Defying the Evil Empire

Not a negotiation...
Not a negotiation…


I’ve had my first confrontation with the Evil Empire: I have been sorely tempted, yet I have prevailed.

There was a cost, of course. Between September and December this blog was placed on the longest hiatus in its four-plus years of existence as I fought my own personal battle to maintain my integrity as an educator. This was not a conflict with my employer, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte – rather, the institution has been extremely welcoming of my very distinct, if not unorthodox, if not occasionally heretical methods for promoting student growth and learning. UNCC is a rare example in my experience of an institution that actively encourages diversity of thought as much as the much cheaper and easier (and yet still unfathomably rare) diversity of gender, race or ethnicity in academia. No, the battle was fought between me and a publisher.

On July 29th my family and I left Boston. On July 31st we moved into a house in Charlotte, NC. And on August 19th the Fall 2013 semester began in earnest. This timeline is relevant in that it gave me less than three weeks to relocate and prepare for a semester of active teaching, not just in my role as Director of Orchestras but in my additional duties as the instructor of record for one classroom section. In the latter function I had a particular vision of something quite original – something different from the standard university canon of experiences, something hopefully memorable and above all, useful to students. It would require building an entire course from the ground up, with monumental investment of time and effort.

Or I could just go with a textbook.

Enter the Evil Empire. Its minions rushed ostensibly to my aid, offering me salvation in volumes. Or rather, a volume. But it wasn’t just a book they offered. Their proposed text came with an array of accompanying recordings and suites of additional online tools for students. Rich, immersive multimedia experiences for all! But the real enticement was the teacher resources. Beyond a special edition print edition with suggested talking points and class questions, there was a full syllabus, and a complete class-by-class array of PowerPoint slides. It was a course in its entirety, pre-written, pre-prepared, gift-wrapped and delivered on a silver platter, and it was free to me, entirely free. I wouldn’t even have to think, so comprehensive was their offering. All I had to do was tell my class to buy their book. Then on day one of the semester I could download a presentation from the publisher’s site and start reading aloud from the first slide. For a new, highly-stressed and time-bankrupt professor at a major research university, this was like being handed the keys to heaven.

A version of heaven, anyway. Or rather, an early, highly abridged/censored version of heaven. The course is “Music and Society” and I accepted the assignment because the near-infinite interrelations of our world and its art converge in the direction of Sistema. But the textbook on offer seemed to take a very narrow view of society. Chapters were devoted to “Music and Love” or “Music and Broadway” but compelling social issues of race or socio-economic standing (class) never received even a mention. The word “economics” fails to appear anywhere within the tome, so the fact that the existing western classical canon depends so much on who was paying for it seems to have eluded the authors. LGBT issues received one-half of one page. And the half altruistic, half colonialist rationale for music education, and its surprising role in the shaping of society over the last five hundred years, is never broached.

For the past few years, I’ve made my living advocating for and modeling new ways of learning, decrying the “park and bark” method of instruction in front of orchestras or classes. “Telling is not Teaching,” I would say, followed closely by “and Teaching is not Learning.” But it was after examining the text that I realized this choice wasn’t really about becoming a hypocrite in my own eyes, it was about compromising on content as much as delivery. In my last entry I asked the question how dumb things need to be: according to mainstream scholastic publishing, the answer is “pretty dumb indeed.” Thomas Bowdler would have been proud, so sanitized was this vision of music and society, so unobjectionable its messaging, so facile would be its delivery.

Would the students have noticed or cared? Probably not. But I gave up every evening and every weekend for four months to think, research, compile and construct experiences for students that I hoped would be consonant with my own philosophy of learning. Some of classes worked well, others fell on their face. Did the students notice or care? Probably not. But the alternative was to allow the mainstream to dictate what was taught (not what they learned – that’s separate). In publishing, it’s often far more important to be first to press than it is to be profound, it’s more important to marketable than to be methodical, and it’s better to be trite and quotable rather than true. Thus I replaced an inadequate, market/sales-driven vision of Music and Society with my own inadequate vision, ensuring that its failings are mine alone.

Teachers, like publishers, are gatekeepers. Both entities make difficult choices in terms of what content to present, in terms of what perspectives to privilege. But unlike publishers, teachers do not make these choices based on profitability. Job security? Perhaps. Time management? Almost certainly. But we do not profit directly …yet… from assigning a text.

I’m not a hero, nor even a rebel. I have tremendous sympathy for those who heed the siren call of the publisher: we’re paid too little and there are too few hours in the day for those of us with more than one classroom assignment. But educators are confronted with this choice, this dilemma in classrooms across the world every single day, and most don’t have the same luxury I had in being able to say no. Make no mistake, it was a luxury. I’m not a hero, nor even a rebel. Just fortunate.

I’ve had my first confrontation with the Evil Empire: I have been sorely tempted, yet I have prevailed.

It’s doubtful the Evil Empire noticed or cared.





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