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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University August 6, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 41
Enriching Musical Minds

Literary texts in hand, Hollis Robbins — taking a break here outside the Walters Art Museum — says that making students better musicians is about their 'understanding the world around them and what it really means to be an artist.'
Photo by Will Kirk/HIPS

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

In music, there can be more behind a melody than just how good it sounds. A piece can capture an emotion or tell a narrative. In 2005, Pink Floyd founder Roger Waters released the opera Ca Ira (There Is Hope), which recounts the early days of the French Revolution. How do you go about glorifying a revolution in music?

As it attempts to better connect its students to the world around them, the Peabody Institute wants its undergraduates to consider such a question.

This fall, Peabody rolls out a retooled humanities program designed to provide its musicians with a more well-rounded curriculum and to better take advantage of its ties with the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

The most prominent addition is the new Humanities Seminar, which will be offered in the fall semester and required for all new undergraduates. Peabody will also introduce some new humanities courses and a digital portfolio requirement, and further encourage students to take classes at the Homewood schools.

The seminar, piloted last fall, will offer a mix of literature, history, culture and practical skills, such as writing research papers and arts reviews. The upcoming fall seminar, titled Portrait of the Artist, will feature the writings of Mark Salzman, Donald Margulies, Paul Robeson and Thomas Mann.

Hollis Robbins, professor in the humanities at Peabody and co-teacher of the course, said that some of the seminar's main goals are to teach the students analytical thinking and the art of rhetoric. The course itself will look at specific works, the maturation of the artists, and the political and cultural climate in which the works were created.

"The seminar format allows us the opportunity to argue and grapple over concepts and these pieces of literature," said Robbins, a 1983 graduate of the Writing Seminars who holds a master of public policy degree from Harvard and a doctorate in English from Princeton. "There is a growing sense here, and at other music conservatories, that you have to be able to talk about your music and argue about your music, not just to, respectfully, sit down, play a sonata and leave. There has to be a certain level of verbal clarity and fluency, and that is what this course is designed to address."

The course, which incorporates a variety of writing projects, will meet twice a week and alternate between a large group meeting and small seminar sessions. It also will include film, an opera, a trip to the Everyman Theatre and guest lectures by local artists and other experts.

Robbins was brought to Peabody last fall to help teach the humanities seminar and also to develop courses to augment the standard musical teaching at Peabody. She joined a Humanities Department that includes Ron Levy, Sarah Snyder and Sebastian Vogt. Judah Adashi will also be part of the seminar teaching team.

Robbins previously was an assistant professor of English at Millsaps College and director/managing editor of the Black Periodical Literature Project at the W.E.B. DuBois Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard. She is the co-editor of The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin (W.W. Norton; 2007) and The Selected Writings of William Wells Brown (Oxford University Press; 2006).

Levy, chair of the Humanities Department, championed the idea of the seminar and recruited Robbins, whom he describes as a "master rhetorician" who brings a fresh perspective to Peabody.

"Hollis has been a wonderful addition to our department," Levy said. "She is a high-powered scholar who enhances the legitimacy and raises the profile of our department."

This fall's Humanities Seminar will introduce students to the new required digital portfolio, the template for which was designed by the School of Education's Center for Technology in Education. During their four years at Peabody, students will constantly add to the portfolio such items as research papers, argumentative essays, arts reviews and an artist's statement.

"The rationale behind the digital portfolio is that it allows students to follow their interests and also give their work here some backbone," Levy said. "It gives them something tangible to recognize what they have learned and achieved. And the design of the portfolio is such that it becomes their own personal Web site where they can share their work with others, such as future employers or graduate schools."

After taking the five-credit seminar, students must complete 27 additional humanities credits distributed among four categories: Language and Literature, Global Perspectives, Historical/Philosophical Studies and Humanities Electives. They can take the courses at Peabody or Homewood, an option that will be facilitated in the spring semester, when the majority of courses at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences will be held in a Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday format similar to Peabody's.

The lineup beginning in the fall at Peabody includes such new courses as Bebop, Modernism and Change; Women of Epic Fame; and Utopian Visions.

In addition to the seminar, Robbins will teach Poetry Writing this fall. In the spring, she will teach Modern Drama; World Film; and Literary Trials, which looks at works such as Sophocles' Antigone and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

Robbins said that while the school has required 32 humanities credits for some time, there was no programmatic approach. With the changes, Peabody wants to steep students in humanities and offer more "quality assurance" for cultural literacy.

"We're trying to make them better musicians through the humanities. In a very practical sense, one of the major selling points of Peabody is that it's attached to Johns Hopkins," she said. "Still, humanities is a hard sell here. We have very driven, committed and professional musicians, some of whom practice six to eight hours a day. They might ask, How can studying Shakespeare help you be a better clarinetist? But it's about understanding the world around them and what it really means to be an artist. As a composer, for example, it certainly helps to understand the human condition."


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