17 December 2007

The Independent Academic

I am frequently asked by acquaintances why exactly it is that I am not pursuing an academic career. It runs in the family, after all, and is commonly viewed by musicians as a secure and cushy alternative to either a harrowing freelance career or the hyper-competitive audition circuit.

I would say that this way of thinking about academic careers is somewhat naive. For an interesting reality check on this subject, go here (scroll down to "An Important Perspective on Teaching"). The phenomenon of teachers who would really rather be performing is well known to musicians. In my case, I really do want to teach, but there are enough drawbacks to academia as it is currently constituted to keep me away for the moment. Here's the laundry list:

(1) Location. There are always a few academic positions open, but they are almost without exception located in places that would afford the applicant almost no opportunity for meaningful collaboration or exposure, except perhaps with other faculty members. I've already made the decision that it is simply not worth my time to spend 5-10 years of my career in relative isolation. (Speaking of Isolation, have you purchased your copy yet?) I would jump at the chance to teach at a major university in a major metropolitan area, but this tends to require a significant record of accomplishments, if not by way of climbing the academic ladder, then at least by having a distinguished freelance career. The latter is my first priority anyway

(2) Qualifications. I am not the first person to say this: it would make sense for academia to hire music faculty based on their musicianship and teaching ability rather than the degrees they hold. Nonetheless, many have complained that things seem to be moving in the opposite direction. I have seen job postings in the composition area that simply require a doctorate, with no exceptions made; I have, conversely, seen none in the applied instrumental area that didn't leave at least a small amount of wiggle room for candidates with exceptional "real world" credentials (i.e. world renowned performers); and I have indeed met a few tenured music faculty who do not hold a doctorate at all and seem to have no intent of obtaining one.

Being the son and grandson of professors, I for one have always been somewhat taken aback (if not outright offended) by the contempt many of my peers hold for professors: "He thinks he's so important...he makes us call him Dr. So-and-so...he loves the sound of his own voice..." If this isn't a textbook case of activating a defense mechanism out of sheer insecurity, then I don't know what is. And it is disturbingly widespread among people my age and younger (I'm 25). After 5 years of college, I can't say that I ever once felt that way about a professor; then again, I was in part raised by one, so perhaps that's not surprising. In any case, I am at least peripherally aware of the amount of work that goes into completing a doctorate of any kind, and I can't help but have a certain amount of respect for most anyone who does so; this, however, by no means automatically equates to distinction (or even competence) as an instructor, and especially not as a functional musician. That such an attribute would become the primary determining factor in who is hired and who is not can only be called disappointing.

(3) Politics. Speaking of academia, it was in one of the precious few non-music classes I was required to take as an undergraduate where I learned what I consider to be a very insightful definition of politics: "Institutionalized inequalities of power." A better description of academia itself has never been given. There's no question that in my 5 years of college, the most severe conflicts I witnessed were of the intra-faculty variety. The consequences of this ranged from irreversible long-term animosity to resignations and de facto dismissals. In fairness, it has taken only a comparatively short amount of time spent out here in the so-called real world for me to realize that (and this is, in the grand scheme of things, a more frustrating realization to come to terms with) a certain amount of this sort of thing is inevitable just about everywhere human beings have to be around each other, most notably at the workplace and around the freelance/local music scene. Perhaps it's way too idealistic to aspire to eliminate it altogether; I don't think, however, that it is unrealistic to think that we could do better than we are right now.

Just how bad is it? Lacking any first hand experience myself, I'd be curious to hear other people's stories. Kyle Gann, for one, reports circumstantial evidence that his sabbatical led to a significant drop in blood pressure. Could it really be this bad?

(4) Competition It's safe to say that academic appointments are, in fact, just about as hard to come by as orchestral positions or consistent freelance work. When I was in school, I once served on a search committee that received almost 130 applications for a single position. Essentially, the previous three grievances are all mediated by this one (if not caused by it altogether). I don't doubt that there are academic positions out there somewhere that afford one the opportunity to live in a city with a vibrant music scene, to get along with colleagues, to work with students who are there for the right reasons, and to do as a "musician/teacher" rather than a "teacher/administrator." (I won't spill the beans as to which of my professors I'm stealing that last line from...) If that was my ultimate goal in life, I have confidence that I could make it happen at some point; the problem lies in what would have to be sacrificed in the meantime in order to lay the groundwork.


What is the alternative? What about those who want to pursue what can only be called an "academic" career in the sense that it entails significant teaching, research, writing, and publishing endeavors, yet for whatever reason don't feel that academia is the right place for them? Let's establish right away that to be opposed to academia as it is currently constituted is a very different thing than being "anti-academic" or, worse yet, "anti-intellectual." I hold no greater amount of contempt for any group of people than for those who claim membership in these two dubious clubs. I'd like to consider myself both an academic and an intellectual, whether or not I have any credibility within the institutional manifestations of those ideas; nonetheless, I'm positive that I'll accomplish more as a so-called freelancer than I would by banging my head against the wall of the Ivory Tower.

An "independent academic" movement would be the ideal response to the current academic and intellectual (not to mention musical) climate, hence taking what we need from academia (the rigor and the perspective) and leaving behind all the bullshit (politics, dogma, compartmentalization of learning, etc. etc. etc.). In turn, it would entail doing the same with the empowerment of individual voices made possible by recent innovations like the internet, making great use of the independence, individuality, and potential for wide dissemination, and leaving behind the vanity, self-indulgence, and the expectation of short attention spans.

A long term goal of mine (and this has been the case since I first got to college and saw little room for improvement in the quality of instruction, yet immense room for improvement in administration, curriculum, structure, scheduling, and so on) is to be the chair/director/dean of a public university music department, and to be afforded the opportunity to restructure said department according to my own philosophy (which is to say obliterate it and rebuild from the ground up). That may yet happen, but the wrong thing to do would be to sit around and wait for it.

I recall once being asked by a fellow musician how I intended to make a living in music. I responded that I intended to freelance, to which he exclaimed, "Freelancing? That's a terrible way to make a living!" As with so many catch-all music-related terms, it has the potential to be misleading: I did not mean to say that I aspire to make a living playing weddings and polka parties, just that I intend to do my thing independently; but I would also say that this "thing," so to speak, is inherently academic. I think we ought to take offense to the notion that this is a contradiction.

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