The American Musicological Society

Despite the fact that Debbie begs me not to post anything else on this topic, I’m going to venture an explanation of the American Musicological Society (including my involvement with it), an academic group (or Learned Society) that originated in the United States shortly before World War II. How a learned society functions is not necessarily understood by people outside academe, and the recent uproar in our world (discussed in my previous blogpost, and over at AMS’s own blog, Musicology Now) suggested to me that some background might be helpful. Pierpaolo Polzonetti’s post on teaching in prison and the AMS have been called, in recent days, “racist,” “bigoted,” “elitist,” etc. Even when grudging—and I do mean grudging—gratitude is expressed for the enterprise of teaching in a prison, the issue is still Words Matter, Racist Language, Familiar Cultural Tropes etc. There has been pushback (including my post, and comments here and there), and the brouhaha continues. Because AMS itself is now getting a bollocking (“the old white men who run AMS” was one remark I read recently), I think it only fair to make a few observations.

1) AMS has very few employees, and they’re mostly involved with operations. That means that it is administered and run on a volunteer basis, almost exclusively by professors. Professors who make up the committees, do the work, etc. There is no “AMS” other than the people in it. So the professors (not, let’s say, lying around on the piles of money from our huge and ever-expanding salaries) who do all the work gratis—these are the people we’re talking about. That’s the AMS.

2) About those “old white men” who run AMS. The current President, President-Elect, and Vice President are all women. (The treasurer and secretary are men.) Of the six Directors-at-Large, three are women. In the thirty years I’ve been a member, eight of the sixteen presidents have been women. One of those female presidents had the unparalleled pleasure of dealing with intimidating behavior, on her campus, by the repesentatives of the hotel workers at the hotel where we had the San Francisco meeting. (N.B. They weren’t striking, just “threatening an action,” and even though our contract with the hotel had been signed years before the labor of disagreement we were being told to move elsewhere. Yeah, for her it was just another one of those perks of office.)

3) And more on the “old white men who run AMS,” it’s a convenient stereotype, but there is more than one kind of marginalized individual—more than just your kind, I’ll put it that way. There are many gay men in our society; do we lump them in with Old White Men, whatever slings and arrows they’ve suffered? We have of course many women, including those in the power structure, as pointed out in (2), above. A phrase like that completely ignores the extent to which these people have suffered marginalization in their own lives. But yeah, never mind; let’s just go with “old white men.”

4) Committees are peopled by volunteers. Prof. Albert Cohen at Stanford used to say “When AMS asks, you say yes,” and the only time I said no was when they’d forgotten they’d just asked me to do something else. This kind of service may or may not be useful on one’s CV, but traditionall we tend to feel that it is what’s owed to the discipline. If you’ve ever published anything in a peer-reviewed journal, or given a paper at a national (or even regional) AMS meeting, someone has read your stuff, evaluated it, discussed it, weighed it. That took hours, for which that person received no money whatsoever. That person could have been doing her or his own work instead of reading your stuff, or spending time with loved ones. My own personal experience with national AMS committees includes

  • Three years on the Paul Pisk Committee (wherein we read and evaluated perhaps 20–25 graduate student papers that had been accepted to be given at the AMS national meeting that year, and decided upon finalists and the winner.
  • Two years—or was it three?—on what was I think called the Membership Committee. This was the committee that came up with bunches of possible names for people to serve on all the other committees: there are many awards committees (LGBT scholarship, travel awards, graduate student awards, independent scholars, best book, best article early in career, best article by a mature scholar, best scholarly edition, etc. etc.), members of the AMS Council, etc. This was unbelievably taxing, and at least one member of our committee simply up and bailed on it. When people complained on AMS-L (the Society’s listserv) about committee membership always going to the privileged few insiders, I boiled over publicly and told people, particularly young scholars, to stand up and volunteer for stuff they were interested in and to stop expecting people who had never encountered them or their work to somehow know to put their names forward for just this or that committee. I received several thank-yous from people named to committees—in more than one case with a “It wasn’t my first choice, but I think I can help out and it’s a good start”—and more importantly the President (I think it was Jane Bernstein at the time) caught me at a national meeting and thanked me for changing the paradigm, now more people were involved, etc. (I said I was just infuriated by all the bitching…she waved it aside and concentrated on the positive change.)
  • One year on the Program Committee for the National Meeting (Louisville 2015), which involved reading 600+ (that’s not a typo) abstracts and evaluating all of them, discussing all of them, and scheduling the winners. The meeting took place over an exhausting weekend, but the reading of the abstracts took dozens of hours before that. Actually, all these committees, if one takes the responsibilities seriously amount to untold hours of work.

