AMS Report: Mentoring and Disinformation

Jonathan Bellman

We had a lovely time in Québec City; thanks for asking. It’s a beautiful, history-tinged place (this was our first visit), people were more than cooperative with our French (and willing to switch if the going got dicey), and all in all it was a fun time. After a couple of days of tourism, we set our son loose on the unsuspecting city and devoted ourselves to the American Musicological Society meeting. First, three general comment, and then a rant.

I was on the Paul Pisk Award committee this year, and I would like to commend the dozen papers we evaluated. The final decision was tough, and there were three papers that could easily have won. A lot of very interesting, non-doctrinaire work continues to be done, and this warms cockles of the aging musicological heart.

Minority Opinion Department: in recent years the length of papers was returned to thirty minutes, from a previous twenty, and the abstracts in the program book seem to be a lot longer. Almost everyone applauded the former development; thirty-minute papers had previously been the norm, and the few intervening years of twenty-minute papers had produced a lot of complaints. My own preference is for the shorter lengths in both areas. To force someone to boil a paper down to twenty minutes ensures more concern for audience attention span and focus (especially for the third and fourth papers in a session). It also requires the person giving the paper to weigh every last word and musical example (do I really need this or can I do without it?). The shorter abstract forces people to write actual abstracts, not turgid, wordy, inappropriately third-person summaries (“this paper will demonstrate, therefore, that…”). If your abstract bores me, I’m less likely to attend your paper , and if it gives too much away I’m also less likely to want to attend (“she already told us everything in the abstract”). The abstract is your chance to write a taut, freeze-dried microcosm of your paper, premises and methodology to conclusions, so I know generally what it’s about. It’s also your chance to be brilliant and hustle me in the door. The longer word counts, however, militate against that result. Though I didn’t do a systematic comparison, my experience suggests that the people most likely to treat time-, length- and word limits cavalierly are senior faculty, not green-and-growing younger scholars. To me, though, senior people have the greatest responsibility to play by the rules, because we (supposedly) are models. Senior faculty self-indulgence in such areas sends the worst possible message.

My mini-session consisted of two very strong papers, which were both well-received and produced good questions. Since one of them dealt with the style hongrois, the Hungarian-Gypsy style in nineteenth-century art music (the subject of my first book, in 1993), a friend had humorously asked in a pre-meeting E-Mail how anyone else dared talk about the subject and if I could use my position to “crush my enemies,” because what was the point of influence if one can’t crush one’s enemies? Nice! But seriously, folks, that is not the session chair’s job. I look upon the session chair role as one in which you enable your session participants to present themselves in as good a light as possible. Ask to see the papers early, make suggestions, accommodate as best you can, and most importantly try to formulate questions—to get the Q & A discussion going, if need be—that will not shred the research. Someone else might do that from the floor, and that’s not your responsibility, but you as chair need to enable these people to shine. (Unless they have already exhibited felonious narcissism and self-importance in their dealings with you, in which case you may choose to remove your gloves. Fortunately, no one has ever been remotely close to doing that with me.)

The most shocking thing I heard was in the course of a very enjoyable conversation at an alumni party Saturday night. A small group of graduate students, either currently at or formerly affiliated with my doctoral institution, began soliciting my opinions on some career advice they’d received from various people—from young scholars interviewing for positions at their institutions or people otherwise In A Position To Know. (N.B.: That was weapons-grade sarcasm.) The three closely related ideas under discussion were these:

1) Don’t publish your stuff too early. Hold off. Don’t publish anything you’ll be ashamed of later.

2) Withhold your best stuff until later, maybe after the dissertation is done.

3) Save your very best stuff until after you have received tenure; then publish it all at once and impress them with your productivity.

The only word I can come up with here is Disinformation, whether given out of jealous and competitive strategizing or Precinct Boss-like control or gatekeeping by an advisor or administrator who misunderstands the responsibilities of academic authority. When I asked how one was supposed to get a job with no publications, one of the students had the honesty to say, “In my naïveté, I thought it was via your recommendations.” How to answer without swearing?

