(Post)Academia

Why Music? Why English?

Months ago, in the long dark quiet of the blog, on a long dark commute to school, I was thinking about my dad and the kinds of questions he’d ask me about music. He loved music. He grew up taking voice lessons and was a mainstay in his church choir for years. He liked drum corps and movie scores and the Beach Boys. He could read music, but never played the piano. He had no formal training in music theory or history, though he had sung most of the 19th-century choral canon.

The combination of love for the subject and academic ignorance meant that he was the person in my life most prone to asking me sweeping philosophical questions about music. He’d ask, in all sincerity, “what is this piece about?” confident that I’d have a right answer. When it came to the dissonant stuff that I studied and composed, he was proud of what I was doing, but didn’t understand it any better than I understood running a restaurant. We had great, meandering conversations about all sorts of music in the too-brief time my adulthood overlapped with his.

It was my mom, though, who habitually asked me whether I went to grad school for music (composition) rather than literature simply because it was harder for me. That March morning, thinking about my dad and my mom’s question, I came to the conclusion that the added challenge was only part of it. Writing words and writing music are both about communication. At their best, they can sweep us up into their worlds—whatever the balance of intellectual and emotional.

That’s why, at Macalester, I had become obsessed with text, music, and the weird spaces of their overlap. That’s why, I think, I went and added music history to my master’s study—there are things that you need words to communicate, that are too specific for music. (I didn’t abandon composition because the converse is also true: there are some things that you can only communicate with music.)

It’s facepalmingly obvious in retrospect, but some of the best realizations are. (“Kick from the knee.”—if you don’t get that reference, go read Brust’s The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars.)  As a writer, as a composer, as a scholar I am interested in how ideas get around, about communication. Sure, my later scholarship became much more concerned with the practicalities of the art music world, but that grew out of my attempts to understand how and why people kept writing music that didn’t communicate much to me. So really, it has always been about how (and why) we Say Things.

Lately, I’ve been dealing more with the question: Why English? I started a new job last week at a new school. Consistently, I’ve been introduced as “Dr. Plocher.” That leads, in the casual conversations afterward, to questions about what my doctorate is in. This has led to great discussions with my new colleagues in the performing arts center. With other faculty, it has sometimes involved a little backtracking, emphasizing that my undergraduate degree is in English as well as music, and that my doctorate featured extensive work in comparative studies.

The shortest answer to “why English?” in this context is “I never wanted to be a band director.” I loved band in high school. It defined my social world. It occupied more hours than just about anything else I did. Yesterday, at district convocation, the marching band played. My heart (metaphorically) swelled and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up…during a pep band arrangement of Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.” Late Beethoven it was not. So yeah, I still like band. Being at a school with a marching band is right up there with being able to decorate my room with posters for “perks about my new job I never considered.” For all that, though, I have no desire to lead the band. It’s not an impulse I’ve ever had.

The longer answer is “I never really gave up on English.” I’ve mentioned in passing that I was not a tidy fit for musicology; I’ve never been especially into the canonical common practice works people most often think of as “classical music.” I kept writing fiction throughout my doctoral work. I distinctly remember a conversation I had playing with an alumni team with one of my former creative writing classmates, a conversation in which I explained that I kept jotting notes for novels when I was supposed to be working on my dissertation.

Further, most of the classes I taught in my gradjunct years involved teaching writing. It’s one thing to get students to really listen to music, especially music they’ve never thought to hear before. It’s another to get them to collect their thoughts into something coherent. I can’t say whether it’s easier to write for orchestra or to get a 20-year old to write his reflections on Hindustani vocal music.

The thing is? They’re both about saying something. And now, I couldn’t be happier that so much of my life is about teaching teenagers to do the same.

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With a PhD

I’m back on the (secondary school teaching) job market this summer, which has meant interviews. It has also meant, again, dealing with the many iterations of “You have a PhD in music, why do you want to teach English to teenagers?” It’s an old dance at this point, but it has not gotten any less frustrating.

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“Where are the leather patches on your elbows, Dr. Plocher?”

