popular music, protest, and social justice — fall 2023 (#pmpsjf23)

Course Information

  • COM 455, 40344 MW 12:20 – 1:35, Merion Hall 150
  • Class Zoom Meeting Space (just in case!): See the Readings and Texts page for the link
  • Office: Bronstein Annex 202
  • Office Hours: TH 12 – 2 in my office or Zoom (whatever is best for the student) and by appointment
  • Email: wwolff [at] sju [dot] edu
  • Pronouns: He/Him/His
  • https://williamwolff.orgcourses/pmpsj-fall-2023/

Course Description

Graphic for COM 455 depicting a collage containing a Ruit Grrl Zine cover, civil right protesters holding hands, Peter Seeger's banjo, and Clash bassist Paul Simonon smashing is guitar.

“The civil rights movement would not have succeeded if it hadn’t been for all those songs. No one can prove anything, but of course if I didn’t believe it had some kind of power, I wouldn’t be trying to do it.” – Pete Seeger

Popular musicians use their platform to release songs, videos, and statements that reveal, condemn, and inspire action in response to perceived social, political, and military injustices. Songs educate in ways classrooms cannot. Songs amplify the voices. Songs unite people around a common cause. They become collective cries expressing anger, despair, hope, and a desire for change. Think “We Shall Overcome.” Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.” Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Beyonce’s “Formation.” Kendrick Lamar’s, “Alright.” H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe.”

Protest songs exist within a complex system of power, cultures, values, politics, entertainment, and texts. In this course, we will consider that complex system by analyzing songs from Slave Spirituals to the Civil Rights Movement; anti-war and pro-labor folk movements of the 1960s and 70s to punk rock of the late 1970s and Riot Grrrl in 1990s; rap and hip-hop; politically conscious festivals like the 1968 Harlem Cultural Festival; Indigenous activist music; the power of social justice radio and music for children; and contemporary artists releasing protest songs and videos and staging social justice-themed performances. Ultimately, students will see how protest music challenges authority, encourages activism, and—perhaps—affects change.

The primary assignment students will complete is a semester-long project: an individually-produced Protest Anthem Podcast (maybe to be aired on 1851 Radio?) modeled on NPR’s American Anthem series and Studio 360’s American Icon series, which will include a Listening Journal, Background Research, a Transcript, a Timeline and rough and final drafts of your Podcast. Students will also complete Reading Responses and plan the Print and Online Materials for the concert. There will be at least 1 required conference.

Please be aware ahead of time that this is a rigorous 400-level course, with many complex readings that demand your full attention and will lead to nuanced in-class conversations. Expect to be taken out of your comfort zone through the subjects of the songs and the readings. If you have any hesitation about the course, please see me immediately so we can discuss your concerns before the add/drop period ends.

Should any aspect of class confuse/concern/trouble you, or if you have questions about any of the assignments, readings, or anything else, please do not hesitate to contact me.  There is no shame in seeking extra help; it will only benefit your overall experience in the class. It is very easy to get behind if you miss classes. Please be present and ready to contribute.

Practicing Self Care

Please take care of yourself.  College is about more than classes and homework. Do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle this semester by eating well, exercising, avoiding drugs and alcohol, getting enough sleep, and taking some time to relax away from work. These choices have the potential to help you achieve your goals and cope with stress. If you are experiencing food insecurity, please visit SJU HawkHUB. Additional resources are:

As a college student, you may sometimes experience problems with your mental health that interfere with academic experiences and negatively impact daily life. Too often there is a negative stigma associated with experiencing distress and seeking assistance. That should not be the case. All of us benefit from support during times of struggle. There are many helpful resources available on campus and an important part of the college experience is learning how to ask for help. Asking for support sooner rather than later is almost always helpful.

If you or anyone you know experiences any academic stress, difficult life events, or feelings like anxiety or depression, we strongly encourage you to seek support. Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is here to help: call 610-660-1090 and/or visit their website at https://www.sju.edu/offices/student-life/caps. Consider reaching out to a friend, faculty, or family member you trust for help getting connected to the support that can help.

If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal or in danger of self-harm, call someone immediately, day or night:

And if the situation is life threatening, call the police:

  • SJU Police: 610-660-1111
  • Off campus: 911

COVID-19 Statement

Practicing self care is even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic. The university has a detailed COVID-19 website. I cannot overstate how important it is to engage in safe social practices during the pandemic. Your health and the health of those with whom you come in contact are at risk if you do not.

