I know. I have said it before. “This is the best class I ever had.” But truly this semester’s “Bebop to Hip Hop: Young America and Music” class was the best class I ever had. I think that run through Bryant-Denny tunnel last week was among the many ways we built community in a way that I hope will last.
It’s strange. It was the most difficult class to teach because music is very personal. Throughout the semester, I could sense that some students were more interested in some artists or eras than others.
Part of the effort of tackling the themes/eras/genres/historical actors before us was simply getting them to see that the sixteen weeks before us were less about, say, naming Biggie Small’s greatest hits and more about deciding how he figures into the messy postwar narrative.
I also wanted them to understand the difference between a postwar event and those messy narratives (i.e. witnessing social progress since the Second World via events like, say, the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 alongside the social ugliness we increasingly can’t even talk about it without feeling uncomfortable or making those around us feel uncomfortable. This was another reason why teaching this class was hard). It wasn’t until I typed up a list of the “unutterables” lurking around us that light bulbs went off in the heads of most members of this class.
Next fall, I’ll share that handout sooner, Kayla!
Via a final exam essay question, one student mentioned the “façade of the American dream” and how “black Americans … found ways to transcend historical barriers” via crossover music while continuing to face certain hurdles. For evidence, the student offered two seemingly very different Americans: Motown founder Berry Gordy and P-funk maestro George Clinton. Both are men who capitalized on the growing purchasing power of teenagers (and others) during the postwar period. This student and other students addressed the extent to which these individuals emerge as being political.
The students’ analyses were often readable, but also complex. I was proud of their effort. I was especially proud of the ones who took the bait of pressing pause on the traditional essay (this prompt was one way of dealing with the writing challenges of some heavy thinkers). For one student, the end result was a poem titled “The Red White & Blue.” This poem harped on some of ideas introduced by historian James Patterson and poet-composer-musician Gil Scott-Heron, but also other ideas voiced during the recent surge in populist politics (Blood, that’s all we know/Fear of the coming peace/Is what we have at least/While the revolution may not be televised/The revolutionaries come from all sides/From the left and the right/From the black and white/Fear grips the nation…)
The two artists to which many students turned most often were Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin although Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Janelle Monae, Beyoncé, Lauryn Hill, Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein, Miles Davis and James Brown were among the historical actors also selected for essays. One student’s essay addressed Beyoncé’s politics and read like a graduate student’s dissertation. Well done!
In two cases, Joplin was paired with American R & B singer and songwriter Michel’le. It was great seeing how the students could explore the trials faced by a R & B performer whose life was the subject of a cable television movie and Joplin. These two women had many differences, but also similarities, according to the students. Joplin was born in Texas, the daughter of an oil executive. Michel’le came up in Compton. Both women faced varying struggles with men and substance abuse. Michel’le lived to tell her story. Joplin did not.
As I graded, I took a peek into the place I have avoided because you never know what young people will say: our GroupMe chatroom. I’d created this space weeks ago so the students could hand over boom boxes to one another for the mix tape project. After that assignment was turned in, they evidently returned to this chatroom again and again to discuss class assignments and other things.
The dates on their comments narrated current events. After the Presidential election, one comment read: “I think the postwar period has now ended. We shouldn’t have class today.”
The students managed to press on toward final exam study sessions (“I want to get an A in this class and I know many of you do to. So I’m going to rally the troops and make sure we are all prepared to get an A on this test. So who is with me?” one commenter said. Impressive leader, he is. Yes, I know who you are).
Their work paid off. This is the most lopsided grading curve I have ever seen. As and Bs up and through.
If Alabama’s football team pulls it off New Year’s Eve, it will be icing on the cake – all things considered. This has been quite a year. No doubt about it.
PS When I teach this class again, I will make adjustments. Still thinking it through, but I plan to focus more on the late 1960s and all of the 1970s next time. The students will be challenged to still make across time connections between artists from that window and recent artists like Lamar who frequently reach into the old school vaults. One goal will be to keep talking about the messy postwar period with Patterson’s thesis in view while also looking more closely at rising conservatism and various “freedom” struggles.
Next time, there will likely be quizzes or at least two hourly exams on course readings. The students know I am not a fan of quizzes, but there has to be a way to get them to not wait until the last minute to read. Reading along the way is helpful if they want to digest the material. I am learning that some students digest content better when they see the same information presented several ways and several times so I’ll be mindful of how the readings line up with the lectures and other learning tools including vinyl, CDs and DVDs. It was funny how things we can still hold in our hands are more reliable teaching aids than digital material. This reality is okay as technological changes in consumer products since the 1940s figure into this course’s lesson plans.
Speaking of technology, attendance will continue to be critical in this course if a student wants to do well. It is hard to play catch-up or rely only on Powerpoints accessed digitally via UA’s Blackboard system or GroupMe chatrooms. Showing up is always half the battle. But engaging in the material is key, too. On that note, rather than assigned short readings as was true this semester, there will be assigned books. Indeed, I will continue my quest to find the best biographies or memoirs as well as one or two historical and cultural texts suitable for undergraduates that provide a comprehensive look at the era(s) before us.
Again, I am still thinking it all through like most professors do whenever we reflect on a course, especially a new course (this class was previously offered last spring only as HY 430, the History Department’s capstone research course for undergraduate History majors). It is always great to see students do well, maiden voyages or not. More than anything, I am most committed to presenting a narrower window so enrollees can make a decision about whether the course is the best fit for their interests because this is not a music appreciation class even though we appreciate and love music and maybe that’s one of the many reasons why the class was the best ever despite the hurdles because I love music, especially when it’s shared. But everything before us including the music we love has to be historicized in order to find meaning it.
Finally, the class will be held on two days and will not be a a 2.5 hour class in the late afternoon when everyone’s attention span is challenged
Along the way, as true this semester, we will focus on how music – funk, jazz, disco, classic rock, a lil punk and hip hop – narrates our lives. Roll Tide and Happy Holidays, All!