Most of the time, when my degree is brought up by the interviewers, it happens immediately. There is a skepticism that borders on the accusatory: what do I really expect to be doing with a PhD? Sometimes the skeptics believe that I will jump ship back to higher education. (That ship is sinking!) More often, they leap to the conclusion that I somehow lack the patience and skill needed to teach students who aren’t paying (or whose parents aren’t paying) for the privilege of my oh-so-erudite company. College teaching is not like middle or high school teaching, they warn me, as if I hadn’t spent a year as a substitute and months in training. (That one was persistent even at my job last year, where I spent months trying to convince my principal that I did, in fact, understand there was a difference between 13 year olds and 20 year olds.) I still get hints of that even after a year as a “regular” teacher.

Sometimes, my interviewers are just baffled by my degree and wonder why I changed fields. That’s easier to deal with. My “I realized that teaching was the part of the job I liked most” spiel has gotten much more practiced since my first interviews last summer. (It hasn’t gotten any less sincere, though.) Sometimes, I explain what musicology is and that I never had the slightest desire to be a band or choir director, and that, besides, I do have a degree in English, I know rather a lot about it, and I love teaching it.

I hate having to defend my PhD. It seems stupid to me that I need to—it was a job. Again, nobody talks about being a failed waiter. A little more than two years ago, I decided that the hardship of staying in academia outweighed the rewards, especially when I factored in my family. It is that simple…but it can never be quite that simple, because advanced degrees carry expectations with them. As “Dr. Plocher,” I am expected to fill a certain role in society. Some shreds of prestige cling to the title even without the associated professorship.

That is probably why, maddeningly, I also get annoyed when interviewers don’t mention my doctorate. It was seven years of my life! Finishing my PhD is one of the things I am proud of, no matter how much I sometimes regret starting it. Yes, I am a licensed Texas educator. Yes, I have some job experience now. But…I also wrote a dissertation on new music using French sociological concepts. I’ve presented papers at national conferences. That does not speak directly to my ability to handle a classroom full of eighth graders, but I think that it’s proof that I can do hard things, that I understand and appreciate mastery and that it means something when I say I am putting just as much effort into being a good teacher as I put into the fractional expansion of human knowledge that earned me my degree.

Ideally, discussion of the degrees I hold lasts less than two minutes and consists of a short description of what I did and why I’m no longer doing it. When I have control of the situation, that’s what I aim for. Beyond that, I’d rather talk about the job that I’m applying for, about the work that I’ve done, about the ways I am trying to get better at my job. Having a doctorate doesn’t make me better than other people, but it also doesn’t make me any worse. My degree is something that I earned while doing a job. It’s not who I am as a writer. It’s not who I am in the classroom. It’s not who I am as a person.

It affects all of those things, though, which is why it is worth discussing…
…Briefly.

Song of the Year, 2014 Edition

Around this time last year, I picked my 2013 song of the year—not the song that I listened to the most, nor the song that I liked the most, nor that annoying ear worm that never goes away (looking at you, Meghan Trainor and every song from a certain wintry Disney film). No, my “song of the year” is the song that encapsulated the year for me. The woeful dissertation-finishing/academic job-hunting year of 2012’s song was “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”—a lonely song for a lonely time. I followed that up with The Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” for 2013—another year adrift and trying to figure out what the hell to do with myself, a year of unemployment, transitions, and unhappiness that I managed only intermittently to stave off.

So. What was 2014’s song? Like 2013, it was a year of transitions. I spent the spring in long-term substitute jobs, falling back into love with teaching. I spent the summer going through a teacher certification program and, um, buying a house. In September, I got the first full-time, regular-paycheck-plus-benefits job I’ve had since 2006. The weekend before I started that job, I finished the draft of Ghosts of the Old City. House! Job! Novel! A lot of good things happened in the latter half of 2014.

Here’s the song that goes with them: The Decemberists’ “This is Why We Fight” from The King is Dead.

(No, I do not quite understand why the post-apocalypse despot is young, white Prince.)

For the first time in half a decade, I felt last year like my work was getting me somewhere. It was not what I’d spent all those years in graduate school preparing for, but there’s not much use in crying over spilt time. Although it sounds contradictory, I think I no longer regret chasing my PhD despite wishing that I hadn’t done it. The emotional weight has diminished. (See also: the idea of detachment I wrote about here.)

