Dr. George “Arkansas” Smith

This morning I came across Mark Carnes’s “Setting Students’ Minds on Fire” on the homepage of The Chronicle of Higher Education. I remember reading this last year–and am not really sure why it resurfaced on today’s page–and envisioning an action hero of sorts, Arkansas Smith, a mid 20th-century musicologist who splits his time as a professor at Amherst College and a covert researcher in the catacombs of secret European libraries. His oversized conductor’s baton is a front, as he is a skilled swordsman and not afraid to challenge unreasonable library hours. Think Indiana Jones meets Robert Langdon.

In the spirit of the “Reacting to the Past” games, here is my list of Arkansas Smith’s great mysteries:

The Origin of Gregorian Chant

The Genesis of Machuat’s Messe de Nostre Dame

The Original L’homme arme

The Intended Cycles of Bach’s Lutheran Cantatas

Salieri and the Death of Mozart

Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved

The Composer of the Mendelssohn Italien Lieder: Fanny or Felix?

Was Hans Pfitzner a Nazi?

Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony: Political Rehabilitation or Satire?

Perhaps Arkansas Smith should pay a visit to the classroom from time to time. Since most of my students are puzzled by what a musicologist does, I frequently bring in primary sources (manuscripts, concert reviews, diaries, correspondence) for them to use in concluding what my colleagues published in academic journals years ago. While this approach allows students to arrive at the material in an active fashion, rather than passively skimming it in the textbook, motivation is still a challenge. If “Reacting to the Past” does excite students in the way Carnes describes, then I’m willing to try framing these activities in game-like fashion as students assume the role of the dynamic, musicological hero.

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