Popular Music Pedagogy Series: A Cultural History of U.S. Popular Music, by Stephanie Doktor

by Victor Szabo on September 24, 2015

In the newest addition to our Popular Music Pedagogy Series, Stephanie Doktor explains how she conceptualized and taught A Cultural History of U.S. Popular Music at the University of Virginia. She includes here a valuable list of pedagogical resources, as well as her course syllabus. These can be viewed below, as well as on our Pedagogy page.

In the spring of 2014, I taught a large lecture course called “A Cultural History of U.S. Popular Music” to one-hundred-and-twenty University of Virginia students. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about pedagogy, as a Graduate Student Associate for the University’s Center for Teaching Excellence. In this position, I have had the opportunity to consult with graduate student teachers, help the Center develop programs for new faculty, and lead a team of faculty through our renowned Course Design Institute—which helps participants create a learner-centered syllabus. Given this recent and immersive experience with the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, there are a few changes I have made to my syllabus and a few more I will make when I teach this course again. These changes have very little to do with which content to “cover” and more to do with “creating significant learning experiences” about the relationship between popular music and culture (Fink 2013).

Things That Worked

In order to prepare for class, students had to read a moderate amount and completed a pre-class reading quiz. This Just-in-Time Teaching (JITT) strategy enabled me to figure out what students actually gleaned from the reading and what we needed to review in class (Simkins and Maier 2009; Novak, et. al, 1999). It also kept students accountable to doing out-of-class work. Although there are plenty of excellent textbooks on popular music available, I decided to experiment with a mix of short articles from journals, the excellent primary sources from David Brackett’s Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, and the alternative history of American popular music found in Elijah Wald’s How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll. We focused on the later as a core text, because it gave students a provocative narrative to better remember foundational knowledge (dates, song titles, musical styles, etc.) and, most importantly, to form their own opinion about (Doyle and Zakrajsek 2013). If one of my core learning objectives was to get them to think like historians, Wald’s brazen comparison of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” to what many see as the lackluster jazz stylings of Paul Whiteman and Wald’s suggestion that both were integral to the segregation of black and white music styles made it easier for students to understand how stories can be construed, histories constructed. It also made some of my students mad.

In class, I cultivated an active learning environment: I lectured less; we discussed and listened more (Barkley, 2009; Bonwell and Eison; 1991). I used an online classroom response system called Learning Catalytics to gather feedback, to prompt discussions, and to work out the muddy points of mini-lectures and readings. We used collaborative learning techniques to guide the learning process. The Jigsaw activity was an especially successful one with positive feedback from students. Participants of this activity are responsible for becoming a “specialist” on a given topic and then teaching it to their group members (Barkley and Cross, 2004).

Perhaps one of the most important things I did was set up frequent practice opportunities followed by targeted feedback to prepare students for larger assessments. This is one of the hardest things to do in a course, because it takes time and often leads to more grading, but it is a crucial step to ensure students succeed and achieve desired learning objectives (Ambrose, et. al, 2010). To prepare for papers requiring them to analyze music and make an argument about its cultural resonance, students posted weekly written responses to a prompt, which asked them to argue how musical sounds could be interpreted using methodologies from the readings. I graded these quickly online using a 10-point scale and where necessary, provided snippets of feedback on how to improve.

How do I know all this “worked,” so to speak? I don’t. Measuring learning is incredibly difficult for the instructor lacking a research team, and formative assessments do not always give teachers the data they need to ensure learning happened. What I do know is these students submitted some of the best descriptive and argumentative writing about music I have ever encountered in my eight-year teaching career. I also witnessed transfer: an application of skills, learned in one context, to a novel context (Ambrose, et al., 2010). In an assignment, where students got to choose their own topic, they navigated this terrain with greater ease than I had expected; they compellingly analyzed social constructs of race, gender, and class in contemporary music we had never “covered” in class, reflecting an internalization of the discursive language of inequality in U.S. popular culture.

Things I Would Do Differently Next Time

First and foremost, I would reduce content. Evidence-based research shows that if teachers stop trying to “cover the material” (instructor-centered paradigm) and begin to focus on what they want students to learn (learner-centered paradigm), students can easily apply concepts and methodologies to new content (Barr & Tagg, 1995; Deslauriers, et. al. 2011). They can transfer skills. And this is what we all want as instructors. We want them to take what they learned in our class and apply it, ultimately beyond the classroom.

Second, I would structure the remaining topics around finding answers to beautiful and exciting questions. Good questions incite interest and therefore, increase motivation. It also models to students what inquiries drive the field of popular music studies. This is a form of inquiry-based instruction, which has over half of a decade of research and writing supporting its effectiveness (Nilson 2010). In What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain, whose research team interviewed over sixty renowned teachers from over two dozen, diverse institutions, says that posing an intriguing question or problem was essential to creating a “natural critical learning environment” (Bain 2004). Here are some I would consider using in place of topic titles.

  • Did the modern music industry make America a black and white musical nation?
  • Is Elvis “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”?
  • Is authenticity real? (A case study of the Nashville Sound.)
  • What kind of girl are you—the Stones or Beatles?
  • Is Madonna a feminist? Or just another privileged white woman?
  • Who killed genre in the 1990s?

Third, I would organize the class around semester-long learning teams. I am fascinated by the transformative potential of collaborative learning and peer instruction (Barkley and Cross, 2004; Mazur, 1996; Michaelsen, 2004). When students work together and teach each other, they identify stumbling blocks quicker and iron out misconceptions better. They often gain confidence as they take control of their own learning processes, and they are forced to adapt to perspectives different than their own. However, in my work cultivating student feedback to improve higher education (learn more about this initiative here), students constantly complain about group work. Some even say they will drop a class if they see a group assignment on the syllabus. That’s because most group work is set-up improperly and managed poorly. If done right, it can foster deep learning. I am determined to tap into this pedagogical goldmine, which seems especially suited to one of my course’s main questions: How do listeners hear race, gender, and class in music?


Ambrose, S. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Barkley, E. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Barkley, E., & Cross, K.P. (2004). Collaborative learning techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Barr, R. B., & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning—a new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 27(6), 12-25.

Bonwell, C. C., & Eison, J. A. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report Number 1. Washington, D.C.: School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University.

Boud, D. (2001). “Introduction: Making the Move to Peer Learning.” In Boud, D., Cohen, Ruth & Sampson, Jane (Ed.). Peer learning in higher education: Learning from & with each other. London: Kogan Page Ltd., 1–17.

Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., & Wieman, C. (2011). “Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class.” Science 332(6031), 862—864.

Doyle, T., & Zakrajsek, T. (2013). The new science of learning: How to learn in harmony with your brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Fink, L.D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mazur, E. (1996). Peer instruction: A user’s manual. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Meyers, C., & Jones, T.B. (1993). Promoting active learning strategies for the college classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Michaelsen, L.K., Knight, A.B. & Fink, L.D. (Eds.) (2004). Team-based learning: A transformative use of small groups in college teaching. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Nilson, L. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Novak, G., Patterson, E., Gavrin, A., & Christian, W. (1999). Just-in-Time teaching: Blending active learning and web technology. Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Simkins S., & Maier M. (2010). Just-in-time teaching: Across the disciplines, across the academy. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

You may view Stephanie Doktor’s syllabus here; you may also find a link on our Pedagogy page.

Stephanie Doktor is a Ph.D. candidate in Musicology at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation revives a history of the concert jazz vogue in 1920s modernist compositions. An emphasis on both black and white transnational American composers enables her to examine the sonic materialization of U.S. race relations and international racial ideologies through the creation and reception of this style. Stephanie has taught in higher education for eight years. Her favorite course objectives implore students to listen to the sounds of race, gender, and class in twentieth century musics of the United States. She especially loves to teach non-majors and undergrads to develop critical listening skills and historical perspectives of music.

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