I recently had occasion to meet a colleague at his office in the Spanish Dept., over in Modern Languages, which is in a basement on the other side of campus. I had never been there before, as it happens. Walking down the hall, though, I suddenly realized I had; my father was an English professor for more than forty years at a regional state university, so throughout my formative years I spent my share of time in the corridors of the English and Modern Languages Department, reading the cartoons on the office doors and so on. Sure enough All the office doors plastered with left-wing political stuff, in equal parts confrontational and naive, favorite ironic cartoons, petitions, etc., and left there to rot for ten years. Oh, also it was almost 9:00 AM and the only person there was student helper in the xerox room.
The nostalgia factor made me smile. It is not just my father’s institution; I think similar departments are like that everywhere. The English or History departments when I was an undergrad, other places I’ve taught … all similar. The furthest left were the offices of the librarians at Stanford, where I did my doctoral institution. I am by no means right-wing, but I cannot get over the idea that much of this stuff—especially that which is years old and rotting—is not about challenging students or making them think, maugre the protestations to the contrary, it’s about…well, the tribal way adolescent boys wear T-shirts with their favorite bands on them. Hey, I was at the Pink Floyd concert, what’re you gonna do about it? Listen to more Bachman-Turner Overdrive?
Music Departments are not like that. What is plastered up is only rarely political and usually—in the relatively infrequent cases where it is not directly related to student of faculty professional activity—pro-education, pro-arts stuff. (We tend to be left of center, but more focused on our own little universe.) Mostly, what is plastered up on our doors and bulletin boards consists of “Congratulations to the following three students who are finalists in the Rocky Mt. Concerto Competition,” “We still need student help to cover the 10:10 Music Appreciation Class,” and “Teaching Assistantship Opportunities at Arizona State!” Also, just try to find a practice room at 7:30 AM or 11:00 PM–the building is always humming. For the ten years I taught an 8:00 AM class, I’d come in at 7:30-7:45, and it was happening already. Sleepily, maybe, and with coffee cups and muffins, but people are at it. When there’s a late afternoon faculty meeting, and it takes me until 6:45 to pack up and leave, I get sympathetic nods from the students .…who are back for the evening’s work. “Here comes the night shift!” as a departing piano faculty member once said to me when I was an undergrad. Plus there is the need for all that rehearsal space … classrooms, the corridors, any corner. Did I mention that we share a building with the theater department? It’s often like that scene from the old film Flashdance, where walking down a corridor is a steeple chase of apprentice artists strewn about like furniture in a frat-house. It is the faculty’s responsibility, not to laugh, by the way; the biggest challenge for me is when two angelic eighteen-year-old girls clutching scripts are reading to each other, trying out some lines: “I’m sick of your fucking needles and your fucking johns!” or something, and I must look away, keep a straight face, thinking Mozart-opera-Mozart-opera or something. The last thing you want to do make them feel self-conscious.
I confess that I sometimes walk into a seminar, shut the door, and do an impromptu imitation of what I’ve just heard or seen. Lightens things up there at the beginning.
I am deeply invested and involved in the liberal arts, but I do marvel that music departments are such a different world from liberal arts departments. But what almost brought a tear to my eye in my visit to the Modern Languages wing was a prof (French prof, I think) who had made a collage in favor of requiring instruction in other languages. (No argument here, of course.) It was like the notices my Dad used to make to interest students in classes that were to be offered: free-association snippets from various advertisements and headlines, strewn wackily over a poster-board, eye-catching in a kind of late-60s-cum-e e cummings sort of way.
Still doing that may be behind the curve. (Whatever the curve is, for that matter, and who cares? Is every development in the humanities an improvement? Don’t get me started.) It was such pleasure to go back 30-40 years, though! Feels like home to me.