Two weeks ago, the students in my Orpheus seminar introduced their preliminary paper proposals to the class. Last year, I had many of the same students in Writing About Music, the first year graduate course where we walk them through a paper proposal, outline, first draft, and final draft. What a difference a year makes!
These proposals are understandably more fully developed than those I receive in Writing About Music. They include proposals to examine Rameau's cantata Orphée in relation to his Traité de l'harmonie, to connect Orphic works by the relationship between the first and second deaths of Eurydice, and to analyze the music in Moulin Rouge and Bono's "The Ground Beneath Her Feet."
As mentioned in this previous post, I am writing along with my seminar, as part of an experiment in what I might call collaborative pedagogy. I was not exempt from sharing my proposal with the class, and I was the last person to present. I am fortunate that my class is full of spirited and intelligent people who readily received my own proposal and gave me honest feedback.
I won't share the entirety of my proposal here, but I'm looking to connect Joseph Campbell's "total science of mythology" to more holistic musicological study of Orphic operas. My general premise is that rather than viewing these operas as "settings" of mythical narratives, we should see them as extensions of mythical experience, and no less culturally relevant than Ovid's or Virgil's narratives. If anything, I am advocating for a more ethnomusicological study of Orphic operas, and I'm hoping that the approaches used by mythologists will prove useful for musicologists.
I read my proposal to the class, and in that context, I was painfully aware of my reliance upon jargon. I wrote my proposal in academese, using phrases like "epistemological quandaries." One of my students remarked that he understood roughly 75% of it, but wanted me to paraphrase it with more clarity. What a gift to be confronted with a group of very intelligent and invested people who have no ulterior motives except to understand! I realized that I have freedom here--I'm not submitting this proposal for acceptance at a conference. I'm merely communicating with a group of like-minded individuals about something that piqued my curiosity!
There is a false dichotomy between research and teaching. The blame for this lies on both sides of the equation, but I posit (to speak in academese) that we need not choose. My seminar has become a forum for constructive feedback--not quite peer review, but it has its own merits. I challenge them to critique their teacher’s work, and through this they practice confidence in their own ideas. I may not get feedback from “experts,” but there are plenty of avenues for that within my field. The integrity of my project rests on nothing more than what it contributes to the group of people who are likewise trying to amplify what they've learned in order to reach beyond it.
Let's stop for a second. I'm going to repeat that last bit:
"The integrity of my project rests on nothing more than what it contributes to the group of people who are likewise trying to amplify what they've learned in order to reach beyond it."
I think we have largely lost this sense of wonder as part of what shapes "academic conversations." We are too busy publishing (or perishing) to remember that at the heart of academic inquiry there is a core belief in the value of knowledge. "Sapere aude, " if you feel more comfortable with that. But we shouldn't need to validate this quest with Kant and Foucault in order to understand how important it is. We all have the power to be both the guardians and harbingers of thoughts.
I'm grateful to be on this journey with my seminar. I've already reshaped my proposal, narrowing it to a more digestible scope, whittling away at the academic pretense so that my students will benefit from whatever the finished product happens to be. I have not started writing it yet, but I already have the first footnote:
1. I dedicate this paper to students in my Fall 2015 Orpheus in Music seminar, who keep me grounded in the ongoing battle between my role as an academic and the reasons I chose this field in the first place.