03 October 2010

Is there abuse and corruption in musicology? Part 1

The following is Part 1 of an essay entitled "Is there abuse and corruption in musicology?," which originated as a response to a discussion on the AMS-L e-mail list in May 2009 regarding an essay by Ilias Chrissochoidis in The Chronicle of Higher Education (8 May 2009). My essay was not published by AMS-L at that time, and this is its first publication. For contextual background, see the Introduction; see also Parts 2, 3, and 4 of this essay. A pdf of the complete essay, including the introduction, is available here.

I have read with great interest the responses on AMS List over the past ten days to Ilias Chrissochoidis’s essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Like many who have responded to the essay, I was initially put off by its rhetoric. What struck me quite forcefully even on a first reading, however, was that Chrissochoidis had dared to hint at unethical and even corrupt behavior in musicology, something that many (most?) of us know to exist, or at least suspect exists, but which is seldom if ever mentioned in print. Because I have worked in musicology for many years at a high level without ever landing a secure position, and because the level at which I worked and the topics I worked on brought me into contact with a perhaps unusually large number of well-established figures in the field, I have had ample opportunity to see the dark side of musicology. I am also perhaps one of the few respondents who has shuttled between both sides of the professional divide:  I have been on hiring committees, I have been an anonymous reviewer for several refereed journals and a reviewer of fellowship applications, as well as a writer of many letters of recommendation. I am also now on the outside of what seem to be the permanently closed doors of the field, and taking a breather (perhaps temporary, perhaps not) from beating my head and hands in vain on those doors. This post is long—for which I do not apologize in advance, for the topic is an important one, and I have a lot to say about it (after 25 years in the field), although I shall try to be succinct.

It was obvious to me from a first reading that the central point of Chrissochoidis’s essay had nothing to do with the use of music as torture per se, but rather with hypocrisy among the membership of the AMS in issuing a high-minded pronouncement on the immorality of that practice, while ignoring unethical and immoral (and perhaps even illegal) behavior in its own backyard. I have been heartened to see that at least some (although by no means all) of the respondents on AMS List have been able to see past the strained irony and to begin to address some of the very real issues that the essay raises. (As a friend has pointed out, the essay must have touched a nerve, because the volume of response is so great: around 72 responses within 10 days, from nearly 54 different individuals; this on a list that has lately seemed moribund.)[1]

However, the responses so far have, to my mind, been too narrowly focused, in two particular ways: many respondents have focused on whether the AMS as an organization is somehow morally culpable (as if identifying and rectifying that failing, or passing a resolution about it would fix the problem); and the discussion of employment has focused largely on the travails of the “freshly-minted Ph.D” to the exclusion of the wider population of Ph.D.’s, ABDs, and former graduate students in musicology (and related fields) who have never landed a secure job in the field, and may have simply disappeared from view. We all know people in this category, and some of us know very many. To my knowledge, no one has been keeping comprehensive statistics about employment in the field, and someone should.[2]

But to address issues of ethics and possible corruption within musicology, it is necessary to look at the field as a whole, including all of the individuals and institutions (universities, societies, publishers, and so on) that constitute it, across national boundaries; for to function as a scholar on an “international” level (an explicit desideratum in so many job descriptions, even from second- and third-tier schools), one has to negotiate all of those playing fields, not just the local and parochial ones; and corruption in any of these institutions can have a devastating impact on individuals and their employability, both locally and globally.

In any case, I, for one, would never suggest that the AMS as an organization is corrupt. Bob Judd’s temperate, thoughtful, and serious response at an early stage of the present discussion underlines that the organization, as represented by its staff and officers, does its best to behave ethically and with integrity. That some of the principal activities of the society—the production of JAMS and the selection of papers for the annual meeting—may not always be similarly unblemished is more a function of the individuals involved in those activities at any given point than it is of any structural problem with the organization per se.