“This is Why We Fight” is not valedictory, and I don’t really think my 2014 was either. The house, the job, the (draft!) novel…those are not prizes that I won. They’re not some kind of belated justification for the effort I’ve put into my various endeavours. They’re a side effect, one that I greatly appreciate. They’re things that I could not possibly have done without the support of many wonderful people in my life.

Which brings me back around to “This is Why We Fight”: those people, and all the other people I interact with. My kids. My students. My family. My friends. That’s why I fight. That’s why I put up with the commute. That’s why I keep going back to students who have called me names and blown me off and, in one case, written an essay about how much they dislike me.

When we die
We will die with our arms unbound
And this is why
This is why we fight

The song’s lyrics are simple. The video—which I hadn’t actually seen until I started this post—is evocative and takes fighting literally (although there’s much to be made of starting a revolution with a white flag). Simple lyrics, though, delivered with Meloy’s emotion and the whole band’s driving instrumentals, make me think of all the reasons that I fight. This is one of those songs that hits me, that can make me tear up the same way I do when I get to tell students how well they’re doing, the same way I did yesterday when my son earnestly told me that maybe he would go to work in government so he could help create justice.

That’s why I fight. That’s one of the things I figured out in 2014. It’s what keeps me going in this young year.

Infinite Recursion

I remember, during my first year of T.A.ing a writing-intensive course, asking the exasperated rhetorical “who taught these kids how to write?” It was one of our favorite things to complain about in the T.A. office. Why couldn’t these college freshmen understand the concept of a thesis? Why did one particular student insist on ending every single paragraph of her paper with a summary sentence? (And why did she believe so thoroughly that she was right that it took confirmation from six other T.A.s before she would accept that I was onto something when I told her to stop doing that.) We blamed teachers. We blamed testing and the bizarre standards that go with it. In short, we blamed high school for college problems.

Now I teach middle school. The other day I listened to a colleague explain in detail how she could tell exactly which teacher her problem kids had the previous year. There’s a temptation to blame elementary teachers just as thoroughly as we used to blame high school teachers in the T.A. office. (We also blame parents, mind. Especially for discipline problems.)

I’m sure that if I end up teaching high school, I’ll be immersed in complaints about middle school teachers. That’s the way it goes: when you find a mess, you blame the last person who was in the room. We could run it all the way back to “why weren’t you reading to your kid when she was six months old.” (Seriously, though, read to your little kids! And your bigger ones.) And when we run it back that far, we can start going bigger: Why were you born poor? Why did you inherit that poverty from your parents? Why are achievement levels at your neighborhood elementary so bad that you can get an academic all-star just for meeting grade level expectations? Why?

“Who taught these kids how to write?”

That’s the wrong question. Not entirely wrong, because if we are going to change outcomes and improve the system, we eventually have to get at the systemic questions. Right now, though, we need to shut up about whoever had our students last. I’ve known good teachers and bad ones. I can’t think of a single one who didn’t care about his or her job. Some care more than others, but you don’t stay in teaching if you are not trying to help students learn.

We have students for a few hours each week. That’s it. Regardless of the level we’re teaching at, the students will spend more time outside our classroom than inside. We have to work with what they bring in with them, warts and all.

The question we need to ask ourselves is “how are we going to teach these kids to write?” (Or to understand science, solve math problems, understand history, or whatever.) Blaming other teachers won’t answer that question. Sometimes, when you walk into a messy room, the only real answer is to start cleaning it up.

Coming Up for Air

It’s hard to believe this is my fourth week of teaching. As with most high-intensity projects, it feels simultaneously like I’ve just started and that I’ve been doing it forever. The days have their rhythm, the gradebook is never caught up, and there’s always some conversation (or six) to snuff out in the middle of teacher talk.

Last night, though, I managed to squash catching up into the same evening as going out. For the second consecutive day, I stayed at school until 6. Monday I was setting up my classroom. Yesterday I was grading and catching up the gradebook so that my students can fully understand just how many assignments they have failed to turn in. Somewhere along the way my (awesome) wife talked me into getting a ticket for the Texas debut of Laurie Anderson’s Landfall (written for and performed with the Kronos Quartet).

I first ran into the Kronos Quartet while learning the ropes of composition as an undergrad. Along with the Bartok and Shostakovich quartets, I spent a good bit of time listening to the Macalester library’s selection of Kronos albums. They became my favorite ensemble, a status that persisted through grad school and only began to wear off when I moved out of the new music world and deeper into the dust of historical musicology.

