Monthly Archives: July 2015

*Syllabus Draft*

I am currently in the second week of a wonderful NEH Seminar on Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement, and I’ve already learned more than I hoped I would (and there is so much more I have to process).  Anyway, one of our tasks is to work on a project that we can present to the group.  Given my interests in literature and music, especially the Beat Movement and free jazz, I decided to work on a syllabus for a course on Jazz Literature.*

What follows is a draft of my syllabus, put here online for a number of reasons, most important of which is the ability to link to relevant webpages*** (including a clear abuse of Youtube).  I will be updating, revising, and otherwise tinkering with this syllabus before my presentation on Friday, and then ideally coming back to it over the next year while I think about and develop this course.**

I eagerly welcome any and all comments.  But please know that I am not attempting anything close to a comprehensive approach.  To attempt to do so would be foolish.  Nor am I looking to do a literary-historical approach (even if 3 of the units are arranged chronologically).  Rather, my goal is explore what I am calling “jazz as method.”  In addition to listening to jazz and reading works that were inspired by jazz, I hope to encourage students to approach the texts in a way that encourages reading for variations on themes, revising and reshaping earlier moments (songs, melodies, movements), and engaging with works of art as aesthetic experiences in addition to personal and political statements.  This is the goal with my first unit, which we will then take up again in the final unit, after working with a number of texts arranged into (what I hope are) cohesive – yet fluid – units.

So again, please feel free to comment and offer suggestions.  This is very much a work in progress.

Jazz Literature

James J. Donahue

Syllabus Draft

Course Description: In this course, we will study a sampling of literary works inspired by and responding to jazz. Along the way, we will experience a variety of forms of jazz music, in audio and video formats, from John Coltrane and Miles Davis to contemporary international artists. Because of the large number of artists that could be studied, this course will only briefly attend to a small selection, thus serving as an introduction to further reading and study rather than a comprehensive survey. Although a background in music studies (theory and performance) is not required, you are invited to bring to this class any related training and knowledge. Our focus will be on acquiring a basic understanding of the principles of bop and free jazz as a means of approaching, experiencing, and understanding literary texts. Specifically, we will focus on principles of adaptation, revision, and recurring themes.

Course Objectives: Upon successful completion of this course, you will:

-have further developed your skills in reading, analyzing, and writing about literary texts;

-have advanced your studies in 20th century American literature and culture;

-have built a solid foundation upon which you can further engage the arts.

Course Materials:

Note: The music will not be available at the university bookstore. You are encouraged to acquire copies of the music (in the format most accessible for your personal use). You are also encouraged to share materials.


Jack Kerouac: Mexico City Blues, Old Angel Midnight

Bob Kaufman: Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems by Bob Kaufman

Amiri Baraka: Wise, Why’s, Y’s

Michael S. Harper: Dear John, Dear Coltrane

Michael O’SiadhailHail! Madam Jazz

Toni Morrison: Jazz

Paul Beatty: Slumberland


Miles Davis: Kind of Blue

Charles Mingus: Pithecanthropus Erectus

John Coltrane: A Love Supreme, Lush Life

Marianne Trudel: La vie commence ici

Mats Gustafsson: HIDR0S6

Gil Scott-Heron: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Course Outline:

Unit 1: Jazz as Method


“My Favorite Things” (The Sound of Music) Sheet music

Donna LeeSheet music

Audio Recordings

Rodgers and Hammerstein, “My Favorite Things” (from The Sound of Music)

John Coltrane, “My Favorite Things” (album version)

Jaco Pastorius, “Donna Lee” (album version)

Online Materials

My Favorite Things

Selection from The Sound of Music

John Coltrane live performances: 1961, 19631965

Mary J. Blige, “My Favorite Things

Charlie Parker, “Donna Lee

Jaco Pastorius, “Donna Lee” live: 1982

Unit 2: The Beat Movement and the Bop Aesthetic


Jack Kerouac: “About the Beat Generation” (handout); “The Beginning of Bop” (handout); “Beatific: The Origins of the Beat       Generation” (handout); Mexico City Blues; Old Angel Midnight

Bob Kaufman: Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems by Bob Kaufman

Audio Recordings

Jack Kerouac: “Lucien Midnight: The Sounds of the Universe in My Window”; selections from “Poetry for the Beat               Generation” (with Steve Allen)

