Profiles in Teaching: Flory hits right notes with pop music expertise

December 2, 2016
By Thomas Rozwadowski

When Bob Dylan was named the Nobel Prize recipient for literature in October, few saw the announcement coming.

Even music professor Andy Flory admitted to being caught off guard. And if anyone at Carleton could have predicted the possibility of Dylan winning such a prestigious yet out-of-left-field literary honor, it would have been Flory.

After all, he was teaching an Argument and Inquiry seminar on the legendary musician this very fall.

“People who study pop music don’t usually follow the Nobel Prize. Grammys, Oscars, even National Book Awards. But not the Nobel Prize,” Flory says.

On the day of the announcement, parents visiting campus for Family Weekend brought an extra set of eyes and ears to Flory’s A&I class. To share in that bit of topical relevancy—and see how Carleton teaches the repertoire of a still-living artist—“was really one of the highlights of the course,” Flory says.

Best of all, it served as further proof that what Flory specializes in—pop music and its place in the larger culture of the 20th century—is only likely to grow in stature and popularity on college campuses. Not that Dylan winning the Nobel Prize suddenly justifies, or needs to justify, other Flory classes like “The Beatles,” “History of Rock,” or “The Golden Age of R&B.” It’s an award, plain and simple.

But as the recent creation of an American Music concentration at Carleton also demonstrates, there’s an appetite for exploring pop music’s relationship with (and impact on) history, politics, literature, culture, race, religion, social justice—you name it.

“Studying pop music requires a completely different set of ethnological tools. It’s not like you can just take the things you’ve used to look at Beethoven and turn them sideways to study Metallica. It’s a different kind of music that requires a completely different mindset,” Flory says.

“Rock, blues, film music, folk. They fill. Students love those classes. And it’s exactly what we feel like students should be studying at a liberal arts college. It takes something they like and know, but forces them to figure out how to think critically about the subject. Then they use that knowledge to write more interesting papers and do more interesting research.”

Not just a hobby

Flory doesn’t see himself as all that removed from the curiosity and passion of his music-savvy students. Though he’s often told he has one of the coolest academic jobs imaginable, music always felt like Flory’s “biggest hobby,” not a career calling that would lead him to a classroom.

A “marginally good performer” who can read music (Fun fact: Flory plays bass alongside Carleton professors Daniel Groll and Jason Decker in The Counterfactuals), the Ohio native knew early on that he wasn’t destined for rock stardom. While earning his liberal arts degree at City College of New York, he stumbled into the field of musicology, which focuses on the scholarly analysis and research of music, not just performance or composition.

“I’d look at my album and CD collection, and I never seemed to exhaust my questions. Who wrote it? Where was it written? Why did it end up the way it did? How is this song like others from that same person? The history of popular music, especially, always fascinated me,” Flory says.

“It also happened to be a fortunate time where musicologists and academic music departments were starting to accept pop music as legitimate. There was a first generation of people in musicology who had forged this road, studying classical music and switching to pop once they got tenure. I was part of this next generation to enter a burgeoning field that was specifically looking for more pop-oriented people.”

Music for the masses

Flory earned his masters and PhD from the University of North Carolina before arriving at Carleton five years ago. Here, he didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, with Flory citing Carleton’s history of teaching Appalachian and bluegrass folk classes “way before it was fashionable to do so” as a strong indicator of what else could be offered.

Before the concentration sprouted in 2014, Flory and Melinda Russell, a fellow professor and director of American Music, identified the need to build a more cohesive academic track given the “repeat customers” they saw in classes. Even more telling, many of those students were non-music majors.

“When people in their sixties and seventies hear that I’m teaching a class on the Beatles, they ask me all the time, ‘Do your students even know the music?’ Yeah, they know every note of those records. They know the music before they come to class,” Flory says.

“We’re a small but meaningful department, and it’s pretty simple for us. These are really interesting students who are really interested in music. So for us, we want to make sure they have options. Jazz, classical, Indian music, the Beatles. It’s our way of sending the message, ‘We are willing to put time and effort into music that is meaningful to you.’”

PROFILES IN TEACHING

Andy Flory, assistant professor of music

·       At Carleton since 2011

·       Education: City College of New York, University of North Carolina

·       Sample courses taught: History of Rock, Moldy Figs and the Birth of Jazz Criticism, Rock Lab

·       Teaching and research interests: American studies, Motown and Marvin Gaye, popular music

·       Hometown: Dayton, Ohio