Teaching a New Course: Social Justice & Decolonization in Music Study

Informed by recent demands of social justice movements and shifts in popular culture, some academic departments are doubling down on their work addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion. This can manifest as the diversification of a department through changes in hiring practices, “decolonizing” one’s syllabus, celebrating Pride month, and hanging conspicuous BLM posters around campus. While all good things, these efforts are performative and virtue signaling more often than actually affecting ideological or material change in social economies and values of knowledge production in the neoliberal university structure – which, more and more, operates according to market principles that focus on the bottom line rather than the role of higher education in manifesting an informed and compassionate civic body. Economic, racial, and cultural gatekeeping are the norm, as is the increasing reliance on contingent labor among junior faculty.

Last academic year (20-21) I had organized a “decolonizing music study” reading group at my institution (CWRU) that met via Zoom – mostly for my own development reading and discussing a bunch of material in the company of musicians and scholars working to have a better understanding of our implication in the state of things; how we can do better. It was inspiring, but humbling. Likely due to that initiative, I was invited by my department chair this year to design a course called “Decolonizing Music Study” (probably more properly titled “Social Justice and Decolonization in Music Study”?) for upper-level undergrads and graduate students. I’m grateful for the inclusive attitude of my department and for this opportunity – it’s still inspiring and humbling.

So, I offer HERE the syllabus I’ve put together. It’s a lot of reading and the class is relatively small (less than 10 students) so we can treat it as a seminar rather than relying on lecture. Assignments are pretty open, including a few essays and informal letter writing between students and myself, culminating in a response project of some kind. I’m hoping this approach feels democratic and non-hierarchical as we encounter ideas from many disciplines that all point to the creation and reproduction of the power structures that have created music study in American (it’s a very USian-oriented course) Higher Education. There are so many ways this kind of program of study can go, but this feels like a good start.

The basic direction:
setting the conceptual table (history, concepts, terms) -> what does race mean in music and how is it performed? -> colonial epistemological archaeologies in general and in music in particular -> the formation and maintenance of the Euro-American canon of art music -> reconsiderations of that canon’s assumptions in the new musicology -> introduction to “othered” communities in music study in addition to race -> recent interventions regarding race and class -> interventions in pedagogical models -> imagining a university otherwise

If you stumble upon this and want to talk about it, please be in touch. If you’ve put something like this together at your institution, I’d love to hear about it. I’m always down to learn with/from folks and to crowdsource ideas of how we might do this better. I’m even more interested in making the moves from theory and talking to practice and action. This is a start and I’m excited to do the work.

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