Want students to understand different cultures? Try heavy metal

Academic argues that learning about subcultures through music can be more useful than studying abroad

March 12, 2020
Heavy metal
Source: Getty
Outside the norm: examination of heavy metal can further cultural understanding

It sounds like the higher education sequel to School of Rock. But when it comes to developing an understanding of other cultures, heavy metal bands such as Metallica and Sepultura are among the best teaching materials a lecturer can bring to the classroom, according to one academic.

Daniel Guberman, a senior instructional developer at Purdue University, claims that teaching students about heavy metal music around the world is so effective a way of opening a window on different people and cultures that it can be a more powerful – as well as far cheaper – option than a study-abroad programme.

His heavy metal course at Purdue started when he was asked to teach a summer course “on whatever we thought students would register for” and he returned to the music of his youth. Initially, he taught the class in a traditional way, going through the genre’s origins and history. However, he quickly saw that when students began to explore how the genre was interpreted differently around the world, “a lot of interesting discussions began”. Since then, the university has allowed him to expand the module.

Alongside more mainstream acts such as Megadeth and Korn, the syllabus covers Israeli acts like Salem, whose 1994 concept album Kaddish addresses the Holocaust – and provides a different take on the country for students who know it primarily via the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, Dr Guberman argued.

Students also learn about the Taiwanese band Chthonic, who use their music to promote Taiwanese independence and human rights, and Versailles, a Japanese metal band who wear extravagant costumes and whose song Aristocrat’s Symphony is one of Dr Guberman’s favourites. “The first time I taught the class, a student wrote a really wonderful paper contextualising their cross-dressing within both heavy metal traditions and broader Japanese history, which really encapsulated what I had hoped students would get out of the class,” said Dr Guberman, whose academic career has focused on classical, primarily Western, music.

Dr Guberman said although many universities provided study-abroad programmes in the hope that they would improve students’ intercultural knowledge, competency and awareness, “they don’t always reach that potential”.

“White Americans, in particular, take a lot of social and political capital with them as they travel. If we don’t recognise this, it can be very easy to think that we are doing a great job of engaging with everyone when in fact local residents are adjusting their behaviour to make us feel more comfortable,” he said.

Bearing in mind that some students are unable to study abroad for various reasons, heavy metal offers a good alternative, said Dr Guberman, author of a paper on the topic in Arts and Humanities in Higher Education.

“Through heavy metal, we can look at what it’s like to enjoy things that aren’t the norm in their country. In the globalised world, where everyone watches the same Hollywood film and downloads the same Taylor Swift album, we often forget that there are these subcultures out there we can learn from,” he said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Don’t go abroad; study a riff guide

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May I recommend Tyr from the Faroe Islands

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