A Case for Studying Music
On my way to work this morning, though it was a super shitty ride, I looked down at my boots and my skirt, and around at all the girls around me with pretty coats, and I thought, I’m going to miss going to work. Stupid thought, except is it really? Something in the act of getting dressed up for work and making your way downtown with everyone else feels good. Better than, say, sitting in your pyjamas in front of a pile of essays, getting your kicks out of spying on the workmen next door through the window, which was what I was doing early yesterday morning.
My job is ending; it’s the end of term. I lurch into the second week of April every year, thinking I’ll be glad for a break, and then realize that I can’t stand not having to do something. That’s a bad way to put it too, because I still have far too much to do: a book that needs revising, an article that’s a year (gulp) overdue, more essays to grade, the list goes on. But I don’t have to show up anywhere and be accountable. To alleviate that feeling of uselessness, I start going into my office every day, just so I have a reason to get (better) dressed and so I can interact with people. Strangely enough, most of the professors don’t feel the way I do, so I tend to walk into an empty department by the third week of April.
The last class every year is a performance day; students show off to their fellow students and collect their essays before they go panic about other exams. Today one of them brought cupcakes baked in mini ice cream cones, while others performed songs by Debussy, Springsteen, the Once couple, and Sufjan Stevens, not to mention their own gospel compositions. They told me about their summer plans while I handed back their work. For all I stress out about lecturing throughout the year, this is a nice side effect of my job; getting to know students over the course of their time here. That’s magnified by the fact that we’ve spent a semester (or years, as the case may be) listening to music.
A few days ago, this article came out on Slate. Cool, I thought, and clicked on the link when it appeared in my feed. “Don’t Get Your PhD?” Sure. That’s what I tell everybody. Then I read it and I gotta say, I don’t agree.
Everything in this article is true. If you get a PhD, you won’t get a job. At least, not in your field, teaching your subject. I’m one of the very few who got hired on a contract basis to teach a course while I was still writing my dissertation, and I have hung on to it desperately, waiting for the “you better find another source of income, Gillian” pronouncements that happen every four months. The only reason I still have that job is because I’ve worked really hard to save myself, when others have tried to get me fired, when tons of applicants compete against me for the one course offered that semester. I don’t still have my job because I’m good. Because everyone is good! I bring colleagues who are really desperate and jobless to give guest lectures in my classes, and I learn something – a new subject, a way of addressing a difficult topic, how to generate discussion – from them every time.
Yet, I will be one of the first to admit that it’s not only a hard job, but also a hard life, when you can’t predict what’s going to happen three months down the road. You can’t have kids, you can’t buy a house, you can’t go out for drinks with your friends or get your cat’s teeth cleaned. Many, many other articles have addressed these labour issues at length; I won’t add to the list.
And here’s my reason: I’m not complaining. Of course I wish it was better, that my income was secure, that I was compensated differently, or regularly, or more, for the time I invest in teaching. It’s a good job though; nobody watches over me, checking to make sure I clocked back in after lunch. I choose content and assignments based on my interests and knowledge. I get to walk on a university campus every day, listening to kids argue about philosophy or complain about the same tattoo that everyone has. Never mind that there’s reason to complain about most jobs. The increasing casualization of labour is a pretty big fucking problem. Everywhere. PhDs feel kinda gypped because we spent 12-15 years learning our trade, came out with crippling student debt, and are supposed to be the intellectual elite of our generation, but no matter who you are, no job security sucks.
I’m familiar with the argument that music, and other humanities subjects, are “useless” and don’t make the world go ’round. I won’t re-hash that here, since I know I’m in good company, but a couple things are worth mentioning: a) universities still require students to fill out their schedules with liberal electives (and these are worth something; just yesterday a student told me she wished she had known more about opera when a business client started talking about it at a meeting) and b) those electives, especially something like Popular Music History, fill up immediately. So I’m not entirely useless; the university is generating a lot of income from me. From a business perspective, I think I’m still valuable.
Let me just be clear: I am fully aware that I’m speaking from a privileged position, that so far I have managed to make the majority of my income from what I am trained to do. That I live in a place where I have to have an operation and the most I spend is $20 on prescription painkillers. That I don’t have children or anyone else dependent on me to earn more money than I do. Those who are earning $2000 a semester teaching a course and can’t supplement that with other income easily, and who are burdened by the faulty student loan system in the US, or don’t have the social services that we benefit from more readily here in Canada have far more reason to complain than I do. And you should keep complaining. The system is a disgusting mess, and not only because university budgets tend to favour advertising campaigns and bloated admin salaries.
I always get around to the music, so here it is. When I was in Edmonton finishing my master’s, I thought, what next? So I applied to PhD programs. I was excited; I had found a new topic to research and I felt like I was starting to learn my trade. It played into my inclinations to obsessively research a topic and write about the things that interested me. I applied to five programs and got accepted to them all. I say this because I went to one of my advisors and asked him where I should go to school. His response was based in the employment options that the different disciplines I’d applied to would generate. I hadn’t even considered that, because at that point, no way did I want to teach. I just wanted to research and write about the music I liked.
I’ve known many people who are super career-oriented: they’ve received government grants, been awarded high-profile research positions, traveled the world to speak at international conferences, and some of these people don’t even care about what they’re researching. I ask them what’s on their playlist and find out they don’t listen to music for enjoyment. Surprising to me, when I spend most of my time digging around for new music to hear. Then I get excited about it and want to start all over again. I keep speaking on the same subjects at conferences because I can’t get enough of them.
When I signed up to research independent roots music in a Western Canadian city, I was pret-ty sure that wasn’t the best path to a lucrative job. I certainly hoped that the time and effort I put into my work and teaching would result in a position, but the position was not my motivation. The tunes were. So were the people. And that’s why I take issue with the complaining PhDs who got their degrees with the recognition and well-paid position at the end in mind, because I think you should be motivated by what you can learn, and how you’ll expand your own little world by doing your work. Would I have had a radio show if I didn’t do graduate work? Probably not. Would I have met all the important friends and partners in my life? Nope. Would I be editing a journal, reviewing CDs, going out to the bar tomorrow night in the name of research? No. I’d probably be at home, chasing a kid around and picking the cat up from the dentist and wishing for something different. My PhD changed my life, in my case, for the better.
I would hope that this enduring interest in my subject is not simply because I get to listen to this as part of my work:
But I hope that this interest is true of all the humanities. Really, all subjects. As long as we’re still going to insist students come out of the classical university model as well-rounded people, not just business-speak-trained automatons, I think there is a place to go to school because you’re interested in something and want to learn.