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue

Video Recording

Jack Kerouac on The Steve Allen Show

Unit 3: Free Jazz


Amiri Baraka: Wise, Why’s, Y’s

Michael S. Harper: Dear John, Dear Coltrane

Selected John Coltrane Poems, including:

Jayne Cortez, “How Long Has Trane Been Gone

Sonia Sanchez, “a/coltrane/poem

Haki R. Madhubuti, “Don’t Cry, SCREAM

Audio Recordings

Charles Mingus: Pithecanthropus Erectus

John Coltrane: A Love Supreme, Lush Life

Video Recording

“Songs in Amiri Baraka’s Wise, Why’s, Y’s

Unit 4: Jazz Beyond Borders


Michael O’Siadhail, Hail! Madam Jazz

Audio Recordings

Marianne Trudel, La vie commence ici

Mats Gustafsson, HIDR0S6

Video Recordings

Marianne Trudel Trio: Rehearsals and performances

Unit 5: Spoken Word

Audio Recording

Gil Scott-Heron: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Video Recordings

Gil Scott-Heron: Black Wax

Tracie Morris: “Slave Sho to Video aka Black but Beautiful

Tyehimba Jess, “Another Man Done

Spoken Word Poems by Native American/First Nations Women

Unit 6: Jazz as Method (2)

Possible Readings

Toni Morrison: Jazz

Paul Beatty: Slumberland

Jackie KayTrumpet

Artists I Would Like To Include (but do not yet know how)

Nathaniel Mackey

Mendi Obadike

Brad Mehldau

Keith Jarrett

Michael Manring

And there are plenty of others, so please make suggestions!

*I have been thinking about such a course since I started at Potsdam, in part because of the the Crane School of Music.  I have taught a few different courses on the Beat Movement, and each iteration includes more music and other media.  So now, it seems, is the perfect time to finally develop this course (which I hope to teach in the fall of 2016).

**This includes reading all of the books.  I am familiar – to some degree – with all of the texts.  But I need the coming year to really dive into these works in detail, and do the necessary reading around on the subject.  Let me make this clear: I am claiming no expertise in what follows.  Rather, think of my syllabus as an attempt to explore in more depth something that has been hanging around on the periphery of my pedagogy.  I am a fan of these texts, but certainly no expert.  This course is one more step toward that possible expertise.

***Another reason is that this page will become a collection of useful and relevant links.  If there is something missing, please feel free to suggest it to me.


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The story starts when it was hot and it was summer and…

OK, so that’s not true.  This story actually started in the winter, only I didn’t know it at the time.

This blog began its humble life devoted to questions of pedagogy, and to that end this post will be an exploration of an idea that has slowly been taking shape in my mind as a result of something non-academic I have come to rely on quite heavily: yoga.

Those of you who know me, know that I have been practicing yoga for about six months now, having been introduced to it by my wonderful girlfriend and the fantastic people at the Upward Dog Yoga Centre.  I have learned many things about myself while on this journey, and increasingly have been thinking about how I might bring some of what I have learned into my teaching.*  Not that I plan on having my students do yoga in the classroom (which, honestly, isn’t a bad idea), but rather, I’m wondering if I can’t find some way of bringing purposeful movement into my classes.

My classes – like most of the classes I’ve taken, taught, or sat in on – involve the professor at the board with the students in their seats, taking notes.  This happens for fifty minutes, three times per week.  It might not seem like a long stretch of time, but it often is: the seats are not comfortable, the students are energetic (and thus fidgety), and it’s not at all uncommon for even the best of them to lose their concentration.  And while students have become used to this – and many professors have come to expect it – that doesn’t make it the most beneficial practice.  Also, when I think of my own teaching style, I realize that I never sit – or even stand still – in the classroom.  I am on my feet for the entire time, moving back and forth, writing on the boards and gesticulating wildly.**  I move, and that movement brings life to my pedagogy.

One thing, then, that yoga has reminded me is that students do not have to be seated and unmoving in order to learn.  In fact, doing so may be holding them back.  I am often more present, more open to new ideas, and more relaxed in a yoga class than I am during any other activity; and ideally, that’s how I would like my students to be in the classroom.  I know that the conventional logic is that we open students up to new ideas by engaging them intellectually, by challenging assumptions and questioning ideas, by responding to their questions and pushing them into new territory.  But is there any reason why students have to be so…unmoving while we do this?

