Scholar Teaches Behind Bars; Is Sent To Woodshed

Some backstory: when Phil and I started Dial M in 2006 (that’s a decade ago, Phil!) we had previously volunteered to get involved with an American Musicological Society blog, but AMS was having difficulty figuring out precisely how much oversight they wanted, and from a larger number of people we were the only two left standing, so finally we started Dial M. In recent years AMS had finally started its own blog, which is very different from ours—there are many authors, and they tend to produce individual thought-pieces. The most recent is by Pierpaolo Polzonetti, who teaches in Notre Dame’s Liberal Studies program, and he wrote about his experience teaching Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni in prison.

His blog post is here; the rest of what I say won’t make any sense at all unless you read it. I’ll wait right here; it is a quick read.

A FB friend posted immediately, upset at the racism, classism, microggressions, and so on. Many friends posted follow-ups, in agreement and support, in high dudgeon with AMS for allowing such a thing to appear under its auspices.

I responded with the following:

So as not to disappoint, I’ll be that guy:

1) There was no reference to Black men liking rap; that was a reference to the entire group of listeners. Prison populations are disproportionately African-American, yes, but we had no information on anyone except the one guy with the long beard.
2) Are you saying that it’s classist to assume anything about the listening habits of a population of people who are likely to have made bad choices earlier in life, probably because of their socioeconomic circumstances? It’s not that the privileged rich don’t commit crimes, God knows, it’s that they have ways of staying out of maximum security, right? So the writer has no business assuming that these men were unlikely to have had the opportunity to learn to appreciate a stylized dramatic form in a foreign language that depends on cultural references that were relevant centuries ago?

3) Polzonetti’s first degree listed on his Notre Dame webpage is from an institution in Rome. I’m assuming that his first language is Italian. Given the “frightening crescendo” of the bearded guy’s objection, he was not unreasonably afraid that emotions quite possibly born of unspeakable earlier experiences would boil over into violence. Perhaps “calm down” or some other phrase might have sounded less trivializing to you than “chill out,” but perhaps this is an opportunity to float a highly accomplished ESL person just a bit of the difference for a possibly slightly misused slang phrase?

I respect his effort, his account, and would not be surprised to discover that the men requested a return visit. Perhaps it’s my myriad privileges that prevent me from seeing all the microaggressions. It does seem to me, though, that the harsher the judgment we pass on people who make this kind of effort, the more we make such efforts (getting out of the ivory tower, sharing what we have, being inclusive, all that) unprofitable even to attempt.

Who wins then?

Now, I accept that this entire issue may seem, to those whose daily lives for the most part take place outside academia, ludicrously trivial—a squabble among modern-day electronic feuilletistes. More is at stake, though: accusations flying about things that are simply not to be found in the blogpost, and the piling on is wondrous to see. People find microaggressions (I do not deny that they exist, and are common), elitism, racism…not only am I not seeing these things, I’m not seeing why these accusations are going unquestioned. An accusation of racism or elitism does not automatically mean that the accused is guilty, right? And how is the AMS guilty and complicit and all that for not editing/censoring/censuring/setting on fire the guest author of the post? Really, might something like free speech be relevant, here?

One possibility, certainly, is that I’ve crossed the chronological rubicon to being the befuddled and irrelevant old buzzard that mutters “Oh, let’s not get all het up about it,” and promptly forgets what he’s talking about.

Another possibility is that some other frustrations, and I’m certainly not the person to say what they might be, are causing this boilover to occur, and that it’s focused on a guy who was sharing his account about teaching opera to inmates at a maximum security facility, and how engaged they were, and what a good experience it was.

Now noises are made about departures from AMS over this matter.

To quote Randy Newman: “Where are we, on the moon?”

I’d like to see clear identifications of the microagressions, racism, elitism, and classism. Maybe it’s obvious and I just don’t get it, sure. It seems to me, though, that the way Prof. Polzonetti is being taken to the woodshed about this with the parent learned society merits something clearer than what I’m seeing.

