The sounds in most GW classrooms consist of clicking keyboards and professor strumming during lectures – but in some classes, the halls are filled with soaring guitar riffs of 80s rock instead.
Professors from all over GW said their motivations for including tunes ranged from using fast-flowing hip-hop lyrics to encourage students to pay close attention to the lecture to playing the hard-hitting drums of heavy metal to get students to give the punching bag one extra punch. Music plays a role in GW classes beyond lessons structured around music theory, with professors teaching subjects from cardio kickboxing to American cultural history, playing music as a crucial part of their teaching style.
Gail Wald, a professor of American studies and English who teaches modern American cultural history, said she plays music as her students settle into class, both to set a comfortable mood for the upcoming class and to set the topics of the lecture from this week’s students’ minds. Wald also encourages students to pay attention to visual and narrative aspects such as the video and reception of the tunes playing from the lecture hall speakers by projecting the music videos onto the blackboards in her classrooms.
“I teach from the perspective of a cultural historian, so while I get students to listen to music, I’m also very interested in the extra-musical elements of listening: video, music consumption settings, fan culture, the function of memory, the role of the body/dance,” Wald said in an email.
Wald said she plays some classic songs that all of her students know, and while many enjoy just listening to music that’s already at the top of their Spotify playlists, she also takes the opportunity to introduce students to activist artists, such as the Asian-American musician No-No Boy who wrote songs about Japanese internment camps. At the same time, Wald said her students help her learn about new artists, such as rapper MF Doom and alternative rock musician St. Vincent.
“It’s hard to keep up with new things, especially as you get older and your ears get more stuck in their ways,” she said.
Roy Grinker, a professor of cultural anthropology who specializes in courses on African culture, said he usually comes to class early and starts playing music like the high-energy Mexican band Grupo Frontera so students feel comfortable coming to him to ask questions about tasks, even if the music is unrelated to those tasks. Shy students are nervous about asking questions in front of the whole class, but Grinker said the background noise gives students confidence knowing their classmates won’t hear them.
“A quiet classroom doesn’t encourage students to approach me or maybe even talk to each other before a lecture starts,” Grinker said.
Grinker said she likes to take song requests from students to start the class, but also believes in integrating appropriate music throughout the course. He said the song lyrics in particular are helpful in helping students relate to the theme of each lecture to show students how disempowered groups highlight their plight.
“Ice Cube, Public Enemy, NWA, Ice-T are some of the artists I discuss in class for what they communicate about frustration with health care disparities, anger at racism and lost opportunities, and demands for recognition of injustices, past and present,” he said.
Brian Stamps, a professor of lifestyle, sport and physical activity who teaches cardio kickboxing classes, said he uses music to motivate his students to complete an extra minute of push-ups in his classes. He said he tries to find songs with more than 120 beats per minute, up-tempo, like many classic rock songs, because studies show that these types of songs loosen the burden of intense exercise.
“Have you ever tried to train listening to nothing but what’s going on around you?” Stamps said. “It gets very boring very quickly.”
Stamps said she also plays music during class practices she leads to introduce students to classic songs they may not have heard before. He said he often starts his lessons with 1980s rock songs like Van Halen and AC/DC because that’s what he grew up listening to before moving on to more modern pop and rock. but sometimes his students view these songs as retro hits.
“There’s nothing like a Madonna song or a Britney Spears song being called old,” he said. “It makes you go, ‘Oh, I’m really old.'”
While his official job may be helping students gain physical strength and endurance, Stamps said he also finds pleasure in helping them do something completely unrelated — find and enjoy new music.
“One of the things I tell my students at the beginning of the semester is that my class should be fun, stress-relieving, and if something or someone is making it stressful, let me know so I can fix it,” Stamps said. “Because if it’s stressful, I’m not doing my job. That’s why I make it fun. And music helps.”
This article appeared in the May 1, 2023 issue of Hatchet.