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Mixtape as secret syllabus

Posted in: General,Practices by Rachel Bundang on May 1, 2011

Fellow blogger Gina wrote the other day about using music to teach theology.  I have done this before– a sort of teaching via mixtape, so that the music I played in class was almost like a secret syllabus. Whether for my intro to theology course, the several iterations of my “Faith, Poverty, & Justice” course , or any of the others, I lay this out by asking myself:

  1. what I want students to learn from the course,
  2. what music would best communicate that, and
  3. how these connect with the readings or other textual engagements.

The music was purposely not all rock; it crossed periods and genres so that students could see the universality or persistence of the issues covered. Some of my favorite matches are:

  • Stephen Foster’s “Hard Time Come Again No More” re: relentless suffering (covered repeatedly by everyone from Johnny Cash to Renee Fleming, but my current favorite version is by Mavis Staples)
  • Lauryn Hill’s “Final Hour” re: righteous living, final judgment, and eschatological questions
  • the Flaming Lips cover of Iron & Wine’s “Waiting for a Superman” re: solidarity
  • JS Bach’s Cantata no. 82 “Ich habe genug” re: what it really means to have enough
  • old-time labor union songs or Lila Downs’ medley of “This Land Is Your Land/Pastures of Plenty” re: basic human dignity + worker justice in the context of border issues.


Rachel Bundang


  1. Hi Rachel,

    Thanks for sharing. I love your language of “secret syllabus” and think the songs you utilized are excellent. I personally love the song “Hard Times Come Again No More” and I’m a huge fan of Lauren Hill. I’ve focused on using music from the 21st century because I thought it would be more relatable to the students. This being said, I think everyone can relate to songs like “Hard Times Come Again No More.” How did your students respond to the music? What was the overall experience of the class? Looking forward to hearing your response. And btw, I loved your Lady Gaga post. I hadn’t seen that video before and I think there is so much to be said about her music and her objectives.


    Comment by gmdysert — May 1, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

  2. Hi, Gina–

    Thanks for the comments + questions! Students responded quite well and seemed to appreciate the subtext/context and depth the music gave to readings that might otherwise seem dry. Of course, another secret syllabus is comprised of what I hope are well-chosen video clips. For example, it probably helped to use Stephen Colbert to illuminate Jon Sobrino’s critique of empire. Anyway, I have two music-geeky observations:

    1) Locale + student demographics matter! I had originally developed those courses when I was first living in NYC, and the music choices were mostly hip-hop, classic soul, and folk. Then when I moved to CA and taught the courses there for the first time, I learned the hard way that my students were much more indie/alternative and Latin Rock listeners, and I had to adjust my playlists accordingly. Now that I’m back in NYC, I’m remixing yet again.

    2) Going broad with the time span for music choices (i.e. outside of the last 10-20 years) works best if they somewhat go with the period of the author you happen to be discussing that week. For instance, the Bach I mention above went with selections from Aquinas (and yes, they got a translation of the German), and the old labor union songs went with pieces by/about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.

    I’d love to hear more about your criteria, playlists, etc.

    Rachel B.

    Comment by rbundang — May 1, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

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