A new guest post by Dr. Summer Marion from Bentley University, Waltham, MA:
Since Fall 2022, I have taught ten sections of Internationals Relations at Bentley University. Each semester, I experiment with integrating music into my curriculum as a means of both encouraging my students to apply abstract concepts in their everyday lives, and better understanding what IR means to them. Inspired by others’ impressive IR playlists, I take a slightly different approach from faculty who have curated their own lists to share with students in class. I challenge students to: 1) expand and improve my taste in music, and more importantly 2) contribute to making IR more relevant to their generation by proposing songs of their own for a small amount of extra credit on the final exam. Students brainstorm songs that they enjoy listening to and find relevant to a topic covered in class over the course of the semester. They then share their songs alongside a brief explanation in our class discussion forum. I encourage students to submit songs as we cover each topic, but final submissions are not due until the end of the semester. I occasionally play a student submission to kick off a new topic at the beginning of class, inviting students to discuss and share their thinking.
The results offer a window into how students view the topics we cover through their own sociocultural lens and lived experience. Their selections show not only what music they are listening to (spoiler alert: some of them are still jamming to classic hits), but in some cases what world events have shaped their understanding of the topics covered in class. For example, several submitted songs written about the lived experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reading further into student descriptions of their proposed songs, other themes of note include the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the climate crisis, and racial and economic injustice.
I am sharing below a collective playlist developed by three sections of approximately 30 students each who participated in this exercise during Fall 2023. Most of these students were sophomores and juniors. For context, Bentley University is a business-focused regional university in New England. While some took IR to fulfill International Affairs major and minor requirements or as a prerequisite to study abroad, most enrolled in the class to fulfill general education requirements. A few caveats and takeaways:
- These songs are my students’, not my own. I share them here with permission.
I intervened only to ensure there was some connection between the song proposed and topic covered and make minor adjustments to the way songs were categorized by topic to ensure accuracy and appropriate coverage. When I saw any connection between a song proposed by a student and the material covered in class—even one I might not have drawn, myself—I included the song.
- Any normative implications of these songs are not meant to present a comprehensive picture of the topics with which they are associated. One interesting aspect of submissions, in fact, was how students discussed topics from different angles of “good” and “bad” – a theme discussed in class. For example, on the topic of nationalism, a Ukrainian student proposed a song he associates with Ukrainian nationalism and strength in asserting the country’s independence. At the same time, an American student proposed a song that has been criticized as controversial for promoting vigilantism and extremism in the U.S. context. Both are included. On a related note, on the topic of constructivism, norms, and ideas, all included submissions encapsulate the normative tenets of idealism. Who is singing “bad” norms? A question for another semester.
- Some submissions challenge conventional thinking about IR. For example, several students submitted songs about the individual lived experience of COVID-19. All hold potential to contribute to our understandings of human security and IR, though not all make explicit connections between individual experience and international dynamics. In class, I push students to draw these connections – yet more broadly, I see value in understanding why and how students associate topics with certain songs they find meaningful. My hope is that this inclusive approach will inform my future teaching by providing new lenses and examples more relevant to today’s students.
- Crowdsourcing an IR playlist comes with pedagogical limitations. By giving students the entire semester to think about their submissions, I aim to actively engage them in the process of developing a playlist while giving them time to synthesize key components of the class. Ideally this results in higher quality submissions as well as reinforcing final exam review. Yet this approach makes it impossible to fully integrate music into the day-to-day curriculum as others have done—for example, by playing a song associated with each topic at the beginning of class. As the project evolves, I intend to make the playlist a more integral component of my students’ learning experience over the course of the semester.
(For great examples of how others have integrated music into IR curricula, see Mike Tierney’s list here, which I provided in class as an example, plus this IR playlist from Mark Copelovitch to kick off Good Authority’s “Good Playlists” series. Full disclosure: I was lucky enough to be a student in one of Mike’s classes during the time he developed his list, though it was a class on International Organization—not IR—so I did not have the opportunity to contribute!).