Traveling on a Musical Journey to Facilitate Learning in Cultural Context—Ketty Wong (2008)
An assistant professor in the School of Music revises MUSC 139/339, a course in world music, to engage students and help them understand musical traditions in cultural context.
Music in World Cultures introduces students to the musical traditions of non-Western cultures. It is designed for students who have little or no musical background but have an interest in music and in the world around them. Key course questions are “Why do people do music the way they do?” and “How does music shape and reflect the values, beliefs, and ideas people have about themselves and their cultures?” To answer these questions, students travel on a musical journey to different countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, North America, and Europe.
The travel project is the culminating assignment of the course. Student teams are asked to play the role of cultural ambassadors who try to convince their audience to travel to the country they are presenting. Presentations include creative elements, such as choreography, drama, cuisine, or compositions based on the rhythms studied in class. Students participate in creating and evaluating assignments at points throughout the semester, and they are co-participants in the development of the final exam.
Overall, students met the intellectual goals for this project, which is to understand why people do music the way they do. Some presentations went well beyond my expectations.
Student feedback on the project showed that overall students enjoyed it and greatly preferred doing it to writing a term paper. Students commented that it improved their presentation skills, and they acknowledged learning more about other countries, their cultural traditions, and the music.
Students learn more by completing the travel project than by writing a conventional term paper. With the travel project, students develop communication and research skills. They learn to collect, synthesize and select the information they present, and they experience the pros and cons of working in teams.
Because they know that their peers will evaluate the final presentation, students put in a good amount of work. Some students feel uncomfortable giving oral presentations, but I firmly believe that this is a skill they need to master for their future career development.
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The course Music in World Cultures (pdf) is designed to introduce students to the musical traditions of non-Western cultures. It is intended for students who have little or no musical background and yet have an interest in music and in the world around them. Students’ response to the course content and requirements is generally enthusiastic as this is an elective course they choose to take. The class meets three times a week in a 50-minute session and has an enrollment of approximately 25-30 students.
The main goals for this course are:
- To foster multicultural awareness by getting students acquainted with non-Western musical traditions.
- To familiarize students with a musical vocabulary that allows them to talk and write about music.
- To conduct research on a salient musical tradition and present the research findings in a class presentation.
The major questions guiding this course are: “Why do people do music the way they do?” “How does music shape and reflect the values, beliefs, and ideas people have about themselves and their cultures?” To answer these questions, students travel on a musical journey to different countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, North America and Europe. My role as instructor is to guide them in this journey. By the end of the semester, students are able to identify the musical instruments and genres from different regions of the world and distinguish the musical aesthetics of the cultural groups studied in class.
I have taught this course four times and have changed the class assignments twice to better address the course goals. The first semester students wrote a conventional term paper on a musical tradition of their choice. The reason for changing this assignment is that students often procrastinate, do little research, and write the term paper just a few days before the deadline. In addition, the papers are returned the day of the final exam and students do not usually read the feedback.
In the second and third semesters students were required to work on an “ethnographic project.” In this assignment, students need to 1) define a research question related to a social group or musical activity in Lawrence; 2) conduct fieldwork and find answers to their research question by interviewing, observing, and participating in the musical events they have selected; and 3) present their research findings in a term paper and a brief oral presentation in class. Examples of research questions include: 1) how does a DJ select the music s/he plays in a party? 2) what is the purpose of music in the Children Sunday School? 3) what sacrifices in their personal life do members of a student rock band make in order to play their music? With this assignment students learn some of the research methods ethnomusicologists use in their fieldworks. While it works well in a small class (12-15 students), it is difficult to manage in larger classes, especially in terms of advising and supervising students’ work in progress.
With the “travel project” I seek to develop cultural awareness by having students do research on a country and a musical tradition they know little about. I explain this project in the next section.
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The travel project fosters cultural awareness, familiarizes students with a variety of research methods and resources, and develops the necessary skills to organize and deliver a class presentation on a salient musical tradition of a particular country. I ask students to play the role of cultural ambassadors, or travel agents, who try to convince their audience to travel to the country they are presenting (Travel Project Handout (pdf)). I borrowed some ideas for this project from World Music: A Global Journey by Terry Miller, and incorporated some activities that have improved the organization and content of the presentations.
Students make teams of two or three people in the fourth week of class. I encourage them to make their presentations more creative by including folk dance choreography, dressing in typical attire, dramatizing folk scenes, bringing samples of typical cuisine, composing music inspired in the rhythms studied in class, or playing folk instruments. This creative element requires students to do research beyond the books and the Internet. The extra points I give to the best presentation, selected by students’ votes, motivates groups to put effort into this project. Most importantly, student interest is higher because they choose the research topic and usually find the project “fun.”
To be successful and meet the course goals, the travel project requires close supervision by the instructor outside of the classroom. During the semester, I meet with each group twice to help students select a research topic (if they do not have one yet), find reference sources, and provide feedback on their work in progress. In the second meeting, each team presents a folder with samples of the researched material, which includes two authoritative musical encyclopedias, one or two journal articles and web sites. Students also present a draft of their Power Point presentation and a brochure with pictures and information related to the musical tradition they have chosen. By supervising the travel project at different stages, I am able to assess student learning and research work.
