Posted April 17, 2009

O’Hara reveals message in the music to teach dissent

Provost’s Award for Innovative Teaching in General Education

Students in John O’Hara’s "Dissent in American" class sit quietly as the lyrics to “Blue Tail Fly” (also known as “Jimmy Crack Corn”) fill the classroom. Their assignment is to interpret the lyrics of this well-known traditional song to find the hidden meaning within each verse.

The students, most of whom know it as a nursery rhyme, struggle to understand a string of ambiguous lyrics, until O’Hara begins to explain that the song portrays the killing of a slave owner by his slave. Some of the students scribble notes, while others nod, beginning to see the full picture. “Blue Tail Fly” and similar songs represent some of the earliest forms of art created as vehicles for dissent in 19th-century America, O’Hara explains.

“These songs often capture experiences that are not included in history books. They offer us a way to experience history in a way not offered by formal historical accounts,” said O’Hara, assistant professor of English. “People embedded their lives, history and misery into folk music. These songs give us an opportunity to look at history from a different perspective.”
John O’Hara
Photo by Ryan S. Brandenberg/Temple University


The session proceeds with samples of anti-WWI songs, union hymns, and other types of political music of the early-20th century.

For his innovative approach to developing and teaching the “Dissent in America” course, a U.S. Society unit of the General Education Program, O’Hara is being recognized with a Provost’s Award for Innovative Teaching in General Education.

By exploring themes of dissent in literature, music and culture students gain an understanding of how art helped influence social change and fuel cultural movements from the early 1800s to the present day.

Although the course is taught each semester by various faculty members, O’Hara’s use of technology has helped his colleagues develop their own approach to the curriculum.

In addition to holding sessions in which students listen to music clips, O’Hara has developed a YouTube channel where he posts relevant clips and thematic lists of videos connected to the course.

“I’ve learned a lot from how John runs his course,” said professor James Mellis. “His use of technology coupled with traditional teaching methods can only serve to further the appreciation for the course material for his students.”

In addition, the “Are You Experienced” element of the class requires students to participate in a dissent activity by visiting a rally, reporting on a dissent movement or visiting a dissent group’s headquarters. Past coursework has included student attendance of In Conflict at the Randall Theater; visits to local landmarks such as the Philadelphia MOVE neighborhood and the Walt Whitman house in Camden, N.J.; in-class musical performances of American folk songs ranging from 19th-century traditional songs to 1960s-era protest music; and out-of-class concerts and theatrical performances. Students have also attended a variety of political events in Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington, D.C.

O’Hara received an Outstanding Teacher Award from the College of Liberal Arts in 2006.