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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Music in the Classroom

Many thanks to Dan and the Prawfs community for allowing me to return for a stint at this blog!

Following a busy May, I will submit my grades this Friday, after which I will receive my student evals. I'm particularly interested in reading student comments on my course this semester--two full sections of criminal law--because I tried something new for me: daily music selections. Each day as students filed into class, I played a song that I thought captured the subject matter in some helpful or interesting way. Criminal law certainly offers lots of music potential, and students contributed a number of great selections during the semester. How had I not heard Hank Williams III?

My hope was that music would open students to thinking dynamically about criminal law and to appreciate it more as a social enterprise, not just a doctrinal exercise. I also hoped it would be a fun way to engage the class each day, and that it even might interest students in reading ahead as they tried to predict or select music options. Some days we spent 5 minutes or so talking about how a song reflected or related to our subject matter. We always at least identified the song and its general topical relevance, even if it offered nothing more than a bit of levity.

Some students definitely seemed engaged by the project. Heat of passion overall may have generated the most music suggestions from students, along with our discussions of punishment and incarceration. But I had about 160 students in the two sections, so I am curious to learn what the majority really thought about it. No doubt some students viewed it as a self-indulgent distraction. And perhaps it was--I quickly discovered that my musical taste is more narrow and dated than I had realized! Do other prawfs out there have experience using music or other non-traditional teaching tools?

If my student evals don't talk me out of this music theme altogether, I thought I might try it again in my summer professional responsibility course. I haven't considered my PR music options in earnest yet, but at first blush, competence, diligence, confidentiality, and the like aren't inspiring the tunes in me quite as naturally as homicide ... Any suggestions?

Posted by Brooks Holland on June 1, 2010 at 03:36 PM in Culture, Music, Teaching Law | Permalink


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What an awesome tradition. So many on your list are from my high school days. Brings back lots of fun memories. I would add Big with Tom Hanks to the list.

Posted by: indie instrumental | Jan 8, 2021 12:46:34 PM

I'm a huge fan of music. It's great that music is always present in life

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Posted by: fantastic website | Nov 15, 2020 4:22:50 AM

I never really thought about how it was helping me focus better.

Posted by: Guitars | Jun 20, 2020 12:35:00 AM

I'd love to find out what songs you used. In the fall, I begin teaching a criminal law class for high-school students, and it sounds like a great way to begin each day. (We'll be meeting every other day for 98 minutes, so I wouldn't have the burden of procuring a DAILY song).

Incidentally, when I was in law school, I brought in theme music each time our Law and Sexuality class met. As you might imagine, there were plenty of oh-so-apt choices.

Posted by: Allen K. Robinson | Jun 5, 2010 12:44:09 PM

Jayesh Rathod at American has given a lot of thought to using music in connection with his immigration courses. See http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/immigration/2008/08/immigration-son.html. He recently pointed a group of immigration profs to the following articles in support of using music in higher education: (1) Benjamin Albers & Rebecca Bach, Using Popular Music to Introduce Sociological Concepts, Teaching Sociology, Vol. 31, 2003; (2) Theresa A Martinez, Popular Music in the Classroom: Teaching Race, Class, and Gender with Popular culture, Teaching Sociology, Vol. 22, (1994).

As for PR songs, consider Would I Lie To You by Eurythmics, Our Lips Are Sealed by the Go-Gos, and Careless Whisper by Wham!

Posted by: Kit Johnson | Jun 1, 2010 9:25:10 PM

I've tended to weave in very brief excerpts of songs, usually with lyrics on a slide, since they are otherwise often hard to understand. Most students have responded quite positively, saying the brief musical interludes make the material more memorable and enjoyable, although I can see why there would be circumstances or subjects (like those described by NewLawProf above) where a teacher may want to avoid using a music, film, or animation clip, or say a few words beforehand to try to assure that students don't misunderstand its intent.

As for Professional Responsibility song suggestions, that's not a subject I teach, but how about The Replacement's "Don't Tell a Soul" (for confidentiality) and "Careless" (for how *not to act* as an attorney). Other possibilities are Billy Joel- "A Matter of Trust," Big Star-"Don't Lie to Me," The Loud Family-"720 Times Happier than the Unjust Man," R.E.M.-"Moral Kiosk" ("so much more attractive inside the moral kiosk"), Wire-"I Should Have Known Better," Peter Gabriel-"Animal Magic" ("I'm joining the professionals. . . join the professionals and learn to fight!"), and, as a cautionary tale, Husker Du-"Friend, You've Got to Fall." To be sure, some might wonder if these songs are really about attorneys and professional responsibility, but after hours of close analysis, I just couldn't find any other plausible interpretations.

Posted by: Marc Blitz | Jun 1, 2010 9:14:48 PM

I taught criminal law for the first time this semester. One surprise was the high percentage of students who had been the victim of (or closely associated with a victim of) serious crime. As a result, I would be concerned that students might see the music as a trivialization of their experience. While I think that the music enterprise has positive justifications (mnemonic device, humanize the law school environment), I wonder if students might also appreciate an express statement that the project is meant with all due respect to those who had a traumatizing experience. Perhaps you did this, or perhaps you felt that the express statement might raise an issue most might not even perceive?

In any event, kudos for engaging students and trying something different.

Posted by: NewLawProf | Jun 1, 2010 7:55:37 PM

This semester, I actually tried to start each of my classes with a short YouTube clip. Sadly, most budding YouTube videographers haven't addressed the intricacies of the U.S. international tax system, so many of my choices were attenuated at best, but my students seemed to enjoy walking in and trying to figure out how any given clip was going to tie into that day's class.

Posted by: Sam Brunson | Jun 1, 2010 4:28:01 PM

My initial reaction to this (as a current law clerk, not prof) is that I would probably have found this useful for a reason you haven't mentioned in your post: as a useful mnemonic device. I'll wager that many of your songs (or the conversations your class had about them) were probably easier to remember than the related criminal law doctrines, and probably bolstered the students' recollection of the substantive aspects of your lectures.

I hope you report back once you've received your evals, because I'm curious to learn whether a majority of students found the music useful.

Posted by: anon | Jun 1, 2010 4:13:41 PM

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