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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14 Responses to Scholar Teaches Behind Bars; Is Sent To Woodshed

  1. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Oh, dear. What jumped out at me from the blog post you link to is that the inmates had previously studied Metastasian opera and recognized the rage aria elements in “Ah chi mi dice mai.” I am not sensitive enough, because I fastened on what the students knew rather than, etc. etc.

    I can also tell that you were a little…annoyed….when you wrote this post, because I’m convinced that you meant “classism” where you wrote “classicism” – twice. That is an excellent braino.

  2. dellantonio says:

    While I agree with you on ever so many things, and while I personally would not leave/boycott the AMS over this, I also found the salvation narrative of the essay deeply troubling, and the language grossly reinforcing of stereotype. So I really disagree with you on this. I’ll not further clog up the comments here, but anyone interested in reading my thoughts can do so at the Musicology Now site, third comment v

  3. jonathanbellman says:

    Andrew, my thought is that we’ll be able to survive the disagreement. Note that your language is more—shall we say nuanced?—than the facile accusations I referred to, and which I think you’ve seen. I don’t deny the salvation narrative, but I would say that I find it less troubling because in a sense that’s my upbringing. The idea that education is explicitly salvation from whatever dark narrowness you came from is not even to be argued in my family. That’s both parents, who were first-generation Americans, and who do not from from learning themselves. So the idea of education *in anything* shining a much needed light in a dark place is, to me, not something to be learnedly critiqued because of the familiarity of the narrative. Coming Of Age is also familiar, after all, and that one, too, is ever new, for new generations.

  4. Giulio Ongaro says:

    Actually, Andrew, I thought that if you read it carefully it is not a reinforcement of stereotypes. The stereotype is that inmates in maximum security are brutish thugs who separate into segregated gangs, and spend time making shanks out of toothbrushes.etc. etc. What came out to me is that these guys read assignments and engaged with a fairly sophisticated topic willingly and enthusiastically. If anything that said to me: instead of dismissing them as “career criminals” or “thugs”, we should make a better effort at bringing education (and we have to bring it, I doubt that it can completely come from inside a prison) and changing their lives. Maybe it is a colonizing attitude for some: suggest an alternative.
    The one passage when he talks about a frightening crescendo, well, it might reinforce stereotype or might be an accurate description of a situation. I have not been inside a maximum security prison, but I am sure sometimes one could be frightened by the inmate, especially if you are a mild-mannered musicologist.
    And what bothered me is the violence of the personal attacks: assuming that someone is basically a racist pig and asking for swift measures. I hate all kinds of stuff like that, both from the left and from the right. I am for respectful dialogue, even when you think someone is wrong.

    • Pierpaolo Polzonetti says:

      Thank you Giulio for your reply. I am glad to see this. I confirm here that the moment I describe as ‘frightening’ was indeed frightening – not the man, but the situation. It’s hard to understand for people who have not been in prison. As a volunteer I had to take a self-defense class that basically made me aware that if a situation escalates to violent confrontation there is little hope for a musicologist of my size to survive. But I was never worried for my own safety. I have complete trust in and respect from my incarcerated students. I feel perfectly safe with them. I even took my Notre Dame students, including three young women, to participate in class discussions and all the students were very respectful and civilized. But among the incarcerated men occasionally you can perceive tension. It’s understandable. They live on top of each other. Imagine if you, me, Andrew, Jonathan, Lisa, plus the other 20+ bloggers of musicology now, had to spend months, years, confined in one single room (over 40 people sleep and live in the same room in a medium security prisons). What could happen then if we had a confrontation? I might be able to handle Andrew, maybe, not Robert Fink… An Apollonian approach to music analysis, then, rather than insisting only and always on emotion, race, and rap vs. opera, can be a life saver.

      Ironically, when I presented a version of the text in the musicology now blog at the Julliard school of music in NYC I only got positive reactions. But all the incendiary terms were there: word by word. Nobody noticed. The reason is that the tone of voice shapes meaning in a way that cannot be replaced by voiceless text. We hear voices when they read that are not the author’s. Its our own voice that we hear.

