Blog Post

Music in the Race and Gender Theory Classroom

NOTE: For the purposes of this posting, we refer to our peers in our classroom as our “students,” given that we were, for just these two weeks, positioned as “teachers” and they as our “students.”


MUSIC MODULE CLASS I (Tuesday April 25th)


In advance of our first class session in the music module, we asked students to read the Introduction to Emily Lordi’s book Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature, as well as Chapter 3 in the book, titled “Understatement: James Baldwin, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday.” We deliberated over how much reading to assign at this point in the semester, and agreed that less was better. This fits into a particular brand of student-centered pedagogy, in which all reading assigned is intended to be discussed in class. Instead of assigning more of the book, and in light of the fact that music is a media-based module, we also asked students to listen to a few songs: Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway’s versions of “What’s Going On” (tracks which Emily Lordi discusses together in her book Donny Hathaway Live (not assigned), as well as two tracks by avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra: “Sometimes I’m Happy” + “Springtime Again.” “In addition to the music itself,” we told students in an email with the reading and listening assignments, “we're interested in discussing the lyrics, as well as the dynamics between positivity and negativity within these songs, and by extension, race/gender pedagogies.”

A week in advance of our class meeting, we asked students to post a song by a music artist (of any gender/identity) that they felt "resonates" with an excerpt, passage, song, text, or idea that Lordi discusses. This was designed to both help the class interrogate one of the central ideas of Lordi’s text (“resonance”), as well as move us into a discussion of how conversations about music relate to or are concurrent with conversations about race, gender, and pedagogy.

Blog post responses represented an interesting range: President Obama’s singing of “Amazing Grace,” riot grrrl, Nina Simone’s cover songs, Solange’s “A Seat at the Table,” Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” Grace Jones, Anohni, blues, and folklore. Some topics addressed in the blogs included “resonance” and “participation” as cultural constructs, the troubled connection between music and writing, the necessity of Lordi’s arguments (are they necessary?), the range of “performance,” ecofeminism, and intimacy.

At the start of our actual class meeting, we had students listen to Marvin Gaye’s  “What’s Going On” in a dark classroom, with the simple introductory question to keep in mind: what IS going on (with you, or in the world around you)? This was intended to help us re-enter the space of the room (after a 2-week hiatus for spring break) as well as meditate on the practices of listening as “performance” (a Lordi concept). While our original plan was to hold this listening activity in a “semi-dark” room, everyone seemed keen on the absence of light, and we were equally happy to completely turn off the lights. After the music stopped playing, the room held a noticeable absence of both light and sound for a minute or so, which the class seemed to absorb as a certain meditative or necessary energy. Rather than rush forward with the lesson, we embraced a slower approach and adapted our lesson to the atmosphere.

For the first follow-up activity we asked the students to free-write their thoughts and feeling pertaining to whatever issues and emotions the songs lyrics and/or instruments may have surfaced. Once finished, members of the class shared their responses, which induced laughter, a sense of camaraderie, as well as an in-depth discussion of the act of listening. It turned out we had a lot to say after listening to Marvin Gaye! Listening to Marvin Gaye's replay over and over of the words "what's going on...tell me what's really going on" seemed to have helped open up a honest and open communication between the students and teachers. One of the focal points of this discussion ended up being the difficulty of understanding what “music” is, and how to approach it intellectually in the classroom (particularly in a non-music history or theory class). Most students agreed that we are generally less trained to discuss music than we are other media. The conversation was simultaneously centered on realizing the sheer variety of responses and experiences that we each have when listening to music, which we each approach differently as words, music, sound, voice, rhythms, etc.

With less class time left over than we originally planned for, we conferred amongst ourselves to create an alternative plan. We called this, both to ourselves, and then to the class, a “Visible Teaching Moment”: that very common phenomenon in which the teacher must re-organize and improvise about half-way through the class session (often, as in our case, because of a time-pressure). So, rather than holding a Think-Pair-Share session with students about the blog posts they had made for this class (which we planned, but can take at least 30 minutes), we asked students to respond to each other’s posts on the blog for next week. This gave us the time and space for another listening and writing activity: one that addresses some of the issues of race and gender that come up in the Lordi text we had assigned.


For the second activity, we handed out sheets with a “Guided Free-Write” prompt about Sun Ra’s track “Sometimes I’m Happy” which features (perhaps, deceptively) simple lyrics by female vocalist June Tyson. Before playing the song, we went over the questions on the sheet, so that they could keep them in mind while listening:

What are the gender dynamics at work in this song?
Is the female vocalist (June Tyson) being positioned as embodied muse to Sun Ra’s masculine jazz music?
Is there “understatement” in this song, “overstatement,” or neither? (“Understatement” is the key idea from Chapter 3 of Lordi’s book, which we assigned)
How are Lordi’s ideas of musical accompaniment or collaboration at work?
How do we “find new ways to make us listen”? (Baldwin)


Although we didn’t intend on playing the whole track, when we turned it on in the classroom, we decided to let it play out for the full 4:30 minutes - partly based on how well the class had responded to the situation of being immersed in music (and darkness) at the beginning of class. Since the clock was ticking, it was difficult to slow down and allow the full track to play, but a good decision in the end. After playing the track, students had about 5 minutes to write down thoughts in relation to the questions. From this writing, we were able to discuss “understatement” in relation to gender, sexuality, and race in ways that felt more directly related to Lordi’s text, while maintaining the personal elements of student-centered learning. Which is to say, that students wrote and spoke about their own listening and embodied experiences in response to Sun Ra / Lordi.

