Faculty voice:

Michael Callahan: Committing to students’ success

June 19, 2020

Michael Callahan is an associate professor and chair of music theory in the College of Music. He recently won the Dortha and John Withrow Excellence in Teaching Award, given annually on the basis of peer review to exceptional members of the College of Music faculty for excellence in instruction, performance and scholarly activities.

I was completely surprised and touched when I heard my name announced in the College of Music commencement video as this year’s winner of the Withrow Award. I’m glad I watched the video as soon as it went live, since many of my colleagues and students texted and emailed me their congratulations right away. At least I knew what they were talking about!

I’m very grateful to have been recognized, particularly given the caliber of teachers whose company I keep as faculty colleagues in the college.

I am passionate about teaching, and my passion comes in part because it isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Every student is unique, as is every teacher and every subject. The best teaching is something you can prepare for, but not completely predict. It’s a real-time, responsive, improvisational, entrepreneurial, riveting activity that really makes me feel alive. 

I remind myself all the time that I’m teaching students and not just topics or skills. I try to treat students with respect and compassion, and to see them not just as learners in my class, but as musicians and as people with many intersecting identities. This means offering them many different ways to learn, and also different ways to demonstrate what they know. 

I also try to make my courses chances for students to develop important, transferable skills: how to reflect, how to set goals and how to respond productively to challenge, to initial failure and to ambiguity. I ask them to do a lot of the work: to be active and collaborative during class, to try things that are hard and to take part in a community where making mistakes is part of what it means to learn. 

I guess none of these things are music theory. I care about that, too, and I want my students to develop tools to hear, understand and make music with greater sensitivity. But it isn’t all that matters to me. I also read a lot about how people learn. It’s one of my areas of specialization, but even if it weren’t, I would still read it for fun.

Michigan State University is incredibly diverse in its teaching, research and outreach. Each of those activities deserves great respect and support. What I find so compelling about my work in the College of Music, however, is that you’d have a hard time finding a place on the MSU campus where more different kinds of teaching happen in a single building.

I’m not just referring to teachers’ different personal styles, but to very different formats necessitated by the wide variety of learning that takes place in our college, from private lessons, to large ensembles, to small seminars, to large required classes. 

Cutting across this variety, however, is a shared commitment to students’ success. Our faculty really cares about students and knows that raising their sights through high standards of excellence simply doesn’t work without also supporting them in a variety of ways both in and outside the classroom. In my college and across campus, I’m proud to know and work with people who truly care about students.