I’ve been off the blog bandwagon for a bit. In part because after spending last summer blogging about being an Earth Mother in remote rural China it seemed like most of what I’d write would be boring. But I’m going to try again. This entry is inspired by a conversation with my kids in the flame van on Friday night while I was on the verge of a bad infection and so not my usual perky self.
Eli: mommy are you in college?
Eli: mommy you DO go to UVa.
Me: no I don’t
Rebecca: Eli she doesn’t go to UVa she works there but she’s pissed off all the time.
Eli: what’s pissed off?
Jonathan: yea what’s pissed off.
Eli: pissing is peeing.
Manuel: Pissed off is a not nice way to say you are mad. Peeved seems to be more polite, but I don’t understand why.
And it went down hill from there. But here’s the thing. My daughter is right. I am pissed off all the time; in fact every time I open my email I develop a new string of curses. Certain minions of the deans can set me off just when I see their name in my inbox. These are people who apparently have been hired since the summer and every few days summon all of us to some sort of town hall meeting or issue a command that ends in more results. And if one more person writes back to a request telling me they are too busy I might just start bringing a water gun to grounds—WE ARE ALL BUSY. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that this fall has pretty much bit the big one at UVa. To be perfectly crass, we had a great moment of solidarity and saved the President’s ass on a national stage, and it seemed like it might even set us up as a model for protecting public education. But, instead, it may even be worse than before. About every two weeks a new command is issued from on high, some portion of the faculty becomes agitated and before, action is taken, another command comes down. Meanwhile the gender climate is worse then ever as far as I can tell. I’m pretty sure my female grad students will enter more difficult world than I did; at least when I came out of grad school music departments felt that they had to hire qualified women. I’ve taken to bringing undergrads and grad students to meetings just so I don’t have to be the only woman in the room. Oh, and despite the fact that I’ve long understood that I don’t command the respect of my male colleagues, I wasn’t actually groped until this year.
Part of the problem is that since the summer we’ve all been talking about what is wrong with higher education, what is wrong with UVa, what we need to do to enter the 21st century, and what we need to do to fix and save public education. We are reforming the curriculum, the administrative structure, the library, development, etc… We are restructuring and restrategizing, but: Some stuff we do WORKS JUST FINE and has been working JUST FINE for a couple of hundred years. In fact, it works REALLY WELL. Our students still get a great education for a comparatively low cost. And for the record, Darden, the Med School, the Law School, etc. all depend on students’ learning the basics in college. Even online learning assumes student can read, absorb information, and synthesize information. I’m not saying we don’t need to fix lots of things; I protested for living wage last spring, we do need to figure out what to do with digital media, we need to continue to push hard on diversity, and we continue to make the education we offer more accessible. And I am all for new innovations; I’ve spent the better part of the last two years banging my head against a wall about arts and community engagement at UVa and in Charlottesville. There is plenty of work to do. But I repeat we do some stuff well.
This sense of we do some stuff well and it’s really cool that we get to do it smacked me in the face last week. Wednesday afternoon I went to the Woodson Institute for African African American Studies to attend their Meet the Fellows afternoon. That’s where the Woodson Fellows introduce themselves and their projects. For about 90 minutes I listened to a group of pre-doc and post doc fellows talk about a stunning array of projects from the religious practices of a religion I’d never heard of to an ethnography of gay black communities in neighborhoods I grew up hanging out in. All of these people are, in theory, young enough to be my children, all of them gave fabulous presentations, and all of them even in these lean times get the privilege of two years to simply do their academic work. And if some of these projects are half as good as they sound they may well change the way many of us think in profound ways. In other words, we still have moments where it’s all about ideas and it’s all about giving young people the space to develop the ideas that may just make a difference.
Thursday I walked to school and watched a group of students very carefully and deliberately laying out hundreds of empty backpacks on the lawn. It was a striking sight, and I later learned that it was a piece of public art geared towards suicide prevention and awareness. It stopped me in my tracks. I don’t think there’s a single person in higher education who hasn’t been touched by student suicide. And if you haven’t, then you haven’t probably paid enough attention to your friends and students. It happens every year at every college. And here in the midst of everything else on a gorgeous Friday before fall break our students asked us to think about that for a moment. I watched all day from my office windows as students walked by, read personal stories, and stopped to take it in. Way to go kids! I listened as they talked about those stories. And BOV, you need to hear this: the way they took all in had nothing to do with strategic dynamism. It had everything to do with being in a place that gave them the luxury to think and to practice empathy.
I’d say at this point a shockingly small portion of my day goes to teaching and scholarship. If I could publish my emails the second book would be long done by now. Indeed, the only thing causing teaching to take a front seat again this semester is that for some dumb reason I assumed I’d taught an early music survey at some point in my career and assumed I could teach it in my sleep. I did zippo to prepare. As it turns out, I’m teaching tunes I haven’t thought about since grad school. And sometimes it’s pretty intoxicating. In a week where I, like my colleagues, have been asked to come up with revenue generating masters programs, rethink the undergraduate distribution requirements, justify why we need a music librarian, and come up with new technological initiatives it’s a pleasure to just teach the old fashioned way. For example, go into class with a copy of a letter that the 16th century courtesan Veronica Franco wrote to a mother who wanted to make her daughter a courtesan and ask the undergrads why she’d so vehemently oppose her own profession. And watch the students become completely enthralled with the details of a document. And, turn off the ipod, itunes, power point, and put an Archadelt Madrigal in front of a group of 17 music majors and figure out they can make music out of it and they can love it. And they can from that experience start wonder about what it was like to learn music in the 16th century. So I guess what I’m saying is, “Dammit BOV, President Sullivan, and Dean Everyone; leave us alone and let us do our jobs!”