      I suspect that all this vitriolic debate is a way to confuse matters and stay away from the real issues at stake: the role of musicology in society, especially among people who normally do not have access to higher education; my invitation to my colleagues in the AMS to bring musicology behind bars. Many of our colleagues prefer to do social activism while comfortably seating in their offices in front of a cup of tea. And that is fine. It is better than nothing, except when criticism has nothing constructive to propose, but only specious arguments and accusations. Words then can be frightening too.

  5. Ian Pace says:

    There is the possibility of a President Trump or Cruz, and also the US remains the one country in the Western world still to execute its own citizens (which Hillary Clinton supports), a disproportionate number of who are African-Americans. Yet *this* is what these people are most worried about???!!!!!

    I don’t read many of the comments as really being about any genuine concern about racism, but rather just petty academic territorialism, in which the spoils go to the one who can demonstrate the most sanctimony and self-righteousness.

    • Ian Pace says:

      (the above should have said ‘and also the US remains the one country in the Western world still to execute its own citizens (which Hillary Clinton supports), including a disproportionate number of African-Americans.’)

  6. Beth De Amici says:

    What a writer thinks they are saying and what the writer’s audience understands are often two different things. If the audience’s perception of the writing is (vastly) different from the author’s, that means that the author may have communicated something that is unintended, in which case the onus is then on the author to figure out what that was and how to revise their writing to make sure that people understand what they are trying to say. On the other hand, it is possible that the author did say exactly what they meant. Either way, Dr Polzonetti’s blog post is problematic for precisely the reasons that others have articulated more fully elsewhere (e.g. lack of agency and voice on the part of prisoners; salvation narrative; tone of surprise that the prisoners were able to understand or even be interested in opera).

    I don’t doubt that Dr Polzonetti taught that class with the best of intentions, and I believe him when he says it was a rewarding experience for him and his students. We need more people who want to do this kind of public scholarship. But we as scholars and critics of the arts and history should be aware by now that what the author/artist intended or meant or thought they were conveying is not the only potential reading or meaning embedded in a piece of writing or art. What the audience sees and understands is also important, and the author/artist can’t really control how their work is perceived. (I could jump on the bandwagon about the importance of good editing/beta readers in the context of Dr Polzonetti’s post, but I’m not going to go there right now.)

  7. jonathanbellman says:

    It seems to me, Beth, that “the audience” is, in this case, half the audience. The other half—the half without training in identifying instances of marginalization, we’re told—don’t see anything of the kind. What’s more, the onus in such cases is not necessarily on the author. The post was put on the AMS blog, not on a Fox News blog; some assumption of reader goodwill (or at least reluctance to jump to heinous conclusions) would have been justified, but clearly misplaced. Past a certain point, it is not the business of the author to trim and tweak her or his writing so as to avoid even the remote possibility that a hostile reader will make something of it it clearly is not.

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  9. Beth De Amici says:

    While some of the responses to Dr Polzonetti’s post have indeed been overtly hostile (which I personally do find somewhat disturbing), many of the responses disagreeing with the tone of his writing have not been, but rather have attempted to point out in a collegial fashion how Dr Polzonetti’s writing is problematic. I think your assumption that people who disagreed did so automatically without any assumption of goodwill is misguided in much the same way that the overt hostility towards Dr Polzonetti has been.

    While I haven’t met Dr Polzonetti, I doubt very much that he is a bad person. I think that the work he is doing in prisons is important. I don’t think Dr Polzonetti intended his piece to have racist and classist overtones, but it does. I also don’t think the venue matters: something that has racist overtones in the AMS and something that has racist overtones elsewhere both have racist overtones. I should have thought that as scholars and people who care about culture and society we would be interested in holding ourselves to a higher standard, and I don’t think we deserve some kind of pat on the back and a free pass because we’re educated and think we know what racism is and want to do good with what we know and what we say. When we do things that others find hurtful, no matter our intent, we don’t get to tell those others that they weren’t hurt. The injury is there, and needs to be healed.

