popular music, protest, and social justice–spring 2020 (#pmpsjs20)

Course Information

  • COM 473 D01, 17111, MWF 1:25 – 2:15, Merion Hall 150
  • Office: Bronstein Annex (The B:Social Building) 202
  • Office Hours: Thursday, 12:00 – 2:00 and by appointment
  • email: wwolff [at] sju [dot] edu
  • Twitter: @billwolffsju
  • https://williamwolff.orgcourses/pmpsj-spring-2020/

Course Description

Popular Music, Protest, and Social Justice, Spring 2019

“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 of those who have been silenced. Songs unite people around a common cause. Their words become collective cries expressing anger, despair, hope, and a desire for change. Think “We Shall Overcome.” Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” Beyonce’s “Formation.”

Protest songs and songs about social justice issue exist within a complex system of power, cultures, values, politics, entertainment, music, and texts. In this course, we will consider that complex system by analyzing protest and social justice songs that cover important issues, including race, civil rights, gender, war, labor, and immigration, from Slave Spirituals to the Civil Rights Movement; the ethics of the practice of recording southern black blues artists in the early 1900s; the folk movement of the 1930s through the 60s and again in the 90s; punk in the late 1970s and Riot Grrrl zines in 1990s through Pussy Riot in the 2000s; rap and hip-hop in the late 80s and early 90s; to the present moment with extended analyses of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Beyonce’s Lemonade, followed by additional contemporary artists. In doing so, we will see how protest music works within social movements, fights power, encourages activism, and, perhaps, affects change.

Students will complete one semester-long project, an individually-produced Protest Anthem Podcast (very possibly to be aired over the SJU radio stream) modeled on NPR’s American Anthem series and Studio 360’s American Icon series, which will include a Listening Journal, Background Research, various versions of a Transcript, and rough and final drafts of your Podcast. Students will also complete Reading Responses and take one short quiz where students analyze the harmonics of one protest song. There will be at least 1 required conference.

Please be aware ahead of time that this is an extremely rigorous senior-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.

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://sites.sju.edu/counseling/. 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

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, text, 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: Risk-taking
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 movements.

Texts, Software, and Materials

Required Texts

  • Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet (1990), full album (vinyl, CD, or digital)
  • Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), full album (vinyl, CD, or digital)
  • Beyonce, Lemonade (2016), full album (vinyl, CD, or digital) including complete movie and booklet

Required Materials

  • a Spotify (free) account
  • a Kanopy (free) account (Kanopy provides students and public library cardholders with free access to movies)
  • access to audio editing software, Audacity (free) or Adobe Audition (not free)
    • Both applications are available in the class laptops and all Bronstein computers
  • various articles in PDF format and videos (found on the Readings page)


Grades will be calculated in the following way:

  • Reading Responses: 30%
  • Protest Anthem Podcast
    • Part 1: Listening Journal: 15%
    • part 2: Background Research: 15%
    • part 3: Final Podcast, Transcript, and Reflection: 25%
  • Harmonics Analysis Quiz: 5%
  • Class Participation: 10%

Extra Credit
There will be several opportunities for you to complete extra credit work this semester by attending events on and off-campus that directly relate to the course. These can be events I announce or you find out on your own (please share them with me so I can announce them to the class). To complete the extra credit, you will need to compose a statement similar to those for the Reading Responses: a description of the event in which you summarize what happened and discuss it in terms of what we are discussing in class (100 – 150 words), a reflection about the event (75 – 100 words), and provide photographic evidence of your attendance. Each extra credit can add up to 5 points to your final Reading Response grade. Extra credit does not replace a required Reading Response or any other assignment.

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. 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. Though much of our written and podcast work will be completed individually, collaboration will be an important part of the class through class discussion and peer response. We will be leaning on each other throughout for ideas, help, and feedback. I, too, will be learning from you. 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.

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 responses and all listening journal entries) must be completed to pass the course. It is better to complete an assignment late then not to complete it at all.

Five points will be marked off the final grade for every day a project is late. 

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.

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.


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 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 on time, prepared, having completed the assigned reading and writing, and ready to contribute to class discussions, to listen seriously and respectfully to the thoughts of others, and to participate in all in-class activities.

