Monday, June 30, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 097 (observation and experience edition), and Fuzzy People 34

I learned a long time ago--and continue to be reminded--of the tremendous egocentricity that being a "scholar", and, especially, being a college professor can bring. You spend most of your time engaging very intensely with subjects you've had years to study, think about, and with which to develop expertise, and don't have to spend a lot of time with things you don't know about, and you derive a decent income and very flexible work circumstances from imparting this expertise to young people who, by very virtue of the university dynamic, have neither the knowledge nor the power that you do. It becomes very easy to indulge oneself with a degree of pontification, or what old friend Quantzalcoatl calls "fog and pomposity." You don't very often get questioned on very egalitarian terms, and when you do, typically by a colleague, the lack of overlap between your areas of expertise can make for mutual incomprehension. And when you screw up--particularly if you are tenured--there are almost no concrete consequences: you don't lose your job for "having an unproductive quarter," or for making bad command decisions, or for engaging in the most ridiculously impractical committee decisions, and so on. For academics, about the only criteria for putting forth the vast additional effort that makes the difference between "Meets Expectations" and "Exceeds Expectations" pretty much has to be internally-n, because there are few externals that have much impact. This can lead to situations that make adminstrators tear out their hair, and to the general public propogating ill-informed prejudices about academics in "ivory towers" (which is horseshit--academics are some of the hardest-working, most idealistic people I know: who takes a job like this because of the money?!?).

But it also reminds me of the importance of self-reflection and a good deal of self-debunking. So when somebody asks my advice (give a musicologist a platform to hold forth, and s/he will), I try to always remember to preface that advice with the proviso "In my observation and experience..."

It is so easy to think that, because people constantly ask your advice and follow it, that you know about more different topics than you do, or that your experience or opinions can be vastly overgeneralized to reflect those of most persons, when in fact they mostly reflect your own, (as an academic) rather isolated or unique experience. Any expert--academic, corporate, legal, medical, and so on--is prety to this kind of hubris: you make analyses and take decisions based upon very detailed and extensive knowledge and experience, and (in some cases) those decisions and advice can have a very profound impact on peoples' lives. It is very easy to generalize that, because you can provide sound, expert advice in one topic area, you are therefore more intellectually/analytically able in many topic areas: that somehow, "knowing how to think" can trump a lack of factual data and experience in areas you don't otherwise know about.

This is a major risk and a bad mistake, and it's one reason when, asked for advice or feedback, I will tend to preface with "In my observation and experience..."--it's a reminder to both the other person and myself that my advice is ultimately, like that of every other human, limited by what I know, have seen, or have experienced.

It is easier to remember and to be convinced of the importance of this disclaimer/proviso when you have experienced a lot. It is harder to do this if you have not had the opportunity to experience very much. My particular clientele tends to include a large percentage of young people between the ages of, say 17 and 25. It is only to be expected--and hoped!--that such young people will not yet have experienced some of the events that greater years make inevitable: death, injury, the loss of love, the cycles of joy and sorrow. For example: it's not uncommon that, between the ages of 17 and 25, a young person might experience the death of a grandparent, or a loved one of the grandparent's generation. One hopes that this particular experience will not have happened earlier (e.g., "too soon"), and so as a teacher one tries to help a young person experiencing such a loss for the first time to cope with it. Age does not of itself confer any additional knowledge, insight, analytical ability, or wisdom. But age--sheer accumulation of years--can provide wise insight if you pay attention to what has happened to you. If you have experienced certain life situations or opportunities, but only understood their implications or impact in hindsight, you can still apply those lessons when analogous situations recur.

It's true that way with joyful experiences as well. At the age of 17, I met a remarkable group of people who were involved with the first startup of the "Freshman Year Program" at the New School. They were the right people at the right time for me, and it absolutely transformed my life. I had hated my high-school years-not least because I broadcast to my contemporaries how much I was hating the experience--and that 10 months in '76-'77 on the Lower East Side were absolutely transformative. It happened for Dharmonia and me again at the Guitar Workshop around 1980-81. It happened for us again at Tom Binkley's Early Music Institute around 1988-89. It happened again--and again and again and again--at Zoukfest.

After enough years, even the dumbest, most egocentric, most in-love-with-the-sound-of-his-own-voice musicologist (that would realizes that magical, joyful, inspiring times end. And, with some age and some hindsight and some reflection and, maybe, belated and reluctant "wisdom", you learn to recognize those times as they're happening, maybe even before they end. Your "observation and experience" tells you, "hey, Dim-O: pay attention here: this is another one of those situations."

And that's when gratitude begins. It's why, again and again and again, in these pages I talk about love;, which comes when you gain a little bit of observation, and perspective, and experience, and the ability to step outside both yourself and your expectations, and you realize that it's worth driving 840 miles round-trip in 48 hours, to play three hours of music and break bread with friends.

Below the jump: Sally, reminding us that, even if we were sleeping in Chipper & Kim's guest room (the "Guitarchive"), the bed still belongs to her.

Thanks to the Rev the "fuzzy people" appellation.

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