What do you mean you drove?! Reflections on the 2019 Pedagogy Into Practice Conference
A flight from Houston to Santa Barbara is expensive (at least $400)! So instead, three intrepid music theorists--Drs. Rebecca Long, Rachel Mann, and Kristen Wallentinsen--chose to embark on a four-day road-trip to the Pedagogy into Practice conference. Four days, three theorists, and copious amounts of coffee. What could possibly go wrong?
We stayed at the Long family’s farm in Abilene, TX, the Wallentinsen family’s home near Albuquerque, NM, and a hotel in Flagstaff Arizona, chosen for its scenery and proximity to the Grand Canyon. Along the way, we listened to Madonna, The Beatles, Adele, The Toadies, Willie Nelson, and U2, just to name a few1. We experienced sunshine, snow at the Grand Canyon that tested Dr. Long’s stellar blizzard driving skills(!), fabulous diner food (including a meatloaf to die for), and magnificent sights that reminded us of the grand power of nature.
Why drive across four states instead of flying to the conference as usual? The number one reason for the road-trip was the cost. By road-tripping, we saved money on what it would have cost us all to fly to Santa Barbara and rent a car for the duration of the conference. But the biggest incentive to go on this road trip was the immense value of spending time with similarly-minded people, getting to know them even better, and having more great stories and newly-formed inside jokes than we can count.
1. (Others included: the Hamilton soundtrack, The Beastie Boys, The Cure, Louis Fonsi and Selena, Janelle Monàe, Lady Gaga, The Killers, Los Lonely Boys, and Nirvana)
The idea of the road-trip came from my reluctance to get on a plane with a giant poster. I'm happy to say that the result produced a truly memorable and enjoyable trip, complete with non-stop discussion, car karaoke, and lots of coffee.
Although individual papers and sessions had an impact on me, the most important part of my conference experience was seeing the number and variety of people dedicated to improving theory pedagogy. Despite what some may think, teaching is difficult. Beyond the knowledge of a given subject, it involves constant consideration of the learners involved, attention to classroom dynamics, and an often uncomfortable amount of introspection. This latter part includes thinking about the pros and cons of our own educations, trying to understand our own successes so that we may pass those along to students, and, on the negative side, those painful reflections that must happen when a teaching strategy fails.
These concerns make the community that the Pedagogy into Practice Conferences have established important beyond pedagogical research. Spending several days with other pedagogues--from senior scholars to graduate students--discussing the triumphs, the failures, the tragedies, and comedies that make up the natural cycle of teaching fosters (I hope) a sense of community in all of us. The workshops, papers, keynotes, and posters gave me a great deal to think about on the ride home. However, it was the “after hours” conversations in restaurants, in the hotel lobby, by the pool (we were in southern California, after all) that made me excited to return for the next conference.
I was very excited to be a part of the second Pedagogy into Practice conference. From serving on the program committee, chairing a session, and presenting my research during the lively poster session, the entire experience was destined to be noteworthy. However, deciding during the Texas Society for Music Theory conference back in February that we should make it a road trip, made this one of the most memorable conferences I have ever attended. Through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, we discussed music theory, writing, the academic job market, feminism, our graduate school experiences, and more. We broke up our not-always-serious conversations with numerous stops at Route 66 diners still clinging to a bygone era and even took a side trip to the Grand Canyon. (Spoiler alert: the canyon was completely clouded over during a freak Memorial Day snowstorm so we saw absolutely nothing!)
For me, it was a joy to see the wide variety of pedagogical ideas being implemented throughout the country and to see such a fantastic program come together. I thought the breadth of topics and ideas were outstanding and such a program solidifies the fact that the field of music theory pedagogy is alive and thriving. I was excited in particular to have made numerous connections with scholars interested in various collaborative projects, especially those with a focus on making the music of marginalized composers more accessible. Furthermore, while I took copious notes and made a list of numerous things to bring to my own classroom this fall, I was especially struck by the session on graduate student mentoring. Even on our way home, as Rebecca and I drove through Lubbock, Texas, we met a graduate student active in our TSMT chapter for lunch and put our new mentoring chops to work. While the road trip, combined with the actual conference, added to an extended time away from home, work, and research, the swapping of ideas, enthusiastic conversations, and time spent in reflection, were well worth it.
I grew up in the Southwest, and have always had a great love for its wide-open spaces: spaces containing magnificent vistas, canyons, and plains that stretch out farther than the eye can see, spaces that remind you of the grand forces of nature, spaces that give your mind the room to slow down and reflect, away from the business of our fast-paced daily lives.
During our road-trip, gazing out the window at these wide-open spaces, we began to reflect on the many amazing themes of this Pedagogy into Practice conference. We reflected on Daniel Stevens’ keynote on improvisation. We realized how much improvisation we implicitly use in our classroom already and discussed ways we can make it a more explicit learning outcome. We also reflected upon curricular content in the undergraduate core and discussed the many ways that pedagogues at this conference are making the core both more inclusive and more relevant to today’s musical world.
What struck me most as I processed the week’s events is the underlying theme of reflection itself in this conference, and the necessity for good pedagogues to reflect on their teaching practices in order to grow. From the large sweeping curricular changes occurring at institutions like Appalachian State, the College of Idaho, George Mason University, and Ithaca College all the way down to the introduction of new classroom activities that make music theory more accessible for students, the theme underwriting it all is reflection upon the fundamental question of how we can make music theory teaching better. That so many of us are passionately engaged in this process of reflection and growth makes me excited to be a part of this community, and excited for the future of our field.
Our return trip included hours of talking about the conference, more classic diner food, and, thanks to a snowstorm on Memorial Day, a hilariously underwhelming trip to the Grand Canyon. Although the view of the canyon was non-existent thanks to the storm, the trip was still exciting by virtue of driving on a bunch of windy roads through said snowstorm with a bunch of other tourists who were just as unprepared as we were (we have ten degrees between us, yet only one had the forethought to pack cold-weather clothes).
Although the initial motivation for our road-trip across the Southwest was financial, that’s not the reason we all plan to do it again in the future. The camaraderie--the quasi-romantic whimsy of jumping in a car with kindred spirits, telling stories, listening to music, and bonding over a 3,600-mile journey--is why another road-trip to another music theory conference is likely in our future.
Figure 1. On the road again! Front seats: Dr. Rachel Mann, Dr. Rebecca Long (driving). Back seat: Dr. Kristen Wallentinsen.
Figure 2. Snowy views at the Grand Canyon during the snowstorm. Left-to-right: Dr. Rebecca Long, Dr Rachel Mann, Dr. Kristen Wallentinsen