Tag Archives: Oberlin

Ground Control to Major Tom: Supporting Music Across the Curriculum

Steve Volk, February 56, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu


Here I am sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

            David Bowie, “Ground Control to Major Tom” (1969)

David Bowie memorial in Brixton, London, 2016. Photo: Steve Volk

Could you use David Bowie’s songs to teach a cultural studies class? Certainly. How about English, History, Environmental Studies, Physics or Math? The question was answered at the “Music +” workshop which unfolded Friday in StudiOC. Kathryn Metz, an Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology, crafted the session designed to help us think about the whys, hows, and with-whats of using music across the curriculum. If the lessons learned can apply in literally any liberal arts setting, it wasn’t hard to understand why the appeal of using music across the curriculum seemed particularly opportune for Oberlin, which has a unique (in the true sense of the word) set of resources that faculty and instructional staff can tap into. These include, of course, everything that a world-class Conservatory brings to the table: faculty, staff, a superb library that features a massive collection of books, scores, and music, streaming options, instruments, photographs, art works, and an impressive archive. Further, there is the opportunity to attend over 500 live performances a year including an Artist Recital Series that brings some of the most revered musicians as well as many rising young performers to campus each year (Sleep? Pfff, that’s for the weak!). Finally, we have an often overlooked but unparalleled resource: our students. Whether in the Conservatory or the College, a substantial number of students not only have come to Oberlin because of the music, but are at home with music from Bach to Beyoncé.

But, as much as I love bragging about how Oberlin’s musical button is bigger than yours, the central message of the workshop was that any teacher in any school can leverage music to increase student learning with access to a simple sound system and the internet.  

For me, the workshop stressed the learning potential of using music across a liberal-arts setting, both in the curriculum and in a broader, extra-curricular fashion, explored the resources one can use to make this happen, and provided a methodology that can be applied for teaching popular music in a variety of contexts. And it asked one important question: Why the hell aren’t more or us making use of this unparalleled resource?

The Role of the Arts in Learning: Arts Across the Curriculum 

A fantastical musical machine as imagined by Athanasius Kircher in his Musurgia Universalis (1650). Public domain.

Oberlin can be justly proud of two outstanding artistic institutions that bolster teaching and learning across the campus: The Conservatory of Music, as I’ve already indicated, and the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Let me turn to the AMAM as an example of the potential of using art to scaffold an entire curriculum.

In the past decade, based on an outstanding staff headed by the Curator of Academic Programs, Liliana Milkova, and a well-conceived and designed outreach program, the AMAM has become an important pillar of instruction in the college, reaching far beyond the art history or studio art curriculum. In the 2016-17 school year, for example, over 6,000 students visited the museum as part of 368 class visits from 33 different disciplines in the College and Conservatory. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we now have in place a significant art-across-the-curriculum program at Oberlin.

The Music + workshop was intended to encourage a process that can replicate the AMAM’s success in the context of music.

Of course, one question to ask is why? Why leverage the arts to support learning? Fortunately, there is a substantial body of research on the impact of the arts (music, visual, performance) on student learning. If you are interested, I would recommend the following, among many others:

One of the most influential studies in the field, highlighted at the workshop, was the 1999 study commissioned by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (Sigh. Remember when we had a White House that cared about … ? Sorry, must stay on task!). “Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning,” edited by Edward B. Fiske, argued that the arts, when well taught, “provide young people with authentic learning experiences that engage their minds, hearts, and bodies.” I probably don’t have to convince you, esteemed readers, of this, but just in case I’m bullet-pointing some of their conclusions. The arts, they argue,

  • Reach students who are not otherwise being reached;
  • Reach students in ways that they are not otherwise being reached;
  • Connect students to themselves and each other;
  • Transform the environment for learning;
  • Provide new challenges for those students already considered successful;
  • Encourage self-directed learning;
  • Promote complexity in the learning experience;
  • Allow management of risk by the learners.

So what, in particular, can music add to the mix, and what is the best way to go about integrating music into the curriculum? The question was answered through a wonderful demonstration, “What’s Music Got To Do With It?,” presented by Metz and Jason Hanley, the VP of Education and Visitor Engagement at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.  The interactive discussion was based on a model for studying popular music developed at the Rock Hall. You can read more about the approach in Susan Oehler and Jason Hanley, “Perspectives of Popular Music Pedagogy in Practice: An Introduction,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 21:1 (April 2009): 2-19. Oehler and Hanley explore a set of guiding questions that can be used to help students to dig more deeply into different genres of popular music. The authors organized them into three categories: context, sound, and meaning. And that’s where we went in the workshop.

From Oehler and Hanley, “Perspectives of Popular Music Pedagogy”

Ground Control to the Workshop

We examined the value of using music in a variety of ways through the work of Major Tom, aka, Ziggy Stardust, aka David Bowie, although his name was only revealed (to the unenlightened few who didn’t already know it) towards the end of the session. Our engagement with Bowie helped us think about how the investigation of a single musical example can lead students down multiple avenues, exploring aural experiences, the importance of historical context and cultural reception, repetition and creativity, and so many other things.

stratopaul, “David Bowie New England- Music News,” Flickr cc.

