And What of the Course Trailer?

August 11, 2007 at 2:12 pm

This summer, as I did the previous two summers, I am working as a Presidential Instructional Technology Fellow, which mainly involves designing website and their contents for use in music classes.  This summer, in preparation for a large, general education class at Harvard (what their call their “Core Program”), I’ve prepared a course “trailer”, which you can actually view on You Tube in a “rough cut.”

            The goal of the trailer is to get students excited about what, (for me at least), is an exciting subject: American Musical Theatre, and its resonance with American Culture. The video format seems particularly suited to classes about music on the stage, since the old fixture of the course catalog only allows the professor a scant 250 words (often less) to communicate the gist of the course to prospective students. While some courses might lend themselves to such a terse format (“Calculus III: Continuation of Calculus II. Prerequisite for Calculus IV”), Musicals, in all their vibrant glory, might benefit from capturing the imagination of the students and encouraging them to come to the class.

            This is especially true in Core Program at Harvard, where high enrollments have become a sort of unstated competition, a metric for the popularity (and therefore, significance) of the course material. Harvard’s flagship Core course, Justice,  regularly boasts more than 700 students – almost 1/8th of Harvard’s undergraduate population. Any edge in enrollment that the teaching staff can achieve ultimately speaks positively (so the argument goes) to their capacity as teachers.

            While I enjoyed making this course trailer, and will be pleased with the result once I figure out all the finer technical details, I can’t help but wondering what, if anything, is conceded or exchanged as a result of using this flashier delivery format in exchange for the tried-and-true course description, nestled snugly in the thick newsprint “courses of instruction” handbook (although also available online), given to each student as they prepare to register for classes.

            On the one hand, it seems absolutely essential that a student should be excited about a topic if they are to perform to their potential in a class – a course should not only instruct, but also ignite students’ imagination, and, ideally, inspire a lifelong interest in the subject. This is as true of a course on musical theater as it is a course on comparative anatomy of mollusks. And a course trailer, insofar as it can give students a real sample of the vitality of the musical as a genre, can only serve to help them come to the first class full of curiosity and excited to see all that could not be contained in the 75 seconds of the trailer.

            On the other hand, I can’t help but think of the admonishing voice of my father, who during his life was director of the Honors Program at Northern Illinois University. He often came home frustrated at an increasingly consumerist approach to education that was being adopted by the University of Illinois system. In this framework, there were no longer “students,” but “clients;” there were no longer “faculty,” but “human resources;” all aspects of the educational transaction were commoditized and treated like variables in an equation, which at the end would issue a certificate testifying to the achievement of a certain threshold of knowledge.

            I suppose that a course trailer, in some small way, can be accused of caving to a consumerist view of education, insofar as it attempts to make the course material appear more appealing/more interesting/just plain sexier than another course which a Harvard undergraduate might take to fulfill their “literature and arts” requirement of the Core Program. To put it in the terms of the armchair economist (that I so essentially am), it reflects a free-market understanding of higher education, since a trailer is a tool used to compete with other “firms” (in this case, courses and their teaching staff), for finite “capital” (undergraduate enrollment, which is understood to reflect the quality or, at least, the desirability of the course). Whoever is leading in capital has won a competition of sorts, and established themselves as a leader in the prestige economy.

            Yet reducing the course trailer, and the attitudes that led to its creation, to a shameless attempt at self-promotion is to oversimplify the situation. For one thing, advertisements already exist for courses – in the guise of the prose course description. The course trailer is merely an updating of that into a newer, more robust medium. For another, competition for students is not, a priori, a bad thing. While it may take some misguided forms at the undergraduate level (such as offering free iPods to all incoming students), at the graduate level it is essential to ensure the strongest possible department (and staff for teaching lecture courses);  the faculty hiring process itself is essentially a competition for scholars.

            Finally, I can’t help but wonder if the same people who would frown on a course trailer would assume, as self-evident, the importance of their own subject matter. To say that such “advertising” in a curriculum is bad seems to suggest, implicitly, at least, that truly important material needs no justification. Yet even the minds behinds the great books curriculum of the 1950s understood their enterprise to be a “great conversation.” Despite Adler & Co’s adherence to an established cannon, they all understood that works spoke, persuaded, and argued with one another. Indeed, can a given subject, mode of inquiry, or way of thinking truly be considered important if it does not argue for, indeed demand, your attention? A course trailer for American musicals, it seems to me, is merely one statement meant to underline the significance, and bring to the attention of those who might not have thought about it, a genre that can teach us a great deal about the music and culture of the past century.

Entry filed under: musicology.

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