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 na├»ve, 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.

16 thoughts on “Ain’t No Rocking This Collegiate Casbah?

  1. Chris Becker

    Colin, I don’t get the impression from this post that you actually know much about rock and roll beyond 70’s FM radio. You sort take on a flippant tone name dropping this band with that band which might lead someone to believe that if YOU can’t be serious about this music’s history, then why bother with any kind of intelligent discourse?

    I don’t mean to pick on you! Seriously. But this is an issue that’s bugged me for some time after relocating to NYC from New Orleans. The term “rock and pop” is used over and over again in writing about contemporary composition. But very few composers I’ve met know who Dave Bartholomew is. Or Earl Palmer. Or Fats Domino. Knowledge of these men and of New Orleans’ history is crucial to understanding what “rock and roll” is. And “rock and pop” is a handle that erases history and intellect (sorry to be dramatic…)

    There was an unprecedented level of rhythmic experimentation in the 50’s that combined different claves with new approaches to rhythm in the drums, guitar, bass, and/or vocals. There’s a deep connection that can be explored with the music of this time with the music of the Caribbean, Cuba, and other points south of the Louisiana delta.

    I’ve brought up Ned Sublette before and his book Before The Flood is – among many things – a great primer on rock and roll. Michael Ventura’s mind blowing essay Hear The Long Snake Moan is another great read. Greg Tate has written extensively about rock and roll artists, African American history, and U.S. culture. That’s just a start…

    Am I assuming to much? Do you know the etymology of the word “rock” or “rock and roll”? Does your history of rock and roll history class begin with the Beatles who when they arrived in the U.S. for the first time laughed because we (Americans) apparently didn’t know our own music?

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  2. Lisa X

    Colin, I think you are underestimating the difference between music and a class on music. Have you ever taken a class on sex, for instance? Or war? Same idea, taking a class about it is about the opposite of doing it.

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  3. Armando

    Don’t let it get to you, Collin. Teach long enough and you’ll find that there’s no subject exciting enough that a class on it can’t ruin.

    That and you’ll be surprised at what turns students on or off. Sometimes it’s just the time of day (Monday mornings and Friday afternoons are the WORST).

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  4. Juan Calderon

    Maybe you’re too young? I’ve had, as you have had for sure, those kind of professors that can instill passion and appreciation for the driest of subjects in the least receptive crowds and venues. So maybe you’ll have to re-asses your teaching approach? I don’t know…

    J.

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  5. colin holter

    Does your history of rock and roll history class begin with the Beatles who when they arrived in the U.S. for the first time laughed because we (Americans) apparently didn’t know our own music?

    No, it begins in 1970. . . with FM radio.

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  6. octathorpe

    It’s a great little article with, IMHO, a humorous take on teaching Gen Y. There has definitely been a cultural shift recently. Google “teaching generation Y”. There’s plenty of talk about this around the web. I am a Gen X professor who is constantly amazed by my students’ attitudes. …and they said my generation was a bunch of slackers!
    Ignore these people who have commented –especially the guy who scolded you for “flippant name dropping”. It seems to me his knowledge of rock doesn’t go beyond New Orleans. …and he’s the idiot for not knowing Thin Lizzy = 70s, New Order = 80s, and KRS-One = 90s!

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  7. Chris Becker

    Colin, why don’t you share your essay and these comments with your class and get back to us with their reaction?

    Um…”Octathorpe”? Try calling someone an “idiot” or a “fool” to their face one day and get back to us with their reaction.

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  8. rtanaka

    Yeesh, octathorpe is a professor? He has all the flags of a bad teacher — insecure, griping, and condescending without any substance. Sympathy goes to the poor chaps who have take his class.

    The New Orleans thing is important because any honest assessment of rock’s history will have to include a nod to black history in some way because that’s where its roots lie. Now, despite what schools print about diversity on their brochures, there is a systematic effort to keep that side of the story out of the picture because people have been conditioned to associate rock with the likes of Elvis, Beatles, etc. in the United States. To say otherwise tends to ruffle the feathers of the status-quo — the majority really doesn’t want to admit that the style as a whole was basically appropriated from another culture.

    If you want real respect, take a risk and talk about subjects that will make people feel uncomfortable. Not everyone will like it, but I guarantee it’ll stimulate the kinds of intense discussions that you may be looking for. Don’t do, as the “professor” above has done, underestimate the intelligence of your students because I guarantee it’ll backfire on you eventually — you’ll make the dumb ones dumber and the smarter ones will resent you for insulting their intelligence. If you reach that point, consider finding another career since it’ll probably be in the best interest of everyone involved.

    People are generally better at spotting BS than you might think — I’d say more so now, since everyone has access to the internet and can find contrary opinions to the ones that you might be presenting.

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  9. pgblu

    I don’t deny, Ryan, that there have been some pretty ignorant or simply willful attempts to whitewash the history of rock and roll, but I’d venture to say that recent academic scholarship is not the main culprit here (less recent academic scholarship would not have mentioned rock very extensively at all). The biggest offenders tend to be people coming out of the industry itself, or sloppy journalists.

    In fact, if you just simply toned down your anti-academia rhetoric, you and I would find a pretty big swath of things we agree about. Not that agreeing with me is necessarily high on your priority list. :-)

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  10. philmusic

    The problems of the histories of rock and roll are many but to name a few.

    The industry promotes its own history based on success.

    Commercial critics and writers support this false history.

    Even among critics there is a schism between those who prefer text over music (3 chords and out) and those who accept more.

    That promotion includes payola(buying and selling radio air time). So a lot of popular music was not chosen but sold.

    To the industry the definition of a good song is a hit.

    What becomes a hit can be manipulated.

