A class inspires students long after it ends

David Nixon
David Nixon

One of the first things students do in Dr. David Nixon’s Discovery Core class Music and Philosophy is sing. Not as homework or practice but as a live performance in front of their classmates.

Nixon, a lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, said this teaches first-year students that they can do something hard and scary, live through it and be okay. “Singing in front of strangers and completing your first quarter of college aren’t so different,” he said. “Both can be very intimidating.”

Music and Philosophy was the first Discovery Core class Nixon taught at the University of Washington Bothell back in 2008 and he has been teaching it ever since. Discovery Core classes are designed for first-year students to explore topics from different academic disciplines and different points of view, all the while acclimating them to being college students.

Over the 13 years, Nixon’s course has undergone many changes, but it has always been about assisting students in personal growth by teaching skills rather than facts.

Beyond the classroom

Alumna Sarah Park (Environmental Science ’14) took the class a decade ago and said, “Out of all the classes I took in my undergraduate career, this is one that has stuck with me. I don’t remember everything I learned, but I remember the feelings I had and the positive experiences that came out of it.”

Similarly, alumnus Kyle Piper (Society, Ethics & Human Behavior ’16) took the class in 2013 and said that he is still using the skills he developed in the course eight years later. “This class demonstrates the value of the Discovery Core program,” said Piper.

“The classes are varied, which allows students like me — who are interested in music and other non-traditional academic fields — to pick fun classes,” he said.

Prior to COVID-19 and the shift to remote learning, students in Nixon’s classes were taught how to play the guitar. This is a great skill to have and can be used throughout life, he noted.

For Piper, learning how to play the guitar fostered a lasting connection with his father. “My dad is a self-taught guitarist. Taking this class and learning to play the instrument gave us something to bond over,” he said. “He even took me to a pawn shop and bought me my first guitar. It’s a special memory.”

Piper has continued to play since the class ended. “The only good thing to come out of quarantine is the amount of time I have to play my guitar,” he said. “Making music has been a positive outlet in a stressful time.”

External engagement

Another distinctive part of the Music and Philosophy class prior to the pandemic was experiencing music in the “real world.” Students would attend three concerts throughout the quarter and were encouraged to attend performances of music they didn’t listen to normally.

In Piper’s opinion, this was the best part of the class. He had never been to a concert before but said he has been to dozens since.

Because the class is part of the Discovery Core program, Nixon wants first-year students to find passions outside of the classroom. “Starting college is a big deal,” he said. “I want my students to learn it’s okay to find yourself and fail in the process. It’s all part of the college experience.”

Nixon isn’t concerned with whether or not students like the concerts they go to. What matters is discovering their preferences through experience.

“Maybe they realized they don’t like crowded places or loud music. Or maybe they heard a sound or lyric that really spoke to them and helped them process a thought or feeling,” he said. “The point is to cultivate self-awareness and personal growth.”

Park recalled the class pushing her out of comfort zone and helping her grow as both a student and musician. “Professor Nixon does a great job of teaching a class in a nontraditional style and challenges his students to think beyond the textbook,” she said. “He made us feel comfortable with ourselves and other people.”

Not your average course

The final project for this course is writing and performing a song about the experience of being a first-year college student. Park still remembers hers, titled “David Nixon’s Recurring Nightmare.”

The song explored her journey in the class that she said was both “really scary and entirely positive.

“Ultimately, I am glad professor Nixon pushed me and other students to perform and put ourselves out there,” she said. “I learned not to take myself too seriously and found confidence in being okay despite perfection.

“I have taken that experience and confidence with me.”

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