Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community

Intercultural Competencies in Masterworks of Music—Martin Nedbal (2019)

Overview

A faculty member in the Department of Music examines development and assessment of students’ intercultural competencies in the context of a study-abroad program to Austria and the Czech Republic. The course seeks to promote the accomplishment of KU Core Goal 4.2.

Background

The course, “Masterworks of Music” (MUSC 135/335), is designed for music and non-music students as a two-week study-abroad program that takes students to Vienna, Austria and Prague, Czech Republic. Music is an inherently international language based on a series of abstract signs, and the program helps students understand that different societies interpret these signs differently depending on social, political, or historical contexts.

Implementation

During the course, students visited places where musical and other artistic works were produced between 1700 and 1900. Outside of class, students were asked to write daily journals in which they responded to questions that asked them to connect the historical facts, artistic aspects of the studied works, and present-day reception of those works in the places we visited. The final project asked students to focus on one monument or artwork they experienced during the trip and explain its significance and history to a person in the US. The daily journals allowed students to reflect on what they were experiencing on site, whereas the final project helped them synthesize one portion of their experience in a coherent format and with an awareness of the different approaches to the arts and historical legacy in the US and in Central Europe.

Student Work

Both the journals and the final projects showed that students thought critically about the similarities and differences in the roles art plays in Central European and American societies. Regarding the final project, students received regular grades as well as an ungraded evaluation of intercultural competency, scored from 1-3, with 3 demonstrating proficiency related to 4.2 skills. Of the eight students in the course in January 2018, two wrote papers that I thought belonged to category 3, four wrote papers in category 2, and two in category 1. Since I remained in touch with most of the students on the course’s social media group after the trip, I know that the journals and the papers were just an initial stage of coming to terms with an intercultural experience; in the weeks after the return, I noticed that the students’ ability to articulate the similarities and differences between Central Europe and the US became sharper.

Reflections

The next time the course is offered, I plan to use a pre- and post-test to help assess the efficacy of the course in addressing the concepts central to Core Goal 4.2. The pre-test, which would ask students to rate themselves on a Likert scale from 1-5 on various intercultural skills/dispositions, would be administered during the pre-departure study-abroad meeting. After returning to the US, students would be asked to take a corresponding post-test, asking how the course affected those same dimensions.

The subjects explored and tours undertaken during the trip abroad specifically focus on the history of various ideologies, such as racism, anti-Semitism, and nationalism, which are also important for understanding historical and contemporary events in the United States. In the future, I plan to design further class lectures and journal assignments directed at helping students acquire an outside perspective on these dangerous ideological movements, with which they are familiar only in the context of American society and politics.


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BACKGROUND

 

The course, “Masterworks of Music” (MUSC 135/335), is designed for music and non-music students as a two-week study-abroad program that takes students to Vienna, Austria and Prague, Czech Republic. Students can be musicians but also do not have to have musical training. In January 2018, eight students completed the course.

The course is an elective within the School of Music for both music and non-music majors. Every year, I teach a regular survey of European art music history between 1600 and 1900 for the School of Music’s music majors. The study abroad version was a way for me to make a more involved, experiential version of this course.

One of the main points of the course is to help students understand how tightly music, and the arts in general, have always been interwoven with politics and society. Students should also become aware that musical and artistic works identical or similar to those they know from American concert halls and museums have very different meanings and significance in the countries/foreign locations where they were originally produced. I hope that students will better appreciate how art, in both Austria and the Czech Republic, reflects social and political values, such as various moral codes, national pride and ideology, or governmental systems (absolute monarchy vs. constitutional monarchy vs. democracy).

Music is an inherently international language based on a series of abstract signs, and the program helps students understand that different societies interpret these signs differently depending on social, political, or historical contexts. This promotes well the accomplishment of KU Core Goal 4.2, which states, “Upon reaching this goal, students will be able to examine a variety of perspectives in the global community, distinguish their own cultural patterns, and respond flexibly to multiple worldviews.”


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IMPLEMENTATION

During the course, students visited places where musical and other artistic works were produced between 1700 and 1900. These places include a Baroque palace, a Classicist theater, a Baroque middle-class composer’s apartment, several nineteenth-century opera houses and concert halls, and other historical and cultural monuments. Students visited these monuments both during regular guided tours and also in the evenings for performances of operas and symphonic concerts.