    That the inclusion of rock music curriculum in universities and colleges seems to occur when there is support or interest in getting support from the music industry itself.

    That music, not just “rock music” is “the” social delineator in schools.

    Phil Fried, who never taught this class, but if I did …No Sonic Prejudice

    Phil’s rock and roll page

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  11. rtanaka

    I agree with you, actually. I hope I don’t come across as being anti-academic because I do believe in the value of scholarship and have done a lot of it myself. I’ve had a lot of good teachers while in the academy and I’m grateful that I’ve had the chance to be in that type of environment. That guy above me, though, is definitely not one of them.

    Scholars are supposed to have the faculty and insight to see through the hype of the media and provide something different from the status-quo. It’s just kind of disappointing when that doesn’t happen. If the material you present is luke-warm and middle-of-the-road, the response will be appropriately as such. If you know enough of what you’re talking about, there really should be no surprises in this regard.

    All too often the teacher places the blame on the students for lacking enthusiasm, I think. To do so is completely unhelpful for one, but for college-level students and above I’d say that most of the time the problem is usually with the material, not the students. What would college be without a little bit of attitude here and there? Not really the place to be if you’re looking for blind loyalty.

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  12. adambsilverman

    I’ve enjoyed teaching a pop songwriting and analysis course — not rock history, in which I imagine the temptation must be strong to cover specific classic songs and influential musicians. I’ve come across this same challenge in my class: how to engage students while trying to advocate for personal favorites. This happens regardless of the stylistic genre, of course, since professors must choose repertoire by balancing their own interests with topical pertinence and the music’s likelihood of appealing to students.

    My approach is to study techniques and trends rather than “landmark” pieces. I was inspired to do this by Ken Stephenson’s wonderful book “What To Listen For In Rock,” a book that covers a great variety of musical patterns in rock without advocating a style or a song (though Dr. Stephenson sure does seem to love the Bee Gees and Chicago!).

    By approaching music in this way, it open up great opportunities for students to bring in music that they love and match it to a topic being studied. While they might not hit upon the “perfect” piece to demonstrate a concept, it gives them a chance to ponder the music, to learn about what their peers enjoy, and to share their interests in a moderated forum.

    Would this work in a rock history course? I imagine so. With 450 students, I’ll bet there is a great distribution of those who enjoy each of the rock-styles you want to cover. And if you have no one who can advocate for Thin Lizzy, then find something interesting in the music that you have already covered and ask them to explore its aspects in “The Boys Are Back In Town.” They’ll make the connection an appreciate having approached the song by intelligent exploration rather than simply finding it in a textbook or being told a factoid by their professor.

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  13. Colin Holter

    Thanks for all the comments.

    Maybe I didn’t make this clear in my initial post, but I have no control over the structure and only very minimal control over the content of the class. My job is mostly to facilitate weekly discussions and maybe slip in some music that there’s not enough time for in lecture. As I’ve been TAing this class, though, I have indeed been considering how I would approach the class if I were in charge of the whole deal. Thus far, my plan would probably be equal focus on production (technical/musical), consumption (cultural/sociological), and repertoire (huuuge listening assignments and drop-the-needle tests). Maybe this is prohibitively demanding?

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  14. rtanaka

    Yeah, one of the greatest challenges of teaching is dealing with requirements from above. This is pretty much the same all across the board — many of my family members are educators and they’ve always complained about the No Child Left Behind act…they thought it was ineffective and detrimental to the educational process, but they had to follow it nonetheless since it came as a mandate from the federal government. Working with a context that you don’t agree with is not easy.

    In order to be a good teacher I do think that you need to be mildly subversive — if the mandated content sucks, see if you can sneak in a few things of interest here and there to make the class more interesting. It’ll be a lot more rewarding and it also greatly increases your chances that your students will respect you in the end. Students can generally tell when someone’s doing something by rote and they’ll end up getting bored.

    Good luck! And don’t get caught.

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  15. TJOG

    One of the problems that a teacher encounters in teaching an overview of popular music is simply that the students are sometimes so enamored with what they consider “their” music (perhaps the pop music produced in the last five years) that they’re impatient to get to it and consider a discussion of both Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan (yes, I know his CD’s still sell surprisingly well but affection for him among 19-year olds is at a pretty low ebb) basically a waste of time, especially if it goes on for more than 15 minutes.

    Another problem is that some musicologists (I’m one of these) tend to talk more about the music in terms of musical style than about the social context. A balance of these things would be ideal but the inclusion of musical “details” (even pretty simple ones) is often met with stiff resistance. I’ve lost track of the times that I’ve been informed by a student that they can’t be expected to understand what an ostinato or a blues progression is because “I’m not a music major.” As a teacher, you can only smile and say, “Oh, I think non-music majors can make sense out of blues progressions, and they’re pretty important when it comes to talking about a lot of popular music” (especially the earlier decades.) Needless to say, not every student walks away in agreement with the professor. Of course you certainly want to talk about the social and political aspects of the music, e.g., racial issues–it just can’t be avoided–and from time to time it’s helpful to talk about gender roles and gender-bending (the students sometimes perk up a bit here, if you’re talking about recent artists). But if the course satisfies a fine arts requirement, I’ve always felt that it has to deal seriously with popular music as an art form and it has to deal with musical style, and sometimes that’s the hardest sell of all.

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  16. colin holter

    I’ve lost track of the times that I’ve been informed by a student that they can’t be expected to understand what an ostinato or a blues progression is because “I’m not a music major.”

    That’s pretty disheartening. As I mentioned, I think our fearless leader (a Berkeley man, for what that’s worth) does a pretty great job with the lectures, giving more-than-adequate shrift to the sociology of rock – but I suspect that even he would have a hard time keeping 30 students 100% engaged 100% of the time.

    Reply

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