5) There can be no question of a misreading because the whole idea of words mattering and implications being the responsibility of the author and so on are precisely what this disagreement is about. Going back to Polzonetti in prison, the the tenor of the objection (I disagree entirely, by the way) is that his wording was elitist and racist, and that he should have been edited, and that the society is responsible. The way people insist upon reading his words is irrevocably his responsibility, and is thus tied to him, and to the society at large (I repeat: AMS as a Society is All Of Us, including those who have devoted untold hours to reading submissions of various levels of quality, and to other tasks) like the proverbial bell on the cat. So the same respect should be returned to those so stridently demanding reform, lists of best practices in behavior and hiring and so on to be handed out at the next meeting, etc.—these are your words, so you’ll be completely happy to own them. The people who do all the time-intensive volunteer committee work—reading your stuff, in other words—all must be racists and bigots.

So it seems worthwhile to be absolutely clear who is being characterized this way, and for which crimes. However much time is devoted on a volunteer basis, it still is not yet enough: more editing of the offending blogpost should have taken place (by the volunteer moderator), less offensive wording should have been used in the autobiographical account of the guy who taught Mozart in a prison, and the society ought to be more “welcoming.”

Just sayin’.

There is now talk, I read, of leaflets being handed out at the next national meeting to tell us what we should do better. I can’t wait, and will happily report In This Space on what I discover about all of our failings as allies, being inclusive, making the Society a more welcoming place, etc.

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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2 Responses to The American Musicological Society

  1. Thanks for the well-reasoned post. This helps one understand the constitution of the organization. I’ve long been fuzzier about the scholarly turf covered by AMS. That turf used to be called historical musicology, I think Seeger called it diachronic musicology. How is AMS different from other musical scholarly societies like SEM, SMT, IASPM, etc.? I am new to your blog so you may have explained this before.

  2. Beth De Amici says:

    Being concerned about the (inadvertent) racist and classist tone in a piece of writing and being concerned about the quality of editing in a blog that is one of the public faces of the discipline is not the same as being ungrateful for the services of volunteers. Volunteers are awesome, they make a lot of things go, and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. But their status as volunteers doesn’t make them infallable or excuse them from taking responsibility for their mistakes.

    The fact that people still need to ask why women and people of color feel unsafe in academic spaces like the AMS despite the advances you list should be an awfully big hint that the problem still hasn’t been solved. They do feel that way because they have experienced racism, sexism, and discrimination, whether anyone else likes it or not or wants to acknowledge it or not. Whining about how ungrateful it is for them to feel that way is, putting it extremely mildly, unhelpful.

    The fact that so many people, many of whom are indeed white, male, older, and in positions of seniority, authority, and privilege in the discipline are so terribly threatened by the critique of the MN post in question (much of which actually was done in a polite and collegial manner) should be an equally awfully big hint that the problem hasn’t been solved.

    Just because discrimination and racism are not things you see or experience yourself doesn’t mean they don’t happen. Racism and discrimination are nasty things, and quite rightly we none of us want to be associated with them. But when we are, however inadvertently, it’s our job to figure out what we did wrong and to fix the problem.

    I feel for Dr Polzonetti. He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place, in a cleft of his own making. What is more, I think the editors of the blog did him a grave disservice by publishing that piece as it stands. Their status as volunteers is beside the point. They had a job to do and didn’t do it, and now the genie is out of the bottle and people on all sides are writing screeds about how awful this whole thing is. I’m sure this episode has been deeply, deeply unpleasant for Dr Polzonetti, who I haven’t met but seems to me to be a good person. I can understand how he might feel whipsawed by the response to his blog post.

    I certainly don’t consider myself a racist, but honesty requires me to admit that I myself have committed the kinds of inadvertently racist things that are to be found in the MN post in question. The difference is that now I see them for what they are, and I’m trying not to do them again. The other difference is that circumstances are such that I’ll probably never be able to make it up to the people I offended, who treated me with vastly more grace than I deserved. The memory of my failing and their kindness still scalds, but I’m doing my best to use that lesson to try to do better.

    Dr Polzonetti and those who don’t understand why his piece was problematic do have the opportunity to learn, to try to do better and, most importantly, to make amends. I hope they take that opportunity. To do otherwise seems to me to add insult to injury.

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