One of the perquisites of the dozing, decrepit professorial alte kocker maturing academic consists of invitations to visit other institutions, perhaps to participate in a colloquium or give a lecture. Maybe the subject of your lecture is within your research area; maybe it’s on a subject they chose and they’re just trusting you to come up with something. It may not be just the lecture; perhaps they also think it’d be a good idea for their students to meet you and spend time with you; you have one or a dozen friends there, and they know you well enough to know that whatever you are, it isn’t aloof.
I’m sitting in Indianapolis Airport following the second of these this semester, and last of my big extras (others included chairing yet another faculty search, which is punishing but hugely important work, and doing concert commentary and fetch-and-carry for a local Bach St. Matthew Passion event). Both lectures were pretty stressful to produce—national papers are a half-hour in length, but these were 45 minutes to an hour. As they were at institutions very unlike my own, they provide opportunities for reflection: what would professional life have been like at a different kind of school? On the job market, one applies (well, I sure as hell applied) everywhere: state undergraduate institutions, liberal arts colleges, regional state universities (which is where I ended up), research-extensive flagships and Ivies and Ivy-equivalents. Who can tell? One is confident enough of one’s own research brilliance, teaching brilliance, everything brilliance (particularly if one has a family to support) that it’s all about finding a door—any door—to kick open. Of course, the more experience you gain, the more you realize (I just had this conversation with a friend) how important The Fit is not just them to you, young’un, but you to them. So maybe you’re not really Jedi Academy material, or appropriate for the Bucolic University of the Rolling Verdant Hills, or ready to be Chair of Music at the Aristotle’s Lyceum.
Spoiler alert: I’m at the right place, which features hardworking and often terrific students, frighteningly harmonious and collaborative and mutually supportive faculty, miraculous accomplishments given what we’ll call problematic funding streams, and buckets of intangibles.
But what would it be like at a liberal arts school? In mid-February I gave a lecture at Drake University in Des Moines, IA. This is a liberal arts college—no graduate degree programs in music, so no TAs, all courses taught by “real” faculty, lots of extra attention, students who tend to make and take opportunities for things like writing for the newspaper, experimenting with this and that paraprofessional activity, and who tend to be lucid, confident, funny, and socially assured. The university had a kind of ongoing Event that was spearheaded by a Religious Studies professor and, y’know, willing henchmen from other departments—this year’s subject was “Ineffability,” and a friend there put my name forward as someone delusional enough to think he had something to say about it who might take on the issue. So it was the sort of event that we really don’t do at my place: funding was found, I gave a lecture well outside my comfort zone (in a local church, noch) to a mixed multitude of students and faculty and the curious, met people, fielded questions, spent time with students (learning of their interests, dispositions, how much they enjoyed their school, etc.). They clearly benefited from the faculty attention they received, and to a large extent repaid it with effort.
I think I could have been a faculty member in such a situation. Actually, I was—my first two years were two Visiting Assistant Professor positions at Bucolic University. It was a great experience. And that wasn’t the kind of place where I ultimately landed.
So I’m getting ready to wing my way home from the University of Indiana—Bloomington, home base to Phil-im-Bart Ford (in Tübingen, Germany, they refer to one of the founding figures of their city as “Eberhardt-im-Bart,” E-with-the-huge-beard) and several other friends. So I met a batch of really bright, lively grad students (loads of crazy-interesting research ideas), spent time with friends (including a great 2+-hour chat with Phil), and hit ’em with the earliest version of something I hope to include in the book I’ll be writing this fall. The takeaway: really good, helpful, penetrating questions and comments from faculty, from students, and from faculty friends afterwards. Taking out your recital pieces for friends before a performance, you know? And did I mention the food and drink?
I could, I think, have taught at such a place also. Fantastic library, lots of resources for bringing people in and looking after grad students really good esprit de corps among the musicologists (which translates into mentoring the hell out of their students). I didn’t really land at a place like this, either.
Soon I’ll have rough drafts and stuff to read at home, but no more travel is planned until the summer. And I ended up at a place with aspects of both of the above kinds of institutions, and where efforts are made to customize situations and duties to faculty. As I say, there are also those countless intangibles.
From the faculty perspective, from the student perspective, these are all ideal places, depending on one’s personal disposition. There is an absolute necessity for all such. This is a key point because we still constantly encounter the looking-over-one’s-shoulder addiction to “prestige” (no way for those quotes to be scare-enough or ironic-enough), and the idea of prestige really is crap—abject crap. You’re too good to teach X students? You simply can’t do any kind of research or creative activity without loads of supplemental funding and TLC? Please. Sappy conclusion: grow where you’re planted, and you may well find that although you never saw it coming, you were planted in a situation you were put on earth to be in. “’Tis a gift to come down where you ought to be,” sang the Shakers, and it is a glistening, resonant Truth.