Begin with “Meaning.” We dissected the lyrics to “Ground Command to Major Tom.” (You can find them on genius.com, but here they are in any case if you’d like to try this at home.)

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills
And put your helmet on
(10) Ground Control (9) to Major Tom (8)
(7, 6) Commencing (5) countdown
Engines on (4, 3, 2)
Check ignition (1)
And may God’s love (Liftoff) be with you

This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirt you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare
This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

For here am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much
She knows
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you….

Here am I floating ’round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Within no more than 5 minutes we had generated dozens of questions and observations about the lyrics. We discussed issues of communication (Can you hear me?), technology (I think my spaceship knows which way to go), environment, religion, shirts, relationships, allegory, history, and oh so much else! And while it’s true, as a colleague pointed out, that we are more expert at pulling meaning and questions from texts than our students, the exercise highlighted the potential of using popular song lyrics as a gateway to a variety of subjects as well as different pedagogical practices (close reading, evidence and analysis, etc.).

Turn, next, to “Sound,” listening to the song itself.  The exercise brought me back to museum pedagogy. Much as the “Visual Thinking Strategies” (VTS) approach employed by the curators in the AMAM and other museums is launched by asking the simple question, “What do you see?” the “Rock Hall” pedagogy of popular music, which I’ll here officially name as the “Aural Thinking Strategies” approach, begins by asking, “What do you hear?” And, just as VTS follows up by asking “What more do you see,” ATS did the same: “What else do you hear?” Those with training in music theory or who can boast a performance background will certainly hear different things than the lay listener, but we all heard – and reported on – what the aural experience was for us. (While I won’t cover this point here, both VTS and the ATS approach can be modified and used with those with visual or hearing impairments.)

Investigating the “sound” layer opened new areas for discussion: instruments and instrumentation, tone of voice, employment of instrumental bridges, shifting narration, use of base, reverb, harmony and chaos, all of which suggested different meanings for the lyrics than those we had discussed previously. Adding visuals to the music added yet another layer. We watched the original 1969 video of “Ground Control,” and suggested how the visuals either supported or undercut understandings that we had developed before as well as how the music in the video different from the original audio performance, and why the changes were made.

We continued along the visual path by examining the album covers from the original UK edition released in 1969 and the U.S. release (“David Bowie: A Space Oddity”), highlighting the impact of Op-Art on the UK edition and considering the impact of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on the second (“A Space Oddity”), moving – as with VTS – from “what do you see?” to interpretation: why?

David Bowie – Phillips: http://www.teenagewildlife.com/Albums/SO/cover_philips.jpg

Then to “context,” as we followed the reappearance of themes raised for the first time in “Ground Control” (1969), to Bowie’s reimagined appearance as Ziggy Stardust in “Starman” (“The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars,” 1972), and on to “Ashes to Ashes” (1980), “Hallo Spaceboy” (1996), and, ultimately, sadly, following some of the religious themes (“And may God’s love be with you”) through to his last album, Blackstar, released on his 69th birthday, January 8, 2016, two days before he died. Intertextuality, the continuities and disjunctions of artistic lives and themes, the opportunity to see an artist reprocess central images over 40+ years of creativity, the historic meaning of Bowie in 1969 and at his death… So many themes to explore!

David Bowie, “Space Oddity,” 1972 RCA LP;
Fair use

But the discussion didn’t end there. We considered how “Ground Control” was taken up anew in the work of other artists, viewing Peter Schilling’s video, “Major Tom (Coming Home)” (1996). One could go on and on: we could have checked out K.I.A.’s version (“Mrs. Major Tom”) from 2002, in which Larissa Gomes narrates the story from the perspective of Major Tom’s wife who has been left at home. Or Sheryl Crow’s cover of that version on William Shatner’s Seeking Major Tom album from 2011. But my hands-down favorite was a version of “Ground Control” recorded, mixed and produced on the International Space Station by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield in 2013. Promise me that you’ll look at that, not to mention the original. (And I’ll leave it up to you and your students to discuss among yourselves what is original, or the meaning of authentic, or how we understand creativity itself in the context of remixing, sampling, or reimagining.) All of this by looking at one song and its history.

acb, “ZIGG’/ ST’-.|/DUST,” Flickr cc.

Where do you fit in?

If you haven’t figured out by now, I was incredibly energized by the workshop, not only because it featured the artistry of David Bowie, but because it offered teachers, particularly in liberal arts colleges, another way to integrate our students’ learning and their lived experience. Much as with (visual) art, and the value of the Allen Memorial Art Museum to students’ learning across the campus that I referenced earlier, music can provide a link into virtually any course.

At my “breakout” table, for example, we discussed the distinctions that different people or cultures make between “sound” and “music,” and just how critical these distinctions can be. Fredara Hadley, who teaches an “Introduction to African American Music,” among other courses, in the Conservatory, reminded us of the case of Jordan Davis, an African American teenager, who was shot and killed in Florida in 2012 because his white, middle-aged killer, Michael Dunn, was “offended” by the loud hip hop music that came from his car.

