Ain’t No Rocking This Collegiate Casbah?
As I’ve written here before, teaching introductory music theory to undergraduates last semester was an enormously instructive experience for me. For one thing, I have a great deal more sympathy for all my theory teachers from years past, not to mention my graduate student colleagues who do nothing but grade counterpoint and listen to oft-faulty sight-singing.
Where my time teaching theory was a helpful clarification, however, my experiences teaching rock history have so far left me with more questions than answers. One such question has probably occurred to anyone tasked with running a Friday afternoon discussion section: How do you get students to talk about material, especially material in which (one assumes) they take a personal interest beyond the curricular requirements of their degree programs, in an engaged and forthcoming way? Maybe I’m naïve, but I’d imagined that our weekly recitation hours would naturally turn into lively rap sessions on the music under examination (although you’ll be pleased to know that I’ve resisted the urge to turn my chair 180 degrees and sit backwards on it).
Instead, I’ve had to acclimate myself to the possibility that a student born in 1990 simply has no opinion on Thin Lizzy, New Order, and KRS-One. My expectation was that students enroll in a rock history class because they have a strong emotional connection to rock music. Indeed, some do—but many don’t, evidently (at least not the tunes we’ve dealt with thus far). I never anticipated that I’d have to apply pressure to stimulate discussion in a course on rock music—rock music, of all things! I feel like a crazy person just writing it.
The professor who delivers the twice-weekly lectures to our entire 450-person class does a truly exceptional job advocating for and applying brilliant, unorthodox readings to the material. Some of my fellow TAs, the musicologists in particular, are probably better at following that act than I am. It just boggles my mind that these young people can walk into a classroom once a week for an hour that’s solely dedicated to talking about rock and roll and not be running their mouths a mile a minute, because that’s what I would have been doing when I was that age. After all, it’s not like we’re discussing a particularly dry, Byzantine, or esoteric topic—in what other context can you receive college credit for trying to puzzle out the connection between mallet/keyboard instruments and cocaine in “Steppin’ Out”?
None of this is to say that the class has been a failure: I’ve read a number of very insightful papers, many of which exposed me to music of great appeal that I wasn’t familiar with. My students are doing a good job, just like I’d expect solid students to do in any other class. But isn’t a class on rock music supposed to be more than just a class? I guess not.