2019-20 Teaching Award Winner: Claire McLeish


Published: 17Jun2020
Claire McLeish in a blue blazer in front of a white wall

Congratulations to Claire McLeish, winner of Schulich’s 2019-20 Teaching Award in the graduate instructor award!

Throughout her doctoral degree, Claire has taught and co-taught several popular music courses, all of which received exceedingly positive reviews from students. Claire’s desire to present music in and as history is seen in many aspects of her courses, from diverse representations in music selection, to the interactive discussions of social and political relevance. Equally important is her emphasis on mutual respect, with courses taking a more collaborate approach to teaching and learning than traditional lecture style classes. In letters of recommendation, students commended her passion for the subject matter, the safe environment she created for dynamic in-class discussion, and her innovative and creative evaluations. With such strong teaching principles and innovative classroom styles, it comes as no surprise to the Schulich community that Claire is being presented with this award.

In celebration of this achievement, we asked Claire to elaborate on her teaching philosophy as well as some of her guiding principles.

What is your teaching philosophy?

The two main pillars of my teaching philosophy are mutual respect, and diversity and inclusion. I understand that not all students learn in the same way, and I aim to have diverse evaluations and options for engagement, so each student can have their chance to shine. I invite students to take a lead in the classroom when they are knowledgeable about a topic at hand: for example, last term I had a DJ in my class, and invited him to help explain some concepts in the disco and hip-hop lectures. Discussion is at the heart of my teaching philosophy, because privileging discussion over lecture demonstrates that I don’t have all of the answers, and shows students that I value their thoughts and opinions. I conduct discussion in a variety of ways, in an online forum, in pairs or small groups, and with the whole class, so that each student has an opportunity to engage in a way that feels safe for them. Offering a wide variety of evaluations and discussion platforms respects that not all students learn in the same way, and ideally offers each student an opportunity to show what they have learned.

In the same vein, I acknowledge that everyone brings different experiences to my classroom, and emphasize the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion. For me, this starts with the syllabus. When I craft a syllabus, I think about what the course needs to cover and who will be taking this course with me. McGill undergraduates are very diverse (especially those taking music electives), and I hope that students will see themselves reflected in the course. Because of the content I include, our discussions in class often address difficult and sensitive topics like race, gender, sexuality, and cultural appropriation. Facilitating these discussions has been a learning process for me, and I have definitely improved with practice. Even when a student says something that others may find inflammatory, I have found ways to use these controversies as teachable moments, doing my best to mediate and explain what each side of the debate is trying to communicate. It can be a difficult balance, and I have used the feedback I receive in my course evaluations to hone my skills. In privileging respect, diversity, and inclusion, my goal is to cultivate a safe environment where students feel they can take risks, because I strongly believe that this is a central part of any university experience.

Why is it important to you that students are presented with music in and as history?

Musicologists wrestle with how to balance historical context and musical analysis. How do we engage with pieces of music as distinct works with their own characteristics, while also situating them in a historical context? My teaching of music in and as history is an attempt to reconcile these two segments of music scholarship. Often we will see talk of how music holds a “mirror” to society or to a political event, but I wanted to emphasize to my students that music itself is history, down to specific musical details. Musical sounds can encode political ideas or reference certain decades or groups of people, which means a study of the history of music is also inevitably a study of history more broadly.

When Bob Dylan and Joan Baez joined Martin Luther King Jr. in the March on Washington in 1963, the music they performed did not only reflect history, it was part of history. Or when the refrain of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” was adopted by Black Lives Matter protesters: this music was not only expressing anger and frustration about police brutality, it became interwoven with the struggle itself. Both of these examples address music as history in the sphere of politics, but the same can be said for music’s other roles in entertainment, social gatherings, and expressions of personal identity.

In terms of my teaching, I feel that only teaching music “in” history—or as a “reflection” of history—underestimates what music actually does in our lives. Especially now, people are taking solace in music and consciously using it to get through the day; to say that music is merely “reflecting” something else wouldn’t be fair. I want my students to understand that music isn’t a passive force that bends itself to the winds of history, but that as part of culture, music itself is engaged in shaping history itself.

What do you hope your students leave your courses with?

In addition to understanding “music in and as history,” I hope my students leave with a greater understanding of their own listening contexts. This can mean telling the story of how their favourite genres came to be, or teaching them to recognize musical references to earlier genres. Our own musical preferences are produced throughout our lives based on everything we have been exposed to, and I hope students realize that what they like and dislike is part of a larger picture. As we profess to like one genre and not another, in a lot of cases that says more about us as listeners than it does about the value of the music itself. To put it another way, I hope that students may shift from consuming music in a passive way (as background noise), to active, thoughtful contemplation. I especially hope that students have reflected on themselves as listeners with greater awareness.

Finally, I hope that students leave my class as more savvy consumers of popular culture and mass media. One of the assignments in our pop music class (adapted from my colleague Jennifer Messelink) was a close reading of a primary, historical source. Students had to engage with questions of bias in the publication, whose views and values were being expressed or critiqued, and what might be going unsaid: basically, they had to read between the lines. The goal of this assignment was not just to give them the skills to engage with historical documents more critically, but also to read current media with a similar eye. No piece of media is neutral, and it takes practice to unpack what assumptions and values underpin a given piece. Growing up, my dad always told me that university wasn’t about learning facts, it was about learning how to think. Although every teacher has to convey certain facts, I like to think that I have also played a part in teaching them how to think about music, history, and media. My highest hope is that these critical thinking skills will stay with my students and serve them in their lives beyond the university.

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.

Back to top