My commitment to you is to be open, flexible, and understanding during these uncertain times, especially as we are all adapting to new and unfamiliar learning spaces, practices, and environments. I ask the same openness, flexibility, and understanding from each of you and with how you treat and interact with one another in and out of classroom spaces. Our shared humanity, caring, and empathy will help us get through this as a community of learners and human beings.

The following are highlights from the August 15, 2022 email from Cary Anderson, EdD, (former) Vice President for Student Life and Associate Provost and Alison Dougherty, EdD, Interim Chief Human Resources Officer, entitled, “COVID-19 Vaccination Requirement and Protocols”:

  • At this time, Saint Joseph’s is not requiring mask-wearing in most campus spaces. Exceptions include the Student Health Center and other instances where masks may be required by the PDPH.
  • You must carry masks, even while on campus, in case you encounter a situation that warrants wearing a mask.
  • Anyone may request those around them to wear a mask when in classrooms, meeting in private offices or other shared spaces.
  • Anyone who feels more comfortable masking should continue to do so.
  • if you sense someone is more comfortable around people who are masked, please approach these personal decisions with care and compassion.

We will be following these guidelines exactly as written.

What to Do If You Were Exposed to COVID-19

The University COVID-19 website now points to the CDC website for guidelines on what to do if you were exposed. As of this writing, these include:

  1. Starting from Day 1, immediately wearing a high quality mask (for example, N95 or KN95). 
    1. Day 0 is the day of your last exposure to someone with COVID-19
    2. Day 1 is the first full day after your last exposure
    3. If you are exposed to anyone with COVID-19 and will be attending this class, you MUST wear an N95 or KN95 mask to class. There are no exceptions to this class policy.
  2. Do not go places where you are unable to wear a mask, including travel and public transportation settings.
  3. Take extra precautions when around people who are high risk.
  4. Watch for symptoms; if symptoms develop get tested immediately and see below.
  5. Get tested at least 5 full days after your last exposure
    1. If positive, isolate immediately and see below for university guidelines
    2. If negative, continue the above precautions through Day 10
  6. After Day 10, if you still have no symptoms, you may return to normal activity.

What to Do If You Have Symptoms

If you develop symptoms associated with COVID-19,

  1. Isolate immediately, following the isolation guidelines on the CDC website
  2. Get tested.
    1. If you test negative, you can end your isolation but if you were exposed, you must continue to follow the above exposure guidelines.
      1. If at any time you develop symptoms, you must again follow the isolation guidelines.
    2. If you test positive, see below.

What to Do If You Test Positive

  1. Isolate immediately, following the isolation guidelines on the CDC website
  2. There are different requirements for those who test positive with symptoms and those who test positive without symptoms. See the CDC guidelines and follow them exactly based on your circumstances.

If you test positive, university guidelines require you to:

  1. Complete the Positive Test Result Disclosure Form if you are a Saint Joseph’s University student, employee, or affiliate (e.g., contracted employee).
  2. Contact a healthcare provider if you haven’t already done so. Call 911 if it’s an emergency or if you are in distress.
  3. Research your next steps for isolation, inform those who need to know about your inability to be in-person while in isolation (e.g., faculty members), and communicate with your close contacts about their exposure.
  4. If you are a residential student living on campus, call Public Safety at Hawk Hill (610-660-1111) who will assist you. Some students may be referred to Residence Life for relocation.
  5. If you are an employee, contact Human Resources and your supervisor for information regarding additional next steps.

Course Learning Objectives

This course embodies the Saint Joseph’s University mission to “prepare students for personal excellence, professional success, and engaged citizenship” and “model [a] lifelong commitment to thinking critically, making ethical decisions, pursuing social justice.” It is informed by several Core Objectives created by the Communication Studies department, as well as the importance of Reflection advocated by the Office for Mission and Identity.

Objective 1. Communication Technologies
Students will develop and enhance their use of various communication technologies for the purpose of creating media objects with specific rhetorical goals and for specific audiences.

Objective 2. Critical Awareness of the Social Role of Media
Students will understand the history and context of the role that communication media (recording devices, music, lyrics, samples, videos, etc.) has played in social movements. Students will be able to articulate and critique the role media has historically played and currently plays in society.

Objective 3: Effective Communication
Students will understand the principles, practices, and ethics of effective media communication, in particular in terms of how it applies to social movements, society, and protest music.

Objective 4: Reflection
Students will develop their understanding of the important role of reflection during the reading, creation, and communication process.

Objective 5: Experimentation
Students will know what it feels like to step out of their comfort zones and take risks with their approaches to and understanding of protest and social justice themed music.

