Never had I imagined that something as mundane as reading final exams would inspire a blog post. Every spring I teach the second half of the US History survey (since 1865). Teaching at an engineering university means that I get a lot of upperclassmen who are just filling in their last humanities credit. So I like to find ways to change it and keep it fresh for both the students and myself. The road to grading this pile of exams began in January.
On the first day of class I spent some time trying to sell them on attending an event or two in a special series sponsored by Carnegie Hall that dovetailed nicely with our semester titled The Sixties: The Years that changed America. (The exhibit at the New York Public Library continues through September 1.) I offered extra credit to anyone who attended an event and wrote a reflection essay on the content. I also showed the trailer for the film from the Monterrey Pop Festival which was playing in the city at that time. Playing some music from that festival at the opening of class inspired me to continue that each class session.
Over the weeks, we listened to pieces of music that correlated with time periods that we discussed in class. For example, we heard African American spirituals, early Blues, ragtime, and jazz. We also listened to part of “The New World Symphony” and marked the recent passing of trumpeter Hugh Masekela. This routine of opening class with music was derailed somewhat by the number of snow days we had this semester (which put us behind slightly) but we finished strong with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” when discussing the 1960s – the early 1980s. (I like to use the Geto Boys’ “Fuck a War” and NWA’s “Fuck the Police” with chapters on the 1980s and 90s. In addition to being socially significant, hearing the word “fuck” in these songs wakes students up at 8:30am!)
On the final exam, as a result of these musical interludes, I asked the students to write about any song that they think best illuminates or comments upon the present moment in American culture. I was hoping for some essays that would make for different, perhaps even interesting, reading. The responses and the students’ analysis offered much more than I had anticipated. I learned about songs I had never heard and got insight into the students’ perspective on the current political climate. Students wrote about songs including Eminem’s “Untouchable”, “The Currents” by the band Bastille, “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar, and Father John Misty’s “Bored in the USA” (which was a nice callback to our discussion of “Born in the USA”).
However, the majority of the students wrote about Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino’s “This is America”. I thought I was having a senior moment having not seen or heard of this video, but, it turned out that in a beautiful act of synchronicity the video was released just a few days before my students took their history exam. This campus tends to be pretty conservative politically; however, I can say without hesitation that this song, which has become a number one hit, definitely resonated with my students. Many of them wrote fine essays contextualizing the content of the song with our semester’s long discussion of social movements. A number of them noted the importance of politically motivated art in giving voice to injustice. One student said that as a result of this class, he now understood that social progress is a long road but music can help raise awareness along the way. Well said. If you haven’t already, check out the video.