Degrees of Social Justice

In the wake of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors sacking and rehiring the President, in part allegedly because they perceived her to be reluctant to embrace online education in the way they wanted, there has been a good deal of discussion of MOOCs and online courses more generally. I felt then, as I feel now, that there are potentially serious problems with wholly-online degrees; that at the moment, campus education, especially at a prestigious institution, carries more weight. And indeed, one of my fears is that MOOCs end up being used as ways to keep campuses free of students with particular kinds of support needs. Instead of breaking down barriers to social mobility, MOOCs and online education could reinforce them. I drafted this post some time ago and then sat on it, so it’s not exactly a timely contribution to the debate. But the recent accusations that Oxford University demands postgraduate students demonstrate a degree of financial security that many people lack has prompted me to revisit this post as the points about social justice remain relevant.

I followed the UVa goings on closely, partly because I’d not long come back from a wonderful week spent in Charlottesville attending a conference and doing a small spot of guest teaching. Something one of the BoV members said really chilled me. He implied that online education could be a way to appease those calling for local students to have better access to UVa. My sense was that he wanted the campus to remain unchanged, while he offered the traditionally excluded communities (presumably including the black kids my colleague Bonnie Gordon has been working so hard to encourage to think of UVa as their university) an online education so they don’t need to be seen on campus. Well, that’s my take on his remark. Maybe he meant something else.

Before I began my fellowship, I was involved in setting up a doctoral programme in Digital Arts and Humanities at my home institution, University College Cork in Ireland. I am interested in digital scholarship, although I wouldn’t say yet that I do it. I do use a lot of digitised resources. I am a member of an online academic peer mentoring group, so I do see there are opportunities for online networking. I’m an avid user of social media (Facebook and Twitter) and I’ve found it really a great way of advancing some of my own research and developing my thinking. (This post started life as a comment on a Facebook page.) And I’ve watched lectures from iTunesU on occasion, too. But personal interest and professional development as something that enhances on campus development, research and networking, seems quite different from taking an entirely online degree programme, and that’s something I have not yet done. In case it’s not clear from what follows, I am not anti-online education per se. I’m well aware that it is possible to have an excellent online learning experience and a terrible on-campus learning experience. Both forms of education need to be excellent, and ideally they should complement each other (blended learning is all the rage in some quarters).

My prime concern is the perceived status at the moment of different forms of education and how that relates to social justice and privilege. I probably am being somewhat polemical.

Higher education in Ireland (where I’ve had most of my professional experience) seems very different from that in the US. My students have  ranged from school leavers to mature students, and includes those who entered our daytime degree programs via our adult education evening access program. Throughout my professional life (and in fact my student life), the majority of my students have been middle class and had a considerable degree of privilege. It could be a reflection of the kinds of topics I chose to teach (primarilly feminism, women, gender; my courses also commonly deal with issues of class, status, race), but many students in my physical seminar and lecture rooms in Ireland were juggling multiple responsibilities–usually a combination of two or more of work, young children, families with alcoholism, poverty, poor mental health, poor physical health including chronic and life-threatening conditions, family violence, and sick parents who need help to run the famiily farm. Some students needed a bit of understanding and some help to take advantage of the same opportunities as anyone else, as best they could, including the opportunity to connect with other students, potential employers, and academics. I’ve heard academics the world over complain about flaky students. In my experience, it’s not usually flakiness, it’s something like parenting while dealing with poor mental health, financial problems, and several generations of alcoholism in the family in a culture that believes these are individual responsibilities entirely divorced from systemic failures of society to provide and care adequately for all its members. I have watched students with these kinds of life difficulties graduate and go on to work or to postgraduate education. It can be done, given the right educational, social and financial support. At least until Ireland’s first emergency budget a few years back there were some supports in place (although not nearly enough) to help underprivileged and non-traditional students get a decent education and have an opportunity to access further/higher education. Sadly, state funding has now been axed at all educational levels (primary school through grad school) for programs that helped students with Traveler heritage, school students with English as a second language, students with disabilities; and because benefits (including child benefit) are being cut, students with children are having a tougher time, too. When I return, I wonder whether I will be teaching a student body as diverse as the one I left. (And the one I left could have been more diverse yet: not only was it very middle class, it was also very white.)

I remain deeply concerned that campus administrators and politicians see online teaching as a way to remove certain students from campus, get rid of a ‘problem’ student who requires a lot of support, and save money by axing the supports needed to help them succeed on campus. In order for non-traditional students to succeed on campus, there needs to be important changes in traditional education. Most times, these kinds of changes improve things for everyone. So, I’m not arguing for the status quo. I am arguing that there needs to be proper social, financial, political support for equality of access to education, and various support structures in place so that students from non-traditional backgrounds can complete successfully: in other words, meaningful social justice on campus.

