Ethno Muse Ecology – Graduate Student Voice(lessness), Part 1

The title of this blog—“Ethno Muse Ecology”—comes from Nazir Jairazbhoy’s joking etiology of “ethnomusicology” as the study of the tenth Athenian muse, the “ethno muse.” I’ll be using it for more general thoughts about ethnomusicology itself, distinguishing it from my fieldwork blog (Dispatch from Northern Jalisco).

I begin with a two part series intended to critique the role of graduate students in ethnomusicology. This first part focuses on the state of student organization(s) in the discipline. I hope to be somewhat provocative, perhaps even polemical, but not mean spirited. My criticisms of student organizing—or the lack of student organizing—are not directed only at, say, the current crop of leaders in SEM’s Student Concerns Committee (SCC). Instead, they reflect my take on student leadership in the discipline writ large after more than a decade of personal association with SEM and various universities as a student.1 I attended my first SEM conference in 1998 as an undergraduate volunteer and became an official student member in 2004. Hence, for better or worse, my association with the discipline as a student has been longer than most.2

This brief essay considers the importance of student organization(s), the general lack of student organizing within the discipline, and, most importantly, what we might strive for in the future. My stance is that despite some notable recent improvements, we graduate students are structurally voiceless within the discipline and society (i.e., SEM) as a result of our dismal inefficiency, ineffectuality, and disinterest when it comes to organization and intercommunication. But first we have to ask ourselves…

What does it matter? What’s at stake?

What’s at stake for student organization(s) depends on the context (e.g., national, regional, or departmental) but all are very much interrelated. The primary aims and concerns of student organizing, however, should not be so much about intellectual themes or trends that result in much time and effort being devoted to creating annual conference panels. Instead, we should really be focusing organizational effort on pertinent issues related to our roles within institutions (i.e., universities and academic societies), job prospects, and the effects of academic study in other aspects of our lives, to name just a few. In short, what’s at stake is representing ourselves and speaking on our own behalf within the institutions we inhabit and enrich.

A major example of a true graduate student concern that is usually not considered to be effectively under our purview of “official” concerns is that of job prospects. There is a never-ending feeling that job prospects are “not good” but the mention of that at, say, a student concerns committee meeting would be met with shrugs and quips along the lines of “well, we can’t do much about that from our position.” Such is the shameful nature of our acquiescence. There are in fact many aspects of this concern that could be studied and addressed by students themselves. For example, a basic understanding of the problem itself is within reach: How many jobs really open up on a yearly basis, and how many newly minted PhDs appear each year to take those jobs?3 This data is unknown (as far as I can tell), but there’s nothing stopping graduate students from putting those numbers together and making them publicly available. From there, related issues could be examined and advocacy options formulated.

Another response to “what does it matter” is more Cartesian in nature. In short, we need to know each other and maintain official channels of communication in order to know each other. In other words, we can’t really know our “concerns” as a group until a group is well constituted. It would be hard to argue that SCC is (or has ever been) truly a discipline-wide representation of students. Instead, it seems to represent those students who are able to show up at the meetings (i.e., those not in the field, those with funding to attend the conferences, those not presenting a paper at the same time as the SCC meetings, etc.). In preparation for this and a future blog post on a related topic, I contacted current students or recent graduates from UCLA, University of Chicago, Indiana University, Florida State University, Harvard, UCSB, and Tufts. These contacts, however, were based primarily on my own personal associations because there is no efficient way to find official student representatives from various programs or campus-based (ethno)musicology graduate student organizations. Knowledge of other programs and student concerns, then, becomes anecdotal and based on hearsay as much as (or more) than any systematic communication or representation. This lack of intercommunication and basic administrative practices makes it impossible for us to know things about the student body as a whole, much less represent ourselves in any effectual democratic manner.

Ultimately at stake are our own lives as graduate students, and our own education and professional training. At the program level, there seems to be almost no graduate student representation in departmental affairs. While most programs or departments have graduate student organizations (a.k.a. “associations,” “societies,” or “forums”), they almost never have any function beyond social activities, performance organizing, and arranging lectures or small conferences. In the case that these student organizations do occasionally represent graduate students in departmental affairs, it is usually only through minor advocacy (e.g., letter writing) and never vested with any real institutional power. When contacting the programs mentioned above, I heard of only two cases (UCSB and IU) where graduate students have any departmental representation beyond merely offering thoughts on job candidates. Even in these cases, though, representation did not seem highly formalized, democratic, or truly binding in the sense that students or their representatives would have a vote in departmental affairs. (I invite grad students from programs at Brown, UPenn, Wesleyan, UIUC, UW, Michigan, Maryland, and others to inform us of the situation in their respective programs by leaving a comment below.) Though I’ll save my thoughts on campus-level student organizations for another post, suffice it to say that this is where much of our ineffectuality and apathy must be addressed, though SCC and discipline-wide efforts would benefit local levels.

The current situation and where we might go from here

I would be amiss if I didn’t point out that SCC has made impressive strides under inspired leadership over the past few years. It is great, for example, that SEM Student News now exists. Still, that publication is only an “initiative” of SCC, a publication of SEM and apparently not the official mouthpiece of SCC or under its direct control. Again, the issue of true representation of the student body is debatable. This reflects a general problem with communication channels for students. What, for example, ever became of SEMSTU-L, the mailing list specifically for students in SEM? Similarly, do we even have something as basic and simple as a webpage for SCC?4 A Facebook page simply doesn’t count as an official means of notification and communication, especially if it’s all you have. An SCC with more effective means of communication (both up and down the chain) would better enable us to set agendas and mobilize to accomplish our goals.

The other major problem of our current situation is the institutionally weak nature of graduate student organizations at the university level. While organizing conferences, social activities, and campus music performances is important work, it is not the type of “organizing” spoken of here because it does not result in any sort of institutional enfranchisement. There is, as far as I can tell, despite the ostensibly progressive nature of our discipline, still no example of official graduate student representation in departmental or curricular matters. Again, I will tackle this topic in another post, but suffice it to say that this is one of the most overlooked but devastatingly obvious aspects that would enhance our education, professional training, and quality of life as graduate students.

To my fellow graduate students: for a greater say in the affairs of our own careers and lives, we might not need a full-fledged “movement,” but we certainly need heightened levels of communication, solidarity, organization, and action. This is possible and necessary at various levels and in multiple contexts—campus organizations, regional and national student committees of SEM, and other national and international organizations. Clearly, one of our biggest problems is graduate student apathy towards organizing, a surprising and disheartening fact considering the prevalent interest in advocacy and engaged/applied work. As a result, the pertinent student organizations and committees as they currently stand are mostly ineffectual for representing and addressing serious graduate student concerns, but they do have great potential and have recently made important advancements. Let’s up the ante and see where we might go, not only to make our own lives better as students, but to create a healthier discipline in which to work and learn in the future.

  • 1. I was introduced to the discipline and SEM as an undergrad at Indiana University. I finished my undergrad at Berklee College of Music, did my MA at Tufts University, and I'm currently a PhD student at UCLA. I was also lucky enough to work an administrative position for one year in the Music Department at the University of Chicago where I was directly involved in graduate student affairs.
  • 2. Part of my extended time included transfering during undergrad and years off between programs - two years between undergrad and MA, and another two years between MA and PhD.
  • 3. Another way to study this would be to follow a sample of graduates at yearly intervals to learn about their career progress.
  • 4. A Google search for "society for ethnomusicology student concerns committee" had no results other than SEM Student News and the SEM website.
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