Much as we peeled off the various levels of engaging with “Ground Control,” so we can think of the many ways of deploying music across the curriculum. As with art, the most straightforward approach is through its content or subject matter: Medieval European history can be enriched with medieval music, either in live performances (and we are fortunate to have the exceptional Collegium Musicum, directed by Steven Plank), through recordings, or by viewing the instruments of the period. Courses on U.S. history in the 1960s or a study of social movements will easily find ways to use music as a text in their courses. Nor is this limited to social science or humanities courses. Our massive 4,014 pipe Kay Africa Memorial Organ in Finney is a perfect instrument, pun intended, for a physics lesson. But content or subject matter aren’t the only ways in when thinking about music across the curriculum.

As Professor Hadley observed, so many of our students traverse the campus with headphones on or ear-buds firmly in place, surely listening to music. But, are they listening or just hearing? Is the ubiquity of music actually getting in the way of listening (and not just because they don’t take out their ear-buds when they’re talking to you).  Bringing music into a class can be a method for helping students become careful, discerning listeners which, I would argue, is a skill that we could all use more of today. In a similar way, music can be used to bolster dispositional outcomes, ways of being in the world, that we hope to foster in our students. We know quite well that students (as well as most of us) are hyperactive; moving rapidly between various operations. “Empty” time that previously existed between tasks has basically disappeared since technology provides us with something to do to fill quiet spaces. What deliberate listening, as a learned disposition, can provide, much like close looking or careful reading, is a means of slowing students down, moving them out of hyperactivity – which has its place, to be sure – and into a modality where deep analysis and reflection can occur. While it is unlikely that most classes will find the time to play an entire album that students can listen to collectively, even 5-6 minutes of thoughtful and close listening can help students slow down.

Music to Unite

At the beginning of the Music + workshop, Dean Andrea Kalyn talked about music as a “thing” and a “mode”. In the former sense, music, she argued, is an experience that can awe us, an artifact that stands in its own right and in relation to the culture around it, and a set of skills to be learned whether via performance or as a new language, a different way of understanding. In the latter sense, it operates as a mode of creation (composition), re-creation (performance), and collaboration, a mode of listening, synthesis, and practice (discipline). Each of these aspects holds out potential to further engage and activate student learning by weaving together cognitive and affective, what they study and what they experience across the campus and the community. Music, then, has the potential of crossing barriers, both imagined and real.

Let me conclude, then, by referencing one of my favorite composers, John Luther Adams, who has been featured in these pages a number of times. Music (its study, composition, performance, reception, discipline, magnificence) offers us the potential of speaking to everyone on campus. But, in the wider world, it can unite those who have been separated. In late January, Steven Schick, a percussionist and conductor, peered through the fence that separates San Diego, California, from Tijuana, Mexico, and proclaimed, “Con la música nunca se puede dividirnos”: “With music, we cannot be divided.” He proceeded to lead a group of musicians located on both sides of the border in a performance of John Luther Adams’s hour-long percussion work “Inuksuit.” Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music critic, observed the event from the Tijuana side of the border.

“The performance began almost inaudibly,” he wrote, “with musicians breathing into paper and plastic tubes. Then Schick let out a foghorn tone on a conch shell. This was a signal for a gradual crescendo, building to a gaudy roar of drums, gongs, cymbals, and sirens…Only performers were allowed in the adjacent strip; for security reasons, Border Patrol kept the audience behind the second fence. Some two hundred and fifty Americans showed up, having hiked nearly a mile to reach the site.”

Ross had seen “Inuksuit” a number of times but this performance, he wrote, “was overwhelming in its impact, for obvious reasons. As I listened, I couldn’t help registering the messages inscribed on the [Mexican side of the] wall: “What God has joined together let man not separate”; “Stop family separation”; “How many hearts must bleed?”; “La poesía es gente con sueños” (“Poetry is people with dreams”); “Love trumps hate.” Yet, as at other performances of Adams’s remarkable creation, the sheer volume of the climax had the effect of wiping my brain clean of concrete thoughts. I closed my eyes and found myself unaware of the wall’s existence: the wire mesh did nothing to stop the flow of sound.”

Music has the power to do so much. What are we waiting for?

Added Feb. 5, 2018 (1:06 PM)

A few additional resources:

Christy Thomas, “Active Listening: Teaching with Music,” Yale Center for Teaching and Learning (November 30, 2015).

Ronald A. Berk, “Music and music technology in college teaching: Classical to hip hop across the  curriculum,” International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning, 4:1 (2008), 45–67.

Janelle Monae f., “Hell You Talmbout,” Wondaland Records.

Listening to Smart People

Steve Volk, February 6, 2017

When the inarticulate blathering radiating out of Washington becomes too much to bear, I think about turning to really smart people as a kind of lime-scale remover for the brain, dental floss for the mind, if you will. Smart people help me reconnect my moorings with reality and build my confidence that we actually can rise to higher levels, think clear thoughts, and do the work of education.

