The Academic Club

Peg Tittle, Nipissing University, Canada.
y now, the old boys' network has been exposed
--that subterranean club, membership to which opens 
the doors one thought responded to the key of merit 
only. So too have the lobby groups been exposed--political 
influence, we now know, is a well-developed business, and 
the individual who wants representation best not waste 
his/her time talking to an MP but join a lobby group 
instead.

After years of trying to 'make it' as a writer and composer, 
I have, I think, uncovered yet another invisible club--the 
academic club.  Actually, it's not so much a club as a style, 
I think, and yet I'd be hard pressed to describe it.

The uncloaking of the phenomenon began when I joined the Canadian 
Electroacoustic Community (CEC).  I noticed that I didn't 'fit in'.  
I thought it was my sex (the CEC was almost exclusively male) or 
my lack of affiliation with a university or a business (such 
affiliation seemed the norm), but gradually I came to see, or 
rather to hear, that the stuff I was composing was not at all 
like the stuff others were composing.  My stuff was still, I 
thought, electroacoustic music and therefore I was still rightly 
a member--but there was a difference, a big difference.

Then I noticed that almost all of the winners of the Bourges 
competition, perhaps the most prestigious electroacoustic music 
competition, were PhDs.  Even in the lesser SOCAN competition for 
young composers, the winners were almost exclusively PhD candidates.  
What are the odds, I wondered.

Now of course that could simply mean that PhDs, having studied longer 
and more deeply than non-PhDs, compose better music.  Yeah right.  
Bach didn't have a PhD.  Nor did Chopin.  I don't know about Charles 
Fox (a really big name in film composition) or Yanni (a very popular 
instrumental composer).  'Better' is an aesthetic judgement and I 
don't see that grad school improves one's aesthetic sensibility.

It could be that the judges, if they're PhDs themselves, know and 
favour the competitors who are PhD candidates.  But I believe the 
judging is blind.

I think it's the style.  All of the winners' stuff sounds, well, 
awful.  It sounds like the stuff I wrote as assignment pieces when 
I was studying toward my ARCT in composition: pieces intended to 
achieve a certain musical goal, to fulfil certain artificial 
requirements (e.g. write a piece using this tone row and such and 
such instrumentation), pieces derivatives of or reactions against 
a very narrow canon of music, pieces whose aesthetic--if there is 
one--is ultra cognitive.  The stuff sounds like sonic research more 
than anything.  

I recall one such composer, a Bourges winner even, bragging about the 
density of his piece--there were millions of notes involved, extensive 
overdubbing of tracks resulted in as many as 400 notes being heard at 
the same time.  (So?  How does it sound?  Awful.  I heard it.)  I'm 
not saying that sonic research is necessarily bad.  But if the 
competition is for sonic research, the organizers should say so--so 
someone doesn't submit music instead.  

I recall an adjudicator's comment, years earlier, to the effect that 
my submitted piece was 'not new music'.  Yes it was, I'd written it 
that year!  That's not what 'new music' meant.  And if I'd been in an 
academic music program, I would have known that.  But they never said 
the competition was limited to academic definitions, to academic 
standards.

I noticed the same phenomenon with the poetry, and to a lesser extent 
the novels, which were getting published.  Again the aesthetic seemed, 
well, artificial.  And there was a narrowness of form, a similarity--as 
if they all had the same grandfather.  And yes, all the poets seemed to 
have MFAs or PhDs in Literature.

Even in philosophy, there's a certain style of paper that gets published
--papers written in what I'm calling the academic style.  I was, 
fortunately, told about this, explicitly, by one of my graduate philosophy 
profs: my papers were well-written and my ideas were certainly very good, 
but, alas, she explained, my tone was too conversational, too casual, too 
informal; my work, she feared, though certainly worthy, would never get 
published in philosophy journals--at least, not in academic philosophy 
journals (trouble is there are no non-academic philosophy journals).  
Not having completely accepted this lesson, I found the first draft of 
my thesis returned by my advisor with the request that I replace all 
contractions with their long forms.

I'm not saying this academic style, whether in music, poetry, philosophy, 
or what have you, is bad.  Well actually I guess I am--I am suggesting 
that it's unfortunate that more attention is paid to style than to 
substance, to form than to content.

But what I'm especially saying is that the invisible should be made 
visible, the implicit made explicit.  The Bourges Competition people 
and others like them should say that pieces written in the academic 
style are preferred.  Publishers should be as upfront--I wouldn't have 
submitted half the manuscripts I did to half the publishers I did if 
they'd said that they publish only poetry written in the academic style.

So why don't they say so?  Well, perhaps they share the arrogance of all 
groups that see themselves at centre stage--they don't even consider the 
existence of others.  They believe they're the norm, they assume they're 
the standard.  So what they are goes without saying.  (In Canada we call 
Blacks Black; we seldom call Whites anything at all.)

But failure to identify can lead to great difficulties.  I believe this 
is happening right now with feminism.  There's academic feminism and 
there's non-academic feminism.  Some of the anti-feminist tracts 
(Christina Hoff Sommers' Who Stole Feminism? Katie Roiphe's The Morning 
After, etc.) are actually talking about academic feminism, the Women's 
Studies kind of feminism, which, actually, is a very narrow kind of 
feminism.  Most feminists living today are, I believe, over thirty-five, 
and therefore probably never even took a Women's Studies course; we 
haven't even heard of Lucy Irigaray.  It's a dangerous situation because 
other academics think then that their Women's Studies department 
represents the mainstream of feminism.  And there's the problem: the 
university, the academy, is not the mainstream.

Most academics seem to think the university is the centre of the universe.  
And I guess it has been, for them: it's been all they have known through 
four years of undergraduate education and another two years for a Masters
and yet another four years for a PhD.  But the rest of the world didn't 
stand still for those ten years.  Not even the rest of the intelligent or 
even intellectual world.  

It doesn't take a genius to recognize that there's not enough room in 
academia for everyone whose IQ is over 120, 140, or whatever.  Those of 
us not affiliated with a university are not morons.  And we're out here 
living, some of us composing, writing, thinking, and doing so unjacketed 
by the academic style. But that's no reason to dismiss or exclude us.  
And, well, if you think it is, at least say so!