the m-word

Phil Ford

Those of you who are studying musicology in graduate school or teaching college music history will have probably lived some version of this scenario, which I recently acted out while buying a new pair of glasses:

[at the eye doctor]

Dr.: So, what do you do?

Me: I teach.

Dr.: Ah! Where?

Me: the university.

Dr.: Really? What do you teach?


Me: um, music.

Dr.: That’s wonderful! What instrument do you play?

Now, at this point, I am tempted to say “piano,” which is true, even though this would create the misleading impression that my school pays me to teach piano, which it doesn’t. Now, I don’t like to mislead people, but I really don’t like to hear the barely stifled snort of derision and disbelief I almost always hear when I drop the m-word. Musicology. I am a musicologist. There, I said it.

Now, you can muffle the blow a little by saying “I’m a music historian,” because that sounds less pretentious. (As one friend of mine pointed out, art historians don’t call themselves “artologists.”) But this will only help so much, because what is objectionable to hairdressers, doctors, and everyone else you end up having time-serving conversations with is the sense that you have gotten away with something. You teach music — not how to play it or anything, just, you know, music. It’s like getting a degree in watching the clouds roll by, or conducting advance study in sipping pina coladas at the beach. Music is a sensual pleasure, and writing or thinking about it seems like a particularly far-gone example of our propensity to turn every innocent pleasure into an occasion for frenzied cerebration.

I’m not totally opposed to this point of view, actually. From a certain point of view, what I do is ridiculous. But it’s also awesome, and I make no apologies for it.

Stanley Fish wrote an opinion piece for Critical Inquiry (32/2) called “Take This Job and Do It”, which made the case for excellence as a stand-alone quality: it doesn’t really matter what the content of academic work is, so long as you do it excellently.

Anything can be taught, anything can find a place in the curriculum, not because of its connection to some moral/educational vision or to a national political project, but simply because it exists and someone wants to “study” it. All that is required is that the study of X or Y or Z be conducted on a level of sophistication and detail that marks it off from casual, nonacademic observation. There must be data, hypotheses, rival accounts of crucial matters, tests, conclusions, suggestions for further research, and all of these must be presented to the student with the same seriousness that attends the study of American history, or organic chemistry, or or the eighteenth-century English novel. If the requirement is met, you can proclaim that your course in supermarket inventory or athletic shoes or TV sitcoms of the 1980s (these are not hypothetical examples) meets the highest standards (which have nothing to do with content), and you can bestow on it the honorific [Bill] Readings finds singularly appropriate to the “University without ideas” (The University in Ruins, p. 118); it can be deemed “excellent.”

Both Readings and Fish are making the point that, in the absence of any overriding ideology of education, any shared national sense of what it’s for, the university becomes a neutral site in which “excellence,” abstracted from any particular notion of content, can be practiced. (In this article Fish is sort of saying “and you say that like it’s a bad thing.”) I find Fish’s argument kind of liberating. I like the idea that, at the end of the day, it just doesn’t matter if musicology “matters” in some grand sense. If there is no such grand sense, then musicology matters simply by virtue of its ability to be excellent — or, as I prefer to say, if it can be awesome. Of course, that means that I and I alone have to be awesome — I can’t put my self-justification off onto an appeal to the transcendent qualities of whatever program or project to which I can lay claim. It’s all on me. But then, that’s kind of a relief: at least I have some control over that.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to the m-word

  1. Jeff Dunn says:

    Interesting that in this standard scenario, the response is “I teach.”
    But what percent of the time do musicologists teach, including the time for lesson preparation, but not including research and admin? And what is the percentage of psychic time devoted to teaching vs. the worries of tenure and collegial worth? And what was the percentage of time spent in the classroom learning how to teach vs. learning to be a musicologist?
    Perhaps the better answer is “I am a student.” That’s what gets one into academics, and that’s what should propel one toward achieving excellence in one’s field. Also it might help in empathizing with those in one’s charge who might be just beginning what could be a lifetime occupation, most probably not in the Academy.

  2. Bodie says:

    This post reminds me of a quote from Bob Dylan that was featured on The Rest is Noise blog recently: “Let’s face it, you’re either serious about what you’re doing or you’re not serious about what you’re doing. And you can’t mix the two. And life is short.”

  3. hermes501 says:

    I’m a music theorist, and I once got into an hour-long conversation with one of those guys on a plane with a laptop and a cell phone and a suit who kept asking questions of me, trying to understand what I did. He confessed that he had always wanted to learn the piano but never had, and that his kids were thinking of dropping marching band when they got to high school but that he wanted them to stay in it. There was no way we were going to have a conversation about augmented sixth chords or sonata form or tone rows (yeesh, how nerdy would I be if I had brought up THOSE things to him?), but I have the pleasure of also having a great deal of musical experience that doesn’t sound hoity-toity, so we shared things on that level. Just like he didn’t go into crazy detail about his business life, I didn’t launch into a discussion of music analysis, and I think we were both okay with that. =)

  4. Charles Freeman says:

    Is it weaseling out that much simply to say “I teach music history”?
    For me, that conversation happened most recently at the dentist. Before the implements of pain went into my mouth, the new hygenist asked of my occupation. I answered “I teach at (insert name of school here).” To which, of course, she asked, “What do you teach?” and before I had time to fret over an answer the “m-h words” (?) flew out of my mouth.
    For what it’s worth, the answer seemed to work, and to put my interlocutor at ease. To boot, I got to go on a bit about starting a new jazz history class and my most recent research at the time (always fun).
    There is something to be said, I suspect, for making a small and graspable claim for my vocation, and letting the concept grow from there, rahter than necessarily dropping the “m-bomb” on the unsuspecting. At least sometimes.

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