With that in mind, I recently returned to the composer John Luther Adams. I have been mesmerized by his work for some time, and wrote about him in this space a few years ago. To refresh your memories, let’s not confuse John Luther Adam’s with John Coolidge Adams, the composer of the opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” among other master works, and certainly not with John Quincy Adams, whose greatest hit was the Monroe Doctrine, the prelude to a long suite on U.S. expansionism. The music of John Luther Adams is deeply bound to the natural world; some have called it “sonic geography.” So, stick with me for a few minutes and I’ll soon get to some lessons that this smart person offers to teachers.

As a kid, Adams played drums in a number of rock bands, one of which, Pocket Fuzz, opened for the Beach Boys at a local New Jersey gig. Like many of us of a certain age, he was drawn to Frank Zappa, and it was through Zappa’s music – or, actually, because of a quote (“The present-day composers refuse to die”) in the liner notes of one of Zappa’s LP’s, that Adams stumbled upon Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse, a 20th century French avant garde composer. As I wrote in an earlier post, the music of Varèse was not easy going; Adams couldn’t figure out how to make sense of what the composer was doing. “It all sounds…just like a bunch of noise to me,” he lamented. Which wasn’t too far from the mark since Varèse once observed that music was, in essence, “organized noise.”

Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa

In any case, Adam’s response, as he told Nina Serota, the host of WQXR’s “Q2” Meet the Composer program, was to immerse himself in Varèse’s “noise.” This approach was his typical response to any new and challenging material: “Gimme more.” After throwing himself into Varèse’s work, he began to hear what he hadn’t earlier: “Oh, there’s that repeated note on the oboe; OK that’s a landmark, I can grab on to that. And here’s this place where there’s sort of this tattoo figure with the snare drums…” And gradually, he said, he began to hear the forbidden deserts of Edgar Varèse. And here’s Adam’s first lesson for teachers. We occasionally encounter students who, when faced with seemingly impenetrable problems, will throw themselves at them, banging away without our assistance until they see what they previously couldn’t. But many more students will need our help to find their way in, to find something that they can grab on to. Teaching is about appreciating the difference between these kinds of students: standing back and letting the John Luther Adams among them find their own solutions while helping the others discover their particular ways in.

Making All the Wrong Choices

James Tenney

James Tenney

As Adams’ interest in composition developed, he was invited to study music at Columbia. Which he never did. Before committing to the school, a friend grabbed him “by the scruff of the neck” and told him, “You’re not going to Columbia, you’re going to this new place in California.” So, one fine day, Adams finds himself in the office of James Tenney at the California Institute of the Arts. Tenney, another giant of contemporary music, had studied with Varèse among other composers, but this was his first year on the job at Cal Arts. As Adams tells it, here was this young kid — himself — “knowing nothing, thinking [he] knew everything, walking into” James Tenney’s studio at Cal Arts and immediately launching “into some tirade.” Adams continues:

Jim sat very patiently and listened to this mouthy kid. And then I took a breath, and he looked at me and asked in a wonderfully innocent way, ‘Why are you here?’ And so it began. Jim Tenney had my number from the get go. He realized that nobody was going to teach me anything. That I had to feel that yes, I was reinventing the wheel, rediscovering fire like primitive man, but he had this uncanny knack for asking just the right gently pointed question at just the right moment. I cannot imagine what would have become of me if I had not had that supreme good fortune.

This the second lesson Adams offers to those of us to teach and advise our students. A lot comes down to asking just the right question at the right moment. It’s not a skill easily learned. Tenney seems to have had it from the get-go. Many of us never can develop that deep instinct. But if there’s a key to it, it is in listening carefully, patiently, and without prejudice to the young people who come into our offices, ready to tell us how little we have to offer, serving up something that can sting, or simply feeling lost and perhaps alone…and then responding with just the right question.

Adams talks about how he “made all the wrong career decisions” in his life. He didn’t go to Columbia, didn’t study with the right people, didn’t enter the proper competitions, dropped out of graduate school and everywhere else as well. He ended up in a remote corner of Alaska. “I’m not sure that really I knew what I was doing but, in retrospect, I find that every time I came to a crossroads and had a choice to make, I made the wrong choice…which turned out, of course, to be the right choice.” He was neither courageous nor insightful, he notes. Rather he was running away: from his family, from competitive careerism, from academia, “from all the right things.” But, as he puts it, he was “actually running to something, I just didn’t know what it was until many years later.” Lesson three: Students often feel they need to know with certainty what they will be doing years after they graduate, what they will be when they “grow up.” Certainly, as the pressure builds to turn higher education into nothing more than job-preparation (“college and career ready” has become a constant theme literally from kindergarten on), students (and their parents and state legislators) feel panicked if they can’t answer that question. Without ignoring skills preparation, however, it is up to us to do more than prepare students for a career that they can’t yet imagine. We can provide them with the dispositions, resilience, and reflective insight they will need to run towards a goal that they may not recognize for many years.