As I’ve posted about before, I have a number of lax policies when it comes to some things that other faculty take very seriously.  I also don’t care if students bring snacks to class, or play with their cell phones.***  I encourage students to bring food and drinks to class.  And I invite them to drop their guard when it comes to language usage (which is to say that I want them to be casual, and not feel the need to attempt a standard of professional discourse that they often find themselves held to in their writing).  In short, there are ways that I have tried to make my classroom relaxed, casual, vernacular, all to help students feel more comfortable, because learning cannot happen – and this I believe with every fiber of my being – when one is uncomfortable.  And I don’t mean that we shouldn’t be made intellectually uncomfortable, because that is one of our goals.  No, I mean physically uncomfortable.  When one is hungry, sore, stiff, tired, or in any way focused on a variety of bodily discomforts, one is not in the best physical space to do the best intellectual work.^

And I suspect that this problem may be easier to fix than I think it is, and perhaps someone out there can help me find the solution.

Although I should not have to say this, I will: I do not mean forcing students to be physically active in the classroom.  Some of them may be perfectly content and completely comfortable with he current spacial model and physical expectations.^^  And students will have a wide range of physical abilities and needs.^^^  I suspect that more students than we might realize are uncomfortable in the physical spaces we share, and simply do not speak out for a variety of reasons: habit, fear of being the only one who is uncomfortable, inability to question what may seem to be fixed, etc.  I know that this is the case for me, and I still feel uncomfortable voicing my discomfort regarding the physical spaces I inhabit professionally.

I have spent a great many years refining what I do in the classroom on an intellectual level, work that I continue to do today.^^^^  However, I am now interested in refining what I do in the classroom on a physical level, and I wonder if any of my smart friends and colleagues have something to say on this issue.

*I know, I know, I’m such a typical college professor, looking to steal anything that works and incorporate it into my syllabi.  But in my defense, I only steal from the very best.

**In fact, one of the first things I do when I get into a classroom is move the chair from behind the desk into a corner, so that it doesn’t get in my way as I pace back and forth.  I haven’t realized until recently how fundamentally opposed I am to sitting down when I teach.

***Yes, I can hear your collective gasp from here.  Maybe some other time I will post about how banning cell phone use from the classroom is actually more detrimental than helpful, given the ubiquitous nature of the cell phone and the way people rely on it for a variety of tasks (including ones that are useful in the classroom).  But also, when professional academics put their own cell phones away during department meetings, professional conferences, and basically any other interaction that requires thoughtful attention, then I will listen to them when they insist that cell phones are antithetical to engaged learning.

^My whole life, I have been conscious of this fact.  I spent much of high school in desks designed for people smaller than I was.  I teach in classrooms where the top of the chalkboard is at a great level, but I can only reach the bottom if I am on my knees.  I sit at tables at professional conferences that are so low, I cannot fit my legs under them.  Often, in both my personal and my professional lives, I am consciously aware of physical discomfort resulting simply from being in a particular space.  And to go back to the origin of this post, one of the few places I am completely, perfectly comfortable in my space is when I am practicing yoga, whether at the Upward Dog Yoga Centre, in my new study (in my lovely new apartment), or outside on the grass.  I know that I can do a better job of being comfortable in my own space; I wonder if I can do a better job of helping students be comfortable in the spaces we share.

^^I am currently taking part in a wonderful NEH Seminar, and some of my colleagues seem completely at ease in the space we share.  I, however, am often quite uncomfortable.  That said, the institute staff are doing a great job about keeping us on time, and that includes regular breaks where we can move more freely.  However, the sleeping arrangements in the dorm are pretty uncomfortable, and I have been doing yoga every morning (including a class at the OmTree Shala Studio in town) to help me stay relaxed and limber.

^^^Perhaps this may not be the best way to put it, but I suppose I am interested in what we can do to accommodate a wider variety of students’ physical needs, beyond what is required by law (and even that is often, in practice, quite minimal).  While I am interested in the specifics of the ADA, I am also interested in the larger spirit behind that legislation, a spirit that I know I can do more to engage and embody in my classroom.

^^^^I mean that very literally, as later today I will be doing work for this seminar on a syllabus I am creating for a class on Jazz Literature.  My plan is to write a blog post about this later in the week, and share that with my colleagues here, as well as all of you, for comments and advice.

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