Reports of My Death Exaggerated

I’ve been absent. From about mid-April to mid-May at Bard, we start having student concerts every night and senior and moderation boards every morning, crammed in around teaching all afternoon. Senior and moderation boards are Bard’s idiosyncratic system for evaluating student projects just before graduation and at the point of declaring a major, respectively. It becomes common, in this final month before summer, to go in at 9 or 10 AM and not drag home until 9, 10, or 11 at night, and there are always student crises to deal with. President Botstein let drop the telling statistic recently that every student who’s ever committed suicide at Bard (none in the last five years, knock on wood) was a senior.

In addition, I’ve been up to my chin in the academic bullcrap of territoriality and politics. I am hardly an injured innocent bystander, but I do seem to be the faculty member always fighting for more diversity and variety in the department, and I am still pollyannaish enough at 50 to be surprised when that urge incites a fight. I attract the renegade and refugee students too individual to fit into the classical, jazz, and electronic programs, and every pop-music-bound student has me on her board – not because I know diddly about pop music, but because I’ll defend her right to do that in college. College is where you see self-described far-left-liberal professors casually expose the authoritarian streak by which they’ve determined that, past some arbitrary boundary their musings have brought them to, there are certain things that students should not be allowed to be taught. And this is at a really, really liberal college, so I guess I wouldn’t last a week at Indiana U., while at Yale I’d fry instantaneously like a strip of aluminum foil tossed into a microwave.

So any thought I could have expressed in the last month would have sounded like a complaint about a job that everyone agrees I’m lucky to have. I will content myself with the observation that I always preferred the atmosphere of a newspaper office to that of academia. At a newspaper, differences of opinion carry no negative charge. Opinions are what critics sell, and no critic wants to find that another critic is vending the same set of wares. As a music critic, I had far more reason to be threatened by someone like the poor late Rob Schwartz, whose opinions and interests were quite close to mine (and thus with whom I ended up competing for the same gigs), than by, say, some serialist complexity maven like Paul Griffiths or Andrew Porter. So you’d meet someone and start talking, find that they disagree with you about almost everything, and think, “Whew, that’s a relief.” And you’d have no qualms dealing with people whose views you found heinous, because their opposition made your uniqueness all the more valuable. I’m inclined to wish that academia could be a little more like that. Of course, I never went into a newspaper office five days a week like I go in to teach, and I’m sure those who do have a different perspective. As Tolstoy, I think, said, though I can’t find it anywhere, “Men are never so cruel as when they bind themselves into institutions.”

I hope to return to the world shortly.


  1. Michael Wittmann says

    Speaking as an academic in a very different department…

    A colleague teaches at a Christian (Baptist? not sure) university and has correctly pointed out that it is easier for him to discuss religion there (he is Orthodox) than at a public university. In the former, dissent is honored and discussion panels on the role of religion in society might include a Jew, an Orthodox Christian, a Muslim, and the prayer be given by the rabbi… In the latter, religion is a complete taboo and not to be touched on for fear of offending someone. As the folks in Bloom County once said, “Your offensensitivity offends me.”

    Just agreeing that the unexpected often occurs. Good luck in making it through your semester.