Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community

Moving from Diversity to Equity in a Non-Majors Course in Music—Brad Osborn


My target course—MTHC 301: Music Videos—has diversity at the heart of its subject matter. It is difficult to teach a course on music videos that does not consult music videos by BIPOC musicians, women, and LGBTQ+ performers. Accordingly, a responsible instructor should address the core topics of racism, sexism, and homo/transphobia as they appear in these videos. As such, my mantra moving through CTE’s Diversity Scholars program was “moving from diversity to equity.” I wanted to leverage the diversity inherent in my materials and methods in order to create a more equitable learning environment.

One thing we talked a lot about in Diversity Scholars was that the pursuit of equity in the classroom is possible only if an instructor creates a positive class climate that maximizes positive learning outcomes for all students. Being hosted by CTE, we were taught that there should be objective ways to measure such positive learning outcomes. Thus, I partnered with Mary Fry, a professor in health, sport and exercise sciences, and a graduate student in her lab, Troy Wineinger, to create a powerful student survey that objectively assessed the link between a positive class climate and positive learning outcomes. I will talk more about this survey, and its results, in the Reflections section. 

^Back to top^


Course description

I selected MTHC 301—Music Videos—as the target course for my Diversity Scholars project. The course is open to students university-wide, sans prerequisites. This was my first time teaching a course for non-music majors. I taught it for the first semester in Fall 2018, when it had an enrollment of 18 students. I was approached by Henry Bial, co-director of the School of the Arts, to teach the course as an Honors Transfer Seminar in Spring 2019 to an even smaller group of students. After the course was approved for KU Core Goal 3 (Breadth of Knowledge: Arts and Humanities), I had a much larger enrollment (45 students) in Fall 2019.

MTHC 301 introduces students to core concepts in the analysis of music video. The semester is divided into three units: musical analysis, visual analysis, and the sociology of music videos. No prior knowledge of these areas of study is necessary. In the musical analysis unit, students learn the basics of analyzing musical form, instrumentation, and lyrics. The visual analysis unit begins with a primer on color and light, goes through a crash course on cinematography, and includes broader concepts such as setting and narrative. The third unit starts by looking at terms and concepts of sexuality and gender diversity (taken from the KU Safe Zone Manual), and challenges students to apply terminology that may be unfamiliar to them to the analysis of gender and sexuality in music videos. Other topics include the racist history of BIPOC musicians on MTV, the sometimes problematic ways in which visible minorities are portrayed in music videos, and the analysis of music videos from non-settler cultures.   

Student goals

  • Short-form written communication: Students will learn how to express their opinions on music video through weekly blog posts and replies to others’ posts
  • Cultural literacy: Students will identify (both visually and aurally) a broad base of music videos by artist/title/year in real-time, in-class assessments
  • Immersion in the medium: Students will harness the medium of video itself to produce a final vodcast, rather than a paper
  • Collaborative skills: Students will develop techniques for discussing and debating tough questions in small groups


My primary goal when creating this course was to introduce techniques of musical analysis—usually taught only to music majors—to a broader base of students. I thought long and hard about which concepts in musical analysis were the most useful for the analysis of popular music, and which required the least fluency in concepts and jargon to become useful quickly. I ultimately settled on song form (hearing the difference between verse/chorus and strophic forms), instrumentation and effects (identifying the presence or absence of electric guitar, as well as which vocal-manipulation effects are present in a track), and lyrics (common themes, differences between narrator and artist personae).

Having spent a lot of time developing short-form writing assignments for another course (as part of another grant through CTE), I wanted to both adopt and refine these kinds of writing assignments for this course. In both cases, I adopted a “less-is-more” approach to writing, in which the longest essay I had students write was 350 words. I wanted to see how concise and persuasive students could be once they got rid of the urge to fill a page with neutral descriptive prose. As a way to practice for these three short papers, the students wrote even shorter blog posts each week. They were specifically instructed to write persuasive, argumentative prose, challenging an idea presented in that week’s reading. They were also practicing this skill (as well as humility and civility) when they replied to another student’s post with the expressed intent to challenge something in that post. These short, low-stakes writing assignments were paired with an open educational resource, two different sets of writing assignments, and a novel format that I chose for the course’s final project. 

^Back to top^


In this section I’ll talk about the behind-the-scenes pedagogical work, assignment designs, and resulting course format that I developed for MTHC 301.

Open Educational Resources

One of the biggest hurdles to designing a new class is finding or developing new materials. Because no textbook exists for the fundamentally interdisciplinary approach I wanted to take in the analysis of music videos, I set out to create one myself. Through generous assistance from a KU Libraries Open Educational Resource Grant, I received summer salary to sit down and do just that. The resulting product, An Open Educational Resource for the Analysis of Music Video, consists of nine chapters organized into three units:

  • Chapters 1–3: Musical analysis
  • Chapters 4–6: Visual analysis
  • Chapters 7–9: The sociology of music videos

The complete resource is available, free, to anybody anywhere in the world, and saved just my students an estimated $3,400 in only two semesters.

