Saturday, September 12, 2009

Day 10 (Round IV) "In the trenches": visiting-savant edition

Off for the past three days on a guest-shot weekend, consulting for a regional neighbor's newly-endowed program and chair on a model not unlike my own. I've been doing these kinds of guest-shots for 2 or 3 years now: someone will ask me to come in and talk, out of my own experience, about some aspect or other of the expertise I've developed, over the past 25 years or so, in academics, music, pedagogy, or research. It's still the case that the majority of such trips, for me, are presenting research papers or occasionally service-oriented panels, at national or regional meetings of my principle professional organizations: the Musicology society, the Ethnomusicology society, or occasionally organizations on African-American music, Irish Studies, or pedagogy.

In such circumstances I am very fortunate in that there is usually at least a partial subvention (for travel and accommodations, anyway) coming from my own home institution, as these activities are part of the "professional profile" that academics are expected to pursue and maintain as part of their assignments and load.

I will also do travel stuff sometimes as a straight-ahead representative of our program, without a specific presentation in train, simply as part of recruiting for our program. However, neither I nor my boss likes to do this, because to quantify the value of such unspecified activity (no "paper", no "presentation", no "panel", but simply "attendance") is rather difficult as against cost of travel & accommodations. And, over and above the cost in dollars, is the cost (to me, anyway) of time. I love to travel to interesting places--though, like most adult humans and especially those 6'2" and above, I love it a lot less since the US government sold its soul to the robber barons of the airlines--but I hate to be away from my own home program.

Years ago, in conversation with a Wisconsin-based avant-garde jazz guitarist named Jack Grassel whose music I admired enormously, he said to me "Well, I'm sorry, I don't tour much--because it cuts into my practice schedule too much." At the time, as a starving jazz guitarist who was barely making ends meet teaching and playing odd-jobs, the idea of being paid a living wage to travel and play seemed idyllic, and I was stumped as to why Grassel might prefer to turn down gigs in favor of staying home and working on the chops.

As the years have gone by, and I had some years of road-work under my belt, I've come to see the point: the fact of the matter is that, in many musics, traveling does not enhance your skills or productivity, even if you're playing (or conferencing) every night you're out. In fact, traveling, and the surrender of your schedule, diet, environments, and sleep-patterns which traveling entails, is pretty much inimical to productivity. It's rewarding and stimulating, and fun to see old friends and colleagues (or to pointedly ignore the various types, who, having sabotaged you for years, now want to make friends), but the conferencing is not terribly productive.

Somewhat different from this, and more recent, are requests that come from outside the conference mechanisms, in which an outside entity wants me to come in more as a "consultant" or "outside expert." This is a source of particular satisfaction, because, as my admired older brother admitted in a blog post about himself, money is only one of the ways in which my particular personality cna be reimbursed. As the big D said, I'll put forth a helluva lot of effort on behalf of an entity that will pay attention to my feedback and value my insights. One colleague says "I'll come talk to you for free--but you gotta pay me $1000 a day to sit in airports", which I think is actually a pretty healthy attitude.

So in the past few years, I've been hauled in cross-country (and cross-Atlantic) by various programs who are actually willing to pay me some money, and--far more gratifying to a musicologist's ego--give me a platform to offer feedback about what they're doing and what they might do more/better.

It's an activity in which I am actually damned glad to have become involved only later in life--because it actually does call for some tact and diplomacy. Not so much if you should have to say critical things: most programs are well-aware of potential pitfalls in their work, and so they are actually relatively receptive to critique--often times, the critique from an "objective" outsider is necessary in order for the locals to persuade upper administration to take necessary steps.

No, the diplomacy is more essential--and more at risk--if, like me, you're an academic with a lot of opinions, who spends a lot of time holding-forth to young people with relatively under-developed critical equipment, in situations where you have all the communicative power and they have very little.

This can often lead to hubris. Most academics have the affliction, because their verbal platform is (can be) so wide-ranging, and because there is (can be) so little accountability. College professors can say some outrageously dumbassed or self-loving things and very often escape any critique, much less consequence.

And so of course if you want to be a competent pedagogue, much less a decent human being capable of an open and equitable conversation, you learn to keep a guard on your tongue, to think hard about not only "what you meant" but also "what they heard", and to find ways of articulating both pleasant and difficult truths in constructive and empathetic ways. These are of course some of the most essentials skills for a competent administrator, and the fact that many, many academic administrators are so goddamned bad at the job (and so insufferably unaware of that incompetence) is because a background as a hubristic professor does not necessarily breed tact and measured speech.

Or it sure hasn't in me. But--and especially in the last few years under the tutelage of my current boss--I have continued to regard myself as an improving student of effective and appropriate systemic communication. And that practice and attention in turn has led me to a better, and I think more apposite, set of skills for approaching these guest shots. Often times I'm brought in (as "External Examiner", or "Outside Reader", or "guest panelist", or even, baldly, "consultant") without an entirely clear directive about what the hosts expect /require from me--sometimes that's because they don't know themselves, and are bringing me in for precisely that kind of advice. So, in addition to tact on-site, I have to exert some analysis in advance, to drive to divine what I think might be the stuff I can bring them.

So to Friday's gig: small music program, in a part of the Deep South very rich in local indigenous cultures, but with what I suspect might be a prior disconnect (and resulting distrust/miscommunication) between campus and local community, and now sitting on a substantial endowment for a professorship that might begin to specifically bridge those gaps. They found me on the Web, and have essentially concluded that they want to do there what I've done here.

The irony, of course, is that I need to go into these situation, to help them articulate and advertise for the skill-set, personality, track record, and candidate, who can accomplish something analogous to what I've done, without sounding like I'm saying, as Peter Burkholder once joked to all of us, "how to Be Like Me." Which should be a salutary and interesting exercise.

Allons a Lafayette. Acadia, here we come.

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