According to the 2017 – 2018 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” (p. 18).

Except for “serious reasons” (for example, hospitalizations, severe health issues, death of a loved one), missing more than 1.5 classes will affect your grade. More than 6 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 = -1/4 grade
3 absences = -1/2 grade
4 absences = -3/4 grade
5 absences = 1 full letter grade
6 absences = 1.25 letter grade
6.5 or more = FA (failure due to absences)

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

We will have one required conferences throughout the semester where we discuss your progress in the class and questions you have. Missing a conference without advanced warning equals missing a day of class.

Digital Etiquette

Many of the assignments throughout the semester will require participation in online spaces. 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.

Email Etiquette

There will be times during the semester when I will need to contact the class and you will need to contact me. I will contact you via your SJU email account, so please be sure you are checking it regularly and/or forwarding it to the email service you use most regularly. I do not recommend calling me on my office phone.

I strongly suggest you contact me via Twitter (@billwolffsju) and/or email. Email, however, tends to be seen as an informal medium. This, however, should not always be the case. All emails that I send to you will have a meaningful subject line and a proper salutation (“Hi Class,” or “Hi Jane,” etc.). The first sentence will notify you of the purpose of the email, and then will get to the heart of the matter. It will end with a formal closing (“Thanks, Bill”). I expect the same from any email you send. Twitter is less formal, so feel free to just tweet me questions. Please add the course hashtag (#wdds18) to all course related tweets.

I’ll get back to your tweets and emails as soon as possible—usually within half a day. With two small children at home, during the week I tend to be offline 5:00pm – 9:00pm and after 11:00pm and during the weekend I’ll be online sporadically, so don’t expect an immediate response during those times. If I don’t get back within a day, it may be that I did not see your tweet or email for one reason or another, such as an email going in my spam folder. Send me a polite reminder and/or ask me in class if I got it, and I’ll get back immediately.

Computer Classroom Etiquette

These general guidelines will help make your overall course experience more effective, productive, and educational:

  • When someone is speaking and you are not asked to be following on your computer, please turn and face that person. Everything the instructor is doing on the computer will be projected onto the screen in the front of the classroom.
  • Class is made up of students with widely varying levels of computer expertise. If you have technical experience, please be considerate of those who do not. Do not act bored during these times of instruction, since that will distract others and alienate you from them. Instead, offer what help you can to others if they seem lost or confused. You will not only help your colleague, but you will create a collaborative atmosphere in the class, both of which are only to your advantage.
  • If you are a novice computer user, do not be afraid of asking questions, even when it seems that everyone around you is “getting it.” I will not know what areas are mysterious unless someone asks for clarification, and they will be more than happy to answer your questions. The chances are good that if you don’t understand something that others don’t either, and your I need to know this. Don’t be intimidated into silence.
  • When communicating with classmates online please pay special attention to how you word things. Electronic communication is wonderful for many reasons, but because tone is not readily apparent, oftentimes things are misinterpreted and people can get quite hurt.
  • Be sure to bring to class all your required materials. If you have time in class to work on projects, don’t work on other courses or personal business. Make use of your limited time in the classroom, ask me and your classmates questions, and take advantage of the opportunities the course and the classroom offers you. Always log out of the computer before leaving for the day.

There will be times when I ask you to put your phones, tablets, and computers away so we can focus on the discussion.


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 appointments and drop-in sessions are available. The main Writing Center is located in 162 Merion Hall. The Center also has a satellite location in the Post Learning Commons (room 128). Students enrolled in graduate and PLS courses may take advantage of online tutorials, which 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.

Digital Media Zone (DMZ): All DMZ computers were updated and/or replaced during Summer 2018, so things should be running much more smoothly than in the past.

AV Gear Rentals: Students can check out microphones, 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. Students can also reserve time in the Bronstein Audio Rooms to record the listening assignments and podcasts.

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

Firearms Policy

According to the Human Resources section of the SJU website and the SJU Student Handbook (January 14, 2016),

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.


I am grateful for Harley FerrisJon StoneKyle Stedman, and Frankie Price, who shared ideas on texts, reading music, as well as other materials, as I was planning this course.

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