Diversity GEP Course Objectives (application pending)

The following objective will be met in order to satisfy Diversity GEP requirements:

  • Students will develop understandings about and identify the experiences and contributions (political, social, economic, etc.) of particular cultural communities that have been systematically marginalized.
  • Students will understand the complex, dynamic, and dialectical nature of culture and the political, historical, and economic conditions that shape it.
  • Students will describe and analyze issues of subordination and privilege, oppression and resistance in their own lives and the lives of other cultural groups.

Texts, Software, and Materials

Required Texts

  • Beyonce, Lemonade (2016), full album (vinyl, CD, or digital) including complete movie and booklet

Required Materials

  • access Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime video
  • access to Spotify
  • an external microphone from the COM Gear Room
  • access to audio editing software, Audacity (free) or Adobe Audition (not free)
    • Both applications are available on all COM laptops and computers
  • various articles in PDF format and videos (found on the Readings and Texts page)
  • we will be accessing documentaries through Kanopy and AVON, both of which you have access to as an SJU student

Digital and Zoom Etiquette

Many of the assignments throughout the semester will require participation in online spaces–Zoom, web sites, GoogleDocs, and others. Students should work to preserve the same atmosphere of respect and consideration that occurs in the classroom. Disagreements may arise and consensus is not always possible (indeed disagreements are productive). However, name calling, bullying, harassing, shaming, flaming, trolling, etc. is antithetical to the goals of this course and decent humanity.

The year online introduced new opportunities for academic technology and learning and it would be foolish to ignore those opportunities if they are more effective than some of the ways things were done in the classroom. One of those things is the ability to share computer screens via Zoom—an activity that proved to be wildly successful for helping me help students with their coding and designs. As such, there will be some weeks when we will be using Zoom so I can more effectively and efficiently help you with your coding. Unless something unforeseen happens, will not be using Zoom for full-class meetings; full class meetings will be completely in the classroom.

While using Zoom, students

  • may use a background if you would like;
  • are expected to be in a stationary, non-moving space;
  • will also need to be using a device that will allow them to complete work (editing HTML and CSS, for example). In other words, on a computer.

If you are concerned about having a quiet place to attend Zoom meetings or access to consistent wifi, such as if you live in with multiple roommates who also have online classes at the same time, SJU has set up a web site where you can reserve empty rooms and classroom spaces. I STRONGLY encourage you to take advantage of this service and not to wait to reserve. Spaces will fill quickly.


Grades will be calculated in the following way:

  • Reading Responses: 30%
  • Protest Anthem Podcast
    • Part 1: Listening Posts: 15%
    • part 2: Background Research: 10%
    • part 3: Final Podcast and Reflection: 25%
  • Midterm and Final Reflections: 10% each

As part of the Midterm and Final Reflections students will reflect on their Engagement and Presence, including any disruption to their attendance. There will also be some prompts regarding the diversity subject matter in the course. Engagement and presences will refer to but is not limited to:

  • Preparation: reviewing readings and material before class
  • Focus: avoiding distractions during synchronous and asynchronous activities
  • Asking questions: in both synchronous and asynchronous spaces
  • Specificity: referring to specific ideas from readings and discussions
  • Synchronous presence: verbally and nonverbally engaged during synchronous activities
  • Timeliness: Meeting deadlines for major projects

Late work (including Reading Responses and Listening Posts) will be handled in the following manner:

  • 1 – 3 days late: -5pts
  • 4 – 7 days late:  -10pts
  • 8 – 14 days late -15pts
  • 15 or more days late: -20pts

A note about grades: Grades in the A-range are those that show the student working at levels significantly higher than what is expected. Grades at the B-level are those that show the student working at levels at or just above what is expected. Grades at the C-level and below are those that show the student working at levels below what is expected.

All major assignments (including all Reading Responses and all Listening Posts) must be completed to pass the course. It is better to complete an assignment late than not to complete it at all.

A note on in-class discussions: Contribution to in-class discussion is expected in this class. That is, I expect all students in all class meetings to contribute thoughtful insights into the texts and the ideas discussed in class. Each member of our community of learning needs to be actively engaged in the learning process. Each student is here to contribute to the exchange of ideas. Ask questions. Be curious. As a student in this course you will create your own communal context for learning by engaging in conversations with others. As such, being prepared to participate in discussions and activities is paramount. This entails having read, annotated, and thought about the required materials carefully before class starts. The more you as students shape the conversations by engaging with each other, validating each other’s ideas, pushing each other, and asking each other questions without my prompting, the more this class will feel like a community and not just another class. No grade will be assigned for in-class participation; however, if your participation is lacking, it could seriously impact the Collaboration section of your Story of Learning. There may be times when the class meets in an online space rather than in the classroom. You’ll be notified ahead of time if this is the case.