We ended our first class session with Exit Tickets. In this practice, the teacher hands out “tickets” (notecards are easiest) and students are asked to write down (some of) the following:

What they are clear on from the class (something learned, perhaps)
What they are still circling in their minds, or trying to grasp, think about, or understand
What they would like to focus on for or during the next class session

The Exit Tickets were incredibly useful for us in planning the next class session. As a practice, they also help students solidify what they have “learned” (make the experience in the classroom concrete), and they allow the teacher to “take attendance” without the dominating and awkward role-calling at the beginning of class.


MUSIC MODULE: CLASS II (Tuesday May 2nd)


For the second class, we asked the students to prepare by choosing a classmate’s post of a song and commentary and responding to that posting online. In this way, students would extend their conversation outside of class and respond to content other students shared with the class, reinforcing our class’s student-centered approach. We did puzzle over the purpose of blogging outside of class: When should we ask students to blog? Why? Does it merely extend/replicate activities that can be done in class? Or does it constitute an activity that should and must be done outside of class?


Our group began our conversation to prepare for the second class on race, gender, and music by reflecting on what we learned from the exit tickets from the previous session, that:


Students found the free-write activities in response to music highly engaging - they created a variety of responses
Students felt underequipped/trained to discuss music than other media
Students felt confused about how the first class related explicitly to race/gender and how it might help them wrestle with Lordi’s text
Students recognized the gender binary our activities in the first class had constructed unintentionally and hoped we would challenge that binary in our next class


We decided to begin the next class with a reading of a music video through our critical race and gender lenses and asked students to watch the following video then reflect on: How do you read this video/song through the lenses of race and gender? And, what do you observe about the way you read the video/song? We chose a video by the transgender artist Anohni in the hopes of complicating or “queering,” in the words of one student in their exit ticket, our listening and reading of music.


After our discussion, we then reflected back to the group what topics/critical readings we heard in the discussion:

·  Blackness and state violence

·  Masculine stance

·  Appropriation of black bodies by white artist

·  History of musical appropriation

·  Erasure of the artist

·  Commodification of prison, war, and performance

·  Collective of black bodies, organized in protest (?)


We then reflected back to the group the mindsets, skills, and strategies we expert practitioners employed in our critical readings of the music video, in an effort to respond to the articulated need in the exit tickets to learn skills and strategies for reading music critically through race and gender lenses. The pedagogical premise here is that in classrooms teachers represent expert practitioners in a set of skills that they attempt to cultivate in their students; the students are aided in their efforts to become more proficient by the teachers’ making visible and practice-able these mindsets, skills, and strategies. Also, students will be able to self-assess according to these articulated skills and strategies in advance of and during their work on any summative assessment.


Paid attention to what distracted us
Made connections to observed pattern
Identified what we liked/what angered us
Experienced sympathy and empathy (making distinctions between these two can be useful for students)
Paid attention to juxtaposition
Puzzled over the impact of the intention of the author(s)
Attended to what confused us
Puzzled over ambiguity and the role of ambiguity
Connected between reader's intent and author's (perceived) intent
Remained aware of what prior knowledge we bring to this text
Paid attention to anomaly - what stands out
Made fine distinctions - dancers in pain, writhing?
Self-implicated: identifying then testing own assumptions and interpretive paradigms
Leaned into what we did not know (perhaps even into what we didn't know we didn't even know)
Created questions
Attended to/create metaphor: "witness," "conjurer"


After a discussion of the activity and of the video, we checked in with our students about their experience blogging. We asked: What was your experience like? When would you ask your students to blog and why? When would you not? This discussion served to provide us with feedback regarding our pedagogical choices and our assignment and to invite students to reflect critically on when and how they might use this assignment in their classes. The goal was to help us all match our pedagogical purpose to the right learning tool.


Lastly, we placed posters around the classroom with various topics/prompts for students to respond to. This activity intended to engage students physically by moving them around the room; invite them to reflect critically on the assigned text; and think about applying what they learned from the text to their own classroom practices. This activity would encourage divergent thinking by valuing the expression of a multiplicity of ideas synchronously (we could all “talk” at the same time), would make visible our learning, and would create a sense of collective experience and responsibility to each other as we shared with each other various pedagogical ideas. One of the interesting effects of the activity were the numbers of conversations that sprang up in front of the posters, conversations that sparked great ideas, then dissolved, only to reform in front of different posters later.


Each poster contained one of the following topics as a header, underneath which students wrote responses and ideas:


Key questions you would want students to consider
Key concepts you’d ask your students to learn and apply and how
Materials you might put into conversation with Lordi’s text
Pedagogical questions the text raises for you as an educator



Looks like a terrific set of activities and questions! You may want to check out Ashon Crawley's recently published Blackpentecostal Breath, 2016. Crawley pushes against normative modes of listening, sounding, music making, and worship as well as normative (white) bodies, theology, and philosophy by showing how black pentacostalism, broadly defined in the book, resists these categories. 


Thanks for this great comment---I'm partial to Ashon's book (he was once my student at Duke) and his work is brilliant.  Great suggestion!