Weaving into Dense Fabrics

John Luther Adams in Alaska. Photo: Evan Hurd, The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/05/12/song-of-the-earth

John Luther Adams in Alaska. Photo: Evan Hurd, The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/05/12/song-of-the-earth

Adams moved to Alaska in 1975, interested in hearing new things still employing acoustic sound. “I lived alone in a cabin down in the black spruce forest,” he later wrote in the New Yorker. There I would roll out of bed in the morning, crawl down the ladder from the sleeping loft, and find myself standing in the middle of my work. I loved it. And I couldn’t imagine living any other way.” He listened, in particular, to the birds, trying simply “to take dictation” from them. “The birds became my teacher, after James Tenney.” The result was songbirdsongs which he composed between 1974-79. (He later wrote of an oriole nest that the writer Barry Lopez gave him and which he placed on a windowsill in his Alaskan cabin: “Woven into the dense fabric of moss and twigs are long strands of cassette tape. In the note that accompanied it, [Lopez] wrote, ‘songbirdsongs, no doubt. But where do they buy the tapes?’”)

Adams sees composition as a process of “sculpting away the whole field of sound” in order to work with “one big shape, or image or color or atmosphere that I had in mind that I can’t quite hear that I want to hear.” I often think of teaching (lesson four) as a process of building up, of gradual accretion through multiple iterations. But perhaps, at its heart, it is also a process of “sculpting away” until we reach the central principles, the key lessons.

This is probably a good point to pause and note that Adams was appointed Associate Professor of Composition at Oberlin’s Conservatory in 1998, where he taught for four years. He was drawn to Oberlin by the “lushness and diversity” of the eastern hardwood forest, the songbirds and, to be sure, the artistic and intellectual community at the College and Conservatory. He was excited to be able to connect his work with the contemporary visual arts displayed in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, and taught a course on “Music, Language, and the Sounding Image.” Adams describes himself as having a chronic case of “painter envy”: “I’ve always envied the hands-on relationship that painters and sculptors have with the materials of their art, the way they can get paint and clay on their clothes and under their fingernails.” He often elaborates on the impact of artists, including Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Jasper Johns, on his own work, Stella in particular. Living in Alaska, Adams frequently travels by way of the SeaTac airport at Seattle where he has spent countless hours contemplating Frank Stella’s “York Factory A” which hangs in Concourse A. The work is one of Stella’s “Protractor Series,” loosely based on Persian designs, with “sweeping arcs of brilliant colors weaving in and out of each other” in an impossible fashion. Adams argues that it “doesn’t add up visually,” but that he was eager to do “something similar” on the piano. The result was Among Red Mountains. “If those ensemble and orchestral pieces are multi-dimensional sculptures,” he writes, “then Among Red Mountains is more like a drawing.”

Frank Stella, "York Factory A," SeaTac Airport, Seattle, Washington

Frank Stella, “York Factory A,” SeaTac Airport, Seattle, Washington

Adam’s music explores the boundaries between nature and culture. “I think of sounds of musical forms as forces, as natural elements in some way. It may sound ridiculously grandiose or laughably naïve,” he continued,

but I’ve always imagined that I might be able to work in a space that’s just outside of culture. Of course, it’s patently absurd. There’s no way that we work outside of culture, and these days so many cultures. And yet, as my friend Barry Lopez, the writer, says landscape is the culture that contains all human cultures. And I believe that everything we do, everything we think, everything we think we create, everything we are derives from the world we inhabit: our language, our music, our minds, everything is shaped by this incredibly complex and wondrous world that we inhabit. So, ultimately this nature/culture dichotomy in a way doesn’t exist. But it’s been a useful conceit for me to feel that I’m after something that is not part of a musical tradition; it’s not specifically cultural, it’s somehow more elemental.

Adam’s music represents a desire to connect with the world that “we still inhabit,” but that we’ve forgotten. His attempt to connect the earth and its sounds directly to his music led him to Jim Altieri, an Oberlin double degree student who graduated in 2000 with majors in geology and TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts). Adams called Altieri out of the blue one day and, as Altieri recalls, says, “So, hey, I’m beginning to write a grant for this piece; not sure yet what it is but I want to take all these geophysical data streams and it’s going to make sound and light with them.” Altieri didn’t hesitate: “I said, great, I’m your man.” The idea was to translate raw geophysical data into music. Currently installed in the Museum of the North, in Fairbanks, the Place Where You Go To Listen takes data from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations across Alaska and feeds them into a computer where they are transformed into a “vibrantly colored field of electronic sound.” (Adam’s book, The Place Where You Go To Listen, is available from Wesleyan University Press.)

The Lessons of John Luther Adams

As I noted earlier, higher education faces a continual challenge to respond to those who argue that education is only, and narrowly, about “preparing students to be maximally productive, economically speaking.” At a moment in which selective liberal arts colleges have been shown to actually widen social inequality by imposing a tremendous debt burden on those less able to pay, the aims of higher education do, indeed, raise serious “problems of morality and justice,” as the subtitle of a recent book (The Aims of Higher Education, Univ. of Chicago, 2015) by Harry Brighouse and Michael McPherson put it. But, as well, John Luther Adams’ work provides a compelling argument for the expansive and inclusive role of higher education can play when we take advantage of all that it offers. Adams’ life and work tells us of the critical and timely importance of the advice that we give students, the imperative to be attentive to the different paths to success that they will follow, how to best nurture, encourage, challenge and defend students as they prepare for a bewildering world. From his work at Oberlin, we learn the critical importance of taking advantage of the opportunities for connection that exist in these small but powerful communities, how geology can enrich composition, how art informs biology. From his music, we learn about the beauty of our surroundings, and how we are shaped by the world that enfolds us.

