Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Colloquy: Race Ethnicity and the Profession (Part 2 of 4)

[Ed. Note: The following paper was presented by Mark Burford of Reed College as part of the special session on "Race Ethnicity, and the Profession" at the AMS Meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia.  It is the first of three papers that form Musicology Now's first "Colloquy."  An introduction to the Colloquy can be found here, as well as links to the other papers.]

Special Session: “Race, Ethnicity, and the Profession”
Mark Burford, Reed College

I would like to offer some testimony from my home campus, Reed College, that feels resonant with the conversation we are initiating this evening. Despite Reed’s reputation as a beachhead for “Keep Portland Weird!” white quirkiness, my impression over the past near decade there has been one of a campus oddly prone to political passivity, or at least not primed for organized and sustained activism.

That all changed on September 26, [2016] when a group of students, mostly freshmen who had been on campus for just weeks, called for a campus boycott after seeing a Tweet by actor Isaiah Washington calling for black Americans to stay at home and remove themselves from the U.S. economy for a day, a gesture of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. It didn’t get a lot of traction nationwide, but for the group of students who organized the Reed boycott at 48-hours notice, the invitation to do something was irresistible and galvanizing.

And somehow the boycott came off. Student support was remarkable and more than seventy faculty members cancelled or significantly modified their classes at a moment’s notice in support of the students. The protests sparked conversations about privilege, about what the ways in which a campus culture impacts raced, classed, and gendered human beings differently, and about the relationship between that cherished Reed catchphrase “the life of the mind” and more embodied forms of knowledge. I didn’t always agree with the protestors’ framing of the issues, but I was proud of the way that they had catalyzed a sense of productive discomfort on campus by calling out faculty, administrators, and fellow students, purposefully making questions of inclusion and occlusion less the elephant in the room than the bull in the china shop.

Meanwhile, the students produced a list of 25 demands, the most important and explosive of which pertained to the curriculum. Reed requires incoming freshmen to take a yearlong course that is ostensibly intended to cultivate close reading and critical thinking skills, teach college-level writing, and acclimate students to conference-style classroom dynamics. Since at least the 1940s, this mandatory first-year course—called Humanities 110, or in local parlance “Hum 110”—has focused on the ancient Greeks and the Romans. This fact has long been a source of controversy among some students, particularly many students of color and women students who year after year come away with a perception that the only mandatory course at the college does not represent them. An already problematic situation is magnified by the fact that Reed has in fact hung its hat and institutional identity on Hum 110. Admission pitches the course to potential Reedies, there is an annual Hum lecture at Convocation, parents dropping off their students for orientation attend breakout sessions to discuss the Iliad, alumni at annual reunions yuk it up over inside jokes about Thucydides, the Reed a cappella group is called the “Herodotones,” and so on.

Now, faculty in the course have pointed to revisions, both past and underway, seeking to make critique of the canon a more central consideration. But the current student protestors have taken off the gloves, calling the course irredeemably racist, white supremacist, and anti-black for its doubling down on a Eurocentrism that suggests that their historical experiences are ancillary. Moreover, they have launched a sit-in protest in the Hum 110 lecture hall that has lasted over a month with no signs of stopping. One the most most eye-opening aspects of the protests for me has been the varied responses of the Hum 110 faculty, the majority of whom have recognized student demands as legitimate by lecturing to the freshman class with sign-wielding protestors sprawled around their feet, others of whom are furious with what they perceive to be a breach of respectful discourse. I have heard Hum faculty miffed at the protests dispute the premise of critiques of the course, arguing that technically there are no white people on the syllabus since the ancient Greeks did not have the same conception of race that we have today. At a party, one colleague’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial sotto voce to confess that he actually believed—but would never say publicly—that studying Greek thought provides the theoretical and conceptual grammar for everything students will ever learn in their Reed education.