Right now, it seems like online degrees are shunned by the traditional cohort of single, childless, able-bodied white men and women in their late teens and early 20s from well-to-do backgrounds, with neurotypical approaches to thinking and writing, and allegedly perfect mental health. (I could detour here to discuss the problems with normative masculinity and femininity, but I won’t.) So, the impression is that online ed is second best, because we don’t push the allegedly desirable students toward it. Students from non-traditional backgrounds, though, especially students with caring responsibilities and a job, are often encouraged to consider part-time online education as a solution to the very real problems they have, like finding time to get to a lecture hall. They might be able to find the time if there were adequate structures in place to help, like affordable, good quality child care on campus, a visiting carer to look after the elderly live-in parent, financial support, or day-release from work. I worry that at the moment there is a risk that such students end up in a kind of ghetto. The worst case scenario I can see? If/when online ed (such as MOOCs and so on) start making money, poor and disenfranchised students could effectively be subsidizing the campus educations of the privileged. Of course it doesn’t have to happen like that, and I don’t know an educator who would want to see that happen, but educators often aren’t the people making the policy decisions that ultimately entrench these kinds of social divisions. The prospect of online education becoming an excuse to exclude students from diverse backgrounds, with diverse sets of challenges from campus is very real. I don’t want campus to be a place for the privileged few even more than it already is. And idealist that I am, I can’t help thinking that perhaps Mitt Romney wouldn’t be so clueless about the 47 percent if throughout his life he’d been educated with people from diverse backgrounds and with diverse life experiences. And perhaps there would be more students from non-traditional backgrounds and more diverse students entering politics and so on if they had been able to meet, study and socialise with people with those kinds of connections. (Of course, I’m thinking of Bourdieu here.) Perhaps I’m naive and idealistic, maybe even a socialist feminist, but I certainly do not want to teach in such segregated environments. I’ll believe that online education has achieved equal status to campus ed when the likes of the Clintons, Romneys, Bushes, Kennedys, Heinzs, Haugheys, Aherns, Windsors, Blairs, Camerons etc encourage their privileged offspring to take online degrees instead of applying to top ranked universities. In the meantime, I will strive to make my campus university genuinely inclusive, and a place where people from all backgrounds and with all sorts of challenges can get an education and access the same kinds of opportunities side by side.

Including Composers Who Are Women in the Music Curriculum

Yesterday The Plashing Vole brought to my attention Kerry Andrew’s recent article in the The Guardian, ‘Why are there so few women composers?’ Andrew suggests that one way to increase the number of composers who are women is to revise the curriculum so that composing is seen as something women do. Sensible suggestion, that. Writers of supposedly general histories of music have often failed to mention that really they’re writing histories of music by white, European men. Many failed to mention their decision to omit the creativity of specific demographics and instead passed off the work of a select demographic as the work of an entire culture. Of course, all histories involve decisions about what to include and exclude, but some histories are a bit more upfront about those decisions and criteria for inclusion than others. And sometimes even music history surveys that include women do so in ways that differentiate them from men—for example, women composers may be introduced as student of Mr. X, whereas the men composers are apparently born fully-formed creative geniuses who never required teachers. (Yes, I have a specific music history book in mind.) Casting a wider net in telling history, being more inclusive in many ways, paints a fuller picture of what was going on in a specific culture. It isn’t just good for groups of musicians currently marginalised by society, it’s good for society as a whole. More people see music as a possible activity and we all get to hear a wide variety of music. What’s not to like?! (Please, don’t answer!)

So, yes, I agree with Andrew that primary and secondary schools need to revise their curricula (which in England and Wales really means changing the National Curriculum). It needs to happen in tertiary education too—you know, in the classes where future teachers learn the kinds of things that our culture currently thinks are worth teaching. In cases where survey courses are still the main approach, the ideal would be to revise those completely. (The late Prof. Donna Cardamone Jackson, who taught at the University of Minnesota, once told me that in every course she taught she used music examples by diverse composers—diverse in terms of gender and race. I would say Donna was quietly revolutionary. Sometimes not so quietly.) It’s not just a case of keeping the same basic “great composer” narrative and including a few token women, say. The “great composer” narrative functioned to exclude people, to devalue certain types of music making. Ultimately, the narrative needs to change too, and in many places it is changing.

