Foundering in academia

For the last couple of weeks, I have been reading and re-reading Gerard Klickstein’s book The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness. Klickstein is a musician and professor who has spent much of his teaching career helping other musicians recover from physical injury or overcome psychological issues, such as performance anxiety. Klickstein argues that the vast majority of musicians’ problems, physical and psychological, are a result of poor formation at critical stages of development. Reversing problems engendered by “unqualified,” i.e. incompetent, teachers is an overarching theme in the book. Reading Klickstein’s anecdotes in which many of his students are recent college graduates, one becomes alarmed at the sheer number of incompetent teachers present in “higher education.”    

Several summers ago, at a music festival, I sat with an opera singer friend and we assembled her audition book. An audition book is a selection of opera arias which a singer provides to producers during the audition process. My friend and I were deep into research and consideration, when another musician, also a singer, joined us. His contribution was to question us as to why we bothered with the book at all.

He went on to reveal that he wasn’t planning on attempting the opera house and festival audition cycle, nor was he considering trying for a choral ensemble. Instead, he was applying for faculty positions at small colleges. He was a recent doctoral graduate from a university which is overall relatively famous but not particularly well-regarded for its music school. At that time, the three of us were roughly at the same level. His experience and education were slightly above average for the types of small, regional institutions he was targeting.  

Behind his dismissive behavior lay a mentality of minimal effort. Why should he go to the trouble of researching roles, evaluating musical suitability, and learning parts when his résumé would satisfy the expectations of small, provincial colleges? He lacked the vocabulary to explain his vision, but what he described was a sinecure. Before the festival ended, he had secured a full-time position at an institution in a backwater of the American southwest.

One side of the proverbial coin says that the institution was lucky to have him – his background certainly was above anything the college could expect on the basis of its own reputation and musical standing; the other side of the coin says that it is concerning that someone like him could see academia as a safety net. 

Now American colleges have begun to furlough staff. As you can imagine, many of my Facebook friends are people who attended and are now staff at small liberal arts colleges and small state universities throughout the country. In the atmosphere of uncertainty, my own FB feed has filled up with people lashing out against a society, which, they insist, doesn’t value them. There is an underlying financial element; few can afford to be furloughed. But there is a deeper issue present: a professional inactivity that has pervaded American small liberal arts academia for the last few decades.  

In truth, financial concerns are more a symptom of professional inactivity than they are representative of some overarching truth about poor pay for teachers. I recall how one of my Columbia professors told my class never to rely on a single income stream. He would talk about how all breaks are opportunities to be productive. He told us about how when he was starting his career in the 1960s, he deliberately accepted a part-time position, rather than a full-time one, so that he could finish writing his first book. In terms of his career, the book was more important than his job at a small city college because the book paved the way for the big opportunities. To tell the truth, it didn’t matter that he taught at a small city college, outside of gaining some official teaching experience which he could have obtained through teaching just one class. There’s a difference between being professionally active and simply being busy or being employed.

There is a species of person who follows the same MO as the singer from the music festival. Academia is a safety net, and the goal is to rush into a full-time position and sit there for a lifetime. Their attitude is that of a career teacher, not a professor. They lecture and grade, however there is no professional contribution or creativity on their part. Such people tend to be barren of original thought and to react with hostility to new ideas or concepts. A quick search of academic databases shows that they don’t write articles, they haven’t written books (their theses don’t count), and they don’t write for think tanks or journals. An egregious example is a college professor who writes movie reviews for popular art enthusiast magazines; he’s been passing this activity off as “publishing” and “being published” for years. 

There is, I know, a perception of a double standard on some level. For example, Kingsley Amis taught English Literature at Oxford for the majority of his career. He published comparatively little on the academic side in contrast to some of his peers, and much of his lighter work took the form of reviews, essays, and opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines, such as the London Times or The New Yorker. But he averaged a novel a year. Recognized in his own lifetime as a giant of twentieth century English literature, no one questioned his publication record or his ability to teach the field.

The subtle stagnation at the liberal arts college level has contributed to a culture of belief in talent and luck, rather than good decision making and hard – by which I mean calculated and carefully weighed – work. There are many people today who would classify my Columbia professor’s story as one of privilege and make assumptions about a background of wealth that allowed part-time work. In actual fact, he did not come from a particularly “privileged” background: he simply settled on his priorities, thought ahead, and made his decisions accordingly.

One thing one learns very quickly in the arts is that one must create without expectation of immediate payment. Singers learn arias, instrumentalists study concerti, filmmakers shoot reels all so that when the moment is right, they can produce a piece that demonstrates ability and wins a commission. One tidbit my professor included was that he had to write several critically acclaimed books before he began to receive advances for his work. The principle is the same: create first then receive a reward. A person who works according to the parameters of payment is a drone, and it is unsurprising that such people do not create new works, make discoveries, or have groundbreaking insights. If one considers that American small colleges have populated themselves largely with professional drones, one must reevaluate their worth to education.