Exploring the Middle Ground

No, [for you music theorists] this is not a post about Schenkerian analysis.  This is a post about an exciting opportunity I’m exploring with my Form and Analysis class next week.  We are going to our campus’s extraordinary art museum for our first of a series of three classes (spread out over the semester).

What has captured my pedagogical imagination the most is engaging with the idea of middle ground. I was introduced to this concept two weeks ago during a workshop about using our wonderfully equipped and staffed teaching museum.  It comes, as far as I can tell, from Richard White’s book, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815Led by a history professor, the workshop I attended touched on the change in power structure that occurs when I take my class to the museum. I am no longer an expert learner; I am now on the similar footing to my students. What a treat for me! I have been fascinated by the implications and simplicity of the idea for two weeks now and am excited about our first trip to the museum next Wednesday.

It is so easy for me to be an expert in my own classroom. Now in my third iteration of this specific class, I even feel like an expert (after all, this subject is also a major player in my dissertation). There is a clear power dynamic, and even discussion can become stilted as students wait for my approval for their comments and ideas. When we go to the museum, we will be in more of a middle ground, a place where the power structure [based on knowledge in our case] is far less extreme. This change is, understandably, both a little uncomfortable and exciting for me. But, I shouldn’t worry. My students are kind, open, and well aware that I am not an art historian or expert. And, I will be co-teaching with the museum’s Curator of Academic Programs.

What I think will happen is that we will learn together, discovering facets of visual analysis (our topic/skill for next Wednesday), brainstorming how they can help us do a better job in our musical analysis, and making connections between the visual and performing arts. My dream is that these visits will significantly enhance our discussions, questions, grasp of nuances, ability to perceive an entire work [much harder in music than in art], thoughts on authenticity, and awareness of perception.

In case you’re curious about the nitty gritty, I listed the works–two sculptures and two paintings–we will be looking at on Wednesday at the bottom of the post.  I have had 90 minutes of meetings with a team (of 2) from the museum who are dedicated to bringing classes focused on topics from music to biology to English. On Monday (as my students turn in their first paper) our class will brainstorm connections between visual and musical analysis by revamping a visual analysis writing assignment as a musical analysis one. I’m not sure how we will wrap up on Friday. As a start, though, students will do some out-of-class informal writing on how what we learned about visual analysis can guide their musical analysis. And, throughout this entire process, we will be studying a Brahms song: “Gestillte Sehnsucht,” Op. 91, No. 1.

1 Carl Andre (American, b. 1935)
8 Blocks and Stones, 1973
Concrete blocks and river stones
Overall: 2 3/8 x 11 5/8 x 11 7/16 in. (6 x 29.5 x 29.1 cm) each
Gift of Paul F. Walter (OC 1957), 1979.8

2 Joseph Wright of Derby (English, 1734–1797)
Dovedale by Moonlight, 1784–85
Oil on canvas
Overall: 24 5/8 x 30 5/8 in. (62.5 x 77.8 cm)
Framed: 32 x 38 1/2 x 3 in. (81.3 x 97.8 x 7.6 cm)
R. T. Miller Jr. Fund, 1951.30

3 Carl Moll (Austrian, 1861–1945)
Spring in Kahlenbergerdorf, ca. 1900–1910
Oil on panel
Overall: 13 3/8 x 13 3/8 in. (34 x 34 cm)
Framed: 20 7/8 x 20 7/8 x 1 3/4 in. (53 x 53 x 4.4 cm)
Elisabeth Lotte Franzos Bequest, 1958.52

4 François-Auguste-René Rodin (French, 1840–1917)
The Prodigal Son, c. 1905
Bronze with dark green patina
Overall: 54 1/4 x 26 x 27 in. (137.8 x 66 x 68.6 cm)
R. T. Miller Jr. Fund, 1955.32

read a post-class reflection here, and about the second visit of the semester here.

5 thoughts on “Exploring the Middle Ground

  1. That sounds like a great sequence of classes! I will be interested to hear how it went to gather my own ideas of how to build such exchanges into my classes.

    What, BTW, is he visual analysis writing assignment? The students have engaged with a piece of art that you have selected? Or something a critic has already written?

    • Thanks for your comment! The visual writing assignment is a standard one that the AMAM seems to have on hand. There are 20-25 questions presented to help the writer compose a 1-2 page description of a piece from the collection. The first five questions are: What is the subject matter? What is happening? What or who are the primary subject(s) or central characters in the image? What is the focus of the composition? What are the various elements in the image and how are they arranged? I thought it would be a comfortable way to look at similarities and differences between visual analysis and musical analysis. (I’m imagining 25 minutes of small-group work and class discussion).

  2. Jan, I’ve been a lurker on your blog since S mentioned it a couple weeks ago. SO inspiring! Looking forward to hearing how this project in particular goes.

    • Thanks Daphne, I’m very excited about this activity. We go tomorrow and I’ll definitely be reporting/reflecting on the experience. The class prep we did yesterday exceeded my expectations, and I left with a very full brain of ideas and inspirations.

  3. Pingback: In the midst of the Middle Ground | teaching matters

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