“You’ve Never Heard This?”: Reconsidering Students’ Commonalities
Whether in our own graduate seminars or in classes that we teach to others, how strongly do we press ourselves to comprehend life experiences that are profoundly different from our own and to be inclusive of their resulting perspectives on music?
In my first year as an ethnomusicology Ph.D. student in the United States, I was a teaching assistant for a class on U.S. popular music. Having grown up in Iran with limited access to North American popular culture, and despite living in Canada for a decade prior to moving to the U.S., the course material was partially new to me. While familiarizing myself with the content of the course, I felt excluded from the textbook authors’ intended readership. On multiple occasions, I encountered general assumptions such as, “We all have heard X artist or danced to Y genre of music at some point in our lives.” I felt anxious as I needed to seek the basic information I lacked about the artists and genres of music in discussion. In my own trajectory (which is not as rare as it may seem), I was an undergraduate music major who frequently felt left out of meaningful discussions because my overall musical experiences did not match that of mainstream, North American students. When I first arrived in Canada, to audition for a BFA in classical piano, I had never heard an opera nor attended a dance performance and had no experience with 20th-century Western art music. I graduated with distinction from my performance studies, but throughout the process, I struggled with the recognition that some concepts and even terms were beyond my reach.
As ethnomusicology students, we attune ourselves to a wide array of perspectives on music. But as we engage in conversations about music in our classrooms or communities, how truly inclusive are we of such multiplicities? How critically do we read the textbooks that purport to teach our students? How critically do we think about how we address our students and colleagues?
The media documents changing demographics within our communities, regardless of where we are, with social transformations happening at a rapid pace. In a world of widespread socio-political and economic instability, large numbers of people are relocating to safer places because of war, drought and famine, and religious and ethnic persecution. Growing diversity in the cities of Europe and North America, in particular, means that we need to recognize that those in our communities, classrooms, and workplaces could have life and musical experiences that we might not even be able to comprehend. It is as ethnomusicologists and musical activists that we must think critically about inclusivity, varied perspectives and practices, and distinctive meanings of our words and actions.
A recent news report about the refugees arriving on Mediterranean shores pointed out that children who were born and raised in war-struck regions could not imagine anything but violence, fear and flight from unsafe places, and loss and confusion of displacement. These children, youths, and adults may be among our students and may be our colleagues in a few short years. I would like to challenge us all to go beyond the academic literature and the divisive media and try to learn about those who are joining our communities, our classrooms, and our cohorts. Let us learn about their experiences without judging them. Let us appreciate the perspectives they might offer that would have remained unknown to us otherwise. This, of course, does not mean essentializing the experiences of any particular group of people, as life experiences are too nuanced to be generalized in the context of any cultural/educational exchange. Let us not call on the only girl wearing hijab in the classroom to share her experiences, but rather express our openness in a way that invites everyone to share their thoughts and experiences. Let us not assume anything about others’ musical experiences.
In light of today’s increasing instability, which is leading to the transformation of our communities, classrooms, and workplaces, I would like to challenge us all to reconsider our definition and implementation of “inclusivity.” Let us try to imagine, for instance, what it could mean for a freshman in college to have never heard of Pavarotti, to have no reference point as to what “Broadway music” might be, to have never watched a Michael Jackson music video, and to have never heard the “Ode to Joy.” I would like to propose that the kind of perspective that this student can offer needs to be valued and that we embrace such contributions to our discourse about music.
 This post is a cross-publication from SEM Student News.