Adams left Alaska a few years ago. What had been the source of much of his creativity began to diminish. The impact of climate change was profound, he began to have problems with his eyes, which made the long Alaskan winters very difficult, good friends had died or moved away, and “the vision we’d shared of an ecological utopia…had faded…Even as so-called reality TV perpetuated the myth of the last frontier, it had become painfully evident that Alaska was a colony of Big Oil.” He and his wife moved to the Sonoran desert in Mexico where “any lingering fears I had about losing my inspiration soon disappeared.” It was there that he composed “Canticles of the Holy Wind,” “Become River” for chamber orchestra, and “Become Ocean” which won the 2014 Pulitzer for music.

John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams

Adams tries to “resist composing” for as long as he can. He told Nina Serota in the Q2 interview that “I really want to get at something essential before I start manipulating the notes, pushing things around. I try to hold things in my mind’s ear as long as I can … I find that if I try to hear something that I can’t quite name it focuses my attention in a certain way…” Good advice for us all as we are barraged by the cosmic radiation of tweets, social media, and news feeds. It’s time to focus our attention…in very certain ways.


You can access John Luther Adam’s music on YouTube and a number of other online sites, many of which are linked in the article, besides purchasing it on iTunes, Amazon or elsewhere.

One Big Motrin

We have been going through a difficult time. One of the signposts of that difficulty, for me at least, came when I hesitated after writing the very first word of this posting: we. I wasn’t about to put it in quotes, but I have been realizing just how tenuous that “we” has become.  I know I don’t speak for a “we,” nor can I say what that “we” is feeling. Neither am I willing to abandon the hope embodied in the we.

As an intellectual, one who works with words and ideas and attempts to make them relevant in an environment in which learning occurs, I turned to literature as offering a way into this conversation (and I hope it is a conversation). To Virginia Woolf, in particular, whose 1925 essay, “How to Read a Book,” I was recently reminded of in a lovely blog entry by Maria Popova.

“The only advice … that one person can give another about reading,” Woolf writes, “is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at the liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess.” [The essay is in the public domain .]

With Woolf’s advice in mind, and with Oberlin’s turmoil in mind rather than the challenges of reading, I start again:  We have been going through a difficult time, both individually and collectively. I know there are many of us in the Oberlin community thinking hard and talking constantly about the road ahead. My intent here is to add to those conversations.

Over the past week, I’ve been nursing a muscle I pulled in my leg when I slipped on the ice. I asked one of the coaches what I should do and when I could start to exercise again. He recommended ice and ibuprofen, so the damaged tissue could quiet down from its inflamed state before attempting any exercises designed to strengthen it. I dislike organic metaphors, but it seems to me that we desperately need a healthy dose of Motrin in order to rest our jangled nerves before moving on to strengthening our community. Understanding that pulled muscles impact people differently, that those who are more conditioned can come back faster than others…still, we need an ice pack.

It’s what Woolf recommends as “letting the dust settle” after reading a book before passing judgment on it. “We must pass judgment upon those multitudinous impressions [received in reading]; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep.” I can only hope that we are in the process of letting the dust from the recent weeks settle before passing “hard and lasting” judgment. Again, each of us will have different ways to do that, but just as it is hard to run with a pulled muscle, to deliver informed judgments the moment we put a book down, so it may not yet be time to know exactly what is the best way forward.

I have no doubt that students, faculty, staff and administrators all have a number of concrete steps that can and should be taken to move us from this place while addressing the shortcomings we have identified. I have only one suggestion, and it’s not as easily achieved as implementing a new curriculum, hiring new staff, or deploying more security personnel. It is about what we do here every day. It’s about teaching and learning in the liberal arts tradition (whose definition I borrow from a statement that some colleagues and I are working on). If done well, study in the liberal arts instills in students a capacity and a passion for inquiry, for critical thinking and analysis, for clear and original expression of ideas.  Liberal arts learning values self-reflection and the ability to understand and accept differences in others.  Liberal arts education seeks to foster an openness to, and engagement with, new ideas; it assigns central importance to the asking of questions as a mode of learning; it affirms habits of inquiry that regard our search for values and the ability to live an ethical life as the keystone that holds our learning in place. Finally, I would argue that empathy is central to this; that it is critical to the process of engagement with others and a commitment to the cause of social justice.

Some mistake empathy for sympathy, and it may produce just that. But empathy is the capacity for imaginative attribution, and psychologists consider it a critical foundation for promoting cooperative, pro-social and satisfying relationships. The (by now clichéd) Cherokee saying “Don’t judge a man until you walk a mile in his shoes,” is about empathy, as is Atticus Finch’s observation in To Kill A Mockingbird, that, “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Some would say that you shouldn’t do that (asserting a tribalist perspective), or that you can’t do that (suggesting that we can never leave our own social formation). It seems to me that both literature and social justice activism (among other things) would suffer without the capacity for empathic imagination.