In the remainder of my post, I’m going to examine the issue of ethics and possible abuse within musicology from two standpoints: on the one hand, I will discuss, from what I hope will be a reasonably dispassionate perspective, whether some aspects of current institutional practices and structures may abet unethical and even corrupt behavior; and I will interleave these comments with references to some of my own experiences and observations. By necessity, I will not name names or institutions. Some writers on this list have taken Chrissochoidis to task for not providing specific evidence of his charges. But obviously he would not have been allowed to do this on legal grounds, and I would not be allowed to do it here, even if I thought it were the right course (and I don’t; this is not the proper forum for specific accusations of that sort). So I will be as concrete as I can be without being specific.[3]

More than one respondent has claimed that the job market in musicology has “always been bad.” In fact, this is not so, as those of you will know who remember the career histories of members of an older generation—such figures as (in my case) Gene Wolf or Chappell White. However, the job market has been bad for as long as I’ve been associated with the field (since the early 80s). When I was in graduate school, we were told repeatedly that things would soon improve: that the older generation would retire and positions would open up. But as everyone who reads this list knows, things didn’t work out that way. Mandatory retirement ages were done away with or pushed upward, the number of students entering college decreased as the baby boom passed, and the increasingly managerial bean-counting mentality of university administrators saw opportunities to cut tenured faculty lines and to move toward increasing reliance on adjuncts, usually staffed by desperate Ph.D.s, who have continually, over several decades, been churned out in much greater numbers than the system requires or can absorb; this chronic overproduction has been driven, at least in part, by internal university politics, by departments that need to justify their own existence (and the continued existence of their tenured faculty lines) to the bean counters. Professors like Robin Wallace who give students an “apples on the street corner” speech are to be commended.[4] But such speeches are, in my experience, extremely rare (I’ve never heard one, or talked to anyone who mentioned hearing one). And one might also point out that giving the speech once does not necessarily absolve one of all further responsibility for the fate of one’s students on the job market. Many students will also receive frequent and much more positive estimations of their prospects: many will also be told (quite often repeatedly) how brilliant they are, and how interesting and potentially significant their work is. It’s simply not realistic to expect a single reality check to cut through the other blandishments that many students will face.

There are, it is clear, vastly too many Ph.D.s in musicology and related disciplines chasing an ever shrinking pool of jobs (a pool that has recently shrunk even more dramatically because of the current economic crisis). And this problem appears all the more intractable if we (realistically) include the ever growing backlog of Ph.D.s from the past two or three decades who have never found secure positions in the field, many of whom have been cobbling together an existence from poorly-paid adjunct positions, program notes, pre-concert lectures, and the like. Given that most of these people are fully qualified to do any teaching work that might be required of them and to function as productive scholars (although very few of them will be world class, because very few of us overall are truly world class), then the variance in quality of candidates will, on average, be quite low. In a very real sense, one hire will be pretty much as good as another for most jobs in most colleges and universities most of the time. Given that there are far too many people of roughly equivalent levels of skill chasing far too few jobs, it is only common sense to realize that such a situation may easily lead to abuse and even corruption; in fact, it very likely will, given that everyone on that market will be strongly motivated to make use of any advantage that he or she possibly can, however tiny, whether it is ethical or not. (Consider the analogy with black markets during and after World War II, in which many people of “good character” in normal times were driven to illegal behavior by the necessity to survive.)

Continue on to Part 2 of "Is there abuse and corruption in musicology?"



Notes

[1] Some statistics may be of interest. By my informal count, between 4 May and the time that I posted this message [14 May 2009] there have been 72 responses on the various threads elicited by Ilias Chrissochoidis’s essay in the CHE, by 54 different people. This compares with around 16 messages on AMS List in the entire month of April [2009]. Of the respondents so far, 35% have been tenured faculty or equivalent (including emeritus), 20% junior faculty, adjuncts, or equivalent, 17% otherwise employed in musicology or a closely related field, 15% students or not currently unemployed in musicology, and 13% unknown. Thus at least 72% of the respondents so far are employed in musicology or a closely related field, and (so far) only 15% are explicitly not. Tenured faculty and equivalent have so far generated 42% of the responses, and over 75% of the responses overall have been generated by people employed in the field. I have not included my own message in these statistics. With one possible exception, the responses so far that can be characterized as strongly critical of Chrissochoidis have come from tenured faculty.

[2] In a letter published in the Boston Phoenix on 7 May, Randi Friedman, Assistant Dean/Director of Career Services at Northeastern University School of Law, writes: “All law schools are required to survey their recent graduates regarding their employment status and provide that data to the National Association of Law Placement (NALP) every February. We are required to report all types of employment, which includes legal, non-legal, temporary, and permanent positions.” One wonders why the same is not done in other academic fields—although one suspects that the results in musicology would be sobering, to put it mildly.

[3] [New note:] I may be more specific in future posts on this blog.

[4] [New note:] Wallace's reference to the "apples on the street corner" speech is found in his message to AMS-L on 8 May 2009, in the thread “What do we owe our graduates?"

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