France since 1900 in 13 songs

It’s over. I made it through the 2021-22 academic year, but just barely. For all sorts of reasons, this latest pandemic teaching term was the hardest for me. We were in-person, though not from the very beginning of the term. That was good, but also exhausting with an (important!) mask mandate keeping us all from seeing each other’s faces for most of yet another term, and then the sudden revocation of that mandate literally overnight, making things uncomfortable in different ways (at least for many of my students and for me). I think we were all also just running on empty by the time January rolled around? I had just gotten over my own rough adventure with COVID and many of my students spent the last few months getting sick, recovering, trying to catch up. It was hard, yo.

This said, I loved the seminar I got to teach this term. Planning for it months ago, I had decided I wanted to teach something new. A fresh prep isn’t always easy, especially in times like these, but I wanted to get excited about new material and assignments, to try something fun that I’d always wanted to do. So I submitted my special topic and decided to make a playlist the focus of an entire class. Here’s the trailer I made to promote the course before all the details came together:

In the end, our term was a bit shorter than I expected so the seminar only focused as a group on 12 songs in-depth:
*”La Marseillaise”
*”La Chanson de Craonne”
* Josephine Baker, “J’ai deux amours”
*”Le Chant des partisans”
*Edith Piaf, “La Vie en rose”
*Boris Vian, “Le Déserteur”
*Jacques Dutronc, “(Il est cinq heures) Paris s’éveille”
*Serge Gainsbourg, “Aux armes, etcaetera”
*Carte de séjour, “Douce France”
*NTM, “Qu’est-ce qu’on attend”
*Daft Punk, “Digital Love”
*Angèle, “Balance ton quoi”

And then each student chose a 13th French song of their own, completing a final research podcast assignment, an episode of Chanson Exploder focused on that song. The final results of this assignment were AMAZING!

I meant to write about it all along the way, but things were just too hectic, and I can’t imagine doing it all justice with a summary here now. I did tweet about it a little and you can find that thread here:

Challenging as the term was for other reasons, exploring music and/as history with my students in this course was a true joy. During many weeks, I nerded out and brought my portable turntable and vinyl in for close listening sessions. We spent real time thinking about how songs sound and feel, the content of lyrics, the contexts in which artists write, perform, and live, and to which their music responds. I learned so much and I think my students did as well. Listening together also just did us good in ways I can’t quite explain. The way music just does sometimes.

I didn’t enlist as many friends and colleagues to help me out with this one as I originally thought I might, at least not during class time, or in the form of the kinds of recordings that have become a staple for me in this pandemic era. I didn’t have the time or energy and I was loathe to ask others for theirs when I know we are all just burnt out at this point. But I did pester one, fantastic music listener and writer, the poet and critic Joshua Clover, a Professor of English at UC Davis. Joshua agreed to do a recording with me for the beginning of the term, a conversation intended to introduce students to the idea of thinking and writing about music. We talked about his previous work as a music critic, his most recent (pretty genius) book Roadrunner (Duke University Press, 2021), and all sorts of other things. It ended up being a really wonderful way to kick off the course that my students and I referred back to again and again. I’m so grateful! And since Joshua said it would be okay, I’m sharing the recording here for anyone else who might want to give it a listen. It was such a good, helpful conversation for our seminar. If you do tune in, I hope you dig it too!

interview with joshua clover – hist 417 (spring 2022): france since 1900 in 13 songs

learning to read

I have always sort of lived for reading and writing and I also read and write for a living. I spent years studying both of these things before I got a job as a professor teaching these things at a university. I am still learning to read and write in new and different ways all the time.

A thing about this global pandemic is that it’s pushed me to rethink how I read and write, and how I share these practices with students, in countless ways. I’ve been uncomfortable with some of it, but I’ve also had a lot of fun experimenting with new strategies and methods, some of which I’ve held onto as we’ve moved back to the physical classroom, back to a F2F (if masked) environment.

One of the things teaching remotely got me doing much more than I ever had in the past–more in the last year and a half ++ than in my whole teaching career before this–is invite guests into my classes. The technology was there before all of this to bring someone in who couldn’t be there in person. But it took these insane circumstances for me to really lean into doing this more frequently. Of course, other writers and readers are there in my classes all the time. The course materials and assignments in every class I teach pull in other voices and perspectives constantly. But this is different. Talented, creative, smart guests can bring so much to a classroom exchange and dynamic, virtually or in person: other perspectives on the material, differences in style/approach, energy from outside that can totally transform a conversation’s feels and flows.

My latest class “visit” took the form of a recorded chat with Angus Reid, a PhD Candidate in English at UC-Berkeley, for HIST 390: “THE BOMB”-A CULTURAL HISTORY. It’s an undergrad course I’m teaching for the first time. Each week, we look at different cultural representations, forms, and objects: photography, painting, sculpture, film, literary sources, etc. This week, we’re working with poems and short fiction. I’m an avid reader of poetry, but I wanted my class to get some help reading poetry from someone who thinks about the genre a lot more than we do, someone who also teaches poetry. For scheduling and other reasons, we recorded our dialogue rather than having Angus join the class virtually in real time. There’s more to say about the different ways I have brought guests in and how things have gone/felt.

My conversation with Angus had me sort of vibrating with joy for hours after. We talked about:

the way a poem can look
and sound
the Beats
the Bay Area

And we spoke very specifically about the 1958 Gregory Corso poem “Bomb”.

