Designing a BA in Popular Music #apme2018


Evan Tobias, Arizona State University

Evan begins by describing the program beginning with a ‘chicken and egg’ situation in his institution. A committee was formed to figure out how to launch a popular music degree – but no-one on the committee had a popular music background. The committee pushed ahead, based on the institutional promise from ASU that faculty would be hired when the decision had been made to launch.

The group began by identifying existing courses [UK readers – when US educators say ‘courses’ they mean ‘modules’. When they say ‘programs’ they mean ‘degree courses’]. Soon they realized that starting with the existing structures would not be helpful because the core philosophical goals had not been established, and these questions had to be addressed before the market research started.

The group interviewed High School students to figure out their perceptions of ASU music. This led them to try to develop a program that appealed to what Evan calls ‘hyphenated musicians’ – that is, practitioners with multiple skills and musical career aspirations.

The decision was made to go with a BA qualification (as opposed to a BM, the common music degree in US conservatories), because they wanted to allow for multiple student pathways through the degree, and also to include a liberal arts element. Evan put together a collection of selected research (in popular music teaching) to help the curriculum design committee to be informed by current thinking in the field.

Evan acknowledges the existence of territories and sacred cows in institutional politics; as he understates – “If you’ve ever done curricular change, you’ll know that conversations with the faculty are important”. To protect the early design drafts, the developing music core – harmony and theory etc – was left open, and not specified as particular course numbers, in order to keep curriculum flexibility in the structure, curriculum committees being democratic. The degree was ‘sold’ internally as being for a different type of student. Evan continues in this vein, describing in some detail how the program development team navigated the internal politics and achieved community buy-in…

We next turn to the NASM requirements, and Evan describes how they were navigated [JB comment for non-US people: the National Association of Schools of Music is an accrediting body that provides a framework for the content of music degrees. Not all music institutions or departments are members, and some high-profile conservatories (e.g. Oberlin) are not members.]

We then see some fairly traditional music degree expectations – ensembles, performances, theory, harmony, industry studies etc. ‘Labs’ were used for some areas, including music production, and a number of credits were assigned to musical/technical specialisms.

Evan describes how he used the NASM requirements flexibly

The committee then tried to stress-test their own curriculum, and ran through all the possible arguments against the draft curriculum, anticipating what might be said at the faculty curriculum committee. Finally, it came to the faculty vote, and there was substantial support, with only two voting against (out of of which one naysayer created and circulated dept-wide a 60-point bullet list of why this program was a bad idea!).

[JB comment – this was a fascinating insight into another institution’s internal politics. There wasn’t much detail about the curriculum itself, and what there was seemed fairly similar to some other institutions’ offerings, but the presentation was a wonderful lesson in using institutional processes to achieve positive change and innovation].

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