In Fall 2018 and Fall 2019, I largely treated my OER as a set of class notes. I did not have students read the text before class. Rather, I drew my lecture material from the OER, presenting it in a much more engaging, live, multimedia format in class. If anything was unclear, or if the students wanted to review or dive deeper into the material, they always had the complete PDF at their disposal. Though I’m usually the quintessential “flipped classroom” teacher, this class represents the most lecturing I’ve ever done. Nevertheless, I included at least one 5-10 minute group discussion in each lesson. After reading about the male gaze in music video, for example, students watched Beyoncé’s “Run the World” and discussed how the video resisted that gaze.

In a Spring 2019 Honors section of the course, which met just once a week and covered the same amount of material(!), I had no choice but to have students read the chapter ahead of class. We then spent more or less the entire class time doing group activities and discussing the videos themselves.

My goal when writing the OER for this course was to have about 50% of the examples come from women and BIPOC musicians. After two semesters of teaching this material, I decided to increase that number to around 80%. Additionally, I become unhappy with the final chapter on fashion and wanted to replace it with a chapter on music video and politics. Finally, I decided that in the chapters on gender and race, I should actively discuss these topics head-on, rather than simply talking about music videos that did so. Since this represented such a large overhaul of the material, I also decided to pursue a traditional publisher for this next iteration of the book.

The result was a completely re-written work titled Interpreting Music Videos, which was published by Routledge in Spring 2021. Students in the Spring 2021 course are accessing an advance copy of the proofs for an online, asynchronous version of the class.

Writing assignments and discussion boards

Partly because I was busy creating this OER, I knew that I needed help creating good writing assignments for the course. Having previously worked with a graduate student through KU’s Graduate Research Consultant program, I decided to apply again. This program supports graduate students (monetarily, and with helpful resources) who choose to work with faculty to create undergraduate research opportunities in courses. Coincidentally, my dissertation advisee, Matthew Ferrandino, happened to be working on a dissertation about music videos and was more than willing to serve as my graduate consultant. For Fall 2018, Matt developed three writing assignments that each followed one of the units.

Descriptions for all three papers can be found here (Paper 1, paper 2, paper 3, and the rubric). The students were asked to apply what they learned in the relevant unit to a video. We went back and forth on whether or not to let students simply choose any video they wanted to work on. Ultimately, we decided that it would be best for us to let students choose from a list of possible videos. This was for two reasons:

  1. It is possible that a student would choose to write a paper for a certain unit about a video that had little or nothing to do with that topic. Letting students choose their own video really meant that we were implicitly testing them on their ability not only to write the paper, but to find an appropriate video. To me, this is a skill that all graduate students should have, but one that we shouldn’t necessarily assume undergraduates to have.
  2. By having the same list of videos for all three papers, we wanted to integrate a kind of “spiral” technique, where students were looking at the same videos from different angles.

In Spring 2019 I added a discussion board component. Each week, students received the following writing prompt:

  • Create a one-paragraph blog post (3-5 sentences) about the reading you’ve done for this week (due Sunday night by 11:59 p.m.).
  • On Monday (due 11:59 p.m.) you should “reply” to one post that you disagree with, stating (again, in one paragraph) why you disagree and presenting evidence for your argument.

My goal for the discussion board was twofold:

  1. I wanted students to write in a medium (blogs, discussion boards, replying with comments, etc.) that they use regularly on the internet.
  2. Perhaps more importantly, I wanted to elevate the level of discourse from the kinds of flaming we see online to something more civil. I have found that students are incredibly respectful of each other’s opinions, even when they disagree. The Honors College provided me with an undergraduate TA, who was instrumental in helping me leverage these discussion board entries for just-in-time teaching. On the morning before class, she sent me a “digest” email, listing the common topics that came up in the discussion, as well as any students who did not complete the original post or the reply. I was then able to discuss briefly at the beginning of class some of these common threads that came up in the discussion.

In Fall 2019, the large number of students (~45) necessitated a dedicated graduate teaching assistant as a grader for the three papers. Ultimately, I saw that having the third paper due so close to the initial stages of the final project was going to put too much strain on grading resources, and I ended up dropping the third paper (I remember this announcement being met with applause in the classroom). My GTA spent nearly two weeks watching, grading, and commenting on those final video projects. Since I am very protective of my GTAs not working more hours than they are paid for, I can say with confidence that dropping the third paper was warranted.

Final project

I chose a final project that asked students to create a video rather than write a paper. My goal was for students to further demonstrate their understanding of music video by immersing themselves within the video environment itself. Here is the informational handout students were given.

