Congratulations to Vanessa Blais-Tremblay (BMus ‘09, PhD forthcoming), winner of Schulich’s 2017-18 Teaching Award in the teaching assistant/graduate instructor category!
Vanessa has taught a variety of classes at Schulich and at the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, Feminist and Social Justice Studies, both to music and non-music students. She is well known for promoting diversity, equity and inclusivity in the classroom, and for highlighting the musical contributions of commonly underrepresented groups and individuals in her lectures. An active scholar outside of McGill, Vanessa has given guest lectures at Williams College in the USA and l’Université de Montréal.
In introduction to the presentation of Vanessa’s award at the 2018 Spring Convocation, Professor Lisa Barg said, “As both a teacher and a scholar, Vanessa possesses a rare balance of high intellectual ability, creativity and passion, qualities that I am sure impressed her students and led to her receipt of this award. Her genuine concern for students, commitment to student engagement and penetrating insight into the material she is presenting will serve her in good stead as she proceeds in what I am convinced will be a successful career.”
In celebration of this achievement, we asked Vanessa a few questions over email.
What is your teaching approach?
In scholarship as in the classroom, I aim to foster inclusivity, accessibility, and alliances through the study of music and music-making practices. My course outlines testify to how important it is for me to introduce different models of what it means to contribute to the development of new ideas through music. In music history surveys, I deliberately emphasize the musical contributions of traditionally underrepresented figures (women, African American, Canadian-indigenous composers of Western art music; musicians in working-class and amateur circles, etc.), genres (private and popular genres, dance music) and themes (eroticism, motherhood, etc.). I also strive to raise my students’ awareness of the pitfalls of music criticism as it relates to issues of identity (gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, indigeneity, age, body size, dis/ability, parameters of care, etc.), representation, and historiography. In order to encourage critical thinking skills, my lectures rely on multiple and sometimes discordant media, and I regularly address processes of cultural legitimization and marginalization. In short, I like to show precisely how much music-historical narratives are dependent on the availability of an archive, as well as on the particular political agendas of researchers, funding bodies, etc.
Besides critical thinking skills, I design my courses to encourage collaborative learning. I like to set the stage for lively discussions where students can speak as “experts” on certain issues and learn to really listen — isn’t that what music learning is about? — to other people’s points of view. My students also work in small groups where they learn the benefits of peer-review and peer-assessment. In short, I want students to see each other as allies-in-learning, not as competitors. By drawing on collaborative learning strategies, I also aim to strengthen their trust in their ability to undertake group projects that may originally lie outside their initial areas of expertise.
Lastly, as a professional violinist and improviser, I integrate aspects of musical performance in my lectures whenever I can in order to encourage multiple modes of engagement with music. I regularly bring my violin to class or I play the piano or sing to demonstrate aspects of different genres and styles, and whenever possible I ask my students to perform with me. I want them to rely as much on their ears as on the rest of their bodies in making sense of music. Such strategies not only facilitate memorization and synthetization, but they also give an opportunity to students at varying levels of analytical proficiency and musical literacy to relate to unfamiliar music-making practices.
What does this award mean to you?
This teaching award means everything to me, and I am so grateful to the students who nominated me. I have been blessed with formidably smart and inspiring students in my classes, and it is such a privilege to witness their playing with new sounds and ideas, to be humbled by the breadth of their knowledge, to see them develop their thinking on issues important to them, and to assist them in making sense of music, of the past, and of the present. I am still far from being the teacher I wish I was, but this award makes me want to do the work that needs to be done in order to become that teacher: to develop strategies that will make the classroom an even more empowering space for all, to do the research that needs to be done so that the histories we teach and write are more inclusive, and altogether continue to work so that the past and the future can be imagined as more equitable space-times.
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.