Today I happened upon a relevant book that might help those interested in revising undergraduate curricula: Julie Dunbar’s Women, Music, Culture: An Introduction (Routledge, 2011) and its companion website. Like Women’s Voices Across Musical Worlds, edited by Jane Bernstein (Northeastern University Press, 2003), chapters of which I’ve used in my undergraduate course, ‘Women and Music Across Cultures’, it’s organised by theme. I’ve only skimmed the Google Books preview of Dunbar’s book, but so far it looks quite interesting. Both Bernstein and Dunbar’s books are suitable for undergraduates and might be particularly useful for those who are not research-active in women’s or gender studies and want to work at mainstreaming gender-related issues in their courses. Dunbar’s includes questions, exercises and discussion points that encourage students to reflect upon the kinds of stories that are told (including the one being told in the book). Bernstein’s edited book doesn’t have that kind of thing—it’s aimed at a general music readership, not just undergraduates—but it does have really useful topic introductions that draw out common threads between the various essays. In my very brief scan of the very short preview, I saw abundant mention of Hildegard, Pauline Oliveros, and an index entry for X-Ray Spex. Bernstein’s book likewise covers a wide range of musical practices.

I’m curious enough to request an e-copy of Dunbar’s book for examination, even though it’s going to be a while until I teach an undergraduate course again. To be honest, the paperback price seems a little on the high side: £39.99, or $64.95 versus $29.95 for a paperback copy of Bernstein’s edited volume. (I’m quoting prices on the publishers’ websites: at time of writing, Amazon.com is charging almost $140 for Dunbar’s in hardback and just under $60 for the paperback.)

Finally, the Committee on Women and Gender of the American Musicological Society is updating their collection of course syllabi. I’ll post the link when I have it.

Musicological Conformities and Whiteness in Modern Early Music Performance

No, I’m not quite done with my posts following on from the American Musicological Society meeting in San Francisco yet! As with any productive conference, I have plenty of thinking to do as I work through new ideas and revise my own in response to comments and questions.

My paper was in an evening session organized by the AMS Committee on Women and Gender. Bonnie Gordon and Laurie Stras put together a fabulous panel, chaired by Jane Bernstein, considering Musicological Conformities. The idea was to think about gender, race and class from within marginal groups. (The abstract is on page 69 of the conference book [PDF].) Craig Monson interweaved entertaining and sobering stories of seventeeth-century convent choirs with thoughts on the family networks and with readings of the visual, textual and musical environment. Musical networks included competing family groups of musicians—aunts and their nieces might try to have a monopoly on certain types of music-making (the organists stuck in my mind). Emily Wilbourne opened her paper with an arresting account of stalking her subject (Virginia Andreini) through the archives. (Archival research has a creepy element. To be honest, I love reading [dead] people’s private correspondence.) Sindhumathi Revuluri brilliantly highlighted the colonial treatment of folksongs in her paper on “Civilizing Harmonies: Folksong Collection in Fin-de-siècle France”.

My paper considered whiteness in British early music vocal performing practice. Is it operating? If so, how? Is it in the sound? There’s a substantial body of scholarship demonstrating that, for example, the early music movement is about modernity (e.g. Richard Taruskin, John Butt), the British early music vocal sound comes from the Anglican cathedral and Oxbridge choral traditions (e.g. Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, John Potter, Christopher Page, Donald Grieg), and that there are significant gender and class issues too (e.g. Kirsten Yri, Don Grieg). My contribution is to consider the operation of whiteness in this, particularly in relation to vocal conformity. Yes, it’s elite in terms of class, as Grieg and Page have demonstrated.  All I’m doing is considering the possibility that the practice in Britain is racialised as white, in part because of the history of institutional racism and the “possessive investment in whiteness,” to quote George Lipsitz’s book title, that has meant that the sound has been developed in particular ways.

I’m not going to recap my paper here. All I’m doing is briefly recording some of the directions for further research that came up in discussion and conversation. (I’m working the paper up for publication, and in due course a version will be available via my institutional open access repository.)  Some people shared personal stories that shed further light on British vocal culture in the mid-20th century. One person generously said I’d explained her childhood vocal training. Others talked of how they had felt excluded in Britain—even people who came from privileged backgrounds in the US and Canada found that they didn’t have the “right kind” of whiteness in Britain: their gender, ethnicity or religious heritage meant they didn’t quite fit. This does not mean that the whiteness angle is null and void, rather it highlights how whiteness operates differently in different times and places—it is not a cross-cultural constant, and needs to be considered with intersecting axes of difference. (Gwen Sharp posted a great discussion of this at Sociological Images.)

Some took issue with the idea that early music is racist. That is not precisely what I claimed: I was not insinuating that musicians who participate in early music deliberately discriminate against those who do not fit the current cultural ‘definition’ of white. Rather, there is a history of structural discrimination (perhaps better known in Britain as institutional racism) and the sound that now dominates British early music vocal performance originates in those very institutions. The sound cannot be entirely divorced from the social contexts which developed it.

I am concerned that the discourse of purity and simplistic ideas of authenticity are often based on an understanding of an imagined European past that was entirely Christian and white and in which the musicians were male. This denies the diversity and complexity of the past and it denies the diversity and complexity of the present, too.