The 983rd Cut: AcademiConference

I don’t know when the thousandth cut will come, the one that will move my lingering academic dream from hospice to the boneyard. I do, though, strongly suspect that the conference I came home from yesterday will be the last American Musicological Society event that I attend. Three and a half days—of papers, panels, and the far more important conversations that happened in hallways and the hotel bar—were not enough to pull me back in. More surprisingly, I think, they were not enough to reopen the old hurts.

This was my first year presenting at AMS. Any AMS, even the twice-yearly chapter meetings to which I religiously sent paper proposals. My research and the Society’s interests had apparently never been compatible. Looking over the conference programs, I could almost see why. Research into post-1945 American art music was scant. Research that also took odd methodological tacks, that engaged different elements of music-making, was even rarer. It wasn’t this year. I spent most of Saturday hearing papers on post-war American music. The presenters were not just engaging scores or composers. There was a whole Saturday morning panel about music and branding. The papers were excellent. Here were scholars doing the kind of work that had pulled me out of composition into musicology in the first place: asking why, and who, and how, and why we should care.

Peter Kupfer presented a partially data-driven paper on classical music’s use in advertising, and managed a beautiful balance of data, interviews, and analysis. Mark Samples, in addition to ensuring that I’d spend the rest of the day with fragments of Tom Waits song bouncing around my head, drew out useful distinctions between Waits’ voice as a matter of legal identity and the varied use of that voice as a performing tool. John Pippen actually went and did what I thought I was going to do when I started my doctoral research, exploring the ways in which new music ensemble eighth blackbird balances technique and publicity to sustain the “friendly virtuosity” that undergirds their professional lives. Jessica Wood showed off a bunch of delightfully weird Bach-Rock material from the 60s, and went one better to place it in its historical context in marketing counterculture. As an added bonus, Phil Ford was up front, moderating the panel with his hipster guru beard.

Sitting in that Saturday morning panel, even moreso than in the Friday afternoon session featuring my presentation, I felt like I had made it. Here was a collection of smart people, mostly junior scholars, chasing the same answers I spent years chasing. We had somehow managed to chase them straight into the often-stuffy corridors of AMS. I could have collected e-mail addresses to wrangle together a group for an edited volume, or panel discussions for future conferences, or just to compare notes on all the Cool Stuff…

…and I didn’t. Before the conference, I had talked about not having anything to prove this year, but I hadn’t realized what that would look like. I enjoyed being able to approach the presenters with sincere compliments, to share short conversations about our work, and to move on. I wasn’t compelled to network or position my research vis-a-vis theirs. I could appreciate the coolness of the cool stuff and get on with my day.

If I were still invested in the game, I don’t know as I would have enjoyed the conference much beyond those papers. Most of my conversations with colleagues were about bureaucracy or the job hunt. Neither subject had much sunshine in it. Even the young academics who are collecting awards and doing awesome research do not seem especially sanguine about staying inside. The faculty who mentored me through my doctorate are making noises about or plans for retirement. My impression is that we have gone beyond hand-wringing over the state of academic affairs. We focus on our work and our students as best we can. People push for small changes where it seems possible (or push back against inane institutional fiats), try to stay aware of the ways the system is jobbing them, and resign themselves to “reality.” (And reality bites.)

I laughed last weekend, more than I have recently. I caught up with people I hadn’t seen for months or years. I had too much coffee and not enough sleep. I sat outside panels and worked on my novel (still far behind NaNoWriMo par). I used my Twitter account more in 72 hours than I had in the previous 72 days. Despite all that, it felt like a farewell tour. Not a victory lap, mind, but that one last walk around campus before everybody goes home for the summer…

…and I don’t have to measure my life by semesters anymore.

Post-script: The following two articles are tangentially related to the above post and some of my earlier ones about leaving academia. 

Write Like a Motherf*cker  from Karen at The Professor Is In. It’s not as profanity-filled as the title suggests. The short version is that it’s a post about not letting academia define you. The long version is the one you should go and read by clicking that link.

“Please Stop Saying ‘Not Everyone Is Suited for Academia’”  by Rebecca Schuman of pan kisses kafka. Schuman is probably best known for her “Thesis Hatement” on Slate, but this one’s also worth the time to read. Like Karen’s, this is a post about de-academizing yourself. It’s rather more confrontational—justifiable given that she’s become one of the faces of post-ac. At AMS, anyway, I did not get the feeling that anybody was looking down their nose at me, even when my session chair read aloud “Since finishing his degree, Josh has moved to Austin, Texas, where he works as a substitute teacher.” The post does, though, get at many of the conversations I’ve had at work (and in interviews) about what exactly I’m “doing with” my PhD.


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