It may sound as if I am making sport of fellow faculty behind their back, but I’m really not. I mention the ongoing protest of Hum 110—and, more importantly, the reactions to critiques of the course—because they have pushed me to think about why we are really here today. So why are we here today? Ostensibly, as AMS President Ellen Harris wrote to the Society this summer, we are here to learn from and move forward in addressing accounts of marginalization within the field, but toward what end? To acknowledge flesh wounds from the bruising “Musicology in Prison” fracas in February? To diversify membership? To teach more inclusive music history sequences that stem our habits toward certain ways of teaching music history? To interrogate the hierarchies set up by a “West and the rest” curricular model that distinguishes between music major requirements—most of which emphasize the study of Western European art music—and electives that can run the gamut? To pressure book publishers to rethink models for music-historical resources available to teachers, which have predominantly offered textbooks laying out essentially the same, if an increasingly more inclusive, grand narrative? To commit ourselves to the goal of the historical method that forms the core of musicology ceding ground to other ways of studying music, resulting in a methodological diversity? To uncover unconscious bias in the ways we discern the quality of scholarship in the form of publications and conference papers? For me, answering the “why are we here?” question is what tonight’s session and the ad hoc committee’s meeting tomorrow morning is all about, so I look forward to the thoughts of others in the room.

But ultimately, I invoke the dynamics of the Reed protest because of the ways in which it highlights something that we rarely talk about: the inertia of desire. Though I do think that the deep woundedness expressed by Hum 110 faculty, who perceive ad hominem accusations that they are “racist” simply because of principled challenges to a course, is a quintessential example of white fragility, I also believe that these feelings come from an earnest commitment to a course that they have devised, executed thoughtfully, and in some cases taught for 30 years. Because of a desire to validate their work, an attack on Hum is felt as an attack on the way they do things and what they care about, and perhaps even their intellectual integrity. Similarly, even as the students seem to be tapping into what I perceive to be slightly anachronistic rhetorical style of late sixties, early-seventies Black Power Era discourse as a way of framing the issues, they do so because of the ways in which it lends their demands, rooted in a desire to register their experience of the institutional structures within which they are educated, a sense of powerful historical resonance and momentum.

The fact is that the AMS conference has changed quite a bit since I started attending around 2000—much less since the nineties, eighties, and seventies—and we are in a fortunate position because there is, I believe, a bounty of goodwill among the Society’s members when it comes to these issues. But goodwill is neither a self-sufficient nor an infinitely sustainable resource. My sense is that part of the frustration felt by some members of the Society stems from our tendency as teachers and as AMS members to also do things the way we do them because we have always done them that way, and then come up with purportedly objective rationalizations—sometimes openly, but more often unspoken—about why they matter. Maybe we simply presume too much value-wise about what we teach and study. I suspect that the logjam that I hope we are able to clear, or at least make sense of, emerges from the tremendous difficulty in acknowledging the place of our own desires in imagining—and in more contentious moments insisting—what “doing” music history ought to be. Perhaps some sense of these guiding desires—not to be confused with inviolable methodological precepts and principles—will emerge over the course of our discussion. But as we proceed, I also hope that we are able to resist the tendency to conflate musicology as a field of scholarship and a career path in academia, music history as a course of college study, and the AMS as an organization and an annual conference. Each of these has its own loose floorboards with respect to race and ethnicity and they may require entirely different sets of tools to address. But I look forward to our first steps at forging those tools this evening.

Mark Burford is an Associate Professor of Music at Reed College. He recently won the Irving Lowens Article Award for his research on Sam Cooke published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society. Burford is a music historian with expertise in nineteenth-century Austro-German concert music and twentieth-century African American popular music. His current research focuses on the circulation and reception of black gospel singing within U.S. popular culture during the 1950s and early 1960s. He received a BA in music from the University of California at Santa Barbara and MA and PhD degrees in historical musicology from Columbia University.


  1. "My sense is that part of the frustration felt by some members of the Society stems from our tendency as teachers and as AMS members to also do things the way we do them because we have always done them that way, and then come up with purportedly objective rationalizations—sometimes openly, but more often unspoken—about why they matter."

    These are exactly the types of issues I bump up against as I work on my own blog. As I try to encourage classical music fans to be more open, I find I'm constantly asking myself why classical music and musicology REALLY matter, and whether my answer is based on wishful thinking, or indoctrination, or other assumptions. "It matters because everyone should know that it matters" has always been a circular argument, but it's becoming increasingly irrelevant as fewer people implicitly accept that it matters. We have to dig deeper to find better answers.

  2. Thanks for this Mark--especially for your important final point about nuancing the discussion to suit music scholarship's varied contexts (and aims). Sorry I couldn't be there to hear all the discussion. I look forward to reading the other papers here!