Disciplinarity and Gatekeeping

I don’t want to let Phil’s superb post pass without a couple of comments beyond the “TELL IT, REV’RUNT!” that was my initial reaction. “The horizon of a discipline,” he notes, “is inevitably smaller and more limited” than “the full range of other minds [that] constitutes the true horizon that bounds the humanist.” To choose a humbler disciplinary home over the vast green fields of The Humanities means that “you are necessarily accepting a more limited participation in the expressive realm of the human. And that seems like a drag, giving up that pleasure for . . . for what? In part, for power. It’s ‘the discipline’ that tells you what matters; you don’t get to decide.”

This can be particularly and perniciously true in graduate school. Students sometimes feel they need guidance in finding a topic, but the guidance received might have more to do with The Kind Of Department We Want To Be than the individual student’s disposition and strength. Phil mentioned UCLA as a standout in cultural studies in musicology, and it has indeed been so for some time. One wonders if other departments, seeking to stake out different turf, try to move students in a particular direction to strengthen that position. “They’re telling me to read up on genre,” a student once told me with a sigh, and I had the distinct feeling that this had more to do with the way her department conceived itself than her scholarly well-being. Of course, no one department can do everything; such areas as combinatoric theory and psychomusicology are studied at certain institutions but would be impractical in the vast majority of places. In large part, though, one’s graduate school experience has a crucial effect on one’s longer-term place in the the discipline, and the kinds of questions one is prepared to ask.

After I got my job here, an administrator (not in music) said in a meeting, “Graduate students don’t understand that the questions are generated in the literature, not out of thin air. That’s where you find the useful research questions.” That’s pure discipline (in the worst sense), and it is dead wrong. The real questions are the ones you’re asking, and no one else even notices. The Literature, in this context, does nothing but deaden and restrain; you, looking at The Actual Stuff, cannot believe that someone hasn’t yet asked what are to you these most obvious questions. One of the commonest closing gambits of articles, theses, and dissertations is the faux-humble “suggestions for further research,” which are invariably both (even) less interesting that whatever you’ve just fought your way through and safely within its worldview. How likely or even possible is it for an author to suggest something more interesting and worthwhile than (save us!) “the present study”? Too often such suggestions are wan attempts at making a homework assignment-type study look like part of a bigger, more promising picture. For my money, your question is not one that another individual is suggesting that you ask in order to validate their stuff. It’s not that you’ll be free of the literature; of course, you have to scour it to make sure that you’ve got adequate background to ask said question, and that someone hasn’t been there first. If all the great sages of your discipline haven’t even approached a question you find to be important, then put the pedal to the floor.

Still, as Phil points out, there are still boundaries and we ignore them at our own peril. “You can’t just treat these boundaries as if they aren’t there,” he observes; “where are you going to get your stuff published? If your stuff doesn’t get published, you won’t get a job, or you won’t get to keep the job you already have. That’s real. You better believe you’ve got something invested in the discipline.”

Too true, and while your research questions and topic are your responsibility, the consequences belong to you too, so your place in the discipline is a more multifaceted issue than, simply, this one research project. So it interests you; good. Is it likely to interest anyone else, to expand into something broader, to be the sort of thing a department might find attractive? Sure, anything can be great research, as potential graduate students are assured by faculty seeking to bolster flagging numbers, but if potential colleagues elsewhere find it trivial they won’t be interested in numbering you among their colleagues, and that’s not something you get to appeal, engage, or critique.

The business of becoming someone’s colleague touches on Phil’s comment that our “…discipline is constituted in the jobs we apply for: 19th-century opera, popular music and jazz, music and disability, etc. Academic appointments serve academic fields that exist so we can give degrees in them. Make no mistake, we provide a consumer product, and that product is a diploma.” Two points, here: I would prefer not to slight the generalist jobs that people apply for and a vast minority actually land. Specialty—what I’ve just been discussing—is all but irrelevant in such cases. You’re a Debussy scholar? Great; do try to keep publishing, but your 4 + 4 load will include the entire music history sequence, music appreciation, upper division courses in all periods, and the senior capstone seminar.

And to choose one from among the given examples: how common are listings that request a “music and disability” specialty? Fact: a certain number of people working in a thriving subdiscipline does not mean there are jobs in it. To my eye, the specialties for which people are hired still relate rather closely to the major historical periods—she’s a rock-solid nineteenth-century scholar, he’ll anchor the medieval side of things, and let’s see if there are some secondary interests we can parlay into course offerings (Women in Music, History of Rock, Pedagogy, etc. etc.). There’s a reason for this; specialists in major historical periods are far more likely to be able to mentor a variety of kinds of research in those periods than will the narrower specialist. For the vast majority of institutions, more marginal areas are at best secondary. All the fell developments in the economic and cultural ecosystem do not amount to more hires in Music and Disability Studies or even Performance Practices, believe me. So while the intellectual question and subdiscipline you choose should not be defined by the Discipline or Literature in the sense of What Everyone Else is Doing, never doubt that a reality principle will still obtain.

Finally, of Susan McClary: “…it’s the brilliance and dash of her writing that makes her stand out in our collective memory. There is a lesson in this, graduate students.” Hold on, graduate students—put your pens down for a second. “To achieve style, begin by affecting none,” wrote E. B. White, and that is sage advice. For me, what makes Susan McClary stand out in collective memory is not style so much as content: she was indefatigable in her sharp cultural interrogations of canonical works (e.g. Mozart’s G Major piano concerto K. 453/II, Bach Brandenburg Concerto #5/I, the opera Carmen, and much more), and her resistance to what she perceived as sacralization without thought, obedient cultural idol-worship, and the safe and lazy concept of the autonomous artwork which absolved later listeners from awareness of the cultural contexts taken for granted by historical composers and their listeners.

I personally found her writing to be searing and bilious, but that’s not the point. The lesson I would stress for any graduate student is to write like you, not like Susan McClary or anyone else. Say what you have to say, but don’t lard it with “brilliance and dash”— simply play your game, as the sports announcers say and I never tire of repeating. Your game. In the vast landscape of American academia, the “searing” written idiom has receded, as has cultural criticism itself to a certain extent, and I have to wonder if it was the bitter tone that eventually wore everyone out. Musicology departments rarely exist in a vacuum, and most music schools still search out that body of applicants who had a fantastic band conductor or choir teacher and simply want More Of That Sound rather than those drawn to vinegary critiques of our art.

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.
This entry was posted in Academia. Bookmark the permalink.