Music professor wins prestigious NEH grant

March 30, 2010

Robin Armstrong, associate professor of Music, has won a highly prestigious and coveted Teaching Development grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Armstrong, who will work on her project during Spring and Summer 2011, said she will use the grant to redesign her long-taught course, “African-American Music and Community.” Her aim will be to develop a version of the course that gives students direct and tangible access to the relevant historical artifacts – or primary resources – that make up the core of the class.

“The commitment is to take a class you have taught and completely change it – and promise to teach it the new way on a regular basis,” Armstrong said in a recent interview. “The idea is to take a class and ratchet it up, and then have a direct impact on as many people as possible. In our case, the direct impact is on students for years to come.”

Instead of simply having students glean history from textbooks – told through the perspectives of historians – Armstrong wants to give her students hands-on experiences to deepen their knowledge of the material and their appreciation of its significance. Rather than merely seeing what was written or photographed at the time that is being studied, students will, for example, have a diary entry from 1870 or a letter to view for themselves, Armstrong said.

“There will be no historian between the students and the history,” she said. “Students must interpret it for themselves. It’s a fabulous way of teaching critical thinking skills.

“I hope it will engage them more with the music because they will be encouraged, allowed and liberated to draw more of their own conclusions rather than simply relying on another historian,” Armstrong said.

The goal, she said, is to give students more confidence in their abilities to draw their own conclusions with respect to history.

For her project, Armstrong expects to spend a great deal of time at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago, which has a bevy of relevant material.

“The hardest part will be limiting the material I choose,” she said. “Most of my time will be spent in choosing which particular types of primary resources to use to connect together for students in a way that makes sense to students.”

Created in 1965, the National Endowment for the Humanities is one of the country’s largest financial supporters of humanities programs, according to its Web site. NEH grants typically support projects at cultural institutions – such as museums, libraries, colleges and universities – as well as individual scholars. High-profile projects have included the “Treasures of Tutankhamen,” an exhibit seen by more than 1.5 million people, and The Civil War, the landmark documentary by Ken Burns viewed by 38 million Americans.