COVID-19: A Perspective for the Arts and Humanities

Difficult times

The world is reeling from the shock of the proliferation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that leads to Coronavirus Disease 2019, better known as COVID-19 (WHO, CDC-US, WHO-Europe). As we remove ourselves from social situations and even eliminate interpersonal interactions altogether in an effort to slow the spread of infection, we are entering a new period of fear and uncertainty that threatens the stability of our health, financial, social, and education systems as well as our emotional and physical well beings. To complicate matters, misinformation abounds. There has been a rise in misinformation, resulting in conflicting and confusing perspectives, fostered by new cultural terminology like “fake news” and “alternative facts.” In such a time as this, facts are critical. Without facts on which to solidify confidences in our ability to overcome this viral onslaught on our world’s health and stability, fear abounds.

Fear is a dangerous commodity. One of its primary sources is the unknown. We don’t know enough about how the virus is transmitted. We don’t know enough about the symptoms of the disease. We don’t know enough about the treatment of the disease. We are worried about our and our loved ones’ psychological and physical well-beings. We don’t know what the future holds. For those of us who teach in the arts and humanities and for all educators, we don’t know exactly how the remainder of our teaching will be delivered and when we will be able to return to our face-to-face classrooms. We know for the time being instruction will be almost exclusively online, but many have not taught in this format before, so yet another unknown presents itself.

An opportunity for the arts, humanities, and sciences

Like most universities across the U.S. and abroad, my school has transitioned to fully online instruction for the remainder of the semester. As I walked out of the building on my last day of face-to-face instruction, I heard several groups of students discussing the virus and their uncertainty as to their safety and how the remainder of their semester might unfold. In a similar state of uncertainty, my colleagues across the U.S. and I turn our thoughts toward transferring the remainder of our courses to an online format—a task that many of us have never considered and some have even considered a threat to their own positions as instructors. This will no doubt be a burden for many, but I see it also as a tremendous opportunity. I’m grateful that our semesters were not fully cut short, but have the possibility of continuing through various guises of online delivery. The important thing to me is that I will still have contact with my students and thus an opportunity and an important role in helping them through this time. The remainder of this essay expounds the reasons I see this as so important.

My research and teaching specialty is music theory. I have had several crises of confidence in my career choice and its importance to the world and humankind. I have pondered my wife’s career as a nurse, friends who are medical doctors, mathematicians and linguists who maintain our most basic skills to communicate and compute within and about our world, scientists studying biology, chemistry, and physics, along with virologists and epidemiologists who may be ultimately responsible for the protection of life on this planet. Art, music, and the humanities are important too, arguments for which abound and are beyond my focus here. To be clear, I’m quite certain of the importance of the practice and instruction of the arts and humanities. Suffice it to admit, however, that I have sometimes struggled with my own understanding of my profession’s importance in the world.

I have overcome these crises of confidence, concluding that what I truly teach is thinking and logic and coming to the realization that, while I certainly want my students to learn about music and its organization, what I really want them to gain in my classes is a sense of how to observe data and its relationship with other data and create well-formed, logical interpretations of that data. Like our sister disciplines of the visual, theatrical, and literary arts, music, as an art, requires a certain amount of subjective interpretation, a common thread throughout much of the humanities. And music theory is no stranger to this subjectivity. The analysis of a musical composition involves an act of creativity and interpretation. One examines a piece of music—either visually or aurally, observes its musical components, formulates an interpretation of how those musical components are structured both individually and in coordination with other musical components in the piece, and repackages that in a narrative that is logical, cohesive, and understandable (and therefore useful) to other musicians.

While this activity is certainly subjective, there are strong threads of objectivity that must be present in any interpretation of music. There are no “alternative facts” in music theory. There are factual elements on which we can and must ground our interpretations. We cannot say, for example, that a note is a C, when it is actually a C sharp. As data points accumulate, however, things begin to become murkier. We have to weigh information with new information encountered in a piece. We reinterpret old data in light of that new information. As we look at a musical composition, the pitch, C, might seem important, but then we encounter an A and reconsider the original C as perhaps connected to this A as a single unit, perhaps creating part of an A-minor triad. But a third data point, the pitch F, might enter the picture, and it is only now that we understand that original C to be the top part of an F major triad. (See this article by David Lewin for a music theory and phenomenology perspective on this kind of music analysis. It’s a complex article, but an interesting read nonetheless.) Mahler’s famous Adagietto, the fourth movement of his Fifth Symphony, opens in exactly this way, with these exact notes. It’s not until the third measure before we finally get the F, the root of the chord, and know exactly where we are tonally in the movement. I’ve used this as an example of this kind of music analysis, but also because it is one of my favorite moments of peace in the musical literature. I highly recommend listening. You’ll hear C’s and A’s sustained in the strings and arpeggiated downward in the harp. It’s not until the downbeat of the third measure where the double basses and harp pluck the F that grounds the opening harmony, and we finally feel aurally home. (This happens at 0:24 in the link above.) You can hear the cellos descending and the first violins ascending toward this F during this opening—all leading toward that third measure where the melody truly gets going in the first violins. It’s a beautiful moment of tension and then peace. May it bring you peace as well.

That’s an example of the kind of observational thinking I aim to teach in my discipline, but every subject in the arts, humanities, and sciences alike could likely come up with a parallel disciplinary example. Students with this kind of experience in thinking have a powerful tool to use as they process the daily updates and new information about COVID-19. In this period of rapidly changing data, our students are bombarded by seemingly endless information, much of which is labeled as or assumed to be factual information. They are confronted with a sea of armchair epidemiologists and an even larger sea of information spewing from many sources, some traditionally trustworthy, only to have it contradicted and/or corrected right after. They have to assemble multiple observations and test them against one another to solidify them into strong, well-formed analyses. And they must be vigilant to make sure that information comes from reliable sources based on factual observations.

Much as with the opening of Mahler’s Adagietto, understanding is of course altered as we observe new data that replaces old data or reframes that old data in a new perspective. It is allowed to change, and it should change when presented with new information. And while we join together as a planet in a common purpose to overcome COVID-19, our ability to rapidly observe, organize, and interpret data has never been so critical. It can be a source of confidence, peace, and mental stability in our lives in this difficult time. That’s how science works. That’s also how the arts and humanities work, or at least, perhaps, they should. That’s what I’d like my students to get from the remainder of this semester within a world in crisis and the time beyond when we ultimately return to the new normal on the other side. Hopefully, our classes can remain a beacon of organized, logical hope to overcome fear in these difficult times.

–Nathan Fleshner, Assistant Professor of Music Theory, University of Tennessee, USA

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.