- Trax on the Trail in the Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts Classroom
Founded in 1947 by the Order of St. Augustine, Merrimack College is a private, selective liberal arts college located about twenty-five miles north of downtown Boston. In response to the school’s increased emphasis on interdisciplinarity (our fields are musicology [Pruett] and political science [Flaherty]), as well as our own shared interest in the topic, we cocreated and cotaught a new course titled Music and Politics. Course topics were based on both instructor and student interests and ranged from issues of censorship, rebellion and revolution, gender, and race to the use of music in political campaigns. We sought to incorporate a wide variety of interdisciplinary resources that included the essays and databases provided on Trax on the Trail; primary and secondary materials [End Page 531] from a variety of disciplines that included political science, musicology, and history; and a range of musical materials. Students analyzed and critiqued music, music videos, and documentaries and prepared their own presentations for class, along with other assignments and activities such as reflective essays, group analyses of lyrics and musical elements, and research projects.
Anne is a political scientist who studies and teaches in American politics and comparative politics, with a focus on minority groups and indigenous peoples. Her interest in music and politics was developed through an elective undergraduate course she created at Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville titled Music, Protest, and Politics in 2013. Later, she became interested in the politics of hip hop as a musical genre and in particular its incorporation as a means of expression and empowerment for indigenous peoples.1 Anne began teaching at Merrimack College in 2015.
Laura has been teaching at Merrimack since the fall of 2010. As the only full-time music professor at the college, she has embraced opportunities for interdisciplinarity both within her own courses, such as The Nature of Music and Music and Spirituality, and in cotaught classes, including American Musical Theatre, which she teaches alongside a theater professor from within her own Department of Visual & Performing Arts. Laura’s research focuses on nineteenth-century American music and criticism; while politics has not been a central theme in her musicological work, it of course necessarily abuts and informs the Civil War–era compositions, performances, and reviews on which she has published. Interdisciplinary cotaught courses are still relatively rare at the college, but we were able to negotiate the opportunity in part by agreeing to a much larger course cap of forty available seats (thirty-four students ultimately registered) rather than the typical twenty-five.
The class was largely thematic, structured around different ideas, issues, and uses of political music. Students majoring in a wide range of disciplines were offered initial introductions that incorporated basic information on the American political system and the elements of music. Along with a range of outside readings, musical examples, and websites, we also utilized John Street’s 2012 text Music & Politics. In particular, we focused on the author’s idea that “it is where music inspires forms of collective thought and action that it becomes part of politics. It is where music forms a site of public deliberation, rather than private reflection, that we talk of music as political.”2 This definition, which we stressed throughout the semester, offered a clear connection to the particular issue of the role of music in political campaigns.
Our classroom sessions had a similar structure each week. Generally, one of us would take the lead in introducing a topic on Monday, having [End Page 532] had students prepare readings and listening prior to the class lecture and discussion. Wednesdays allowed for further development of the topic and included student group presentations on the issue. Fridays were reserved for discussion and reflection based upon student responses and interests, and occasionally we invited guest speakers, which included a Skype session with Dana Gorzelany-Mostak.
Trax on the Trail—and in Class
We spent one week discussing music and campaigns, a period that immediately preceded the 2016 presidential election. By this point in the semester, the students were well acquainted with several case studies that illustrate...