I had never seen them live before. The year after I graduated from Mac, they played a concert in St. Paul. My wife went. I’ve managed to just miss them a few other times either through busy-ness or penury. Both were the case last night, but I went anyway. Going was harder to resist after I heard David Harrington and Laurie Anderson interviewed on my way home on Monday. I hadn’t known that Anderson was part of the production–she featured in the latter chapters of my dissertation. So…there were a lot of reasons to go.

I sat out the traffic (still thick at 6:15) in a Mexican restaurant an exit up the interstate from my school. My server spoke no English, which kept things interesting. (It was also interesting to discover that the long green strips with my carnitas were jalapeno and not bell pepper.) The food was good and I felt slightly less lame about my Spanish as guests from the neighboring hotel wandered in. Sooner or later, though, I’m going have to get my foreign language centers adapted to not break into German in the middle of trying to speak Spanish.

Traffic remained annoying even after I finished my dinner, but the U.T. campus was not far. I managed to find the parking garage without getting lost, even. (I stubbornly maintain my flip-phone usage, so I couldn’t fall back on GPS.) I still had time to wander around campus a bit before going to the concert hall.

Guys, being on campus on a fall evening as the sun is setting? It is awesome. It reminded me of all the fuzzy reasons that I wanted to be a professor in the first place. Green lawns, trees, big buildings full of books and classrooms and practice rooms…it’s heady, idyllic stuff.

It’s also stuff I was never able to notice as an adjunct, when I was busy rushing from parking lot to classroom and back. None of the campuses were ever mine to hang out on or soak in. My offices–when I had them–were borrowed, and I never really got to do the meditative staring out the window thing. Being on a university campus made me simultaneously miss my nonexistent professorship and glad that I got out of the biz when I did.

Missing the concert hall was less complicated. I spent so many years in and around halls as a performer, as a tech, as composer and student… Even a huge hall like Bass feels homey. Hell, I spent enough time laying out concert programs that even the smell of the ink in the series booklet felt like home. As ambivalent as my relationship with new music got, I still miss being part of that world.

The concert itself was good without being great. It was definitely Laurie Anderson’s show, with Kronos sometimes wholly subservient to Anderson’s electronics and multimedia. The moments in which the quartet got to play on its own were brilliantly clear. Anderson’s music wavered (as it usually does) between ambiance and melody. There were recurring motives and spoken word. The overall effect was dynamic but only intermittently pulled me out of my seat. The lighting and sound design, though, were awesome.

I got home late, and felt the short night this morning. I was almost happy that today was a designated testing day and thus short on the usual coaxing 13-year-olds into learning. I’m still tired. I still have heaps of work to do to get this 9-weeks wrapped up and lay the groundwork for the next one. By tomorrow, it might feel like drowning again, but for one night I got to come up for air.

Now all I need is to get back onto an ultimate field and I might even feel like my human self again.

Zug Zug

I’ve been struggling to figure out how to write about my experiences with my new teaching job. Last week—my first week—I did a lot of smiling and shrugging and saying “eighth graders are eighth graders,” as if I were some street corner philosopher channeling Gertrude Stein. This week? This week the same shoulders that I shrugged last week are so knotted with tension that my range of motion is limited.

The biggest stressor has been catching up with and catching onto my new workplace bureaucracy. There’s a lot of it. I have to document just about everything I do during the day, from lesson plans to grades to whom I work with during tutorials. I have to enter student behaviour—good and bad—into a point-based monitoring system. I’m required to deliver school and district-mandated assessments every two or three weeks. They cut into my teaching time. They require more grading. I also have mandates about how many grades I am supposed to take each week. If I don’t hit that target, I get automated e-mails reminding me I need to remedy the situation. There are also meetings that invariably happen in my prep periods.

Starting four weeks into the school year has exacerbated the problem. Too often, I find out about things after they were supposed to be done. My administrators and instructional lead are supportive, but the stuff still has to get done sooner or later. (And it is always preferably sooner.) I have parent-teacher conferences after eight instructional days with my students. I’m still learning names. I also won’t get paid for another 30 days.