To increase student engagement and help students understand the evaluation of this assignment, I incorporate students in the evaluation system by having them grade fifty percent of their peers’ presentation and write comments about their class performance, which I hand back to each team for improvement in future presentations (Peer Review Form). I remove the names of the reviewers from the grading sheet, so that they feel free to write comments about the organization, content, creativity, delivery and materials presented.
In addition, all groups are required to ask two questions about their topics at the end of the presentation, one of which I will include in the final exam. By doing this, I make them co-participants in the development of the final exam. With these requirements students are encouraged to follow their peers’ presentations and keep the brochures as a study guide. After they complete their projects, I ask students to complete an anonymous survey to give me feedback about their reactions to the project and how I might improve it in future semesters.
The grading system involves five areas, which both students and the instructor grade. These include 1) organization, 2) creativity, 3) effectiveness, 4) materials, and 5) timing/delivery. Grades and comments are written in a form students fill out after each presentation. I grade their work in progress (a file with the researched materials, and drafts of the brochures and Power Point slides) to make sure that they are on the right track and secure the quality of the presentations. I return all these grading forms to students the day after their presentation.
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Overall, students met the intellectual goals for this project, which is to understand why people do music the way they do. Some presentations went beyond my expectations, like the Gypsy presentation I describe below, which was well-prepared and substantial in content. A few students devoted little time to the travel project, and their presentations were not as structured or informative as the Gypsy presentation.
Based on travel project evaluations that students and I completed, in Spring 2008 two groups received an A grade, three A-, and two B+. My evaluations and student audience evaluations were generally comparable, though I have noticed that some students tend to be slightly more rigorous in their grading than I am, especially in the timing/delivery category. Making students co-participants in the evaluation process has been beneficial in improving the quality of their own work as they internalize the standards of a good presentation.
The Gypsy Project:
In the spring of 2008, one team impersonated a gypsy couple from Hungary. They talked about what people in their country normally do, where they come from, what kind of language they speak, what kind of music and instruments they play, what kind of food they eat. They were dressed with what they thought were typical Gypsy costumes (the woman with a handkerchief on her head, a white blouse, and a flowery long skirt; the man with a hat, mustache, and farm clothes). Although their dramatization resembled more a couple of American country people than Gypsies (of course, students haven’t met “real” Gypsy people), they were, nevertheless, successful in portraying their cultural differences. They talked about Gypsy stereotypes and answered students’ questions maintaining their gypsy roles.
This team won the first prize for the best project. It was noticeable that they had investigated many aspects of gypsy culture, as their brochure and Power Point presentation demonstrated. It included pictures of Gypsies, maps, musical instruments, and descriptions of musical genres. The presentation was well organized in terms of content, timing and delivery. Most importantly, it had a strong cultural approach and presented a good overview of the music, the people, and the performance contexts. It was noticeable that they had done their “homework” well.
Student feedback (pdf) on the travel survey demonstrated that overall students enjoyed this project and greatly preferred doing it to writing a term paper. Students commented that it improved their presentation skills and added a fun component at the end of the semester.
They acknowledged having learned more about other countries (geography, history, landmarks, population), their cultural traditions (greetings, food, costumes, holidays), and the music (genres, instruments, dances). Some students interviewed friends who are natives of the countries they were studying to get first-hand information, which gave them a new perspective on the culture. I believe MUSC 139/339 students became more aware of the differences and similarities between American and other world cultures.
Student presentations and evaluations
Below are examples of PowerPoint presentations and brochures students in Music 139/339 developed:
- Candomble-Brazil (pdf)
- Discover South Africa (pdf)
- Gypsy Brochure-High (pdf)
- South Africa Brochure-Average (pdf)
- Spain Brochure-High (pdf)
Below are instructor evaluations of three student projects:
- Gypsy Instructor Evaluation (pdf)
- South African Instructor Evaluation (pdf)
- Spain Instructor Evaluation (pdf)
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I have found that a collaborative group assignment is a good way to encourage students to be active learners, rather than passive receptors of knowledge. Comparing the different class assignments I have implemented in my world music class, I realize that students learn more by working on the travel project than by writing a conventional term paper. With the travel project students develop research and communication skills, which will be useful in any future endeavor. They learn to collect, synthesize and select the information they present and experience the pros and cons of working in teams. They also learn to be concise because they only have about fifteen minutes for the presentation.
Because students know that their peers will judge the final product, they put in a good amount of work. One positive effect of the travel project is that it fosters a friendly class environment and increases the quality of student work. At the beginning of the semester, many students are shy and feel hesitant to participate in class discussions. Because students form teams early in the semester, their interactions with one another are more relaxed.
I plan to assign the travel project again in my future world music classes. It takes a good amount of time from the instructor, but it is definitely worthwhile. My own time demands include two meetings with each team, checking the websites that students use in their research bibliographies, providing timely feedback, calculation of final grade, etc. Because of time constraints, this assignment works best for small classes up to thirty students.
I am aware that the success of the travel project relies not only on the effectiveness of the project itself, but also on the work that students devote to it. The “tourist” student who misses lots of classes and is not able to work in teams will jeopardize the group work. Some students feel uncomfortable doing oral presentations, but I firmly believe that this is a skill they need to master for their future career development.
A seven-week version of the world-music class is offered to undergraduate music majors in the class Music History I, but the teaching dynamics in this class are very different from that of MUSC 139/339. This is a large sixty-student class that meets only twice a week during the first half of the semester. In this class, I require students to write a regular term paper. However, I have implemented the travel project assignment in my Latin American Music class with great success.
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