Empathetic engagement is not about abandoning one’s principles or an appeal to the sad cry: “can’t we all just get along.” Sometimes we can’t. It is about listening…no, it’s about trying to hear what someone you disagree with has to say. At the end of the day, maybe you and your interlocutor will still be miles apart; I seriously doubt that you’ll be best friends. But something will have changed for the listening and hearing.

I wonder if you’ll bear with me for a story which seems a good illustration of this (rather than an assertion that I have any idea about how to deal with radical differences). A few years back, the town and college were shaken by a series of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids on a restaurant in town. Five undocumented workers were hauled away and, before we could even locate them, they had been deported. Three of us (a student, a town resident, and myself) decided to bring a resolution to City Council to provide those who live and work in our town with a modicum of protection and support. We worked hard on the resolution, consulted with officials, police, activists, and others, and finally brought it to Council, where it had to pass three separate readings before final approval.

Tensions were high at these meetings as news of the resolution had spread to other Ohio towns and anti-immigration activists from places like Painesville and Grafton made up the majority in the hearing room. We received threats on our lives, and for the first time ever, City Council brought in a metal detector through which audience members passed. The meetings themselves were pocked with invective from many of the out-of-towners (“America was built by the white people!”), but the resolutions passed with strong support.

Shortly after the last meeting, I received an email from an unknown sender who criticized me for having called her a “bigamist” in the course of the hearings. Since I didn’t know her, much less her personal life, I had no idea what she was talking about, but assumed that she had meant “bigot,” and, indeed, in my own remarks to City Council I had characterized some of the opposition to the bill as arising from bigotry. I wrote her back, trying to clarify my comments, but I also realized that I hardly ever talk to people with whom I fundamentally disagree, and this might be an opportunity. So I suggested we talk. Since I was leaving to teach on the London semester two days later, time didn’t permit an in-person meeting, but we did spend about three hours on the phone.

I thought about what I wanted to achieve in that conversation: I wasn’t going to change her mind, nor she mine. But I did hope that she could perhaps hear something she hadn’t heard before. (Tellingly, I wasn’t so empathetic as to imagine that I could hear something as well.) I also decided that there were certain limits and bounds to such a conversation and, once reached, I wouldn’t spend any more time at it. For me, unless she was willing to see undocumented migrants (“illegal aliens” in her terms) as human and therefore deserving some dignity, I couldn’t see much purpose in the conversation. Lacking that, game over.

So we talked. I pulled out my most obvious empathetic moves: what if you were a Mexican mother who had to feed her children, etc, etc. Nope. I kept moving back, hoping that we would find the one point we could agree on before we hit the ultimate boundary. Finally, more than two hours into the conversation, I realized I knew nothing about her, her family, its history, or what she cared about (other than making sure that undocumented workers weren’t working in Oberlin’s restaurants). So I asked her. Her family had been in Ohio for a long time. Not surprisingly, they had been farmers, but no longer were. “Was it hard for your family to give up its land,” I asked? Yes, it had been. Very hard. After a few more minutes, I asked her why she thought that a family from, say, southern Mexico, which had been on the same plot of land for maybe 500 years, maybe much longer, would give up that land so they could wash dishes in a restaurant in northeastern Ohio. And for the first time she paused and said, “I don’t know.” We talked some more, I told her a bit about NAFTA and what it had done to many Mexican farmers…the details at this point don’t matter. The conversation ended shortly after. We didn’t (figuratively) give each other a hug; I still have my very strong beliefs about immigration, and she most likely has hers. But we each heard, of that I’m convinced, and we each were changed.

Listening is not easy; hearing is even harder because it means that you have to think about your own positions as well as those of the other party.  And that is particularly difficult when one’s ears are filled with shouts of approval from one’s supporters (or one’s hearing is hardened by disapproving voices from one’s detractors). But hearing is essential if we are to move ahead, particularly when the differences that divide us are much narrower than those expressed in the City Council’s chambers.

What can we, as teachers, do to help this process of listening and hearing? Where can we best intervene? How can we model empathetic hearing and liberal arts values? I trust that we will find the answers.

Steve Volk, March 10, 2013

Rove and Responsibility

How can we as teachers help our students think about contentious events on campus in a productive and useful fashion? I hope I’m not being totally naïve when I ask this question, because I do believe faculty have a serious responsibility to engage these issues. Not only are we members of this community with standing, but we carry a considerable amount of moral authority. Here, then, are some suggestions. If you have more, as well as contrary opinions, please post them to the blog or send them to me.

