The First-Year Tutorial is the only requirement for all majors and a big part of the individually advised curriculum at Grinnell. Why is the tutorial so important? And what can students expect to get out of it?

Below, Jermaine Stewart-Webb ’16 and Tyler Roberts, professor of religious studies, discuss the impact of Roberts’ tutorial, “Do You Wanna Dance? From Rock to Hip-Hop.”

In his tutorial, Roberts asked students to explore the origins of popular musical styles and the influence of music on individuals and society. Stewart-Webb was one of 12 first-year students in the course.

Here’s what they had to say:

A Fresh Perspective

Roberts: How did [the tutorial] change the way you look at the music in terms of history and in terms of its social/political aspects?

Stewart-Webb: The course gave me a perspective that I’d never really had before. In high school I didn’t really have that much of a critical lens with which to write about any kind of subject matter.

It gave me a larger frame of mind with which to critique music and to talk about it on a more interpersonal level. Part of it might have been coming to realize that I was challenged to not just blindly “like” music without explaining the implications of it.

In terms of the origins of music, I learned that everything has a lineage that leads up to its current moment. I think we, as students, have to learn to openly accept that knowledge, because sometimes I feel like we come in with this idea that we already know all of the good music that’s current.

Digging Deep

Roberts: Does [looking at music in this new way] detract from the simple pleasure of enjoying it?

Stewart-Webb: (laughs) A little bit, because I’m constantly thinking, “Where did this song come from?” or “Did it have origins in a social/political movement?” But overall I can still enjoy music without having to critically think about it all the time.

I remember one specific assignment where we had to really dig deep and think about the vocabulary we used to describe a song we really liked. My presentation was on “Take on Me” by A-ha, one of my favorite songs ever … 

Roberts: Something I’d never heard before …

Stewart-Webb: I was talking about how it was ’80s-esque, and I remember you positing the question, “What do you mean by ’80s-esque?” and saying, “You have to unpack this and explain exactly what that word means.” It made me think about the weight behind the words that I use and not to blindly use words without putting them in proper context.

Roberts: I wanted to have students write not just in a critical academic way about music but also in an appreciative way. It’s also really important to be able to express yourself to an audience about what is meaningful for you and why it enriches your life.

Stewart-Webb: Right. My oral presentation was on the anti-folk movement that took place in Greenwich Village [New York]. I remember being struck by how that movement emerged. I realized that music is not produced in a vacuum, but it comes from all of these artists who collaborate with one another and fight for the validity of what their music stands for. It really helped me understand that genre.

A Richer Advising Relationship

Stewart-Webb: The tutorial in general helped me understand how I fit in the grander scheme of academe as it relates to other forms of study. I was straightforward about not being really good at math and science, so it was good to be pushed to take classes outside of the humanities and social sciences. Having a tutorial adviser who understood the discomforts that I had about specific subject matter allowed me to establish a relationship before jumping in to declare a major.

Roberts: I get a much better sense of my advisees from being in class with them twice a week than I would otherwise. I can develop a rapport in the classroom that translates to the advising sessions. It’s a much richer relationship.

Stewart-Webb: I think I move about the world in a very different way now. It’s as if I can’t “unsee” things at this point in my life, and I have to pay close attention to everything I come in contact with. I’m constantly asking myself why I think the way I do about certain things and probing my peers about why they see things the way they do. So, I enjoyed the tutorial experience for that reason … but it also has been, like, a slight curse (laughs). 

Roberts: It’s called critical thinking.

Stewart-Webb: It’s a good frame of mind to have. It definitely prepared me to take on the arduous demands of the courses I’m currently in as a senior.

Jermaine Stewart-Webb ’16 is an English and French double major from Los Angeles, California.

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