With teaching program, students put a new spin on music education

Undergraduates explored topics ranging from modern opera to heavy metal in three new courses offered through Yale’s Associates in Teaching program.
Heavy metal album covers

It’s the final class of “American Opera Today: Explorations of a Burgeoning Industry.” A dozen students are munching on German Christmas cookies, courtesy of Professor Gundula Kreuzer, while taking turns presenting overviews of their final papers.

Their topics make it immediately clear that the new course, in Yale’s Department of Music, introduced during the fall semester, took students well beyond traditional operatic material.

One student’s paper is a deep dive into OperaCréole, a New Orleans-based opera company that searches out little-known works by composers of African descent.

Another is an analysis of the Metropolitan Opera’s recent Afro-futurism take on Anthony Davis’s “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” a production the class traveled to New York together to see.

And there is a comparison of the biography operas “Doctor Atomic,” about the main players in the Manhattan Project, and “Einstein on the Beach,” a five-hour opera composed by Phillip Glass.

Once the presentations have concluded, Kreuzer and her teaching partner, Allison Chu, a Ph.D. candidate in music history, invite the students to share how the course influenced their thinking about opera. Nearly all say they had no idea that the industry has come to embrace so much more variety and diversity.

I came in knowing almost nothing about opera and I feel like now I know less about opera, but in a very good way,” said José Sarmiento, a Yale College junior, jokingly. “I had a certain preconceived notion of what opera was just based on its cultural significance. I did not think that by the end of the course I’d be seeing an experimental bio-opera of Malcolm X that takes place in a spaceship.”

This perception-altering seminar is one of three new undergraduate music courses approved through Yale’s Associates in Teaching (AT) program for the 2023-24 academic year. The competitive AT program, a collaboration between the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, provides an opportunity for Ph.D. students at Yale to collaborate with a faculty member to design an undergraduate course and teach it together.

Kreuzer, the acting chair of the music department in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said their success at getting three courses approved for this academic year (an unusual occurrence) is a testament to the department’s open and welcoming culture.

It shows the commitment of both faculty and graduate students to work together, to think collaboratively, to take risks and embrace the challenges, as well as the joys, that inevitably come when developing a new class and stepping into a new co-teaching situation,” she said.

Indeed, that is the purpose of AT — to provide an opportunity to think about teaching “as an ongoing conversation,” said Gina Hurley, who coordinates the program as Poorvu’s associate director of teaching development and initiatives. “A real strength of the program is that the graduate student receives mentorship, and the faculty member receives this incredible opportunity to revisit their curriculum and their teaching practices.”

Faculty members often benefit “from graduate student expertise that they may not share, which opens up the classroom to new perspectives,” said Pamela Schirmeister, deputy dean of Yale College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “And undergraduates benefit from having two teachers, each with different pedagogical styles and knowledge sets.”

Since its introduction, during the 2011-12 academic year, the program has typically received 15 to 25 applications a year from prospective co-teaching teams; they accept a dozen to 20, depending on the quality of the applications, as evaluated by a committee comprised primarily of faculty members who have previously taught an AT course.

A host of factors are considered during the rigorous selection process.

Is this an opportunity for the graduate student to develop professionally? To what degree are the two partners really committed to co-teaching?” Hurley said. “And what are the key curricular gaps this might be filling, and what is this offering that our undergraduates can’t get without it?”

Striking a chord

Frequently, the inspiration for an AT course emerges from an unexpected intersection between two peoples’ interests or research focuses, Hurley said. That’s exactly how “Power Chords: The Music and the Myth of Heavy Metal,” another of this year’s AT classes, came about.

While working with Hallie Voulgaris on their Ph.D. qualifying examination a few summers ago, Jessica Peritz, an assistant professor of music, discovered they shared a love of heavy metal bands.

Hallie shared a playlist they had made of metal covers of pop songs, and we were both so delighted by how easily anything could be turned into metal with just a few tweaks,” Peritz said. “We started joking about how to use songs from the playlist to teach students about genre and style, and the idea of the class was born.”

Their different areas of expertise complement each other for this course, she said. Voulgaris has experience teaching pop music analysis to explain the music theory behind songs, and Peritz, a cultural historian of music, brings experience connecting music to broader cultural questions.

With the two of us collaborating on every class session,” she said, “students get to dig deeply into the music and expand outwards to think about the bigger implications of that music.”

One afternoon last month, Voulgaris stood before the class leading a discussion on the ways in which heavy metal artists often draw on medievalism. Chants, troubadour songs, demonic references, references to Dante’s “Inferno.” Voulgaris and Peritz each offered insights into what recorded materials likely influenced metal musicians as they incorporated medieval references. And they slipped in a funny YouTube video: “Medieval Metal in 3 Steps.”

One of the students, Jonathan Weiss, a Yale senior, said he took the class with no prior knowledge of heavy metal. A music major and composer with an avid interest in music history, Weiss said he is enjoying learning about where metal came from and why it sounds the way it does. The subject matter has attracted students from a broader array of disciplines than a more traditional music class, he said.

I’ve never seen a music class full of mostly non-music majors, mostly people who don’t have a musicological background,” he said.

One of the course’s primary aims is to debunk and move beyond stereotypes about the metal audience to explore topics like queerness and camp in metal, and the multiplicitous global communities of metal fandom.

I’ve found that metal is usually unrepresented in courses on rock and popular music,” Voulgaris said. “I wanted to expand the presence of alternative popular music genres within our curriculum, with the goal of serving students like me who might not otherwise find their preferred music explicitly addressed.”

The perfect steppingstone’

The third AT music class, “Latin Jazz and Pacific Pop,” is structured around the personal record collections of the instructors, Brian Kane, an associate professor of music, and Jade Conlee, a Ph.D. candidate in the department.

Specifically, the course explores Pacific and Caribbean influences on American popular music and jazz amid the Cold War. During a recent afternoon, students considered how Cold War politics and expanding international tourism showed up in a series of mood music LPS put out in the 1950s.

Jade Conlee
Jade Conlee (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

They considered an album of music for dining, one for “gracious living,” music for an Italian dinner at home, music for a honeymoon in Mexico. The art on the album covers was rife with ethnic and gender stereotypes, as well as images of blissful domesticity, and the class discussion was robust.

By teaming up for this course, Kane and Conlee were able to tap both of their record collections to provide students with a hands-on archive of midcentury LPs. And that is proving popular.

We often do small group activities where students can work with liner notes and cover images and play the LPs on historical sound equipment,” Conlee said. “They often leave class remarking that they’re having lots of fun. They can tell that we are really interested in the material, that it’s fresh material for us too, and that we’re all trying something new together.”

Conlee, who is in her final year as a student, said she’s grateful to have had the experience of creating a syllabus “from scratch” with an experienced professor before moving on to become a professor herself. Graduate students in music do have opportunities to lead discussion sections or be acting instructors for music theory courses, but the syllabus is set beforehand in those cases, she said.

The AT experience, she added, “is the perfect steppingstone between being a graduate student and a professor.”

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