Challenge Journal 3: Tactility

At a Christmas party two years ago, I sat across from one of my best guy friends from high school. We were the only people our age at this party, which had always been the case. He was recounting the stories from his second year at Williams College and, with great enthusiasm, his decision making process regarding his double major in History and Economics. He had always been a bookish type, but now he seemed shrouded an earnest professorial glow. He described forty page papers and hundreds of pages of reading – and he seemed genuinely excited. I felt a little twinge of jealousy, because my major didn’t lend itself to finding the perfect study spot or the satisfaction of finishing a complex, historically significant tome.

“Have you declared yet?” he asked good-naturedly.

“Yeah, I went in Voice Performance.”

“Oh yeah!” he said, nodding as he remembered. “That must be cool.”

“Yeah! I mean – I love it…I did add a minor, though- a Minor in Writing?”

“Oh cool! Why?” he leaned forward.

“I guess…I mean I love writing and I want to get better and it…and, I dunno, voice and music doesn’t really lend itself to tactility. Like, you don’t get the satisfaction of holding your work in your hands and feeling the weight of it- it just goes out of you and POOF!”

“‘Lend itself to tactility…’” he chucked. “That’s the most ‘Emily’ way you could’ve said that.”


Writing has always been a marker of effort and skill for me. In high school and college, I often enjoyed the moment when you print out an essay or research paper and feel its weight in your hands before giving it away for someone else to hold. I used to think of those stacks (big and small) of paper as a quantifiable and tactile version of my brain power.

But as I went through undergrad, even with the Minor in Writing, I found that my writing took that physical form less and less frequently. Save English 425, which effectively obliterated my print budget, most of my classes in writing have relied on digital writing and multi-modal forms. Although I was grateful for the experience in experimenting in multiple genres and forms, I missed the experience of printing stuff out and feeling my “brainpower”’s weight in my hands.

And now we’re here – at the end of undergrad and the end of Capstone. And, despite my initial intent, I don’t think I am going to get the satisfaction of holding a giant research paper in my hands on the last day of class.

But maybe that isn’t such a bad thing?

My project has, at its foundation, remained the same: exploring the relationship between classical vocal music, diversity, and our voice curriculum at Michigan. It has morphed, though, from a research paper to a journalistic article to (now) a sort of argumentative/opinion piece on why representation matters in our program and how diversity can, perhaps, be the thing that “saves” classical music as a whole. I went from trying to focus on and explain all of the theory surrounding diversity and representation in music to focusing more on how to conduct a palpable change in the program. A change people could hold in their hands – something that goes beyond scholarly articles (but still needs to the articles to substantiate the argument!).

My project always centered around interviews and the effects of our program on the people. As I conducted my interviews and learned more about the nut and bolts of our curriculum from faculty, I felt compelled to involved even more people in my project. Seeing project’s like Laney’s and Ashley’s – who directly ask on their website for users to share their stories – inspired me to include my own “comments” section on my website.

But, as I continue to wrap up the project, I want to go further. This brings me to the “question” of this very roundabout blog post: should I include a link to a petition which states that there should be at least two African American composers listed in the “American Song” section of our requirements? This request is the palpable/tactile action I landed on based on what I know about American art song, my research in identity theory and representation in classical music, and my interviews with students and some faculty. Would it be too ballsy? Would I be overstepping the boundary of a student? What do y’all think?

I may print out some version of my Capstone so I can hold it in my hands. Or, I may just throw a pizza party for all my interviewees and give them all a hug; or print out a revised version of a Michigan SMTD undergraduate voice repertoire sheet – hopefully somewhere down the line – that includes more than just the names of old, dead white guys. I have a feeling those few words and/or those embraces will feel a lot more satisfying than a stack of my own words alone.

Emily Cotten

Emily Cotten is a sophomore Vocal Performance major at the University of Michigan. She hails from North Carolina and enjoys reading, writing, and blasting opera hits in her car while driving down the highway.

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