Doctoral Student in Music Excels at Teaching
Core Curriculum

Special from The Record

June 16, 2011Bookmark and Share

Soon after graduating from college, Tyler Bickford taught music for a year at a rural Vermont elementary school. Years later, the same school would serve as a rich laboratory for his Columbia dissertation about how kids consume digital media.

Tyler Bickford, an ethnomusicologist, won a Presidential Teaching Award for graduate students. (Image credit: Barbara Alper)
Tyler Bickford, an ethnomusicologist, won a Presidential Teaching Award for graduate students.
Image credit: Barbara Alper

On the way to earning his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, Bickford returned to Vermont to take notes on how some 70 K-8 schoolchildren share earbud headphones and use MP3 players. Before long, he found himself recruited back into teaching music appreciation to the same group of youngsters.

“Running a second grade class, you learn that you have to have clear ground rules so that you can then back off a lot and be more exploratory,” says Bickford, whose dissertation was titled “Children’s Music, MP3 Players, and Expressive Practices at a Vermont Elementary School: Media Consumption as Social Organization among Schoolchildren.”

When he returned to Columbia to finish his degree, he was given a different kind of challenge: teaching the Core Curriculum seminar “Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West” to College sophomores. This year, his efforts were honored with the University’s highest teaching award.

The class navigated texts by the likes of Nietzsche, Aristotle and Kant, an unusual curriculum for someone who once lectured at Columbia on Bob Dylan. Bickford calls it the best job he’s ever had.

As he did in Vermont with his much younger students, Bickford aimed to foster open idea sharing by assigning ungraded, stream-of-consciousness journal entries in tandem with narrowly focused academic papers.

“Often students would write in their journals about connections they thought were too far out or would be inappropriate to write papers about—self-help books and Epictetus, the Harry Potter books and Hume, Hobbes and Judith Butler—but which were actually really smart,” Bickford recalls. “I'd try to show them how it could be a solid idea for a paper, and they'd run with it.”

Victoria Fox, a senior film studies major at the College, recalls being intimidated by philosophy in high school, but in Bickford’s seminar in 2009, she discovered how texts like Plato’s The Republic were relevant to her life. Now she’s working toward a philosophy concentration. “The free-form writing made me approach the papers a lot more creatively,” she says.

Raised in Puerto Rico by a pair of teachers, Bickford majored in music and modern studies at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, earning his B.A. in 2001. He now hopes to secure teaching work in a field related to his studies.

At the core of his research is a deep interest in the status of children in society. “There has been an explosion in the commercial power of kids buying media,” Bickford says. “That’s honest-to-goodness political power.”

Professor Aaron Fox, chair of the Music Department and no relation to Victoria, first met Bickford about seven years ago and supervised his dissertation. He says that Bickford’s dedication to the young subjects of his research mirrors the core values of Columbia’s ethnomusicology program.

“As confident as he is in his ability, his focus is always on the other person at the table,” Fox says.

Fox also notes that Bickford is a rare example of a Music graduate student teaching a seminar on contemporary civilization. But he adds: “I expect this will be a more and more common thing now, now that Tyler's example has demonstrated that students in Music can successfully contribute to Columbia's undergraduate Core Curriculum in ways that go beyond Music Humanities."

—by Elizabeth Thomas

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