2019-20 Teaching Award Winner: Jerry M. Cain


Published: 16Jun2020
Jerry M. Cain standing in front of a book case

Congratulations to Dr. Jerry M. Cain, winner of Schulich’s 2019-20 Teaching Award in the part-time category!

Dr. Jerry M. Cain is well known by the Schulich community as well as non-music majors for being an enthusiastic pedagogue and dedicated student advocate. His transformation of the popular non-music major course MUAR 211: The Art of Listening, including removing the textbook to present only original instructional materials and focusing on music as a communal and culturally situated activity, has not gone unnoticed. In several letters of recommendation, students repeatedly praised Dr. Cain on his inclusion and focus of important cultural and societal subjects, his unwavering support for his students’ mental health and well-being, and his ability to cater his teaching to students of various levels of musical knowledge. Without a doubt, the respect and admiration of his students is clear.

In celebration of this achievement, we asked Dr. Cain to elaborate on his teaching philosophy as well as speak more on his work teaching non-music majors in MUAR 211.

How has your teaching philosophy changed over the years?

My teaching has become more and more student-centered over the years, in terms of my course content, teaching methods and the persona I project to the class. Good teaching begins with meeting the students where they are, and providing instruction and materials that enable them to succeed. One way I do this is by emphasizing the considerable informal knowledge about music that students bring with them into the classroom. From the first day of class, I play audio and video excerpts from a variety of popular and classical musical genres, and rather than explaining to the students what they are hearing, I invite them to tell me about the music. “Tell me anything thoughtful about this music, and don’t ignore the obvious,” is my mantra. This strategy helps students to recognize that they already possess considerable expertise as listeners, and that part of my role is simply to provide a standardized vocabulary to effectively communicate that informal expertise. Many non-music majors are initially intimidated by the subject, warning me that they “know nothing about music,” and highlighting the knowledge they already possess helps relieve that anxiety. When working with music majors, I focus more on detailed score study, and place greater emphasis on learning to speak and write effectively about music. With both groups I ask a lot of questions, patiently wait for them to express their ideas, and encourage their answers regardless of content by finding the good. I help them to clarify their thinking.

Effective teaching requires that I gain the respect and trust of my students, and demonstrate that I care about them as individuals—no small task in a course with 300 students. I frequently position myself in the role of student advocate. Students rarely know their rights regarding accusations of cheating, exam scheduling, the integrity of grading schemes, etc. Therefore on the first day of class, I address these topics with the twin goals of providing valuable information and demonstrating my concern for them as members of the University community. I also post and frequently mention the health and mental wellness services available to McGill students, and I encourage them to seek the help they need, and to feel free to approach me if they don’t know where else to go. Student responses to these announcements and discussions have been extremely positive, and I have begun to advocate for similar announcements in other large-section classes across campus.

Why did you decide to overhaul MUAR 211: The Art of Listening?

I have taught music history classes for non-music majors—typically called “music appreciation courses”—at multiple institutions for more twenty years, using all of the available published materials at one time or another, and finding all of them to suffer the same flaws. During the past ten years at McGill, I have revised and refined Art of Listening many times, and I gave up using any published textbook in 2015. I now present only my own original instructional materials via the MyCourses platform, along with recordings and other reading materials, the latter mostly in the form of primary sources. Thus, I provide a complete course package that is accessible and easy to update at zero expense to the students. In addition to sparing students the high cost of textbooks, my use of original materials also has allowed me to tailor the course content to my precise criteria. In addition to containing far more content than could ever be covered during a one-semester course, available textbooks still tend to follow the “great (white) men and great works” paradigm, remaining fixated on published composers as the prime arbiters of musical culture. I focus on music as a communal and culturally-situated activity, presenting a “people’s history of music” that also recognizes the vital roles of performers, patrons and audiences as agents shaping musical culture. This expanded focus has allowed me to achieve gender parity among the historical musicians we study, providing a more complete and inclusive conception of the complex network of relationships that comprises musical culture. Since the majority of course participants do not read music, I emphasize listening skills and audible concepts such as ensemble types and textures, guiding students toward an understanding of musical genre and major stylistic trends. In addition to the standard Mercury course evaluations, for several years I have included an informal, voluntary survey at the end of the final exam, in which I asked students what they did and did not like most about the class, and what kind of music courses for non-majors they would like to see offered. The surveys have suggested to me that recent changes focusing more on gender issues, music and propaganda, and political content generally are consistent with their interests.

As someone who teaches many non-music majors, what do you hope they walk away with at the end of your courses?

Although Art of Listening focuses primarily on enriching students’ musical knowledge and experiences, it is also a course in historiography and critical thinking. In all my courses, I adopt a postmodern historiographic stance, coaching students to understand the broader context of the cultural phenomena that prejudice historical accounts. We consider aspects of gender, race, nationalist prejudices, literacy rates, socioeconomic concerns, and other influences that shape the telling of history. It is my fervent hope that this focus provides a sophisticated and interdisciplinary conceptual framework that students can apply to diverse historical and cultural topics. By guiding students to discover the rich tapestry of cultural significance that can be teased from a musical work, I teach students to recognize the value of critical reflection, and I seek to inspire them to exercise these critical faculties when encountering any cultural phenomenon. In their evaluations and in appreciative email messages at semester’s end, students often mention my enthusiasm and “passion for music.” Teaching is a performance that facilitates learning, and I am very aware of my role as a model of intellectual engagement. I hope to share with students some of my joy in pursuing a life of the mind, a lifetime of learning.

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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