Dr. Sonnet Retman’s Fall 2015 AFRAM 337 course is a musical intervention into more conventional cultural studies scholarship. The course, which is cross-listed as GWSS 241, is described as an introduction to “popular music studies through the practice of archive building, oral history analysis, critical writing and digital scholarship.” Co-teachers Retman and GWSS’s Dr. Michelle Habell-Pallán engage diverse genres of music such as blues, gospel, estilo bravío, punk, son jarocho, and disco in order to engage students in innovative scholarship that follows their own interests and passions.
This is the third time that Retman and Habell-Pallán have taught the course, and Retman describes the current cohort as offering some of the most enthusiastic participation they have ever experienced in the class. Because the course is linked up with community events and projects such as MÁS (Movimiento Afrolatino Seattle) and the Women Who Rock Archive, students are able to take up diverse genres and histories in this class as a way of both studying and decentering the dominant histories of music and artistic production.
Course projects include group blogging, as well as the rewriting and expanding of Wikipedia pages of notable artists that students discover through their course work. Retman and Habell-Pallán also seek to show students how to use the models they observe in the collaborations they encounter in music to develop their class work expectations. Course goals for AFRAM 337 include examining how race and gender bear on reception and performance for artists, as well as engaging with different types of public scholarship and community engagement.
Held in an interactive learning room in Odegaard for half of their sessions, the course allows for active participation in the academic production of digital media and storytelling. The learning space and the environment created by Retman and Habell-Pallán allow students to go beyond just reading. As a consequence of their experience in this course, students become active participants in their learning and production of stories.
Retman sees students creating vivid work through musical scholarship because both she and her students know that music is a visceral way of making sense of their own ideas and communal identity. She sees music as “central to stories that we tell about ourselves and our world.” Through the course, students are able to move beyond being passive observers in the community to becoming active participants in the creation of dynamic reception and history-making.
The course is creating a legacy of on-going student participation as former students have developed their projects from the course into larger works that have been shown outside of the University of Washington community. Dr. Retman describes how one group of students from their first year of teaching the course were able to develop their work into a documentary project about the Seattle self-defense group Home Alive. The documentary, titled Rock, Rage, and Self Defense, was screened for students in the next iteration of the course.
Retman sees this course filling a critical need for students with an interest in American Ethnic Studies as it shows the ways that art is crucial to politics. Through their engagement in the class, Retman, Habell-Pallán, and their students are able to investigate the ways that personal and community politics shape the ways in which narratives and histories are reproduced. The class allows students to move beyond identifying music as a kind of academic guilty pleasure and instead see the music that they love as an important tool in understanding the diverse communities and cultures around them.
Both Retman and Habell-Pallán look forward to teaching the course again next year in conjunction with the Women Who Rock unConference 2017.
Read more about connected community and course materials for AFRAM 337: