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When Professor Reba Wissner began her position as assistant professor of music at Columbus State University in Georgia in August 2020, she was already in the process of pivoting her own career toward public musicology. After nine years as an adjunct at various institutions, Columbus State was the last academic position she intended to apply to. She had been providing DVD commentary, program notes, and doing other types of public musicology for several years, and she had also taught in the no-longer extant Master’s degree in American and Public Musicology at Westminster Choir College. 

Wissner began thinking about the performance opportunities her students were lacking because of the pandemic, as well as about the skills they had as musicians and those they would need to be successful. She thought initially about starting a graduate certificate in public musicology, but based on demand and institutional needs, ended up designing it as an undergraduate certificate instead. Columbus State’s Certificate in Public Musicology launched in Fall of 2022 as an embedded certificate, meaning that students needed to be enrolled in a degree program to pursue it, and will launch in Fall 2024 as a full online, standalone option, accessible to anyone with at least 12 credits of music history. It is currently the only program in public musicology in the United States. 

In designing the program, Wissner not only looked to the Westminster program, but also to public history programs for ideas and inspiration. She found that public history programs often expect students to find employment in museums and cultural institutions, and she wanted her students to have multiple pathways available to them, both in and beyond music. She designed a four-course sequence (which may be taken out of order) consisting of: Introduction to Public Musicology, Writing about Music, Music and Identity, and Music Encoding. Students do not have to be declared in the certificate in order to take the courses, which all count as electives in the Music major and minor. Currently, Wissner teaches all four classes herself. 

Each course has an embedded community partner, with whom the students work to produce a project. These projects often have ripple effects far beyond the borders of the classroom. For example, the Music and Identity class worked with the Columbus Museum to build an exhibit called “Crossroads: Chattahoochee Valley Blues and Folk Music” from the ground up. The class was broken into groups, and each group was responsible for a section of the exhibit; within that section, the group also had to choose a topic and write a children’s book based around it. This gave students experience in learning to talk about research both for adults in the museum and for children ages four to eight. The students who wrote the books will do read-alouds at the museum when the exhibit opens in May 2024. In addition, the books are being illustrated by graphic design students, and in Fall 2024, they will be passed on to students in the elementary music education program, who will write lesson plans, and in audio technology, who will create the music and sound to produce them as fully interactive ebooks. Eventually, the books will be piloted in the local school district. 

Other partnerships are focused on diversifying musicology as a field. In Writing about Music, students work with a German company that publishes music that either hasn’t ever been published or hasn’t been published in a very long time. Each of them chooses a piece of music and researches the background, composer, interesting features, and anything else that would be helpful for someone looking at the piece for the first time. Their research is published both online and in hardcopy. The most popular of the four classes has been Music Encoding, which is essentially a digital humanities course. Students learn about the importance of being able to fix code in notation software themselves and how to do it. They put their skills to work for Rebalancing the Music Canon, an organization that works toward making the musical canon more diverse and inclusive, and making music by BIPOC artists more accessible. Students work on encoding the opening melodies of various pieces for publication on the website for Rebalancing the Music Canon and receive full attribution and credit for their work. 

Currently, the program is gearing up for a large partnership with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, which will celebrate its 170th anniversary in 2025. Students in Wissner’s courses will produce the first written history of the orchestra, and they will also construct a ten-board visual installation that will be on display in the performing arts center and travel around Columbus. 

Wissner would like the program to help the field of musicology begin to rethink its traditional curriculum, which remains rooted in the 19th century even while the world––and the employment realities of students––have changed. She wants students to understand that music is a transferable skill, and she wants her fellow musicologists to begin rethinking how the field is training students and for what kinds of jobs. There are adjacent fields that academic musicology rarely thinks about, such as forensic musicology and music law. In fact, Wissner says, she wants her students to come up with public musicology careers that neither they nor she has ever thought of before.  

In its second year as of this writing, the Public Musicology Certificate has 37 students currently enrolled. Of those, four are graduate students completing an MA or Artist’s Diploma. Twenty-one students enrolled when it launched, and since then they’ve had twelve students complete coursework in three semesters. It is the third largest program in the School of Music and in the top three certificates at the university. The launch of the online program in Fall 2024 will make it possible for students at other universities to complete the sequence. Wissner hopes that it will also provide accessible and affordable continuing education to people at varying stages of their careers. Ultimately, she hopes that the program will become a model for what advanced music education could and should be. 

  • Have a team, because creating a certificate or similar program on your own is like having a second full-time job. 
  • Secure resources before starting a program, because it’s going to take more money than you think and money makes things like internships (which are not currently part of the program) possible. 
  • Examine the needs of your discipline and see what it has and what it’s missing. If there isn’t anything similar in your own discipline, look at what adjacent fields are doing and consider what might be modifiable, if not exactly transferable. 
  • Figure out what your students are doing when they leave your classroom and think about what training would benefit them. Interventions don’t have to be large to be effective. 
  • Prioritize establishing partnerships with local arts organizations, nonprofits, and even senior citizen centers. A partnership doesn’t need to be elaborate, especially at the beginning. It could be as simple as a social media series about a related topic. But partnerships allow students to produce work that matters for reasons beyond their own GPA and to learn about other types of organizations in areas of interest to them.
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