A note on collaboration. All design is collaborative, as we will see in this class. Though our projects will be completed individually, we will be leaning on each other throughout our design processes for ideas, help, and feedback. I, too, will be learning from you, as you uncover new design tips and techniques found online. You are expected to be collegial, professional, thoughtful, mindful, polite, and open-minded in all of your interactions in the course, especially when visiting with clients. Significant moments that show a lack of collegiality, etc., can result the a reduction in your grade.


As this course is highly interactive with complex coding discussed nearly every meeting, your success is absolutely tethered to your presence and participation. The course will move quickly, and each successive meeting will build upon the concepts of the previous. Missing a class or individual meeting puts you at a serious disadvantage in terms of the larger semester arc. This is not the type of course where you can “ask for the notes” from a classmate and get the same learning experience. If you miss class you will miss something important.

Please come to class and individual meetings on time, prepared, having completed the assigned work, and ready to contribute, to listen seriously and respectfully to the thoughts of others, and to participate in all in-class activities.

According to the 2021 – 2022 Academic Catalog, “The course expectation form shall include a clear statement on attendance policy, specifying the maximum number of absences permitted in the course. . . . When students are required to absent themselves from class to participate in a University-sponsored activity, the director of the activity shall give written notice to the instructor in advance.”

Missing more than 1.5 classes will affect your grade. More than 5 absences will result in failing the course. Lateness counts as .5 of an absence. Leaving early will count as .5 of an absence. The grade reductions after 1.5 absences:

2 absences = -1/2 grade
3 absences = -3/4 grade
4 absences = -1 grade
5 absences = 1.25 full letter grade
6 absences = FA (failure due to absences)

There are three exceptions to the above policy:

  1. Two absences will be excused for minor health reasons you aren’t sure is COVID but are taking precautions to stay away from people. In this instance, email me immediately letting me know you are sick. I will reply recommending you get tested for COVID.
  2. Extended absences due to serious reasons, such as hospitalizations, severe health issues (including COVID), death of a loved one, and so on, will be excused. In this instance, email me as soon as possible letting me know about your extended absence and I will reply with a request to meet at some point to plan for catching up.
  3. Absence due to participation in a University-sponsored activity will be excused, though the student must provide in advance written notice from the director of the activity will provide written notice to the instructor in advance.

Your primary responsibility is to be in class and fully present. 

We will have 2 required conferences to discuss your podcast assignment work. Missing your conference without prior notification equals missing a day of class. Conferences will be rescheduled based on my availability.

A Note on Academic Technology

Because this is an upper-level course, you are expected to be familiar with the department’s approach to using digital technologies: experiment, take risks, and play.

However, as much as technology makes life easier, at times it can also be difficult (computer crashes, deleted work, slow internet connection, etc.). Plan accordingly: “the computer ate my homework” or “the internet was down” are not reasons to forgo doing the assigned work. It is in your best interest to leave extra time, and back up frequently, especially at first to ensure that technology does not get in the way of your work.

That being said, I will never mark down or refuse to accept a project because of difficulty using academic technology. The software and applications we use are a means to complete the work, not the work itself. The software is often new and sometimes still has bugs. I am aware of this and am aware that problems can happen. If you run into trouble, let me know as soon as possible so I can help you work through it. There is no reason to sit for hours getting more and more frustrated. Send me an email with as detailed a description of your problem as possible and we’ll figure out what is going on.

If you are having trouble getting a project completed on time (for whatever reason) please let me know about your delays as soon as possible. It is better to complete an assignment late then to not complete it at all, and I am more than happy to work with you so you can compete the best project you can.

Universal Learning

I am committed to the principle of universal learning. This means that our classroom, our virtual spaces, our practices, and our interactions be as inclusive as possible. Mutual respect, civility, and the ability to listen and observe others carefully are crucial to universal learning.

Any student with particular learning needs should contact the Student Success Center at 610-660-1041. The Center is located in Bellarmine Hall. The staff is available to answer questions regarding accommodations or assist you in your pursuit of accommodations. Then you and I can work out the details of any accommodations needed for this course.

