Dr. Esther Morgan-Ellis: Why WAM?

Editor’s Note: Dr. Esther Morgan-Ellis assigned the creation of a WAM video to her students at the University of North Georgia. The video, on Hildegard of Bingen, appears here.


I first came across the Women in Art Music project in the summer of 2018, and I immediately saw that making a film for the website would be a great project for one of my music history classes. I was already planning a new unit on Hildegard of Bingen, for which I had acquired a facsimile of the Dendermonde Codex. My intention was to lead students through a series of activities that would result in their acquiring an intimate understanding of monastic life, Hildegard’s work, and scribal practices. Why not replace disjointed assignments with a holistic project that would culminate in the creation of a permanent pedagogical resource?

This type of project falls under the umbrella of social pedagogies, which are defined by Randy Bass and Heidi Elmendorf as “design approaches for teaching and learning that engage students with what we might call an ‘authentic audience’ (other than the teacher), where the representation of knowledge for an audience is absolutely central to the construction of knowledge in a course.” The “authentic audience” in this case includes both hypothetical visitors to the website and future music history students at our institution. The latter population includes friends and colleagues of the students who made the video—a resource that will, in large part, determine how future classes learn about and perceive Hildegard. The 2018 cohort also expanded my knowledge of the subject matter and influenced how I will teach it going forward.

This particular project required the entire class of sixteen students to work together. We used a few collaborative tools, including an Outlook Group, Google Docs, and Padlet, but our most productive exchanges took place in class. I assigned two project managers at the beginning of the semester, and it was their responsibility to keep the process moving and to coordinate the various contributions. I always hated group work as a student, and I am therefore sympathetic to the inevitable grumbling that arises when I introduce a group project. But as I tell my students, “Life is a group project.” Learning to collaborate is important, and it can result in the achievement of goals that would be out of reach for the individual. Take our video, for example. No one student in my class possessed all of the skills necessary for its production. Some were good writers, but knew nothing about how to make or edit sound recordings. Some were comfortable managing the workflow, but couldn’t sing. Together, they were able to create a permanent resource that will benefit future classes at our institution and beyond.

This project was not without its hitches. In the spirit of fostering true collaboration, I served only as a gentle guiding force. I set tentative deadlines, but I encouraged students to be responsible to one another, not to arbitrary calendar dates. I made my expertise available to students, but I rarely inserted myself into the process. The results were mixed. On the one hand, this video was truly created by my students. On the other, we fell behind schedule, to the detriment of those whose work came at the end of the process (a process that, despite my intentions, did not conclude until the last weeks of the semester), and certain elements might have been higher in quality if I had taken a more dictatorial role. All the same, I don’t intend to make major changes when we repeat this project next year. I still believe in the value of delegating responsibility to students and treating them as genuine collaborators.

I exercised my editorial power at three points in the process. First, I edited the questions for Dr. Margot Fassler before they were sent to her, asking the team of question writers to clarify their intent in some places. Second, I submitted the script to an outside fact checker and required students to address her concerns before allowing the script readers to begin their work. Finally, I approved (or did not approve) the recorded chants before they were integrated into the film.

This project did require a significant amount of class time. However, I am committed to meaningful learning at the expense of coverage, whether that means taking time to engage deeply with the material or creating space for complex scholarly projects. I always ask myself, “What will students remember about this class in ten years?” In this case, I can be sure that they will remember Hildegard.

See Dr. Morgan-Ellis’s advice on creating a WAM video with your musicology/music history class here.


Dr. Esther Morgan-Ellis is Associate Professor of Music at the University of North Georgia. She is the author of Everybody Sing!: Community Singing in the American Picture Palace (2018). Her work has appeared in American Music, the Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, and the Journal of Music History Pedagogy, and she has presented papers and lecture-recitals at national conferences. Dr. Morgan-Ellis currently serves as Managing Editor for the Journal of Popular Music Studies and Book Review Editor for the Bulletin of the Society for American Music. Dr. Morgan-Ellis is also a professional cellist and appears regularly with regional orchestras. At UNG she teaches music history, world music, music in Appalachia, and cello, and she directs the orchestra in Dahlonega. Read more at https://ung.edu/music/faculty-staff-bio/esther-morgan-ellis.php.