Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sounds of Things To Come

In an upcoming issue of The Annual Review of Anthropology there is an article co-authored by some well-known music scholars arguing for sound in anthropology. Just last month, a deadline arrived for a special issue of The American Quarterly on sound and culture. This November, the Sound Studies interest group of the AMS will have its very first evening panel session (sadly pitted against the Cold War Studies interest group and the Hispanic Music interest group – it will be a tough choice). And, of course, the Sound Studies special interest group of the SEM sponsored important panels last year in Mexico City. Something is clearly coming to a head.

Sound studies or auditory cultural studies has been an emerging field for years now.* Plenty of ethnomusicologists and musicologists have been engaging in this discourse for quite some time, but it seems that the near synchronous acknowledgment of sound by such prestigious venues as those above offers some compelling evidence that sound is finally... well... resonating.

Academic presses are clearly on-board: there are now readers and handbooks in production or in press. Some institutions are even lending the interdisciplinary field some credence by explicitly recruiting sound studies scholars to develop entirely new programs of study.**

I am heartened by these developments for a few reasons. As a scholar, I occupy the border between a few fields. If anything, sound represents something of a culmination of a certain type of interdisciplinarity between the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and public policy. I could list some of the varying ways that scholars are exploring sound, but trust me, it's huge, and people are excited.*** But more to the point, for those of us who lament that music departments might not get much respect in our institutions as they deserve, we have a clear opportunity here to lead the way in the intellectual discussion. As many music scholars are already doing with interdisciplinary fields such as performance studies, sound and auditory cultural studies is providing an important way to engage with scholars in other fields and offer a music-centered perspective. But more than that, the resonance of sound studies shows that with enough interest and persistence, new intellectual conversations will catch on in a wide variety of scholarly venues. These changes can happen, papers and panels can get accepted, and eventually scholars who once sat on the margins can become an integral part of their chosen field(s).

It makes me feel optimistic in an otherwise dreary economic landscape.


* Norma Coates, "Filling in Holes: Television Music as Recuperation of Popular Music in Television," Music, Sound, and the Moving Image 1 (Spring, 2007), 21-25; Jonathan Sterne, "Being 'in the True' of Sound Studies," Music, Sound, and the Moving Image 2 (Autumn, 2002): 163-167.
** Recall the job advertisements from NYU 2 years ago; University of Minnesota also had a Music and Sound Studies Initiative.
*** There are far too many to list here. Ben Tausig, co-chair of the Sound Studies Special Interest Group of the Society for Ethnomusicology, compiled a useful bibliography. Join the group to have a look.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Switching Productivity Gears

Fall semester is literally just around the corner, and like many of my colleagues, I'm gradually pulling myself out of my summer work mode. This year marks the first time in my professional life when summer translated into 3 very distinct activities: travel, research, and writing. (Research-related travel meant that I spent 4 weeks in Brazil and I also saw more music than I normally am able to do. It was awesome.) Since I am now living 3 flights away from my wife, recreational travel was very important to my emotional health even if it took a toll on other aspects of my life. For those who don't know, my partner and I both live about an hour or so away from the nearest regional airport and visits mean 8-14 hours of travel time. Now I am becoming one of those seasoned travelers contemplating expensive, travel-related purchases like noise-canceling headphones, an airport wifi package, and an ereader. All of that travel aside, writing actually happened, and very soon an article will be off to a journal. All of this is exciting.

I have been thinking about how much we academics need summers to get our research and writing done. Many academic bloggers "go dark" during the summer months, and many others get out of town with laptops in tow to web-challenged locales just to get some work done. I've found that I am the opposite. I actually tend to do worse with unstructured time and prefer to have some sort of constraint on my time, but not too much. During my fellowship-supported grad school years, I would often volunteer for various non-profit causes, and I wrote most of my dissertation while being a teaching assistant. A big appeal of a loose structure is the feeling of productivity and accomplishment. On the days when I have tangible results from my other demands, I feel more motivated to sit in front of a computer and tinker away at whatever project is before me. It really is too bad that the academic year is structured in feasts and famines of free time. I think the trick is that the other demands need to not take very much time of my day. In the real world, however, most demands take over when given the chance. And this is why so many young faculty fall into the trap of spending too much time on teaching or service.*

In other words, I am currently neck-deep in a self-assessment mode. As I face another year of clear structural demands on my time, I wonder if my anxieties about the daily grind of sitting before a word processing program will slip away? Or will they just change? In the distance I can anticipate the demands of students, colleagues, and more travel on my time. And let's not forget another year on the academic job market. It's going to be an interesting ride.

* Most of Robert Boice's Advice for New Faculty focuses on this problem. See also Kerry Ann Rockquemore's advice columns for InsideHigherEd.com.