woodstock” or “Born to Be Wild” as a way of deepening their understanding of the Counterculture of the 1960s.

Being interdisciplinary, the Conversations Programs tend to use a lot of music across their semesters. Certainly in American Conversations, students have learned about spirituals, jazz, practiced the Charleston with Professor of Dance Heather Klopchin, sang folk songs and “Proud Mary” during a student skit that transported us to Woodstock, heard Colin explain Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and listened to Associate Professor of Music David Castro deconstruct James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Because Conversations Programs are multi-semester, the student comfort level is higher about unorthodox assignments and situations. On Woodstock Day, for instance, there was a lot of tie-dye, fringe, and beads, and maybe a little dancing, but it’s the music rather than the tie dye that loosens students up and, frankly, they are always open to musical adventures in the classroom.

Associate Professor of Philosophy Michael Fuerstein plays his saxophone.

Professor of English Mary Trull reports that the Great Conversation is all about students making “connections among religion, philosophy, music, and visual arts,” including plenary sessions that draw on members of the Music Department, who are commonly found among the ranks of Great Con teachers. Even in the Science Conversation, which would seem to be a place with perhaps less overlap into music, Associate Professor of Philosophy Michael Fuerstein reports that when his class read “Kepler’s quasi-mystical account of the organization of celestial bodies,” which included the idea “that each planet’s orbital path corresponded to a distinct musical mode,” he pulled out his saxophone and improvised. He assessed the outcome as “pretty goofy,” but I’ll bet the class (a) loved it and (b) still remembers Kepler’s theory. 

Like Michael did, it’s such a logical thing to use music as an example or illustration that we do it regularly. Professor of Religion David Booth plays “snippets of several old chestnuts of rock” to illustrate metaphor: “Love is a Battlefield,” “Crosstown Traffic,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” etc. You can practically hear his Boomer-sigh when he concludes that “students think it’s quaint,” but, somehow, I doubt it because students love anything that reveals something quirky about their professors — and revealing your music taste does precisely that. Associate Professor of Religion Jason Ripley notes that “comparing apocalyptic literature to death metal or rap can help illuminate not only the stylistic differences, but also open the door to discussing the social location and social function of various biblical genres.” That would certainly get the point across for me. By the way, he confessed that he’s still waiting for an invitation to DJ somewhere … 

Professors who are also musicians can bring their gifts into the classroom enthusiastically and in ways the tone-deaf enthusiast like me cannot. It disrupts expectations and it provides another possibility for connections, especially with students who are also musicians. I know I’ve enjoyed being along for the ride when music faculty member Dave Hagedorn has brought drums into the American Conversations classroom or Colin his guitar. I realize that our students have outgrown that early-childhood belief that teachers live at school and do nothing else but teach; but it’s a nice reminder to them that we are human beings with other interests and talents. Plus, there is that quirkiness factor. 

Musicians play during a dance rehearsal.
Musicians play during a dance rehearsal on campus — one of many ways that music is incorporated into a variety of disciplines.

Never underestimate quirkiness. It’s what humanizes us as authority figures and reminds students to own who they are. So, let your musical freak flags fly! I’ll get the ball rolling. The very first concert I ever attended featured the Monkees and, yes, I screamed. A lot. Does it enhance my reputation as a scholar when I tell students this? Doubtful. Does it make me seem more approachable and multi-dimensional? I sure hope so. Do they sometimes ask, “Who are the Monkees?” Yes, but let’s not go there.

I recently had coffee with a former student, Ariel Summers ’12. Now she works for U.S. Bank by day — but it was St. Olaf’s choral tradition that brought her to the college in the first place, all the way from Kentucky, and her interest in music remains high. She remembered music in Great Con, but also Joni Mitchell from an assignment in my America Since 1945 class, which led to a long-term interest in Mitchell. I came away feeling pretty puffed-up about myself for having an impact on someone with an assignment

Music also enables students to be the experts, which makes it an inclusive classroom tool. Professor of History Michael Fitzgerald uses spirituals, blues, and jazz in his African American History class. Although he bravely sings a line or two of a song, he leaves it to the students to teach him about things like blue notes and time signatures and syncopation. Colin likes that when students tackle something outside their immediate frame of reference, they ask questions it never occurred to him to ask — like why ’60s rockers drew on roots music instead of some other form — and he learns something. I devoted way too much of the middle 1980s to watching music videos on MTV, yet it took one of my American Conversations classes to explain that the essence of ’80s music was the synthesizer. 

Music is inclusive in unexpected ways. Music majors are helpful, but there is inevitably that one person who turns out to be a Reggae fanatic or who grew up in a household where opera or the Beatles played incessantly, someone who has not yet revealed themselves to have this wonderful side to themselves until one day it comes up in class. I always look forward to that moment when the quiet guy turns out to have a vast collection of old vinyl ’60s albums or the super-serious young woman knows all the words to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” They get their moment to shine and make connections with me and their peers.

Assistant Professor of Music Louis Epstein (aka Louis of Louis and Dan and the Invisible Band) used social science assessment methods through the college’s To Include is To Excel initiative to learn how to be more inclusive in Music 141, Introduction to Musicology. One thing he discovered was that being a music major wasn’t an advantage in the class, although students believed it was. Knowing what he knows, he’s been able to rework parts of the class to make it feel as equitable as it actually is. His results have been published in the Journal of Music History Pedagogy.

Music is interdisciplinary. Eric notes that his students are “surprised by the perspective and insights gained through interrogating and contextualizing music as a primary source.” Music in the classroom uses both hemispheres of the brain, the creative and the analytic side. So too does it tap into our life experiences in holistic ways. As Colin explains, “because students understand immediately how music permeates their own culture, and how artists like Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and Taylor Swift are considered important cultural figures,” they can transfer that perspective across time and culture. Critical thinking! 

Music in the classroom uses both hemispheres of the brain, the creative and the analytic side. So too does it tap into our life experiences in holistic ways.

Music engages students’ emotions. In my classroom on that long-ago day and for Jake, it engaged a physicality in him that wasn’t ordinarily part of his program of study. Lots of professors include it for that reason, putting students into a more-relaxed mood for learning. At a time when our students increasingly suffer from depression or anxiety, music relaxes. Jason uses music to “lighten the mood and invite students to converse with one another” before class. He also plays it softly in the background during small-group discussions so that nobody “feels self-conscious about having to break the silence.” Jason uses music as part of a larger strategy to ensure that all his students will have the best classroom experience possible. This is genius. No wonder even his 8 a.m. classes fill.

I’m not going to claim music for the humanities, because I know it gets used across the curriculum. It might be trickier to work it into a math class or an economics one, but people do it, whether to disrupt, relax, include, or explain. However it gets used, the point is, it does, and we are all better, happier, and more informed by it. So on the next gloomy, snowy day or when your class seems to be lagging a little, bring in a song or two and see what happens next.   

Judy Kutulas is a professor of history at St. Olaf College, where she teaches in the History Department and the American Studies program, along with American Conversations. She is the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities, charged with helping to revitalize humanities teaching and learning at the college. Read her inaugural ‘Adventures in the New Humanities’ blog post here.