Should I Be A Musicologist?
Recently the head honchos at Dial “M” for Musicology tackled the timeless issue of whether or not one should pursue an academic career in music. Phil Ford began with his “Come-to-Jesus Talk“ and Johnathan Bellman followed up with “Yes But No But.” Phil’s post, which replicates a conversation he has with students many times each school year, centers around a list of five bad reasons to go to graduate school. By and large I agree with the list. Conceptions of academic life from the point of view of an undergraduate idealize the world in which we live. You can’t get into the field of musicology because you like the idea of being in school or want to be called “Dr. So-and so.”
The decision to go into graduate school is not one that should be taken likely (this is, ultimately, Phil’s point). However, the rhetorical stance of his “Come-to-Jesus Talk” leaves little room for considering “good” reasons for going into musicology.
Regarding bad reason #3 (a feeling that it might be nice to teach), Phil writes:
If there’s one phrase I never want to hear again, it’s “I just want to teach at a small liberal arts college.” This is usually accompanied by something to the effect that research is OK, I guess, but teaching is what I really want to do. This is ass-backwards; it’s like buying a piano because you want the bench. If research is just what you do in order to get certified to teach, get an Ed. degree, teach kids, and forget musicology!
I think Johnathan’s response eloquently retorts Phil’s sentiments. To this, I simply add that, contrary to many, teaching is a good (even great) reason to go into musicology. This was my reason. I’ve taught high school music, I loved it. I also love history. There is barely room for music in secondary education in America, let alone music history. Ergo, if I want to teach music history it will be at the college level and I need a PhD in musicology. Graduate school has given me skills as a researcher which directly influence my teaching and vice versa. I’m not looking for an easy route by wishing to teach at a liberal arts school, where I’ll wear many academic hats. As Johnathan notes: “A professor is thus someone whose vocation consists of service to students and the disciplines alike.” The balance between research and teaching lies in the individual regardless of where you are lucky enough to find yourself employed.
Reminiscent of the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Phil warns us that if you choose poorly (that is, go into graduate school for the wrong reasons) you will become bitter and unhappy.* I don’t disagree with his warning, but I wonder if such overt council ultimately affects the diversity of our field. Here I’m talking about diversity in approaches to the field of music more so than conceptions of race or ethnicity (though the two are importantly linked).
Another great reason to go into musicology: Your point of view is absent or under-represented in the field.
The take away message that I get from Phil’s post (as well as other related warnings) is that unless I’m ready to step into an increasingly restrictive academic box, there is no place for me in musicology. If I had encountered the “Come-to-Jesus Talk” when I was an undergraduate (not that Goggle would have been around to help me find it), I can assuredly say I wouldn’t be here now.
So what advice was I given / would I give? Try it out. Go get a master’s. Don’t commit away the better part of a decade before you know what’s what. Give yourself two years to figure out what the field is all about. See how your point of view integrates the field, then make the decision to go for a PhD or or not.
Just don’t abandon all hope at the outset. There is enough opportunity for that when you get to the dissertation!
* Phil gives us a classic Matt Groening “Life in Hell” comic. I offer: