Digital Pedagogy and the Blues

This semester I’m excited to be teaching in an American Studies program. My research interests and teaching practices resonate with interdisciplinary conceptions of American culture, especially at the intersection of music and writing.

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Lately I have been reflecting on the fact that I began teaching in higher education at a time when there were already computers in nearly every classroom, and I am thankful for the privilege to continue using mulit-media texts in my courses. Already this semester, I have shown films in class, and required viewing and listening (alongside reading) as homework. For instance, I’m offering extra credit for attending the world premier of a long-lost Mary Pickford film from 1911, Their First Misunderstanding. The film was discovered at Keene State College and restored by the Library of Congress.

But for as often as I have brought music into my classrooms over the years, I have struggled with effectively incorporating listening into writing assignments. I have often used the vast archive of Youtube clips and my own music library to set up a discussion, to provide reference points during lectures, or to highlight a particular strain of expressive tradition. But overall coverage is limited by time.

It’s also difficult to anticipate students’ tastes. In my experience, asking every student to respond to the same song produces mixed results. And one selection–even an important one–can hardly bear the burden of representing a broader genre, movement, or style. Some songs are just too overdetermined. Asking students to find relevant musical texts on their own is similarly fraught; there must be some cohesion for a collaborative analysis of a musical tradition to be effective.

Ideally, interdisciplinary courses that emphasize music enable students to draw on a wide variety of relevant sounds in order to survey and highlighting trends, patterns, motifs, and genealogies. This sort of evidence helps students percieve how music makes meaning through context. To enact this “literary” approach to the blues, I decided to experiment with the pedagogical uses of Spotify, a free, on-demand, streaming music service. With Spotify, students have instant access to somewhere near 20 million songs.

So far this semester, I have developed a series of playlists that correspond to our readings and discussion topics. Playlists have included traditional West African drumming, chants, and seremonial music; New World African music from Guyana, Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, the US, and elsewhere; and early field recordings made for ethnographic and documentary purposes, especially those by John and Alan Lomax and by Moses Asch. In fact, the entire Smithsonian Folkways catalog is available through Spotify, and the Folkways website hosts all the original liner notes in .pdf form for free. This alone is a profound archive, one that proves relevant to wildly diverse intellectual projects.

This week, as we study Albert Murray’s novel, Train Whistle Guitar, and his critical work, The Hero and the Blues, students will also listen to different versions and revisions of folk ballads from the blues tradition: the Signifying Monkey, John Henry, Stagolee, and Frankie and Johnny. These are contextualized by vernacular music and folktales from Alabama and collections of ballads and railroad songs.

Free Spotify accounts are supported by in-content advertising, which is obtrusive, but ultimately a meager price to pay for unequalled access to so many music and poetry recordings. When I asked the students to write about their experience with the program, I specifically mentioned the ads. Their grumbling was mild. Most agreed that it was less bothersome than with Pandora, a similar personalized online radio station.

Ideally, there also might be a way to annotate playlists or even songs themselves with background information and perhaps links that might contextualize the music. Soundcloud has an innovative way for users to tag specific moments of a track with text and multimedia. Such a tool might increase students’ engagement by introducing a social dimension to the listening experience. As we move into later units, I plan to ask students to make and share their own playlists with the class in order to develop a more interactive musical conversation.

But with so much music on offer, there is definitely a danger in overwhelming students. I may be guilty of that. Yet, in defense of offering a wide range of sounds, I anticipate that students will find a greater sense of agency in their encounters with these forms of expression. Every good DJ is attuned to audience dynamics. Imposing one’s own taste too narrowly alienates people. The playlists are a springboard for musical exploration; the inclusion of compilation albums on each playlist, for example, ensures a diversity of voices, whose further work becomes accessible simply by clicking on the artist’s name.

The other crucial point of Spotify for use in the classroom is that playlists are easy to access and share. I can post an active link to the playlist on our course management site (or embed it on a webpage). Once students have an account, the playlist either opens inside the browser or initiates software mounted on the desktop. This means students can listen on campus computers without downloading the program, helping them access the music anywhere, anytime.

I’ll be using the program a lot more in semesters to come. As I gain fluency with its more sophisticated features, I hope to offer more specific ideas about teaching with this online tool. Of course, I’m all ears if anyone out there has thoughts or experiences to share about the pedagogical uses of Spotify. After all, music and teaching are both collaborative experiences.