2021-2022 Teaching Award Winner: Kiersten van Vliet

Published: 5 July 2022

Congratulations to Kiersten van Vliet, winner of Schulich's 2021-2022 Teaching Award in the MUAR Teaching Assistant/Graduate Instructor Category. 

Kiersten was course instructor for MUAR 392 (Popular Music after 1945) during the Fall 2021 semester, providing 180 music and non-music majors with an opportunity to develop listening competencies and a vocabulary to talk about popular music. Realizing that not all students might be familiar with musical language and concepts, Kiersten took the opportunity to reimagine ways to assess academic achievement without sacrificing the rigour expected of a 300-level class. Their aim was to develop transferrable skills that might serve students beyond the context of the class.  

In what students shared was a supportive, engaging, welcoming, and fun environment, one commented that they were surprised to learn that Kiersten was a graduate instructor, as the quality of their class was worthy of someone with years of teaching experience.  

Creativity is a word that comes up over and over from students who have taken Kiersten’s class. They comment on the innovation and determination that Kiersten showed and how that passion fuelled their learning experience. It was noted that Kiersten had one of the most organized, fun, and fully utilized myCourses pages that a student had ever seen in their time at McGill — using the platform to its full potential. With every element that Kiersten added and considered, it made it easier to stay on track of when a lecture would take place and how to access it afterwards. The use of the myCourses discussion boards to facilitate a conversational approach to the readings was welcome during a time of virtual classrooms.  

With lectures full of interactivity, and which included animated slides as well as snippets of song to provide auditory examples of the concepts being taught, it’s evident that communication and connectivity were vital to Kiersten’s classroom. Students recognized and lauded this commitment to and care for to their individual successes, as Kiersten ensured that they would be available whenever any student needed to talk, often going out of their way to plan separate meetings outside of their office hours on a need-basis.  

Students felt free to express themselves and their ideas in the class, as "not once did Kiersten shoot down an opinion or an idea, often giving time for the student to voice and [engage] in a healthy discussion for all, further exemplifying the value of academic freedom.” The level of student responsiveness and engagement with the course content as well as with each other’s ideas proved invigorating, encouraging participation for all. This is a testament to Kiersten’s ability to maintain the attention and interest of the student body. Kiersten’s technical savvy, empathy for collaborative learning, and equitable assessments further underline their aptitude and excellence as instructor.  

In celebration of this award and of their achievements, we asked Kiersten to elaborate on their teaching philosophy, share a stand-out moment from this year, and to let us know what advice they would give their starting-at-university-self (and more!).  

What are some elements that are important to your teaching philosophy?  

My approach to pedagogy aligns with my personal values of equity, accessibility, inclusiveness, and fairness. As an interdisciplinary scholar in musicology and gender and women’s studies, I strive to reflect a diversity of viewpoints in—and approaches to—popular music history, with an emphasis on increasing historically underrepresented groups in music curricula. For example, I included new topics that were not present in previous iterations of MUAR 392 to increase the diversity of content and extend the course further into the 21st century. One example is a module on feminisms, in which I used the wave theory of feminism as a lens for understanding the growing role of women in the popular music industry from women-run record labels and festivals in the 1970s through riot grrrl to electroclash. In this module, we also discussed queer representation in pop and transgender vocality.  

I put ideas of equity into practice with inclusive course design for students from different disciplinary and cultural backgrounds. A key idea that I wanted to put into practice for this iteration of MUAR 392 was focusing on assessments that gauged individual competencies rather than norm-referenced assessments (that is, comparing a student’s work to their peer group). This meant assessing students on their individual performance of clearly defined objectives, and giving them opportunities to improve their own skills by applying peer and instructor feedback from a series of lower-stakes activities. 

I view the classroom as a collaborative space for knowledge-creation with students as well as Teaching Assistants, but this can be difficult to foster in an online setting. With these constraints in mind, I tried to ensure the content was not only accessible, but also engaging for students who were working synchronously or asynchronously. The course assignments involved a high level of interaction between students, such as peer evaluation, group work, and posting comments and questions to open forums. Subsequently, I included their contributions in my lectures.  

In addition to MyCourses, one tool I incorporated after a consultation with McGill IT was the new Eduflow learning technology, which manages all “e-paper” for peer and self-assessment. Everyone also used it to communicate with me about their group work progress throughout the semester. Some aspects of these assignments were certainly experimental. I was upfront about this with students — and they were good sports! 

Has your teaching philosophy changed over time? If so, how?  

