[Smt-talk] Prose writing in theory courses: update

Rogers, Lynne ROGERSL13 at wpunj.edu
Thu Jul 4 14:29:35 PDT 2013

Dear Colleagues,

To get a broader sense of the use of prose writing in music theory courses, especially in undergraduate courses, I posted a query to smt-talk at the end of May. Sixteen of you responded, primarily off list. Thank you very much for your thoughtful and often detailed comments. It is clear that this issue holds great importance for many of us. Some respondents requested that I submit a summary of the information in your replies. Please consider this posting that summary (and please note that as a summary it omits many interesting details and opinions contained in the responses). I welcome discussion and more responses, so please don’t hesitate to email the list or to write to me off list.

Here is my initial query:

If you ask students to write in your courses,
-- in which courses do you require students to write prose?
-- about how often during the semester do you require students to write prose?
-- what forms does the prose take (short essays of 1-4 pages, longer essays, term papers, responses to published writing, blogs, concert reports, journals, in-class writing, other)?
-- are the writing projects primarily analytical or historical?

The respondents teach at small colleges, conservatories, smaller public universities, and large research universities.

Courses: Most upper-division theory courses incorporate prose writing, and some of you have students write only in these courses. Prose writing was also fairly common during second-year theory, but significantly more rare during the first year. Only one respondent mentioned that prose writing occurred regularly in aural skills courses.

Frequency: Most of you incorporate prose writing several times during the semester, although the frequency was much higher for others, especially for those who assign journal entries, listening responses, or other types of “low-stakes” writing (that is, writing that is not graded, or graded pass/no pass). Some of you assign little writing, or one large project.

Forms: (Answers to this question were the most varied and revealed creative pedagogies.) Journals, listening notes, and concert reports; summaries or in-class lectures or discussion; summaries of readings; low-stakes responses during class meetings; posters for poster session; paragraphs and longer essays answering questions on an exam; analytical essays, ranging from approximately 1 - 12 pages; essay outlines; term papers up to 20 pages in length; and senior theses. A few respondents specified that work is submitted online; the remainder did not specify.

Most prose writing addressed questions posed by the instructor; less often, students chose their own musical works or issues to address. Several respondents assign revisions or, in preparation for longer essays, full or partial drafts. Some respondents specifically require the use of illustrations and musical examples in more formal essays. Some of you gradually increase the number of pages required for each essay over the course of the semester, and some similarly expand the size of the musical excerpt being addressed.

Analytical and/or historical: Almost all prose writing in theory courses is analytical or primarily analytical. Some respondents mentioned limiting the amount of biographical and historical information allowed; however, two of you specifically encourage a broader cultural view. The works that you assign are primarily classical, although a few respondents mentioned other categories (e.g., pop, jazz, film music).

Value of prose writing: Most of you are strongly convinced of the value of writing prose in music theory courses, although a few of you note that you find it difficult and/or time-consuming to grade and that students often enter college with inadequate writing skills. A few of you expressed concerns about the usefulness of prose writing in theory courses and noted that it can take time away from developing musical skills.

Best wishes,

Lynne Rogers
RogersL13 at wpunj.edu
William Paterson University

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