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.