This was my first time designing and teaching an entire course by myself, but I have thought a lot about teaching over the course of my degree. With this course I was able to implement and test aspects of this philosophy, but I had to navigate certain barriers. One thing that was very important for me was ensuring that my two TAs did not work above their contracted hours. It would have been unacceptable of me to perpetuate the same conditions of TA overwork I had been fighting against for the past four years.  

Even with dividing the TAs’ online class attendance (I had them help me with managing the live Zoom session), providing detailed rubrics and marking instructions to reduce ambiguity, and taking 1/3 of the assignment grading (and 100% for some assessments), we found we did not have enough TA hours. I asked the department for more hours—which they thankfully granted. I would not have been able to manage a class of 180 students without my TAs, and they did a fantastic job. 

This experience raises several issues around workload that I must consider should I ever have the opportunity to teach at the university level again. Namely, balancing the demands of sound pedagogy — and, in my case, a more innovative course design (a demand that comes from both students and administrators) — with the scarcity of increasingly limited teaching resources. This is more than a question of the idealism of a teaching philosophy versus the reality of being in front of a class — this is about sustainability. I am concerned about the level of burnout I experienced by the end of the semester, as well as the burnout I see in other graduate lecturers and early-career scholars. Academic institutions are at risk of having highly qualified, excellent pedagogues walking away from their profession — and not simply for want of the stability and benefits of an elusive tenure-track position.  

What do you want your students to leave your classroom knowing?  

Even though MUAR 392 is an elective course for non-music majors, I wanted to ensure it would be useful in some way for every student. In other words, forget about memorizing content that is only useful within the context of the class. In addition to developing listening competencies and a vocabulary to talk about popular music, I wanted to emphasize developing transferrable skills. Specifically, the class cultivated skills in the following areas: media literacy and evaluating primary sources, asking difficult questions about how history is written and studied, trying out new ideas, sharing work while still in progress, giving and receiving constructive criticism, applying feedback, using databases and library resources, negotiating ideas in a group setting, project management, and creating a research plan.  

What will you carry from this past year into the coming years?   

Through this teaching experience I have had to develop a greater sense of self-compassion and care. As graduate students, we are conditioned to strive for perfection and excellence, but we can’t expect ourselves to do something perfectly the first time. Other than that, I definitely have a few more grey hairs. 

Do you have a stand-out teaching moment from the past year?  

Probably when I rapped the first verse of “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang to demonstrate the flow. It’s a party trick I borrowed from my good friend Claire McLeish, who has also taught MUAR 392 and won the graduate teaching award a few years ago. 

What advice would you give to your starting-at-university self?  

Research the culture of the schools you are considering attending and make sure this aligns with your values. 

If you hadn’t ended up in music, what might an alternate career path have been?  

I thought about medicine and law at various points in my undergraduate degree in music. These days, I am considering a career after my PhD that involves some form of labour activism or political advocacy — maybe working in a labour union, an NGO, or a political campaign. We’ll see! 

What was a recent book you read / show you watched / album you listened to?  Anything to recommend?  

I have been enjoying Big Thief’s latest album, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You. I love everything Adrianne Lenker releases. Recently, I have also revisited Peaches’ The Teaches of Peaches, which holds up after all these years. I have tickets to the twentieth anniversary tour, which starts in Montreal this May. One of the songs from that album was on my syllabus for MUAR 392…I’ll let you guess which one! 

I’m not much of a watcher of things, but one show I enjoyed recently was Heartstopper on Netflix. Unlike so many queer coming-of-age stories, it didn’t dip into excruciating tragedy at every turn, which was very refreshing compared to some LGBTQ stories I have encountered in the past. The soundtrack also sounds like everything youth should sound like. 

I honestly can’t remember the last book I read that wasn’t for work. This is something I want to fix this summer. 

Anything on your to-learn list? 

Polish is always on my to-learn list so I can communicate more effectively with my partner’s family. 

Kiersten van Vilet is a PhD Candidate in Musicology and Gender & Women’s Studies at McGill. Their dissertation project is a history of Montreal’s LGBTQ+ dance music scenes from disco to early rave (1970s-1995). They have a Bachelor’s in Music History and a diploma in Violin Performance from the University of Western Ontario, and a MA in Musicology from McGill. While at McGill, they have also worked as a student labour activist, and held several roles at the Teaching Assistant and Invigilator labour union, the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM). In their free time, Kiersten enjoys travelling, cycling, gardening, and cooking. 

About the Schulich School of Music Teaching Awards

Each year the Schulich School of Music recognizes faculty members and student instructors for their outstanding contributions. The Schulich School of Music Teaching Awards recognize excellence, commitment and innovation in teaching, and the importance of these qualities in the academic experience of students at McGill. Prizes are awarded annually to each winner at Spring Convocation.

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