The SoTL Advocate

Supporting efforts to make public the reflection and study of teaching and learning at Illinois State University and beyond…

Musicology’s emerging culture for pedagogy and SoTL

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Written by Allison Alcorn, Professor of Musicology at Illinois State University (aalcorn@ilstu.edu)

Like many of my colleagues in higher education, I stepped into the university classroom fresh out of graduate school before I had so much as folded my hood into storage. Also like most of these colleagues, I had never had a single pedagogy class, had never heard of learning theories much less studied them, and I set about teaching by sheer instinct based on what I had seen done as a student. Unlike my colleagues in disciplines outside of musicology, however, I have spent my career in an academic field notorious for its nearly complete disregard of pedagogy and the scholarship of teaching and learning. As late as 2013, any reference to teaching at all was completely absent from the Object statement of the American Musicological Society (AMS). Only two scholarly journals devoted to music history pedagogy exist, and those have been around for less than a decade. AMS finally hosts music history pedagogy round tables at its annual meetings, and papers related to teaching are making more frequent appearance at both national and regional conferences.

Musicologists invested in and dedicated to improving music history pedagogy are celebrating the forthcoming publication, Norton Guide to Teaching Music History, edited by C. Matthew Balensuela (DePauw University). This much-anticipated volume will include twenty-one essays covering everything from teaching historical periods to enlivening the classroom. Norton bills it as “both a resource for current music history teachers and an ideal text for history pedagogy courses” (publisher’s site product information). As delighted as we musicologists are, we also realize this milestone for us still falls into categories better thought of as “best practices” or “practical ideas” directly connected to disciplinary content rather than as a broader-scope systematic inquiry into student learning that advances the practice of teaching by making inquiry findings public. As such, musicology still lags decades behind other academic disciplines, but these are critical first steps none the less. At least musicology is showing up at the table now and, as a discipline, it is beginning to recognize that the act of teaching itself requires study and analysis. Musicologists like to think of ourselves as dealing in unquantifiable aesthetic issues—in fact, I have wondered if the erroneous but persistent notion that SoTL studies must be entirely objective and quantifiable research has turned Fine and Performing Arts folks to different avenues of study—but even so, how and why we teach these qualitative and aesthetic issues is a different matter. If we are concerned with determining whether our teaching is effective, whether the students are learning what we intend, whether our teaching is relevant, helpful, and engaging critical thought, if we care about our content and about our students, musicology must continue its evolution forward into the scholarship of teaching and learning.

I think we continue to breathe life into our teaching only when we embrace the idea that we can always improve as teachers. As a tenured, full professor in my twenty-first year of university teaching, I have finally dipped my toe into SoTL research. It’s a little scary, to be honest. On the other hand, there is comfort in realizing I don’t have to keep doing this teaching thing by sheer instinct. For my first foray into SoTL research, I am analyzing the effectiveness of synthesis journals as a way of helping my music majors keep sight of the big picture—it’s so easy to get lost in the details of musicology. Anecdotally, the strategy seemed to be working, and I wondered if the numbers would bear that out. This has been a completely different sort of research for me, and I have benefited tremendously from various aspects of the SoTL support system here at ISU. I am utterly grateful for a SoTL University Research Grant that enabled me to hire two music students (a senior and a graduate student) to assist with data collection. Ultimately, it’s a great problem that we have so much data, but the downside is that a large amount of data is overwhelming. In addition to their help with data collection and entry, having these two students to help me talk through the rationales, to push back and ask questions, and just to plow through the density with me made the early stages much more manageable and kept me from feeling like I was getting buried under a deluge of data. I also have taken advantage of brain storming with ISU’s cross-endowed chair in SoTL, Jen Friberg, who patiently talked me off several ledges over the course of the year and helped me think through a number of different approaches when I ran into a wall. And it probably goes without saying that her help was invaluable when it came to writing my first-ever IRB protocol. The bottom line is that SoTL research is important for and applicable to any discipline or sub-discipline. Support of all types is ready and waiting for new and experienced SoTL researchers alike. This has been an excellent research experience for me, and I am eager to discover what I can learn about the way I teach.

By employing solid research methodology—just like I do in my content research—I can analyze what I’m doing and whether or not it’s accomplishing what I think it is. If it is, in fact, effective, that’s fantastic. Props to me. If it’s not, I tweak and I tinker and I try again. That way, in my twenty-second year of university teaching, I am going to be a better teacher than I was last year, and I know that each trip around the block is going to be better than the last one. Welcome to SoTL, musicologists!

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