Rock/Soul/Progressive: Transatlantic Crossings in Popular Music 1955-present

FSEM 100Y, Fall 2007. The University of Mary Washington had begun a program of freshman seminars the semester I left for the University of Richmond in summer of 2006. As I prepared to return to UMW for the Spring, 2007 semester, one of my first deadlines was for proposing a freshman seminar for Fall, 2007. Faculty were encouraged but not required to apply. I wanted to put that oar in the water, however. Many schools across the country were focusing on the “first year experience,” stressing its importance for bringing students into an intense community of learning that would strengthen and inspire them for the work they would take up during their college careers. I wanted to be part of that effort at UMW.

So I decided to propose a course built primarily out of heuristics and passion–though I didn’t put it exactly that way in the application. The heuristics were in the course title: rock for music derived from blues, country, or a mixture of the two; soul for music derived primarily from the gospel tradition; and progressive for music whose roots were in the various classical music traditions of Europe and, to a certain extent, of other cultures as well. These heuristics would allow us to ask questions about musical form, about performance practices, about musical history, and about cultural contexts. The overlaps and uncertain taxonomies were obvious from the start, but the categories were nevertheless useful as a way of focusing our analytical work and keeping us aware that the musicians we studied always located themselves within a tradition and within various communities of practice. A couple of times I brought up the connection between traditions and communities of practice within popular music and traditions and communities of practice within school. Once it came up in a particularly intense way at the end of a class session, and seemed to resonate within several students for some time afterward.

The passion was essentially a love for popular music, music that inspired social exchanges but also individual dreams, deep emotional bonds but also solitary, introspective pleasures.

I wanted to try to shape a course of study in which stronger and more precise analytical practices would emerge from an immersion in idiosyncratic but compelling musical histories, from oral presentations that would take the form of debates over whether a given song was rock, soul, or progressive, from novels deeply concerned with popular music, and from a final class project that would demonstrate what the students had learned in a way that would a) offer outsiders a powerful, entertaining, creative, and thoughtful experience of our work together and b) reflect as comprehensively as possible each part of the course of study, not just what was easiest or most obvious to include. Threading its way throughout the course was a dialetic between the US and the UK / Ireland. We read three music histories, two by US writers and one by a UK writer. We read three novels, one by an Irishman, one by a Brit, and one by an American. I assigned songs for the first two oral presentations, and I kept the dialectic going in those assignments. The students themselves chose the music for their final oral presentations.

As I look back on the course, I can see how every bit of the structure I built into the experience was there to support emergence. All the theme parks were inside a sandbox. It was a very risky instructional design, especially for the first time out. Yet I felt compelled to do it that way, for several reasons. One was that I wanted my freshmen to experience a fairly radical version of the freedom college grants the learner. I wanted them to see as vividly as possible that they would get out of it only what they put into it. Another is that the academic study of popular culture can quickly become highly inauthentic. “We murder to dissect,” and I think that’s particularly true of vernacular art–not because the art is not sophisticated, for it certainly can be and often is, but because it is so close to the essence of human yearning, joy, and anguish. There is a sense of immediacy, of voices emerging from direct and intense lived experience, that I feel must be respected. Not only respected, either: participated in. When Milton writes, “Come, knit hands, and beat the ground / In a light fantastic round,” the thought is not only a thought, but an invitation to keep time.

I’ll tell more of the story of this course tomorrow. For now, here’s a link to the syllabus (itself the product of some rather intense emergence at time–I was always scrambling to keep the revisions coming and keep them current), and here’s a link to the final project website, which I will eventually move to a more permanent location. I’ll have more to say about both of these tomorrow as well.

5 thoughts on “Rock/Soul/Progressive: Transatlantic Crossings in Popular Music 1955-present

  1. One thing being obsessive blog reader has shown me is how much work professors put into creating a class and everything that entails, I wonder how many students realize the amount of effort. Trying to keep the plates spinning, right?

    On a completely unrelated note every now and then I find bits and pieces of quotations that I heard for the first time in your Kemp Symposium speech. From this post I finally find out that “Come, knit hands, and beat the ground / In a light fantastic round,” is from Milton. That lecture is a gift that keeps on giving.

    Also, your consisting posting at the same time has had a bit of a Pavlov’s dog effect on me, once it hits around this time I start itching to read some new stuff (no salivating though hah).

  2. Gardner,

    I’m delighted to see that you’re posting every day–all to our benefit. Wish I could do the same…

    I’m eager to read more about how the structure you built was there to support emergence. How you gave students freedom–insisted on it–how that is radical. How and where and why did you revise the syllabus–with the students? How much did they direct the learning journey–its design, its evaluation, its outcomes? And I’m interested, too, in how you evaluated them in an emergent situation.

    As another first-year seminar teacher who struggles to help her students extricate themselves from the shackles of passive, factory-learning models, I look forward to hearing the details of your journey!


  3. I’m in awe of this magnificent project –its conception and execution, and the thought of its effects upon the participants. I’d think that many of them would be pretty restive in the more conventional courses that will come their way in the next 3 years, but perhaps that’s a good thing. Bravo, Gardner!

  4. ~Hats off to you for generating such a wonderfully creative way to engage your students. From what I read, you teach them, among other things, the importance of learning to use their voices collectively and individually.

    Of course, having come from that “silent-Mom corner” of 295, I would pick this out of your syllabus :o)

  5. The FSEM is a fascinating realm – many thanks for sharing your meditations on the experience in such detail.

    Your pursuit of an approach to helping students (and instr.) in the development of stronger, more precise analysis within the creative context is one I’m looking forward to hearing more about… As is the vision of getting past the “inauthentic” that, as you noted, emerges so often the study of pop culture. Much more intriguing is the sympathetic magic that emerges in the encounter of these voices, of subject and author (reversed, at moments) – a dynamic of exploration, of methodology, of identity that creates quite a ‘scene’… Cheers!


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