Gregory Corso, “Bomb” in the collection Happy Birthday to Death (New Directions Books, 1960)

Speaking with Angus, I wasn’t just posing questions for/on behalf of my class. I was learning to read this poem I’d read a hundred times before in a new way, learning to think about and approach poetry differently, learning to read afresh. One of the best things about reading and writing as (a) living is how this kind of thing is happening constantly, especially when it happens like this, in conversation. I’m so grateful to all the colleagues and friends like Angus who’ve been helping me get through this intense period of my teaching life, who’ve given so generously of their time and ideas, who’ve kept–and always keep–the room from getting too lonesome.

Here’s our conversation:

Reading Corso’s “Bomb” with Angus Reid

hold it now, hit it

A little over a year ago, I read a great essay by Dr. Robert (Bob) Cashin Ryan, a lit scholar, teacher, and co-editor (with Sarah Osment) of hyped on melancholy. The piece gave me the idea for a week on sound and music and/as history in a course I teach at SFU. So this week in HIST 400: Methodology, we’re all about listening.

My students and I will be discussing all of the materials below, as well as a terrific article by Michael Sizer, “Murmur, Clamor, and Tumult: The Soundscape of Revolt in the Middle Ages that I don’t have permission to share here. And you can read/listen along if you want.

  • Listen to an audio interview with Julie Beth Napolin about sound studies & Olivier Messiaen’s 1941 composition, “Quartet for the End of Time.” I spoke with Julie this past summer for radio 417, a series of broadcasts I made for my seminar on France & the Second World War.
  • Watch a video interview with Jennifer Stoever about her work on the “sonic color line” here.
  • Read an excerpt from Hanif Abdurraqib‘s Go Ahead in the Rain via Vulture

  • Read another excerpt from Hanif Abdurraqib‘s Go Ahead in the Rain via the Los Angeles Review of Books

  • Read an excerpt from Michael Diamond and Adam Horowitz‘s Beastie Boys Book via Vulture

  • Read Bob Ryan‘s “The Breaks of History” via Public Books

  • Listen to the audio interview with Bob Ryan that we recorded for radio 400. In it, we talk about sampling, citation, high school, college, grad school, A Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys, history, listening & writing.

Also, I did up a playlist of all the songs that came up in my conversation with Bob, and you can listen to that kooky music salad here.


It’s been a while…feels like I’ve been all about teaching the past few months, but the teaching and planning for teaching have meant that I haven’t had all that much time to keep a log about it, I guess.

I did write a thing about the teaching that I shared elsewhere, but forgot to post here:

Everything since then is a bit of a blur. Much from the time before it came out too, really. And now I’m in week 3 of a new term. Still rolling remote -or remote again. Still blurry.

And I’m back on my bullshit with the “radio” business. In my fall course, HIST 400: Methodology, I’m using weekly recordings to reflect on material we’ve covered, to share thoughts on things coming up, to connect with my small and wonderful group of SFU History Honours students in between our weekly synchronous meetings online. Each one of these episodes begins and ends with a bit of music. They are typically fairly short (under 15 minutes). I did, however, just finish editing a longer recording of an interview with Bob Ryan about a short essay he published last year called “The Breaks of History”. In our hour-long conversation, Bob and I talked about music, history, and writing. It was super fun! I’ve also made a playlist of songs that came up as we were chatting. It is super weird!

The use of sound recordings works for me. I hope it’s working for this new group of students. I like the idea of popping into their ears for a little bit here and there, not having to look at my own face, or fuss over a video that will only add to all of our eye strain. And listening is different. It works a different part of my brain and inspires other regions of my imagination. It’s also the same, in the sense that I think of writing and reading as listening, literally (as when I read something aloud, especially something I’m writing), but also in a range of other senses of the word. Historians talk about “voices of the past.” We talk about tone and rhythm in the work that we do, about silence too.

Sense and feeling are strange and challenging right now. There’s too much looking, definitely, especially when it comes to screens. Touch is out, with very few exceptions. The others are there, helping or hindering, sometimes muted, sometimes overwhelming – the smoke from forest fires for days and days, the burning of my eyes, the comforts of wine or ice cream, or wine and ice cream, the reassurances of bleach and hand sanitizer. And right outside my window this morning, there are the steady sounds of traffic and rain….

traffic & rain

radio 417

The Summer term has begun and my Intercession course (HIST 417) on France during the Second World War along with it. The weeks of preparation were intense, with Spring teaching and grading still going on, a kid at home full time, all the anxiety/bonkers of life in pandemic.

In all the frenzy, some ideas came to me, and one of them was radio 417. Each week of the 6-week intensive course, my students will listen to one or two pre-recorded broadcasts around 15-20 minutes long. And I’ve enlisted the brilliant help of colleagues and friends from all over, geographically and in terms of the disciplines they hang out in. Each episode features a conversation giving listeners some things to think about before hearing a French song/piece from the years 1939-1945. When the broadcasts are done, I will have spoken with scholars of radio, music/sound, literature, wine, the Holocaust, race, empire, the wartime and postwar era.

I had an amazing chat this past week with Sarah Osment, a scholar of American literature and poetry who is also the co-editor (with Bob Ryan) of hyped on melancholy, “a quarterly magazine that features smart words about sad sounds and the reasons we cleave to them”. Sarah and I talked about sadness, Édith Piaf, and the song “L’Accordéoniste,” written by Michel Emer in 1940.

Listen to our conversation now:

And don’t forget to watch Piaf’s performance of the song in 1954!