Punk Rock and Authority in the Classroom

October 31, 2003

Courses in rock music are no longer a novelty in the American university. Indeed, surveys of the History of RocknRoll or Introduction to Popular Music are now staples in the catalog on many campuses. Music departments welcome these students who are mainly from outside the ranks of music majors and who, perhaps more importantly, swell the numbers attending these classes.

Although popular music courses have unmistakably arrived as part of the educational landscape, scholarship in this field is still somewhat in its infancy. These survey courses rarely offer students the opportunity for more in-depth study of a particular genre or style. In my course, Punk in the History and Practice of Rock Music, I attempted to go beyond the survey approach. This course, for me, was an opportunity to experience the problems and challenges that remain if we as educators wish to engage popular music to the fullest extent.

In this essay, I highlight one issue, and that is the authority in the classroom. Taking a class on punk seriously brings specific demands on both students and teacher as they negotiate their relationship. Answering these demands is not easy, but I argue that the attempt brings rich rewardsfor us as educators, for our students, and for the academic discipline of music.

The class, despite its long title, was generally referred to as the punk class. It was offered as a special topics coursenot yet included in the University catalog. Thirty-five students enrolled (but only one music major). The students in the course reflected a wide diversity of relationships with music. Many of them were in bands, more or less punk; indeed, two students spent Spring Break touring Florida in the van with their band. All had in common a strong existing relationship with punk music, or at least with their concept of punk.

Students and the material

Students lack of knowledge of the standards of the art music curriculum is a long-standing complaint. Since students today rarely know much of the core of the Western canon before their college days, they enter a freshman history or theory class without much feeling of prior ownership of, or investment in, the material. The instructor becomes, by default, the ultimate music authority. A sensitive teacher will use this position to empower the students and give this musical tradition to them.

It was quite different from the situation of my students at the start of the semester. Punk, ideally, may stand apart from mass commercial culture, but it is a popular style that presumes availability to all. Students become aware of punk as part of rock - a style that sustains itself through popularity. Punk is therefore open to them. It is figured as part of mass culture for the large majority of students in the class.

One result of this is that students expect their opinions about the music to be taken seriously. After all, it is their music, so why should their ideas not be as valid as those of the professors? This undermining of authority is facilitated by the nature of punk. By its very nature, the genre resists authoritarian knowledge. Since a hundred bands a week form, play, record, and dissolve - who can keep track of it all? In such circumstances, the knowledge of the instructor is not paramount.

As a performer, historian or theorist, teaching often demands that we assume a mantle of authority. Why else would students come to us? But where stands this authority when faced with a class that knows more about AFI and Good Charlotte than you do?

Authority and anarchy

Faced by such a situation, it is a matter of necessity to renegotiate the teachers claims to authority: it cannot be you and them, but only us. Such ideas are in line with punk rock ideals of the importance of energy and community. The instructor, in these terms, needs to rely on the students as allies in forming creative energy.

In practice, this necessitates not only acknowledging the value of students experiences and ideas but drawing upon such experiences as course content. Students, as experienced players and listeners, are encouraged to develop observations into course material through group involvement and discussion. For example, the Velvet Underground lost some ground to the 1960s garage band, The Rats, as punk originators.

Class listening material was chosen in part by students, which resulted in a wonderfully eclectic mix of pop-punk with arty alternatives, as well as a stimulating debate on what constitutes punk as a genre. Through class visits to local gigs - followed by discussion - to an impromptu, student-organized game of punk jeopardy, this approach to education gave much power to the students and reduced the authority of the instructor. In its best moments, this generated a productive anarchy in a classroom that allowed students to claim their own authority through their own ideas and debate with their peers.

Not everything was rosy. Grades, as ever, formed an impassable dividing line between students and teacher even while constituting a raison dêtre for the student. Sometimes the force of the community of students, including myself, seemed to alienate individual students. At these times, some more traditional authority seemed to be needed, and I tried to supply it. For many hours, however, the punk ideals of community functioned for both student and teacher, providing them the intellectual and musical tools to imagine new concepts the uses and meanings of music.

When punk creeps into the classroom, and if it is there taken seriously, the music brings with it a distaste for authority and a perhaps unachievable idealism relating to community benefits. Perhaps all this amounts to anarchy. If so, it is a type of anarchy that we reject at our own peril, for the alternative is the desolate calm of the ivory tower.

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