Layers and small-talk: A playlist exercise

This semester, I’ve tried a new assignment: I asked each student in my two sections to post two musical selections on a Google Forms survey. They received completion points for doing so. The resulting list (along with four selections I added myself) appears on Spotify. My instructions to them indicated only that I wanted the songs for my playlist for commuting between Dallas (where I live) and Fort Worth (where I teach) and that I had a pedagogical purpose that I would reveal later.

Only one student reached out to me to ask whether they would be publicly identified with their selections. That student wanted to share a song that had great personal meaning but did not want the class informed of the connection. In fact, it was my plan from the beginning to reveal all the musical selections without indicating who provided them. I intended my four selections as ‘cover’ for such students.

I explain the second part of the exercise after briefly identifying the pedagogical purposes, which are two-fold:

  1. Ethically, I want students to think about the assumptions they make about folks based on the things they like and don’t like. I acknowledged in class after sharing the complete list with them that after knowing them as students for just about five weeks, there is no way I could have guessed who picked the pieces on the list. If I had drawn any assumptions based on gender, race, style of dress, undergraduate major, region of origin, etc., they would only have misguided me.
  2. Practically, lawyers need to know how to make small talk in professional contexts. A better way of phrasing this is to say that lawyers need to know how to connect with folks—clients, their spouses, their assistants—most of whom are quite capable of detecting insincere efforts to connect.

In the second part of this exercise, the students have a couple weeks to listen to some of the music on the playlist. Three weeks from the deadline for posting the original musical selections, they have to comment on three of the pieces that they did not pick. (They get completion points for this, too.) I’ve urged them to consider listening to things that they think they won’t like. I’ve asked them to use these guidelines in commenting:

  • “Don’t yuck my yum!” No one needs to hear that you don’t like something they like. The corollary is “Don’t yum my yuck!” I can acknowledge your love of something and respect that without sharing your taste. (In fact, I suspect that if everyone always observed these two simple principles, the world would be a much happier place.)
  • Be curious, particularly about music you think you don’t like. I tell them that this requires a desire to be present to the other person, to be genuinely interested in interacting with them.
  • Be kind. Ask a thoughtful question; make a connection, saying why you like it or something you know that it reminds you of; or share something about the selection you think the person who picked it might not know.

The ethical content of this exercise is pretty obvious, I think. The practical value is in the art of small talk. If you are an introvert, you probably find it challenging to connect with folks. Folks are sometimes surprised to learn that I’m an introvert, because I seem outgoing. I’m introverted in the sense that human contact does not energize, but instead enervates, me. I’ve discovered that having a purpose in interactions with others helps a great deal. Being present to and curious about other people and the things they like is an easy way to be able to do that at any time.

For example, I have no—well, almost no—interest in NASCAR. Over the years, though, I’ve had conversations in business and other contexts with devotees of the sport. In an effort to be present and genuinely curious about their interests, I’ve learned a little about it. I still would probably not go to a race, but I understand why other folks do. Note that I don’t worry about remembering what I learned; I can learn it again the next time the issue comes up. In my experience, I can learn the same thing from the same person a second time, and as long as both of us are into the conversation, all seem satisfied. It’s not remembering the details later that matters (though that does not hurt); it’s being present in that moment.

But it takes some work to cultivate the stance of curiosity and presence. This exercise is a first step. I hope to point students in the direction to do more, assuming they don’t hate this assignment.

As a third phase, I welcome students to “out” themselves as the folks who selected particular pieces of music. We will talk about the fact that some may have picked their selections thinking I’d identify them together with the music they picked. In other words, we’ll have a chance to talk about how expressing your tastes is performative and helps to construct your identity.

I’ll post back here with an update about how students respond later in the semester. I also welcome your comments.


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