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
"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
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
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
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
"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