04 October 2010

Is there abuse and corruption in musicology? Part 3

The following is Part 3 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 1, 2, and 4 of this essay. A pdf of the complete essay, including the introduction, is available here.

As some respondents have pointed out, ‘twas (to some extent) ever thus in academia. The venality and petty corruption of academia has long been the fodder for novels and films. But there are several points to be made in response to those who think that it is sufficient to say (and it seems invariably to be the securely employed who make this point) “Grow up and deal with it”:

(1) The fact that similar abuses have happened in the past does not absolve members of the profession from the moral responsibility of standing up to such abuses now;

(2) There is a very strong case to be made that the level of abuse has increased considerably because of the long-term chronic problems of the musicological job market and the overproduction of Ph.D.s; and at the very least an extremely strong case can be made that there should be a disinterested empirical investigation of this situation;

(3) The personal damage to the lives and careers of far too many fine scholars is both morally unacceptable and is a long-term cancer that is eating the field from within.

From a practical standpoint, hiring committees often lack the competence to judge the scholarly qualifications of the very specialties that they wish to hire. This is perfectly understandable. If, say, a department wishes to hire an expert in eighteenth-century music, it is almost always because they haven’t got one. This is only natural, but how do hiring committees compensate? Mostly they don’t. Instead of, say, asking the eighteenth-century specialist from the university down the road to help out or even asking the advice of the local eighteenth-century specialist in the departments of art history or literature in their own university, committees tend to fall back on not always well-grounded rules of thumb: “Well, the candidate is from Great University X, so she must be good,” or “I recognize the name on this letter of recommendation, so I’m going to give it more weight than the recommendation of this person I don’t know anything about.” Lack of specialist competence on hiring committees does not, in itself, necessarily lead to abuse or corruption in the hiring process. But it does make it easier for a hiring committee to be led astray by factors that have nothing to do with the qualifications or competence of the applicant.

This general problem of lack of competence may sometimes also apply to the selection of papers for national meetings of the AMS. I’m sure many of you have attended meetings (I certainly have) where you know personally of abstracts in your specialty that were rejected (and perhaps had been repeatedly rejected) even though you know the work to be first-rate, important, in the mainstream of developments in your specialty, and something that you definitely would want to hear. And conversely you’ve almost certainly had occasionally to endure extremely weak papers in your specialty that were accepted. I do not at all mean to imply that all AMS papers are bad. I’ve heard many excellent papers in my field (as well as others) at national AMS meetings, and I’m sure that the selection committees have kept me from having to listen to quite a few that would have been dire. But at least in my areas of expertise, poor or derivative work is accepted for national AMS meetings more often than it should be, and part of the reason for this may be lack of sufficient specialist competence on selection committees.

The chronically dismal job market has also led to a serious erosion of common courtesy and respect toward applicants by hiring institutions. Treatment of applicants can sometimes be truly appalling. Applicants have not infrequently failed to receive notification that their application has been received, and distressingly often, not received any final notification of the outcome of a search, even after a face-to-fact interview. (And of course, such notifications, when they do arrive, often come six to nine months after the closing date, with no word of any kind in between.) I am willing to provide several examples from my own experience to substantiate all of these points.
In general, the academic “job search” in the U.S. has become an unconscionably protracted and ill-defined process. Jobs are now often advertised as early as July of the year before the starting date, even when there is no intention of interviewing until late fall or after the New Year. Job descriptions, particularly from second- and third-tier schools, have not infrequently begun to request ludicrously large baskets of skills, so large that no one could be adequately versed in all of them. And conversely, there seems to be no accountability regarding whether the published criteria have actually been met. I’ve often been told that I was foolish to restrict my applications only to those jobs where I felt that I was a reasonable fit to the job description. Yet I’m often advised that “everyone” applies for everything, because “you never know what a hiring committee is going to decide they want.” But if this is the case, and the hiring is really a free-for-all, what exactly is the purpose of a detailed job description that isn’t going to be honored? The absurdly protracted length of job searches is unnecessary and is one aspect of this process that could surely be improved without undue pain. Whatever problems the British system may have, the job searches there are much less protracted: the turn-around time between closing date, call to an interview, and final decision is, in my experience, typically less than two months.

The hiring process is currently also characterized by continual inflation in the rhetoric of recommendations and statements of qualification. In my experience on hiring committees and as a referee, one has to learn to “discount for inflation.”  How is one to distinguish among 15 or 20 applicants described as “the most brilliant student I’ve ever had”? What is one to write about (and how is one to distinguish) an applicant who truly is brilliant? How is one to evaluate the applicant who claims (and whose referees attest) not only to have done ground-breaking work on depictions of gender in the early-late Renaissance Transylvanian madrigal, but also to be a tuba virtuoso and distinguished opera singer?

There is much much more that could be and needs to be said about the current state of hiring in musicology, and the long-term effect of this unsustainable situation on the field as a whole. I could (and may) write a separate essay about the role of fads in “Theory” (and I don’t mean music theory) in the continual jockeying for position among job applicants. There is much to be said, too, I think, about the overall health of the field. For as I have now spent some time outside the locked gates of this particular ivory tower, and wandered down the hill a bit, looking back I can see that musicology isn’t so much an ivory tower, but more an ivory trailer. And it isn’t so much on a hill, but rather down in a glen behind some trees, out of touch with much truly exciting work that is going on in the rest of the intellectual world, and largely out of touch with much ground-breaking work that is going on in music in the cognitive and biological sciences. It has also become distressingly clear to me just how irrelevant musicology is to nearly everyone outside of it: not just to the person on the street in Roslindale (where I live), but to professional musicians and serious music lovers in all genres. And of course, musicology has virtually no presence in the discourse of other fields. Musicology, from my view outside, is in very real danger of marginalizing itself out of existence.

Continue on to Part 4 of "Is there abuse and corruption in musicology?"
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