Full disclosure: I never considered myself of the caste where you just wait to finish your premium Ph.D. (anyway, I’m a D.M.A) from one killer high-end research university before moving on, with appropriate leisurely gravitas, to another one. The market in the early 1990s was at the very bottom, for a variety of reasons, and I had always figured it would be next to impossible to get work. In my first year in the doctoral program, I had mentioned to one of my professors that I intended to try to publish before I graduated (this as a piano-type, not a research-type, at that point). He said, “I think you are wise.” I think it was obvious, even then. Listen up, kids:

If a simple Le-Roi-le-veut high-sign from your advisor gets you a premium gig, great. Stop reading. You don’t need my advice, and you’ll get a job at a more prestigious place than I teach at, or in all probability ever went to. Bon voyage! God bless the child who’s got his own!

Otherwise, if I’m trying to find someone to make the many contributions—pedagogical, scholarly, collegial, and there is no order on those; we need all of them—necessary of a faculty member at my institution and probably hundreds of others, then a good recommendation goes only so far. I need to know what you can do for us, and there is no way to show that better than an established track record. Juried publications are, of course, the gold standard. If juried publications are proving challenging, get something going on the non-juried side. Do reviews.  Get a reputation. When you’ve got something really good, polish it and hone it and get it out there, and sage heads should help you identify appropriate publications for it. Don’t be ashamed of your work: there is nothing any of us have published that we wouldn’t change somehow, if given the chance, and virtually all of us have put mistakes (hopefully minor ones) in print. That’s the risk. The peer-review process will, hopefully, save you from disaster. Holding off, though, means you are holding yourself aloof from experience. Not a good sign.

The same, incidentally, is true of teaching. Having difficulty getting a position? OK; how resourceful are you being at making situations for yourself? A teaching fellowship (better, in key ways, than a sit-down-and-write fellowship), your university’s extension program, individual workshops? I need to know what you can do and what kinds of opportunities you can make in order to do it. Reference to your satisfactory performance as a teaching assistant is simply not sufficient, at least for me.

Bottom line: your recommendations should in large part direct the reader’s attention to the great stuff you’ve already done. The fact that H. Prof. Dr. Figure F. Importance has crafted nice words about you means, in the absence of solid accomplishments, not much more than nothing to me, because Prof. Importance also has his own reputation as an Influential Person and Collector of Vassals to maintain. If your merits aren’t triangulated by someone outside your research advisor, I’m not interested. There are too many promising people with solid publication and teaching records out there looking for good positions for me to put too much weight on your lineage and the prestige of your institution. I have known cases where those two aspects looked great on paper and amounted to nothing at all. This I need?

Fact: you need a publishing record to get hired in the first place, and certainly to get tenure. What possible benefit could there be in waiting? Establish a reputation in an area, and then the opportunities start generating themselves: you’re invited to give a paper in the same area, then you work that into another article, then… But there is no guarantee that you will publish anything, ever, so you’re a real idiot if you take it for granted. And your very, very best stuff will go stale or (worse) be scooped by someone else working in the same area if you hold off.

You have to do all of it: teach, work on the big project, work on smaller projects, do research, publish…all more or less simultaneously. You will later, so you may as well get on it now. For heaven’s sake, though, advice about holding off publication and keeping your powder dry and saving your best stuff “for later” and so on ought to be as resistantly read, as harshly interrogated, as anything in the literature.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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5 Responses to AMS Report: Mentoring and Disinformation