The solution to every problem seems to involve more. More time. More photocopies. More visuals. More choice for the students in what they read and what they write about. Most of all more time, when I’m already hauling my whole show from room to room, the photocopiers do not reliably work (and even small copy jobs become big ones for 85 students across three sections), and the projectors I’m supposed to use for those visuals do not work in some of the rooms I teach in. I’m on campus at least 9 hours a day, and even when I’m caught up I expect to have at least another 10 hours of work to do at home.

Eventually, I know, I will get caught up. Eventually, I will be faster at all the stupid little jobs that are part of the package. But like “eventually, I’ll get a job,” these eventuallys are small consolation in the moment. I think I am doing a reasonably good job given the circumstances. I feel like I was an idiot to decide on this career, that there’s no way to make this transition happen without my shoulders knotting hard enough to literally twist me in two.

But I have good people around me at home and at work. If I could finish a dissertation to spite my institution, I can damn well adapt my teaching to 13-year olds to give them the education they deserve. I will force vigorous exercise and writing into my schedule to help cope with the stress. My awesome spouse will get to cook dinner once in a while. Because I won’t see my kids as much, I will make them hug me every time I do. I will somehow learn to get up at 4 a.m. so I can write, and I will appreciate how quiet the world is when most people are sleeping.

I will remember that when I was 17 I went down to the jousting field on moonless nights and walked on ledges. And that I did it because they were there and because even then I understood we’re made more by our trials than our victories.

Everything’s Coming Up Milhouse

Saturday, I finished the first draft of Ghosts of the Old City. There’s another post percolating about finishing a novel draft versus finishing the dissertation draft (a descendant of the NaNo vs. Diss post). For now, I’ll leave it at “feels pretty good.” That capped off a week in which I finally got a job, the weather was moderate, and my son finally began to settle in to his new school. As a bonus, I discovered that the pan-Asian place up the street is good enough to go back to repeatedly. It was the best week I’ve had in a long time.

It was also a long time coming. It’s only been a fortnight since I was stuck wondering just how long I’d be waiting. It felt like ages since I’d left academia, and a long time since I’d started applying for teaching jobs (even though it had been about five weeks). My wheels were spinning and spinning and it did not seem as if I had gone anywhere. Then I suddenly got some traction and everything moved quickly.

Over and over for the last few years, I heard variations on “Keep working. If you do, something good will happen.” Eventually. I understand why I heard it: there really isn’t much you can say to a person who is stuck in limbo. Keep working. Something will give. Don’t reconsider your past choices, reconsider your current options. True and true and yet absolutely unsatisfying when you are in the middle of nothing.

I would love to be able to turn to the postacs who read this blog and say “look, something good really will happen!” I can’t bring myself to be quite that valedictory. This is not to say that finally starting a new career is like the actual Simpsons moment that led to the title (in which Milhouse is super-excited that the flood pants he’d just complained about are keeping his cuffs “bone dry” while his room floods). It’s a significant step…and an exhausting one. The reward for working is more work. In my case, it’s work that I love despite the commute, despite eighth-graders who will erupt into conversation quite literally whenever I stop to take a breath. It’s good.

From here at what feels like the other end of the tunnel, I would not say “keep working and something good will happen.” That’s too close to the adjunct treadmill for my comfort. I will say two things. The first is this: ask yourself what you can do right now to get yourself moving in the direction you want to go. And the second: surround yourself with people who will support you.

As much as I fumbled with that first bit of advice, I have been incredibly lucky with the second. For the last few years, I’ve been surrounded by friends and family who said the things I needed to hear (whether I wanted to hear them or not) without judging me. I have, like so many happily married people, the absolute best spouse on the planet. Without her, I couldn’t have drafted a novel or completed my teaching certification or done a hundred of the other things that have gotten me to this point. She is awesome and I hope all of you find somebody you like as much as I like her.

My mom and my brother heard more of my complaints than anybody else, and they never hung up on me. They were my best cheerleaders.

My in-laws help me forget all of the things I dislike about Texas. They’re that good. From watching the kids to playing RPGs, from coming over for dinner to helping us move into the new house, they have been a constant and welcome presence for the last fourteen months.

Last but not least, thanks to my kids. You might not ever read this, but you’ve kept me going.