Bias, Discrimination, Harassment, and Sexual Misconduct

Saint Joseph’s University courses are taught in buildings that reside in the sovereign
present and ancestral nation of the Lenape (len-AH-peh) people, Lenapehokink (len-AH-peh-HO-king), which they inhabited for over 10,000 years prior to European imperial colonization. The Lenape people embrace the values of collaborative use of land, peaceful resolution of conflict, respect for people of diverse backgrounds, and, as the continuing stewards of Turtle Island, a deep reverence for the natural world.

As a Catholic, Jesuit University, Saint Joseph’s is committed to providing a workplace and educational environment, as well as other benefits, programs, and activities, that are free from acts of bias, discrimination, harassment, and sexual misconduct. We encourage anyone who has experienced this type of harm to seek help from the University by filing a report through the incident reporting form, or by calling 610-660-1145. 

For information about the University’s response to reports bias, harassment, and discrimination, including policies, incident definitions, and the role of the University’s Bias Activity Review Group, please visit https://www.sju.edu/offices/titleix-equity/equity or contact bias@sju.edu

For more information about  University’s response to reports of sexual misconduct, including incident definitions, information for confidential reporting options both on- and off-campus, and resources for support, please visit https://www.sju.edu/offices/titleix or contact titleix@sju.edu.  

While I want you to feel comfortable coming to me for support, please know that I have some reporting requirements that are part of my job responsibilities at Saint Joseph’s University. For example, if you inform me of an issue of sexual harassment, discrimination or sexual misconduct (Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment, Sexual Exploitation, Domestic Violence, Dating Violence, or Stalking) I will keep the information as private as I can, but I am required to bring it to the attention of the institution’s Director Office of Title IX, Equity & Compliance.

Students with Disabilities

Requests for Accommodations: Reasonable academic accommodations may be provided to students who submit appropriate documentation of their disability. Students are encouraged to contact Dr. Christine Mecke in the Office of Student Disability Services, Bellarmine, B-10, at cmecke@sju.edu; or at 610.660.1774 (voice), or 610.660.1620 (TTY), for assistance with this issue. The university also provides an appeal/grievance procedure regarding requested or offered reasonable accommodations through Dr. Mecke’s office. More information: www.sju.edu/sds.

Grievance Procedures for Students with Disabilities, Appeal Process: The Office of Student Disability Services will seek to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified students with disabilities. However, there may be times when a disagreement as to what is considered a reasonable accommodation will occur between the student and the University. The student has a right to file a grievance for complaints regarding a requested or offered reasonable accommodation on the basis of a disability under Section 504 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and University policies. If you have any questions regarding the appeals process, please contact Dr. Christine Mecke, Director Student Disability Services – Bellarmine – Room G10 – cmecke@sju.edu.

For further information regarding accommodations, please see: www.sju.edu/int/studentlife/studentresources/thesuccesscenter/ssd.


Writing center: You will write in this class. If you are particularly concerned about your writing or think you might benefit from extra support, the Saint Joseph’s University Writing Center is free to all members of the SJU community. The undergraduate and graduate student writers who make up the staff can assist you in any stage of the writing process, from brainstorming to organizing and developing your ideas, to citing sources to proofreading. They work with students from across the university on a variety of assignments and individual and group projects: lab reports, business policy papers, poems, essays, research papers, dissertations, resumes, and personal statements for graduate school applications, among many others. You name it; they’ve helped writers write it. Both in-person and synchronous online appointments are offered any time the Writing Center is open. For more information, including hours of operation and instructions on how to make an appointment, please visit the SJU Writing Center website at sju.edu/writingcenter.

AV Gear Rentals: Students can check out digital still cameras, video cameras, tripods, and other technology in the in the Communication Studies Gear Room, located on the second floor of Bronstein Hall. See the AV Gear Checkout Policies on the Communication Studies web page.

Academic Honesty: Please familiarize yourself with the University’s Academic Honesty Policy.

AI Policy. AI is useful for some stuff, like asking ChatGTP to wrote bonkers versions of your favorite TV shows. If you use AI in this course to complete any of the assignments, you will receive an F on that assignment.

Firearms Policy

According to the Human Resources section of the SJU website and the SJU Student Handbook (updated, 2021):

The carrying, or presence, of a firearm is not permitted on University property, including, but not limited to, one’s vehicle, office, residence or locker, except when the firearm is carried by a deputized law enforcement officer and/or agent who is conducting official business on University property.

The University policy concerning the prohibition against the carrying, and presence, of firearms on campus, is intended to conform to applicable statutes of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Such statutes define firearms as any pistol, revolver, shotgun, or any weapon which is capable of firing a projectile.

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