My goal in the classroom is simple but ambitious: encourage students to understand music and music history from perspectives they have not previously considered. In order to accomplish this, I approach the classroom with four key principles in mind.
Facilitate discussion. Because students learn best when they are responsible for constructing their own knowledge, I design my courses to be dependent on classroom discussion. My role in the discussion is to moderate and guide the class by asking appropriate leading questions. I am the expert in the room, and my goal is to fill this role by anticipating my class’s reactions to readings and ideas and to be prepared to fill in gaps in knowledge. By encouraging lively interaction among my students, I am able to capitalize on their specific strengths and build an understanding of the material discussed from multiple perspectives.
Encourage critical thinking. Underlying the notion of a discussion-oriented class is critical thinking. I constantly remind my students that they should question what they read and hear. I do this not to try to create aimless contrarians but to help form students who are researchers. Because any course, however narrowly focused, must at some point omit viable material, I am more interested in teaching students how to learn about music and music history than the specifics of what we encounter in the classroom. In this way, they are able to pursue any interests they may have beyond the scope of the course long after the final.
Scaffold the learning experience. In order to shape students who are researchers, I challenge them to wrestle with material that is barely within or just outside their grasp. Over the course of a semester, I often revisit a particular theme, complicating the material a little bit each time so that students must expand their understanding of different topics. This makes my courses rigorous, but it also creates a sense of accomplishment for most students as they come to understand that what begins as a difficult concept can become an everyday mode of thought in the span of a few months. Such experiences help the students realize that they can replicate this process outside the classroom.
Create a safe, affirming environment. The only way to assign difficult readings and classroom topics successfully—or to expect a group of college students to engage each other critically in thoughtful discussion—is to make the classroom a safe space. Students must understand that they can speak candidly and explore ideas as one might work through a science experiment without being unfairly judged or ridiculed by me or by their classmates. In order to accomplish this, I model the behavior I expect of my students. I rephrase and seriously engage all comments, even if I ultimately will disagree with a student’s conclusion. I am also sure to patiently cover difficult topics in detail in class, as well as make myself easily available outside of class so that students know they will not be left alone to struggle with difficult concepts.