Monday, November 25, 2013

Quick hit: the Irish Triads, and, what it takes to be an "---ologist"

Just less than no time to comment upon this here--second-last week of the semester, and when we return from Thanksgiving break we have literally THREE days of classes only, and on the Tues-Thurs schedule only ONE meeting, but here's one I've previously been struggling to articulate yet which I need to capture:

In pre-Christian Irish oral poetry, an incredibly rich and virtuosic tradition which expected the filidh to memorize hundreds of poems and literally dozens of secret/esoteric languages and poetic schema, a classic formulation was to remember like metaphors or mnemonics in groups of three: e.g., "the three villains of Ireland," or "the three symbols of dischord", etc. My current fave is: "The three folk in horrid hell of great blasts: folk who practise poetry, folk who violate their orders, mercenaries."*

Have been struggling recently to capture in words element(s) which I can articulate as essential in the development of a music scholar. One of the more challenging and fraught situations we face as professors in the Fine Arts & Humanities is figuring out how to advise students who may, or may not, have the particular combination of attributes and aptitudes to "succeed", by whatever metric, in this family of professions: "folklorist," "archivist," "ethnomusicologist," "musicologist," et al.

Not to say that there is only a single path: I have had the great fortune to have, as friends and as mentees, folks who've found a lot of different ways to thread the needle, and to parlay an interest in culture, research, critical thinking, and teaching into a survivable profession and a happy life. I continue to learn, from these colleagues, friends, and former students, all the different ways it is possible to survive and thrive in this thing of ours ("cosa nostra").

But one thing I think I have finally captured, and it separates the research scholars, or the potential research scholars, from those who could be equally successful as teachers, museum designers, radio programmers, journalists, and so on. And it gets back to what I've come to perceive as a "Professors' Triad": the "three things that make a scholar".

Nota bene: the presence of 1 or 2 of these attributes, rather than the full complement of three, should in no way be seen as perjorative: if anything, having 1 or 2 of them, and a range of other life-skills perhaps less directly related to research scholarship, may very well make for a happier, better remunerated, or mentally easier life!

But I think I believe that someone who is to survive and thrive as a research scholar needs all three of these attributes--or to develop a reasonable facsimile of them:

(1) A zest for the actual factual record and the stamina and stick-to-it-ivity to find out that record, whether obtained readily or reluctantly, and whether it manifests a clear & straightforward or a convoluted and sticky narrative. This is the craft of the researcher;

(2) The ability, or the desire to develop the ability, to articulate the narratives and factual chronologies that emerge from the record, in engaging, intriguing, and relatively undistorted fashion. You need to know the facts, and then you need the ability and the desire to be able to articulate those facts in language others can grok. This is the craft of the teacher;

(3) The ability to derive insights from the facts and their narrative. It is not enough, for a research scholar, to know what happened and have engaging ways of conveying what happened. To be an actual research scholar, to be an "ethnomusic-ologist" or a "music-ologist" or something of their ilk, you must be able to perceive patterns others have not. This is how you make an "original contribution to the scholarship": you have to be able to see things, and reasons and causes for things, that others have missed. One metric for this is that, in true and truly effective research scholarship, either you or your audience (readers)--or both, will say "My god, that's so obvious; how come no one ever saw that before?" The effective scholar will have these "eureka" moments, and will then be able to deploy (1) facts and (2) language to convey those new, potentially paradigm-shifting insights, in a fashion that is persuasive.

This is the craft of the scholar.

You can be the most meticulous investigator in the world, or the the most facile and articulate writer, or both, but in the absence of #3--the ability to see new patterns and then to articulate them in a fashion that accords with the factual evidence--you are, actually, probably not cut out to be a research scholar. A teacher, archivist, journalist, arts advocate, radio producer, etc may be a better, more viable--and probably better-rewarded!--path.

Still thinking about this. But the above (entirely unedited) rings true.

*Interestingly, the great 20th century satirist (and satiric poet) Flann O'Brien parodied the Triads in his masterpiece At Swim-Two Birds, a comic version of the po-faced and earnest mock-myths of the "Celtic Twilight/Irish Literary Renaissance". 

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