“Music is the art of thinking, let your thoughts be heard.” I distinctly remember having a t-shirt with that exact message on it in late junior high and early high school. The shirt still hangs in my closet at my mother's house, even though it no longer fits. The message means far more than the physical shirt to me. I have always been a lover of music. (The way it makes me feel, the thoughts it provokes inside my head, the complexities and intricacies of different genres and subgenres- each provoking different kind of thought.) While that shirt may hang in the closet in my mother’s house, I will not hang up my passion for the idea that shirt placed in my head - that music, of all sorts, is a catalyst for thought.
In high school, I can vividly remember hearing music in several different classrooms. Whether it was simply being played while we worked on an assignment, or we were learning a song in Spanish to help aid our understanding of the language and the culture, or even discussing the social and political impact of a song, each time made it new and exciting for me as a student. Particularly, I can remember a project in a political science course in which we were instructed to pick a song with deep social or political meaning and to explain to meaning and why we chose that song. There were nearly no restrictions on the songs we could choose, just that the song must be edited if it contained curse words. This was very exciting for me, and I knew right away which song I would pick, but I was even more excited to see what my classmates would choose.
When I walked into that old room on the second floor of Staunton High School (the one with the beige and green broken tile floor, the steaming hot radiators near the back of the room, and the podium with a 2 decades worth of student signatures) I saw the playlist of YouTube videos that were lined up on the projector connected to the dusty Dell computer sitting on the corner desk. From “Strange Fruit” to “Fortunate Son”, the tabs on that Internet Explorer browser read like a CD jacket for a compilation of 20th century anti-establishment music. These were the songs that defined generations and listening to them and understanding their meanings allowed us to better understand the time in which they became popular in.
As I stepped up to the podium, I had my teacher cue up the song I chose to play for the class. When I finished speaking about the political message that this song held, as well as it’s impressive critical and commercial success, and the inspiring live performance of the song at the Grammy awards - the opening piano chords played over the small computer speakers sitting on my teacher’s desk. The song was “Same Love” by Macklemore, a somewhat controversial song by a heterosexual, white, male rapper about homosexual love and marriage. The popularity of this song propelled many young people to understand the gay rights movement in a way they never had before. In my class, the discussion that these songs provoked were more in depth and intellectual than any we had embarked upon at any other point in the semester. These discussions made me excited for what I would experience in a college atmosphere.
No one on Earth would call the campus of Illinois College large. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in depth. Not depth of the physical land it sits on, but rather the depth of the minds of its students. Each individual on campus has a mind of his or her own, and most are not afraid to speak it. I knew that the intellectual conversations that I had in that classroom in Staunton High School would repeat themselves one hundred fold at this institution.
That assumption I made early in my college career has proved both right and wrong. Though I have had many great intellectual discussions during my time here on campus, many of those discussions have occurred outside of the classroom. I can remember sitting in the basement of Gardner Dormitory, or in Beecher Hall, and talking to my friends and Phi Alpha brothers about various political and social issues. Those that did happen within the four walls of a college lecture hall have been based mostly around theory, citation, and application of those two academic structures.
I knew college would be different, but I had hoped some things from my high school experience would transfer over. This sentiment has been echoed by some of my classmates who I interviewed about their feelings toward music and learning in college classrooms. We as young people are constantly looking for the “next thing.” Even those of us who are in love with history and using proven learning methods are looking for something new and exciting. That is why I was so excited about my Rhetorical Traditions class with Dr. Christopher Oldenburg. This was my first class with Dr. Oldenburg, but he has been my academic advisor for the year previous to me taking this class. His office door is filled with bumper sticker-esque pictures and internet memes, one I specifically remember is Abraham Lincoln stylized to look like Mr. T (complete with the gold chains and mohawk.) Dr. Oldenburg is not afraid to speak his mind, and not afraid to think outside the box (or tear the box in half, for that matter.) I knew that his class would be different than any other I had taken on campus by the experiences I had had with him as my advisor. How different though? I had no idea.
I walked into the beige, and altogether boring looking, classroom on the second floor of Whipple Hall on the first day of classes that semester where the only decorations on the walls are some sort of carpet-feeling soundproofing material, a clock with no distinguishable features, and a whiteboard. I was expecting a pretty average first day- go over the syllabus, a short intro to the subject matter, and maybe the first chapter. What I got was a professor wearing sunglasses, a clock as a necklace, and a Memphis Grizzlies flatbill hat… and rapping about rhetoric. While this may seem odd, it has become a staple of the communication program at Illinois College, “The Rapping Professor.” It also creates a fun atmosphere for a class that has the potential to be damning-ly boring. I see no problem with learning the classic understanding of rhetoric and the history that comes with that. I interviewed Dr. Oldenburg about how he came up with being The Rapping Professor. He told me that it came from a reading of Gorgias, a classic rhetorician, in which the writing was much more lyrical than most other rhetoricians of the time. He said that based off of this, he “created a rap to teach the principles of Sophistry. It was kind of fun. Not only do such performance shock students, imagine seeing a professor violating the normative decorum of a classroom, but I am not at all good at this (the struggle is real). So, it is humiliating and self-deprecating for me. I think the best teachers know and practice humility regularly.” Dr. Oldenburg thinks that making it fun will make the learning easier and make for better learning. And, he’s not the only one. According to a study done by Hugh McTeer and Robert Bailey in 1980, which I found in an article by education scholars Isreal Eady and Janell Wilson, “ popular music was found to improve students' attitudes toward history and subject matter knowledge.” Hilda Isreal also confirms this in her 2013 article on language learning and music. In this article, Isreal points out that using music to aid learning does not in any way have an effect on actual improvement in achievement, but rather lends itself to increased motivation- something I know college students could use from experience. Dr. Oldenburg supplements this research by talking about what he has seen in his own classroom. He told me when he teaches Cicero in Rhetorical Tradition, he performs a parody of 69 BOYZ’s “Let me see that Tootsee Roll” to “Let me hear that Cicero!” He said that, “More than one student has remarked that they were able to recall Cicero’s rhetorical theories on an exam because of this song and my painfully awkward performance of it.”
