Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Polite Musicologist

I can't decide if this year's Job Wiki has been good or bad for our profession. I'm sure that for many of us the answer has been obvious--it's been dreadful. Have you seen it recently? The discussion sections have become a swirling rampage of doom and derision. The simplest questions have brought upon their posers a torrent of abuse. Snideness and terror run amok. False rumors are spread willy-nilly, useful discussions are summarily (and anonymously) deleted. Job postings were hidden until after the deadline date. The nadir was when one anonymous participant threatened to commit suicide if s/he didn't find employment by year's end. A few urged him or her to seek help, but really, what can you do?

Really, it's been brutal. I think most of us have ascribed the rising invective to the corresponding diminution of the market itself. No surprise to anyone, but the academic job market was a shadow itself this year. The Job Wiki has seemed like a pack of wolves fighting over the last measly shreds of a carcass.

But it's also our disciplinary culture. I've often heard it said that musicology is more polite than other disciplines, the reasoning being that because we are so small, there is less room to hide from an enemy than at, say, an MLA conference. There's a very small group of people out there who might be called upon to referee your grant application, or give you a job, or peer review your article, and it would be best not to have spit upon them previously. I also think that another factor is that unlike some other humanities disciplines, musicology is still foundationally organized around a nostalgic and romantic attachment to the canon. By which I mean, we were all once nerds who played in our high school orchestras, and despite some diversification, many of us come from very, very similar backgrounds.

Let's also be honest with ourselves. "Politeness" in our discipline is often of the barest superficiality. Because while it's true there's not a whole lot of, you know, cursing, or whatever, at our national meetings, there is I think a pretty fundamental lack of respect in our discipline. When certain other musicology bloggers refer to entire fields of scholarship as "Victim Studies", it might not be "impolite," per se, and might not rise to the level of vitriol on this year's job wiki. Nevertheless, that kind of comment betrays fundamental disrespect for his colleagues in the discipline who work in such areas.

Which goes both ways of course. I work in those very corners of musicology Jonathan often derides, and yes, in these corners I have often heard (and perhaps uttered myself when being foolish) disrespectful things about other scholarly approaches, and implicitly those people who practice them. Disrespect cuts across ideological divides in musicology. I think we would all agree that scholarship should ideally be a collaboration, or at least a conversation. But if you result to name-calling and willful ignorance, then any conversation is immediately shut down.

But at any rate, this is the sort of impoliteness that does actually pervade our discipline. We've all seen this at AMS meetings, when scholarly turfs are defended against interlopers and graduate students berated for lack of sufficient hommage to their forebearers. And even more frequently, whenever we roll our eyes at a research topic or approach, before even knowing anything about it. And it ends up having real consequences for people's careers; for how books are reviewed, papers accepted, hires made.

So back to the question: is this year's job wiki good or bad? Well, of course it is extremely unpleasant to read, and I find myself avoiding it more and more. But sometimes, I'd rather have the animosity out in the open where I can see it.


Anonymous said...

Hi Philip. I finished the ph.d. in the 80s, and believe me, the last couple of years of job availability were the exception, while this "brutal" year was pretty typical of every year since, perhaps, sometime in the 60s. I certainly felt profoundly isolated in my job hunting years (I never got a TT), so even if messy, the wiki gives everyone a much truer view of what's up. So really a very good thing.

The job availability of the last couple of years, IMHO, was the result of the bubble in university endowments coupled with the large cohort in the college-age group. There were so few hires among my 80s group, that those who got faculty slots have now, for reason of institutional necessity, moved to administration...ironically freeing a few more spots in recent years. The college faculties are now generally quite young, much as it was in the 60s. If the pattern I see holds, the hires of the early 00s will duplicate the careers of the hires of the 60s...and the next round of more plentiful jobs will come when the 00s class finally retires sometime in the 2040s.

Of course, the hires of the 00s will train at least three more generations of hopeful scholars before they retire. And on it goes.

Rebecca said...

Hi Phil,

Thanks for your thoughtful post, as always. I've stopped looking at the wiki altogether. I think academia has been idealized for far too if we are all these great thinkers shut up in the so-called ivory tower, producing tome after tome of scholarship. If grad school taught me nothing else, it taught me that academia can be as cutthroat and disrespectful as anything else. I hate the old idea that those choosing grad school are simply putting off the "real world." Clearly those hurling that accusation have never suffered departmental politics. As "polite" as our discipline may be, I do wonder that we really need the darker side "revealed". It seems that the mere removal of rose-colored glasses might help. As you recognize, the politeness is often superficial (although I have plenty genuine examples of camaraderie and mentoring that extend far beyond the polite). What helps you to recognize that superficiality?

This is why I choose to invest my energy in something else than the wiki (namely, working on my own research). We still have autonomy, even in academia. I'm not nearly where I'd like to be in terms of my professional career, but I don't see that wringing my hands and crying "injustice!!" is going to change that. At the end of the day, it comes down to two choices: I'm in or I'm out. I chose to be in when I finished the Ph.D. and I continue to make that choice. That may change in the future, but for now, I'm here, acting on my own free will. It doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to make the system better, or more just, or more collegial, but when we actually have to start drawing lines between waterboarding and journal is out of hand.