23 January 2011

Second Loves (iii)

As a college student, I lost track of how many times I heard or overheard classmates assailing professors for being smart, as in:

"He's so full of himself."
"He just loves the sound of his own voice."
"He thinks he's the smartest person in the world."

...and occasionally, though it's only peripherally related, things like:

"He's tenured, he doesn't have to do shit."

I was raised, in part, by a tenured professor, and take a certain amount of offense to this kind of thing simply by virtue of that. But since I've never, for better or worse, actually taken a class from my dad, nor even taken one in his field, I don't feel that my perspective on this sort of thing is too extensively colored by my coming from an academic family. My professors were all unrelated to me and all taught other subjects, and for the most part, they were brilliant people. Even in the exceedingly rare cases where I developed an irreconcilable personal or philosophical difference with one of them, I always felt and continue to feel fortunate to have been exposed to their perspectives and knowledge.

In my experience, it's not a myth that students now tend to be more concerned with winning the game of college than they are with actual learning. I watched classmates grovel and haggle more like they were buying a used car than discussing a test question, and they almost always won. They were casual and distant when it came to studying, but utterly relentless when they detected the smallest vulnerability in the instructor, and if they thought they could get a test question thrown out, an extra day to study, or a class canceled, they fought to the bitter end. It was the path of least resistance towards a respectable grade, and the fact that it didn't pass through much of anywhere that would make them better musicians, scholars or people was no deterrent. The profs who held their ground on these matters who were the first to be accused of thinking that they're better than the rest of us, but I can honestly say that I never once found myself thinking that about a professor of mine. Even the tiny minority of them who somehow managed to thoroughly lose my respect never did it by actively making me feel inferior.

All of this is a mere prelude to what I really want to discuss here, which is the one instance in which a professor's expansive knowledge truly alienated me (by an entirely different mechanism), yet in doing so laid the groundwork for a constructive shift in priorities that is just now coming to fruition. The fact that this musicologist seemed to know an incredible amount made me very uneasy, but for an entirely different reason than my classmates: he'd done nothing notable as a performer or composer, nor was he, to my knowledge, actively involved in either craft at that time, though I believe he had been as a young man. To me as an undergraduate performance major, the purpose of gathering knowledge was to turn around and produce something out of it; one could never know too much, yet one most certainly could fail to produce music of a value commensurate with their booksmarts, the gatherer's later inability to synthesize these ideas into something tangible thus rendering the gathering itself a terrible waste of time. The realm of so-called "tangible" products included performances, scores and recordings; teaching, which even at that age I never thought myself above, I didn't see as belonging in this category. You certainly could argue that it does, but that point was moot to me at that time; I was so infatuated with playing and writing that I couldn't understand why anyone who was even mildly capable of them would voluntarily give them up, especially someone with such a vast intellect as to be capable of making contributions to the practice that simply can't be made any other way.

Having long since grown frustrated with my classmates' collective groveling, it troubled me that my own worldview had suddenly provided a seemingly rational justification for holding a professor of mine in contempt just for being really smart. I wasn't a tuba jock and didn't want to be one, but playing was still the center of my universe, and coming into close contact with someone whose sheer quantity of knowledge seemed wholly unattainable as a mere side project to my playing endeavors forced me to think long-term about my musical priorities in a way that I hadn't before. How would I ever manage to study all the scores, recordings, philosophy, musicology, theory, history, math, computers, biology, physics and visual art that might constructively inform my work without also divesting myself of the very practice and writing time needed to actually realize it? More recently, the crisis has become: What if I committed the opposite crime as him, investing too much time in producing stuff and not enough in study and preparation, thus yielding a large body of mediocre, naive, unsophisticated work?

Again, let me be clear that when I say this professor alienated me, it wasn't simply because he forced me to question myself, uncomfortable as it was. I knew in my heart of hearts even then that all of this was worth wrestling with and not worth putting off. Rather, the alienation I speak of was my judging him negatively for not putting his knowledge to what I considered to be good, i.e. productive use (a problematic and distinctively youthful perspective to be sure, but not one I would wholly disavow either). I've taken the time to relate all of this here because it has been only within the last year or so that the minor personal crisis which began years ago in this professor's class has begun to resolve itself (albeit by shattering into several mini-crises at once).

This has been a twofold process: it started with the first conclusive realization that I was indeed headed down the very abyss I feared I might be, namely that of lofty musical aspirations built on shoddy intellectual foundations; and it continues as an odd and sudden, almost unrelated desire for knowledge for its own sake which I'm at something of a loss to explain (this being a blog, though, I do attempt a partial explanation below). It certainly is a relief to resolve years of tension between the part of me that saw this prof as a navel gazer and that which saw him as a genius; ironically, though, it's because the intervening years have made me much more insecure, not less. I've found myself particularly anxious over social situations where my lack of knowledge of something musical might be exposed. It's another interesting consequence of the twentysomething years that as you progress through them, people get noticeably less and less kind about hipping you to music and musicians they think you should know about, even people who are close to you in age and/or spirit. There's a downright meanness to it these days that teachers seldom use with students, nor parents with children. So while I now probably know three times what I did as a college student, suddenly it seems never to be good enough to satisfy all the specialists that I, the voyeuristic generalist, insist on working with, and so in addition to constructively spurring on the great knowledge gathering expedition that has been my late twenties (the same one I should have begun in my teens but, like most of us, simply wasn't grown-up or fully-formed enough to initiate), I now have to admit that it has slowly been making me mean and insecure too, and that this meanness and insecurity is feeding my sudden motivation to study as strongly as any of the more practical or altruistic reasons are. Apparently, the well-worn saying ought to be amended to read, "The more people you know, the more stuff you don't know." It's the worst reason I can think of to hit the books, but I'm generally content to take what I can get in the self-motivation department.


Anonymous said...

Just read this... I likes it.
It seems you are intellectualizing music too much for my taste, or rather not addressing the spiritual component. I think there is more to the creative act than assimilation, imitation, synthesis. Maybe you do too?

Stefan Kac said...

Perhaps, but I suspect that road ultimately leads to something unknowable, unteachable, etc. I tend to write about the academic learning process here because it's so blatently, objectively obvious to so many of us on both the inside and the outside what a poor job our institutions are doing of meeting their own stated goals.