  1. Sine Nomine says:

    I heard a variant of this on Saturday night, too. In my case, I was having dinner with a colleague who’s been successful in the job search and is going up for review a year early next year; she was honestly offering suggestions to a couple of us eager young’uns based on her own experience. In this conversation, the rationale behind withholding good stuff was that it doesn’t “count” toward tenure or promotion later. So the puzzle is how to get enough stuff out there to get an interview or job, but save enough that you can eke it out during the first year or two as articles that go in your tenure file or save it for the book that will “guarantee” (notice those scare quotes!) tenure in year 6 or 7.
    And of course, Kate van Orden echoed this problem in her business meeting address, when she lamented that too many of us are holding on to research to put in a book (which only a few will read when it comes out years and years later) and she, therefore, as editor of JAMS doesn’t have a pool of potential articles to publish, rendering the journal moribund, filled with too-long articles that are the culmination of years of research by a senior scholar or two.
    So this bad advice effectively hamstrings young scholars and older ones alike because it perpetuates the myth that articles and other publications are a liability unless they’re incredibly brilliant. No one seems willing to contemplate the notion that articles, like conference papers (in an ideal conference), are part of an ongoing dialogue, not the final word on a subject. And it’s best to get in on that conversation as soon as possible, so long as you have something interesting to say.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Fascinating. Thanks so much for this. The problem here is that Really Good Stuff is regarded as a very shallow pool: obviously, once you get your best stuff out there you won’t have anything left. Similarly, I suppose, you shouldn’t love your children too much at the beginning (they won’t really remember, later), or play really well in smaller, local venues (if you play well and a Critic didn’t hear it, did it really happen?).
    I wouldn’t want to generalize based on my institution, but it is the *record of scholarly accomplishment* that really matters. Yes, you need to be consistently productive, but in my experience good stuff generates…better stuff, often based on it.
    My own obvious case is the 1991 *style hongrois* article, which became a book and more articles later. I sure as shootin’ didn’t hold back on that initial article because I wanted it to “count”; I wanted it out there, and I also thought it would help me LAND a gig, which I think it did. In terms of my own path, that thing was the Gift That Kept On Giving–people kept asking for more, and I was more or less forced into having two specialties when I had originally thought I’d stick with Chopin. Then other things like the Chivalric Style and Raga Rock…well, maybe other people will pick up on those ideas, but I can’t go in all directions at once.
    For me at least, working on projects that at least *I* think are really interesting has not been like spending all my money too early, but rather like priming a pump. Strategically holding back seems like a really horrible idea to me–what happens when someone makes the same discoveries and beats you to print? What do you do, sue? “Hey, I was working on that and planned to put it in print closer to my tenure evaluation!”?
    It’s music, friends. Good research topics don’t stop when you graduate; they tend to generate themselves, at least (ahem) for a couple of decades.
    As they say in baseball: no pitcher wants to be beaten on his second-best pitch.

  3. Peter Alexander says:

    All of this reminds me of two faculty members when I was a graduate student at my disintiguished alma mater: one who shall remain nameless, and my advisor, Peter Brown. The former of these wanted everything to be perfect, and the one large article he published nearly was — but it was almost the only thing he published; his lifetime’s bibiography ended up pitifully thin.
    Peter, on the other hand, published copiously, and his advice to his students was always the same: get it done, get it out, and go on to other things. Time and other scholars will revise all work eventually, so don’t aim to be perfect; aim to do the best you can at this time. This does not undercut a high standard of scholarship — sometimes I thought Peter had read everything and knew every piece of music, in his discipline at least, and of course he was precise and rigorous in his work. But he was able to get a lot done, and he contirbuted greatly to the ongoing dialogue about music — and isn’t that the point? What fun is it if we don’t toss ideas back and forth? It’s not a very interesting game if the ball never gets advanced up the field.

  4. GABRIEL says:

    Wow! I can say that I’ve never heard this sort of advice, and never given it out, thank goodness. I can’t really belive that anyone suggests it.
    It seems obvious that you should try to get something published or at least in press during your graduate years, and that you should have teaching experience. That said, I do think it’s reasonable to tell students that getting the dissertation done is the most important thing once they become ABD, and that spending a lot of time on a tangential project before the diss is done is foolish.
    I have, I should also say, seen the opposite problems with cvs–a million inconsequential publications, a number of which seem to be minor variations on a single theme. I personally would rather see a young scholar come in with a small number (really, like one or two) of serious publications than a bunch of what looks like dross.
    GS

  5. Fed up says:

    Amazing that you can complain about AMS verbosity and then ramble on like this.

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