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    Talks heard at the American Historical Society conference and their application to music theory

    This past weekend I attended the annual conference of the American Historical Association. With sometimes as many as 50 simultaneous sessions (I kid you not!), one can imagine it was very stimulating and exhausting.  (The online program is at: https://aha.confex.com/aha/2015/webprogram/start.html)

    Though the conference was about history, it easily could have been about musicology or music theory.  In my summary below I'm sure one can  see the application of many of these ideas to music theory, both inside the classroom and beyond it.

    I gravitated to many of the sessions dealing with digital tools and technologies both in the aid of research and teaching.  I was already familiar with many of the tools used in research, so I was focusing more on the new kinds of questions and research methods that arise out of having such tools.

    Less known to me were how digital techniques being used in the classroom to foster a deeper understanding of the material.  A particularly memorable session had lightning talks by professors (and some students).  Each person had 2 minutes to share what they are doing or planning with digital techniques in the classroom.

    All teachers were very stimulated by the results they were seeing in their students, chief among them deeper student engagement.  There's no question that initial adoption of digital techniques usually involves more planning on the part of the teacher (sometimes more staff is needed to execute incorporation in the classroom). But the effect expended appeared to be rewarded by the results.

    I was very impressed by ideas expressed by Kathryn Tomasek, professor at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.  On her blog "Doing History Digitally" she summarized the resources involving both digital humanities and pedagogy mentioned in one of the workshops, Getting Started with Digital History in the Classroom.

    I was also very impressed by Jeffrey W. McClurken, professor at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. He has his own list of resources for those wanting to learn more about digital humanities and pedagogy.


    A simple way to get started is to use a simple tool. A number of people extolled use of Omeka for use in class (http://www.omeka.net/).  Originally conceived as a tool for creating online exhibits, many people have transformed Omeka into a more interactive tool, one that allows people to move away from thinking in a purely linear fashion.  This being a conference for history teachers, such teachers mentioned how they put up texts from primary sources from which students add related passages from their own learning adding their own glosses.  Since the Omeka installation is visible to the entire class, each student learns from each other's work and continue examination of each other's glosses.

    Many of the techniques used visualizations based on data, and techniques for dealing with text, such as text-mining and topic modeling. One of the talks involved a new tool being tested at Ithaca College in New York.  Originally called "Untangling the Web," the project is now called LINK: Learning in Networks of Knowledge (the website has not been updated to reflect the latest findings or the new name: http://www.ithaca.edu/hs/untanglingtheweb/) The professor's project was to give the class a text, have them tag it according to the topics their perceived. Tthen as they continue their research and encounter other texts, to tag those connections, resulting in a network of relations between the original text and multiple other sources.  All this work was visible to the entire class so connections and links were made not only from student to text, but between students as well.  The teacher who used this technique excitedly spoke of the deeper reading the students gave all texts.  It was a classroom activity that no longer was about memorizing to spit back on the test, but to learn a text thoroughly enough that it can be seen in different ways.

    Not all talks were about tools.  Occasionally discussion arouse about the place of digital humanities among teachers, researchers, students, and the general population.  Even though there is still some disdain for the field among strict traditionalists, such attitudes do not disturb practitioners.  Already digital humanities are frequently discussed in the general press (usually without calling it digital humanities).  What happens when non-academia becomes familiar with the techniques and questions endemic to digital humanities?  That knowledge will certainly influence academia (those who refuse to learn--beware!)

    There must be many hundreds of websites showing digital humanities in action or in the classroom.  I strongly urge those with even a casual interest to investigate the resources mentioned above and become familiar with these techniques whose influence is going to increase.

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    • 5 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • Fascinating Bob! I'm trying to envision at what level such resources like Omeka could be useful. Is this something you could envision even freshmen using in their introductory harmony classes, or is this most likely suited for upper classmen and graduate classes in theory?

      Devin Chaloux

      Indiana University

    • That was my summary of the conference.  I know there are people in SMT who are interested in following up on some of these ideas. People like Kris Shaffer have already tried to incorporate these ideas in his thinking and teaching.  Is it not time for us to now have an ongoing discussion of how we can use digital techniques to enhance our teaching of theory, and to allow students to have a deeper connection to the music they study? I'm sure a number of us would welcome an ongoing discussion of these ideas.

    • Hi Devin!  My immediate superficial thoughts for implementing Omeka (or similar packages like WordPress) would be at a higher level.  If one wanted to dissect a text passage rich with implications (for example a portion of Artusi commenting on Monteverdi) one could set up the passage in a frame, then "tributary" passages could then "come out" of the main one.  I'm thinking of the musical examples - one could have each one in a separate frame, and the class collectively has to understand what is Artusi objecting to, and under what rationales does Monteverdi use it.  If it's a type of "history of music theory" course, one could bring in other texts that agree, disagree, or amplify Artusi's issues.

      Or if one prefers to use musical text, I would think unusual chords might bring forth discussion.  Say I put in various types of augmented chords.  Students will have to explain how they work (preparation, resolution), find explanations from multiple textbooks (hopefully conflicting), find other examples from the literature--all as a means of deepening one's understanding and recognition of such chords and how their behavior varies.

      That's my initial thoughts. I'm sure if one thought of topics then the derivative commentary would increase in complexity.

    • I feel like there are so many tools that we are unaware of, but at the same time there are plenty of tools that we are aware of that seem limited in possibility given the subject at hand. How nice it would be to have students complete assignments online! (etc.)

      I'll keep an eye out for these types of programs and consider the pedagogical uses. Every time I encounter something like this, I always envision how I might be able to change the way we teach beginning theory as well. I get the feeling in the next 10-15 years, we could see a big revision.

      Devin Chaloux

      Indiana University

    • I've always considered the "Bamboo DiRT" directory the main starting point for learning about tools and techniques.  Several months ago they dropped the "bamboo" so that it's now just DiRT = Digital Research Tools: http://dirtdirectory.org/

      I periodically look at this directory to be reminded of what's out there and what it can be used for.  Then when I see a talk that implements a tool or technique, I'm already slightly familiar with what it does.  

      Even if you have the most casual interest, I strongly advise you to examine the DiRT directory and what's in it - even better, play around with it.  You can get text files from HathiTrust or any number of online book/scholarship sites.  At the conference I discovered that you can request downloads from JSTOR from their Data For Research site: http://dfr.jstor.org/  and they'll give you an Excel spreadsheet (or other format) that provides you with a dataset to start with. 

      There's no question in my mind that engagement with these tools and techniques requires time and experience.  That's why I think the Society should formally set up a group to explore these ideas, perhaps presenting something annually at the meetings as a way of educating the membership.