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Active Voices

Innovative extradisciplinary seminar course asks students to study through song.


By their very nature, Ohio Northern University’s Extradisciplinary Seminar (EXDS) courses push students beyond their academic comfort zone, forcing them outside their major and placing emphasis on the process by which they learn, rather than the content they are being taught. Because they are required to enroll in these courses, students have their critical-thinking skills challenged and, perhaps, even learn a new way of learning.

No EXDS course takes this concept more to heart than “Beyond Les Misérables: Global Issues in the Modern French Musical.” Apart from the novel approach of using musical theatre to study global issues like poverty, immigration and oppression, this course asks that students share their newfound knowledge with classmates through song.

Kayla Burress shares her sung defense experience.

As in singing.

In class.

In front of everyone.

Dr. Thomas Finn, professor of French and Spanish, incorporates what he calls “sung defenses” into his course to combine students’ analytical and creative talents. He asks students to rewrite the lyrics to a song from a musical they are studying to provide a justification or defense of a particular character’s actions or as commentary on any of the musical’s core themes. They then perform the piece in class a cappella to the tune of the song.

“I want the students to be active participants rather than passive observers,” says Finn. “The sung defenses really do that in a fun and interesting way.”

This semester, the course was structured around four French musicals: “Les Miserablés,” “Notre Dame de Paris,” “Ali Baba” and “The Ten Commandments.” Students were required to perform sung defenses for each show. Students also had exams, an oral presentation and a final research paper. Finn credits the sung defenses with jumpstarting the students’ interest in the subject matter.

“The sung defenses are the beginning of the analysis for students to start looking at these shows. Then it just blossoms out into the oral presentations and final papers,” he says.

"I’d never sung much before, and I’d never researched the meaning of French musicals. It was a very different experience and a very cool one. It was the class I looked forward to each week."

From a teaching perspective, the sung defense proved to be an effective learning method. But that didn’t automatically make it a popular one with students.

“Most of them have taken to it very, very well — even the ones who were afraid of it at first. They seem to appreciate the creative part, and they’ve done very creative things. They seem to like it,” says Finn.

“It was horrible ... no, not really. It was nerve-wracking, but it was also fun,” says pharmacy major Ashley Dodge, who had the unenviable task of being first. “My secret was to incorporate humor into my song so that people laughed with me instead of at me.”

The class quickly discovered that many of their fears of ridicule were unfounded. After all, they were all in the same proverbial boat. But many, if not all, of the students expressed some level of fear or apprehension, whether it be singing or expressing their ideas through their lyrics.

“I was worried people were going to judge the way I interpreted my character. It was interesting to see how other people interpreted the same ones. There are aspects to characters that I didn’t realize until I heard other students’ songs,” says pharmacy major Allie Dolan.

Jason Luthman, a mechanical engineering major, describes the supportive nature of the class as almost a band-of-brothers/sisters-type scenario where the students supported one another because they knew they were going to need support in return. Like Dodge, Luthman relied on humor to make his first sung defense easier.

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“I actually sang my first song as Cosette, the 12-year-old girl from Les Miserablés. It broke the ice and made it a little less intimidating for me to be a little girl for a day, I suppose,” he says.

Even with light-hearted, humorous lyrics, Luthman still provided an insightful defense of the character of Cosette. He used his sung defense to ask aloud why Cosette has such a small role in the musical when she is literally the face of the musical and instrumental to the plot.

Other students looked at archetypal characters, such as heroes and villains, and sought to provide a deeper understanding of them than is offered in the limited span of a musical production.

“I tend to do my character defenses on the less popular characters in the musical, because I think they are more interesting,” says Brittany Holland, a communication arts/public relations double major. “It’s clear we aren’t supposed to like them, but I like to explore why we shouldn’t like them.”

Of all the aspects of this class the students enjoyed, many feel that the best part is that the course stayed true to the idea behind the extradisciplinary seminar courses, namely that students are taught something they aren’t already familiar with in a way that stimulates them to think critically about what they are learning.

“I like that the University has EXDS courses, but the emphasis needs to be placed on the creativity of students like this one does. I learned something new in this class. I’d never sung much before, and I’d never researched the meaning of French musicals. It was a very different experience and a very cool one. It was the class I looked forward to each week,” says Luthman.

To be sure, the sung defenses are a big reason why many students felt that this course was so effective. In comparing it to other, more traditional assignments in the course, the sung defenses stood out.

Jason Luthman's sung defense for "The Ten Commandments"

Where were the plagues?
Sweet Jesus, where were the plagues?
The water turning to blood
Appeared just as it should!
But the frogs that ran free
Were very difficult to see

Oh, and what of the lice and the locusts and flies?
There were none to be found in the very dark skies!
Here where we should see the Egyptians’ growing fears?

There should have been suffering
And there should have been pain
There should have been no chance to stay or retain
A life riddled with such a horrible pain
When the lightning thunder rolled in
And the hail avenged Egypt’s sin.

Yet why did they stage the plagues this way?
Was it to make the show okay
For the children and the faint of heart?
They should have shown more
Than just pictures and lights
The plagues were more than just a show
They were a fight
Against a cruel and unjust reign
Meant to bar Israel from new life.

What of incurable boils?
And of darkness so deep,
That you cannot go outside
Nor can you see your feet?

One cow with disease and I’d retract
All that I’ve said to counteract
The sad attempt at showing suffering
Put to use in this religious musical.
They didn’t even show a child
Dying as the first-born
What may have possessed them to do so?
To be honest, I really do not know.

“Even today, I think people were kind of zoning out during the oral presentations because everyone talks about the same thing,” says Dodge. “But the sung defenses are just so interesting, that you really want to hear what everyone does. They are quick and to-the-point and give you the opportunity to say what you want to say in a cool way that people actually pay attention to.”

Finn understands that attempting something like the sung defenses as a mandatory class assignment is asking a lot of his students, and he wouldn’t have done it had he not believed they were willing and able to do it.

“I think Northern attracts students who are multitalented and open to new ideas. I’ve got some pharmacy students and mechanical engineering students who have really had some good tunes. It says a lot for the students. Their willingness to get up there for one, because that is not easy to do,” he says.

And he would know. Not one to ask his students to do something he himself would not, Finn performed the first sung defense to show them what he expected. He did the last one, too, as a thank you to the students who made this class the one he looked forward to each week as well.