By visiting these monuments and interacting with the local guides, students learned about the history of the two countries and about how locals view their culture and history (I asked students to think about the aspects of cultural history that the local guides stressed or expressed special pride about). By attending evening opera performances and concerts, students were allowed to participate in the cultural rituals with the local population, which revealed norms and standards of behavior and values that might be different from what they are used to in the US.

Students witnessed the wintery landscape of the Baroque gardens at the imperial Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria (left), and toured the National Theater in Prague, Czechia (right).

Course assignments and materials

Outside of class, students were asked to write daily journals in which they responded to questions that asked them to connect the historical facts, artistic aspects of the studied works, and present-day reception of those works in the places we visited. The final project asked students to focus on one monument or artwork they experienced during the trip and explain its significance and history to a person in the US. The course materials included chapters from books about the history and culture of Prague and Vienna and librettos of the operas attended during the trip.

The daily journals allowed students to reflect on what they were experiencing on site, whereas the final project helped them synthesize one portion of their experience in a coherent format and with an awareness of the different approaches to the arts and historical legacy in the US and in Central Europe.


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STUDENT WORK

Both the journals and the final projects showed that students thought critically about the similarities and differences in the roles that art plays in Central European and American societies. I assessed students’ responses to the daily journal questions, which are listed in the syllabus and are due at the end of each of the two weeks of the trip. I was surprised about how insightful students were in their observations about the differences between Central European and American cultures.

Regarding the final project, students received regular grades as well as an evaluation of intercultural competency; this evaluation did not affect the students’ overall grades but simply provided me with a system through which I could gauge the students’ engagement with intercultural competency. This evaluation consisted of assigning each of the final projects a grade on the scale from 1 to 3.

Out of the eight students in the course in the Spring of 2018, two wrote papers that I thought belong to category 3, four wrote papers in category 2, and two in category 1. The two papers in category 1 were also the weaker academically, whereas the papers in categories 2 and 3 were much stronger in the quality of argument, rhetorical sophistication, and clarity of organization. What distinguishes category 1 from category 2 papers is that category 2 papers manage to clearly relate the study-abroad experience to the students’ home environment; category 2 papers are well-written essays with a persuasive, well-argued point, but they are not as effective as category 3 papers in pointing out the relevance of their subjects for issues that are debated and contested in the contemporary US.

I think the reason only two students were able to point out clear connections between Central Europe and the US is a result of the shortness of the stay. As most of the participants were traveling abroad for the first time in their lives and stayed for less than two weeks, their focus in the few days they spent in each city was to become at least somewhat familiar with unknown cultures, languages, and ways of life. Because I remained in touch with most of the students on social media after the trip, I know that the journals and the papers were just the initial stage of coming to terms with an intercultural experience. In the weeks after the return, I noticed that students’ abilities to articulate the similarities and differences between Central Europe and the US became sharper. This became especially prominent in the students’ posts about various political and social developments in the US; these posts often included references to the students’ study-abroad experience for comparison and contrast.

As anecdotal support of the long-term impact of the course on learners, when I see students from the first trip in the hallways of the KU School of Music, they tell me how much they enjoyed the trip and how it helped them in the music history and regular history courses that they took afterward. Before the departure for the trip, students also created a Facebook group, which is still active. Since I am a member of the group, I can still see posts from the students, and they continue to find bits of news and information about Central European politics, culture, and society and share it with the group, nearly a year after returning from the trip.


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Reflections

Professor Martin Nedbal

Martin Nedbal

In study-abroad courses, it is not just the course content but also the experience of spending time abroad that has a major effect on students’ basic intercultural understanding. For example, just taking the subway from the dorm in Vienna to one of the tours we took in the city makes students aware of Europe’s very different concept of public services and public spheres, which stands in contrast to what they may be familiar with in the US.

The subjects explored and tours undertaken during the trip abroad specifically focused on the history of various ideologies, such as racism, anti-Semitism, and nationalism, which are also important for understanding historical and contemporary events in the United States. In the future, I plan to design further class lectures and journal assignments directed at helping students acquire an outside perspective on these dangerous ideological movements, with which they are familiar only in the context of American society and politics.

In addition, the next time the course is offered, I plan to use a pre- and post-test to help assess the efficacy of the course in addressing concepts central to Core Goal 4.2. The pre-test, which would ask students to rate themselves on a Likert scale from 1-5 on various intercultural skills/dispositions, would be administered during the pre-departure study-abroad meeting. After returning to the US, students would be asked to take a corresponding post-test, asking how the course affected those same dimensions. This measure would help provide further evidence of the efficacy of the course in supporting the attainment of Core Goal 4.2.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio: cte@ku.edu.


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