Thursday, March 16, 2017

Can We Sound Good? (Or, What is Musicology’s Purpose while Teaching under Trump?)

By Kelly Hiser

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students face police while protesting a Donald Trump campaign rally.
Photo credit: Joe Brusky
As I read the contributions to Musicology Now’s “Teaching Under Trump” I kept coming back to a story that Lydia Hamessley told about an American Musicological Society annual meeting in 1988:
“At a Committee on the Status of Women meeting, Rosemary Killam rose in anger when a male audience member … suggested that it wasn’t his problem if his female students couldn’t work late in the library because they feared walking across campus late at night. ‘Oh yes, it is, sir; yes, it is!’ she shouted.”[1]
Under Trump, students and teachers are fearful; fearful for their families, their status, their health care, their lives. Only a single author, James Deaville (who centered the lives of people with disabilities in the series’ final post), addressed the fears of the most marginalized members of our communities. None of the authors discussed the fears of women, LGBTQ people, or people of color. The silence on these issues made me want to shout, like Killam, “this is your problem; yes, it is!”

When campuses are the sites of hate crimes and racist imagery, it is our problem. When students fear deportation for themselves and their families, it is our problem. When international colleagues can no longer safely travel to our country, it is our problem. When students with disabilities struggle to participate in class because of ableist language and structures, it is, as Deaville pointed out, our problem. These are our problems not only because students cannot learn effectively when their basic needs are not met, but also, and more importantly, because we are decent human beings.

In his 2016 book, Just Vibrations, William Cheng quotes Hamessley’s story about that 1988 AMS meeting and challenges readers to hear Killam’s yes, it is, as a “disciplinary rallying cry,” one that allows us to “envision musicology as all the activities, care, and caregiving of people who identify as members of the musicology community.”[2] Cheng asks musicologists—a discipline of scholars intent on both exploring sound and “sounding good” themselves—”what if the primary purpose of sounding good isn’t to do well, but to do good?”

Introducing the “Teaching Under Trump” series, Louis Epstein identified a central question that inspired the series: “what (if any) musicological response was appropriate given the poisonous political discourse and pressing policy challenges of the post-election environment?” [emphasis mine] What if, instead, we asked ourselves what response was good? What if we, as musicologists, took doing good as our purpose? We might graffiti over those swastikas instead of walking past them. We might petition administrations to offer strong statements of support to our marginalized community members and to back those statements up with action—something Deaville did along with students in his seminar on music and disability. We might make strong statements of support in our own classrooms. We might offer assistance (tracking down legal help, providing connections to campus health resources, locating potential places of sanctuary) to students who seek it.

If we wish to do good as musicologists, we must also recognize our discipline’s historic and ongoing complicity in white supremacist structures that enabled a Trump Presidency. According to a 2007 demographic survey, at least 86% of AMS members are white, while as little as 1% are black and 3% “Hispanic/Latino.” In the 2010 US census, those numbers were 72%, 13%, and 16% respectively. Demographic numbers like these are the result of white supremacist power structures; they are not accidental, not for musicology, and not for other academic disciplines with similar demographics (of which there are many). Nor is it accidental that the “Teaching Under Trump” series exclusively featured the writing of tenure-track white professors working at prestigious institutions and included only one woman. Those professors knew one another well enough to participate in “Facebook-facilitated conversations among musicologists.” As an anonymous commenter to MN noted: “Research shows that our personal social media communities tend to be fairly homogenous and algorithms determine what people see in their feeds.” Power structures tend to instantiate themselves; musicologists and the AMS are not immune.

When we uncritically participate in those power structures, we insulate musicology’s concerns with our own limited worldviews. If we wish to do good, we must do better than this. We could start by turning to the work of our colleagues of color who have been showing us how to live, work, and teach under oppressive regimes for a long time. We don’t have to figure this out from scratch, nor should we: we lack the wisdom, tradition, and experience. Let’s instead turn to W.E.B. DuBois, to bell hooks, to Ashon Crawley, to Tricia Rose, to Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., to Tammy Kernodle, and to many others in and outside of musicology. By looking and listening to their words, we can, perhaps, let go of our desire to be appropriate and instead start learning how to sound—and do—good.

Kelly Hiser holds a PhD in Historical Musicology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; her research focuses on performance, technology, gender, and race in the US. She has taught in classrooms and at pianos for many years and currently directs Rabble, a startup that builds digital local music collections with public libraries.

[1] Lydia Hamessley, “How Did This All Start? Toward a History of the Feminist Theory and Music Phenomenon,” 2009, 2015,
[2] William Cheng, Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016).

1 comment:

  1. I came to this website because I love music. If this website is a good sample of what musicologists study and write about, music is very far down the list. This article is an excellent example of the pattern on this website: almost nothing about music, its all about so-called race (an anti-scientific category), gender and sexual orientations --more of the cultural left's well-meaning but counterproductive efforts that result in crystalizing divisions based on perceived identities. I did find one nice article on this website about the history of flute music in Scotland. I imagine that article would be savaged here by the other musicologists, as a racist sexist imperialist patriarchal xenophobic homage to power and oppression. There must be music magazines actually interested in MUSIC?