While this capstone project harnesses the video format, students also demonstrated their skill in written communication by giving a live presentation of an early version the week before the video was due. A portion of their final grade was assessed by their classmates’ assessment forms, which they filled out during the oral presentation. The presenter collected these and was able to review that feedback in preparation for the final video. 

Rather than just present their analysis as a companion to the video, students were asked to evaluate the form of expression in the music video. How effective was the music video at communicating a broader cultural meaning? Students were evaluated on their ability to present evidence to prove how their chosen music video either failed or succeeded at this goal. They received separate scores for

  1. video production;
  2. accuracy of analysis;
  3. selecting analytical techniques appropriate to the work; and
  4. creating a convincing oral argument.

^Back to top^


Short papers

Student A received an A- on paper #1 for good observations made but presented in a less than engaging prose style. Additionally, the student exceeded the word count, at which point I typed “stopped reading: over word count” (yes, I am that ruthless). My comments to the student were encouraging, and I remarked that if the prose style were straightened out—particularly a reduction in the number of colloquialisms used—that they could expect to receive a straight A on paper #2. The student did so, and did indeed receive a straight A on paper #2. Paper #2 makes excellent use of drawing the reader’s attention to the included screengrabs that demonstrate the author’s point. Additionally, the prose is more concise and persuasive.

Discussion board

Student C made an original post after reading Chapter One. They shared what they learned in the chapter—mostly regarding the ways in which only a handful of song forms are used throughout nearly all music videos—and provided original insight by applying this observation to several videos that were not contained in the chapter. Students D, E, and F (from top to bottom of the PDF) created responses to this thread. Student D notes that their viewing practices have been changed by this observation about shared forms. Student E (somewhat misguidedly) links these shared forms to why songs are so catchy. Student F reveals that they never realized that music videos have an inextricable formal link to songs, and shares that this realization will help them enjoy music (videos) more.

Final project

In order to leverage this final project into public scholarship, students uploaded their final vodcasts to Vimeo. Anyone can find student work from years back by simply searching Vimeo for “MTHC301.”

Silver Michaelsen’s final project was a vodcast that analyzed Sofya Wang’s video “Boys Aside,” particularly from the angle of gender and sexuality. Michaelsen’s attention to fashion and body language in this video demonstrates gender role reversals relative to mainstream media: women are shown wearing far less revealing clothing than men and are shown in positions of power (driving cars) relative to the men who float around passively in the swimming pool. With Michaelsen’s permission, I linked and discussed the vodcast in a forthcoming scholarly article in the journal Music and the Moving Image about women’s resistance to the male gaze in music videos.

^Back to top^

Reflection on Diversity Scholars and results from a class cimate survey

Professor Brad OsbornThe primary task of the survey developed by Mary Fry and Toby Wineinger was to assess the link between a positive class climate and the achievement of positive learning outcomes. Specifically, the survey assessed the link between students’ perceptions of a “caring and task-involving climate” in their class with positive learning outcomes. A “caring and task-involving climate” was defined as students reporting that:
  • Their instructor values/recognizes effort and improvement
  •  Cooperation is valued
  • Everyone plays an important role
  • Mistakes are part of learning
  • Everyone is treated with kindness and respect

The survey addressed the following question: If students perceive such a caring and task-involving climate, does it promote positive learning outcomes? The results of the survey showed that the students in my class who did perceive a caring and task-involving climate did also report positive learning outcomes. These positive learning outcomes are defined as students reporting that they:

  • Put in greater effort in the class
  • Got more enjoyment out of the class
  • Were eager for more classes on the topic
  • Felt less shame in the class
  • Experienced better relationship with their peers in the class
  • Felt their instructor would continue to care about them after the end of the semester

Quoting from the survey authors’ summary: “This overall profile of positive responses suggests that the creation of a caring and task-involving climate may be key for helping students optimize and sustain their motivation over time in their degrees of study.”

Importantly, the study also showed that a small number of students did not report that they perceived such a positive class climate. This small number of students perceived not a caring, task-involving climate, but rather an “ego-involving climate,” which is defined as one in which instructors:

  • Value ability and outcomes
  • Foster rivalry among students
  • Recognize a few “star” students

As might be expected, this small group of dissatisfied students also reported fewer positive learning outcomes.

Quoting from the survey authors’ summary: “Overall, when students perceived a caring and task-involving climate they reported having more positive motivational outcomes, whereas perceptions of an ego-involving climate appeared linked to problematic outcomes, such as greater levels of shame and less enjoyment during class.”

The implication for this study is that all instructors should be trained on how to create a caring and task-involving climate in their class, since this class climate leads to positive learning outcomes. Conversely, instructors should be trained on how to avoid an ego-involving climate, since this class climate leads to negative learning outcomes.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio:

^Back to top^

CTE turns 25

The Center for Teaching Excellence is celebrating its 25th birthday this academic year. Watch for special events and workshops.