1. Provide context. As an historian, I always find context is important. We live in an increasingly contentious time in which speakers and viewpoints out of favor with legislators, administrations, faculties, or students are being outright banned or prevented from being represented on campus at a growing rate. The poster child for this is Bill Ayers, a (recently retired) education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was banned from the University of Wyoming, Boston College, Georgia Southern, and the University of Nebraska, among others. Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Chris Hedges was booed off the stage during a commencement speech at Rockford College (an event described in the local paper under the Orwellian headline: “Speaker Disrupts RC Graduation”). Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was continually disrupted as he attempted to speak at the University of California, Irvine in February 2010. [For more, see the ACLU (http://www.aclu.org/free-speech) and FIRE (http://www.thefire.org/cases/topcases ).] Of course, the highly contentious “town hall” meetings of the summer of 2009 stand as a backdrop to the present moment, even if they took place in a different sphere than the academic. Nor is the banning or disrupting of speakers on U.S. campuses a new occurrence (think back to the many bans on left-wing, radical, and communist speakers in the 1950s and 1960). But I would suggest that the context of Mr. Rove’s talk is one in which the space for civil discourse has been narrowing, and it is useful for students to consider how their actions on one campus can become a part of a chilling trend in which debate is replaced with shouts.

2. Of course, the heart of the discussion one can have with students has to do with not just the first amendment right to free speech, which is extremely important in and of itself (even in its breech), but of the particular rules of discourse and behavior in our own educational community. These are not easy discussions to have with students, but they are important ones. Stating the obvious – that we are a community dedicated to the exchange of ideas – is useful but insufficient. Is it never right to disrupt a speaker, however uniformly hateful he or she may be? Unwilling to play the “Hitler card” so soon, I would raise a less significant straw man: what about Florida pastor Terry Jones? Once given a forum, should he be prevented from speaking? Allowing students to discuss these issues in class can provide them with a somewhat sheltered space to think about these questions – unlike what they are likely to find in Finney on Tuesday. I say that the rules of our community are useful but insufficient because our students (indeed we, ourselves) find these inadequate to solve the question by themselves. Otherwise, we could just pull out our JS Mill and leave it at that. So I do believe we should discuss the behaviors which bind us as a community as a starting point, including the right for many to speak, but also would argue that we have to go beyond that.

3. Help students think things through to the end. Full disclosure: I participated in a few confrontations at my graduate university when we prohibited speakers from speaking. I felt deeply, passionately and personally convinced that these individuals were criminals (and while my views have hopefully become a bit more sophisticated over the years, I still see them as exactly that, criminals). And yet I wonder to this day whether my tactics (not my beliefs) would have been different had members of the faculty I respected encouraged me to think the matter through to the end. Yes, you can prevent “x” from speaking here, and students at the other university down the road can do the same, but what is it you want to accomplish besides denying him a stage? Disruptions turn conversations around to the issue of disruption, not the presentation of the political or humanitarian matters that you want to call attention to.

4. As students who are, hopefully, training to be more than chemists, historians, or oboe players – who are training, in fact, to be citizens, we can help them ask questions about the events that they will confront. Why, for example, is a particular speaker invited to speak on campus? Without impugning the motives of the College Republicans in this particular case, I would suggest that at least one purpose of the invitation was to be provocative, i.e., to challenge or test the campus by showcasing a lightning-rod figure whose views are likely to be generally unpopular to the majority. (There are other purposes as well, of course, but this is the one that is important to our discussion. The others are subsumed under Mill’s observation that one reason for free speech is that you can actually learn from what you hear.) One can probably say similar things about other speakers from different viewpoints, but as teachers we ask our students to be smart, not naïve, and one way to be smart is to question motives, and not accept arguments on face value. What, then, is the purpose of this invitation from the perspective of those who are suspicious of it, and how should one’s actions be guided by one’s reasoning? You can point students to some ways of answering the question, including research (e.g., New York Times, “Rove Returns, With Team, Planning G.O.P. Push,” Sept. 25, 2010).You might point out to students that they can think more effectively about any response by considering the purpose of the visit. If you think, for example, that by disrupting a speech you will allow some to claim that free speech only exists for progressive causes at Oberlin, and that this will then become part of a larger argument about how colleges and universities have become hostile to conservative views and that this is more reason why voters should turn out of office those who “pal around” with “extremists,” – if you believe this, than it would seem rather foolish at best to willingly walk into a trap that has been set for you. And this is the case for arguments on either side of the political spectrum – our task as teachers is to help students ask the kind of questions (and then determine the kinds of responses) that are most likely to be informed, informative, and productive.

5. Help your students think about what interest they have in this event, what interests the community has, and the dangers of assuming that one is acting in the “best interests” of the community even though you may be in the majority. Democracy, after all, is about more than majority rule; it is about minority rights.

6. Help your students clarify what they want to accomplish? Small (or large) groups can disrupt audiences. We’ve seen that play out in U.S. politics over the past two years (“You lie!”). Shutting down speech with which you disagree is an easy act, not a difficult one. Determining how to insure that your point of view is heard (and not just the disruption that you have caused) is much harder. As faculty, we need to help students accomplish what is difficult but productive, not what is easy and damaging.

Your role as a teacher and mentor is not to tell students what to think, but to help them think through issues and consequences and, if useful, arrive at alternatives. The fact that you teach math and not politics is irrelevant to the fact that we are all members of this community, charged with helping our students think not just as mathematicians and politicians, but as citizens.