I and my fellow students agree, too. We all want to be motivated and improve, whether we admit it or not. We all want to be better, and if we can be better and have fun with it, why not? Emily Titsworth, a sophomore at Illinois College whom I’ve spent time with in English and Gender Studies classes, told me in an interview, “Personally, I enjoy music in classes because it takes an edge away from it all.” Echoing the opinions of the esteemed scholars from above that motivation and a sense of escape from the overly-normalized and repetitive nature of the classroom, Emily continued by saying that, “I'm the type of person who would always listen to music if I could, so incorporating music into a block of time that is usually filled with lectures or silence is always a pleasant surprise.” However, she disagrees with my roommate and classmate, Cody Rutherford, and I about the reason as to why teachers are not using music in classrooms. While I staunchly agree with Cody that, “Some of the more old school instructors may not see the value in teaching through music.” Emily retorts, saying, “Whether it’s at a primary, secondary, or collegiate level some teachers/professors will develop a way they like to teach and will stick to it without ever making changes. I also think that some professors might not use music in their teaching because they either are not familiar with current popular music or are not tech savvy enough to utilize it.” I must confess that there is some truth to this argument, but I still believe that professors and academics are simply too bourgeois and high-culture-centric to use popular content in their classrooms. Cody believes that it may even be, “...because of [their] egos…”
But, maybe I am in the wrong here? Maybe I am the one who should be more open minded and understanding of the professors who teach me and not be asking for the exact opposite with no give from my side of the plate. Maybe professors simply don’t understand how to incorporate popular music into their classrooms. In all honesty, it truly is a new idea. The technology that allows us to do such things as play music in a college classroom was not invented that long ago, and, we may be seeing a bit of a snowball effect because this technology has not always been around. Think about this for a second. Before the invention of the internet (and really even music and video streaming services like iTunes or Youtube) a teacher would have to go out and hire a singer or band to come into their room and play a song for their students. That seems absolutely ridiculous by today’s standards, but because of how ridiculous that is no one thought to tell teachers to do such a thing. But it begins the snowball rolling down a hill… because, who teaches teachers to teach? Former teachers. So if the older teacher never tells the younger teacher that she can use music in his/her teaching, who will?
We must begin educating educators in a new way for them to educate students in new ways. Not necessarily just speaking about music here, but students want to see things in a way they haven’t been shown before. We are all hopeful for that to come for future generations. Both Cody and Emily agree that music should and most likely will become a more integral part of regular classroom life as teachers begin to catch up with the rapidly evolving technology of our current age. Emily said that she thinks, “Right now we're at a point in time where we're starting to realize that learning does not have to be strictly lectures and notes and that there are plenty of other ways to explore and learn about a subject.” Cody went even further, saying that if it was up to him, “[Music] would be a regular part of class. It could be used for memorization or part of the actual lesson.”
Illinois College would be a wonderful jumping off point for technologies and classes such as the ones Cody mentioned and the style that Emily mentioned. The liberal arts community that Illinois College thrives on, along with the technological advancements in our halls and classrooms, make this campus one built for new and interesting education forms. If the administration of this school could get behind it, I believe that both students and faculty have some great ideas for the future that we could all benefit from. Emily said she would like a class based upon the musical stylings of “musicians like Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Etta James, etc.” Cody said that if he could develop a music-based class, he said he would want “some sort of music and history through the decades class.” Dr. Oldenburg expands upon the ideas of these students. He said that, “At some point, I would like to teach a course on the rhetoric of hip-hop or look at the way in which music inspires social movements. i.e. the music of the counter-cultural 1960’s, anti-establishment punk rock, the 90’s grunge scene, etc.” Though there are these incredible ideas, getting it done in actuality will take collaboration from different disciplines. According to all of the research, as well as the people I interviewed, there are certain disciplines that lend themselves to musical studies (such as communications, media studies, sociology, and English). However, ALL disciplines can be aided from these new types of education. In order for new forms of education to work, different disciplines must work together. The future looks bright for music and education working in conjunction with each other. Forward thinking students, administrators, and faculty members will be the driving force behind this… they are the ones who will allow us to explore the art of thinking… and let our thoughts be heard.