“Just Vibrations” and Academia: A Few Thoughts

By Michael W. Harris

just-vibrationsFor my friends in the world of musicology, William Cheng’s latest book, Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good, caused quite the furor for a month of two this summer (sample some commentary on it here and here). While I had/have no intention of wading into the mess of internet comment threads or the American Musicological Society mailing list (especially since the brouhaha has seemed to have quieted down), the strong reactions against Cheng’s book made me curious enough to read it.

I initially planned to write a review of Cheng’s volume, but the deeper I got into it, the more apparent it was that a review would not really do it justice—especially since I am not sure if I grasp the full scope of Cheng’s manifesto. Its four chapters, along with introduction and coda, make for a slim volume with some big ideas. And on their face, the four chapters tackle the central idea of reparative musicology and “sounding good” from disparate points of view: personal account, musical torture, paranoid academic writing, and identity. There is a lot to unpack in Cheng’s book, and I think it might take a few more trips through the text before I can fully understand what it is he is purposing.

Side note: I bought the book for my Kindle and I think something was up with it because sometimes I would turn a page and it would jump back some five to ten pages and I would have to page through the same batch of pages before I could actually advance in the text to where I left off. Not sure what was up with that as I have never had that happen in any book I was reading on my Kindle.

While I might not understand all the intricacies of Cheng’s call, I do feel like I grasp enough to respond in a thoughtful and meaningful way. I did not experience anything close to what Cheng describes in his first chapter, but I too have seen the destructive pressures of academia from the inside.

I have seen people, friends, loved ones, one and all struggling with depression, paranoia, personal attacks, and mostly suffering through it quietly in pursuit of the “life of the mind.”

I myself, while struggling to finish my own dissertation, had many dark moments where I questioned if I not only belonged in my program but also if I wanted to continue on period. And while most universities have mental health services, writing support groups, and so on, most are either not well advertised or advisers not well enough informed to recommend them. Though I do find it heartening that the conversation about mental health and higher education does seem to be occurring more often now.

Furthermore, there is also not a culture within academia, at least in musicology, of openness to discussing such issues. Students power through and those who fall by the wayside simply weren’t up to the challenge. Of the five students I entered my program with, only two (including myself) finished. One dropped out and the other two took the master’s exit after two years.

But of all the things Cheng discusses, one of his major themes is that of “paranoid writing.” This is where the author of a book or article either overly hedges their bets in order to protect against attacks, or attacks another scholar’s position in order to defend their own. This is something I have done and continue to do, even within my non-academic writing (i.e., this very blog).

My first article, based on a dissertation chapter, had an all-out attack on a scholar’s reading of a hand-written note on a film script page. Granted, this note is something he built a good chunk of his argument on for a book chapter and also talked about in a DVD extra for the Criterion Collection release of that film, but I really attacked him in strong terms, strong enough that the peer reviewers for the journal told me to tone it down. I took the note, but still felt like I HAD to take an aggressive stance in order to make a name, announce my presence, and make people take notice.

I still feel bad about my attack.

Part of what I think Cheng is calling for in musicology—getting rid of paranoia and bitter feuds within academic politics, and taking more of an interest in the physical and mental health of our grad students—is something that could begin to be addressed with more collaboration within the field.

As I believe Cheng talks about (believe…not sure if he did or if I am misremembering), collaboration is something that could foster many of these things. And not only collaboration among faculty members, but even between faculty and students. Humanities, in general, are much more of a solitary field. The lone scholar doing research or field work and then coming back to write up their findings and analyses. And this is reflected in tenure and advancement within musicology and other humanities fields: collaborative work is not considered as heavily towards promotion as is single author work. The devaluing of our colleagues and students is baked right into the system. It is every scholar for themselves, and you better not share your work with others lest their steal your ideas.

Paranoia is not just a way of life; it is a how we are taught to survive.

Side note: one great way that Humanities is starting to address this lack of collaboration is through Digital Humanities projects…but that comes with a whole host of other issues. Baby steps.

I have many times heard people say that the politics of academia is so fierce because the stakes are so low. But this is also not a reparative stance. Even when we say it in jest amongst other academics, what we are also saying is that what we do doesn’t matter in the end. This raises the basic question of why do we do it at all and why do we fight so hard to preserve our place?

I have been out of academia proper for over two years now and I do not miss it. Though I am still within a university (academic library) and can’t escape the politics, gossip, and paranoia. You hear about at conferences and after parties. You see vaguebooking posts by friends on social media. Names are changed to protect all involved, but that is just pretense and the actual events and players are mostly open secrets.

If this bitter, insane, reality show of a presidential election has taught us anything, it is that the issues Cheng addresses are not just musicology problems, or even just an academia problem. This is a systemic, cultural problem. But just as the only way the individual can fight racism, misogyny, homophobia, and so many more social ills is by making that first statement to call out a friend or someone on the street, the only way to address the issues of academia and musicology is to make a statement. Call out the culture.

And that is exactly what Cheng is doing with Just Vibrations. And for that alone I applaud his courage and hope that I can answer that call.

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