    From reading Dr Polzonetti’s post and his replies to other comments, I get the impression that he does indeed respect his students, and wouldn’t intentionally do anything to hurt or insult them. This doesn’t mean that the words in which he chose to communicate his experience with those students are not problematic. They are. He made a mistake. He needs to fix it. It really is that simple.

  10. Pierpaolo Polzonetti says:

    In case anybody is interested, here is my final posting on the issue of my AMS blog attacked as an imperialistic, racist, classist propaganda. I appreciate your hospitality on this site. The blog inspired so much debate that it is very difficult to find what I replied to my critics. I thank you all for such a heated debate. Let’s hope it will inspire some of us to keep improving in our common mission to fight against discrimination and disrespect. As I first saw the reactions to my text I thought, to quote Don Giovanni when the ghost knocks at his door, “I would never have believed it, but I’ll do what I can”(“non l’avrei giammai creduto, ma farò quel che potrò”). I now hear the voices of those who may expect from me an apology and, like the dead Commendatore, may now be exhorting me, “Péntiti, scellerato” (Repent! wicked man!). Like Don Giovanni I say, “No, vecchio infatuato,” or, in blatant lyrics, “No way! You’re nuts!” One cannot repent for sins not committed.

    My original posting had the purpose of shaking our consciousness. And it did because it exposes our discipline’s vices, vices that fester when they remain unspoken. The fracas it caused is due to its nature as a piece of writing. It is not in the realm of ‘research’. My text is not based on any form of systematic investigation grounded on collection and analysis of data and it is not designed to contribute to generalizable knowledge. In other words, I do not make any claim of objectivity. My personal impressions were meant to serve the sole purpose of launching a desperate invitation to social action.

    Words alone are not enough but are also important because they can have a constructive or destructive effect on action. I invite you, once more, to analyze and reflect on the accusations of “microaggressions” and “racism.” The people who made these claims silenced both my voice and the voice of my African American student. They isolated the speechless sound of his “frightening crescendos,” erasing his words, which I recorded. They isolated the sole image of the color of his skin, but censured his ideas and his voice by not taking into account that he was defending, most passionately, the dignity of women. They silenced his voice because of stereotypes that still prevent many people from recognizing that incarcerated black men are capable of having high moral standards, are capable of saving us from the vices of our society. The risk of deploying PC language irresponsibly is to devise a new technology of power through the control of heavily policed language. It looks ‘liberal,’ but is in fact reactionary in the way it attempts to police thought and language. It appears to combat institutionalized racism, but it perpetuates a culture of apartheid by limiting communication through an encoded language that only permits the expression of certain ideas. As Umberto Eco wrote in “On Political Correctness,” in _Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism_, “politically correct decisions can represent a way of avoiding unresolved social problems.”

    To me the most interesting and constructive dialogue we had involves the idea of what kind of music is “exotic” and to whom, and what musics can be shared without perpetuating an imperialistic agenda. We passionately disagree, but our common goals are to eliminate injustice, discrimination, and to give to every human being the same dignity and freedom to express their identity.

    One position claims that the music of dead white men becomes an imposition to anyone who is not a dead white man. I claim that the music of dead white men – indeed, the music of anyone – can and should be shared by all humanity. Culture is not in anybody’s blood, but travels lightly through the ideas of the people who do not reject it, but embrace it.

    Some of the most passionate confrontations are the result of territorial conflicts and clashing boundaries. The resolution of such conflict can only come through an openness to share territory. This is where we need to practice social action, visit the prisons, the nursing homes, the inner-city schools and redefine Van Wyck Brooks’s idea of “middle-ground culture” in terms of “common-ground culture.” I certainly do not see this as some kind of civilizing mission, but as a way of breaking down our social and intellectual boundaries.

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