Last week I had the pleasure of attending and participating in the MayDay Group’s Colloquium 29: Thinking Critically About Institutions & Individuals, hosted by Gettysburg College. Besides the privilege of getting to know many fascinating, kind, and thoughtful people, I shared a small slice of my experience as a music education graduate student in a presentation titled Communicating Diverse Viewpoints in US Music Education: Perspectives from a Participating Outsider.
The presentation was based on a reflective, autoethnographic analysis I’ve been working on regarding difficulties I’ve experienced understanding and being understood in an institution in which my underlying set of values and assumptions differs distinctly from the norm, and in which my apparent race and educational background contribute to further miscommunication.
To begin with, I introduced the roots of the project and the framework I used to conduct it- the Nexus Analysis approach proposed by Scollon and Scollon. View the introduction below:
Following the introduction, I introduced the prominent discourses threading through my experience as relate to the “major players;” the institution of music education, the faculty,
and myself. I took a moment to consider the complex relationships between my white middle class upbringing, the disillusionment and debilitating performance anxiety that lead to my exit from the classical music field, and my subsequent transformation through an immersion in the culture surrounding Irish traditional music.
As part of an investigation of the interactions between myself and the other participants, I examined the benefits I’ve received as a graduate student, particularly the stimulation of my intellectual development. I also considered my motivations for entering and remaining in the field,
and the various issues surrounding and contributing to my experience as an outsider. The quote by Blommaert particularly resonated with the core of my challenges in communicating and my persistence in seeking a voice:
“Voice stands for the way in which people manage to make themselves understood or fail to do so. In doing so, they have to draw upon and deploy discursive means which they have at their disposal, and they have to use them in contexts that are specified as to conditions of use. Consequently, if these conditions are not met, people ‘don’t make sense’- they fail to make themselves understood – and the actual reasons for this are manifold… Voice is the issue that defines linguistic inequality (hence, many other forms of inequality) in societies. An analysis of voice is an analysis of power effects- (not) being understood in terms of the set of socio-cultural rules and norms specified – as well as of conditions for power – what it takes to make oneself understood.” Blommaert, 2005, p. 4-5
These “outsider effects” I divided into three categories- those relating to the structure of the institution, those revolving around issues of communication, and the emotional effects I experienced.
I then briefly situated my experiences within some of the literature on in- and out-groups within universities, focusing on similarities and differences between my experiences and those of working class students as reported in several studies. I posited that while my Irish music roots inform my assumptions about music and music-making, my middle class roots contribute to sense of empowerment and valuing of education which has lead me to persist in the university setting.
Finally, we descended into the core of the project, exploring three “scenes” from my time as a graduate student and graduate assistant which I felt allowed me to examine some of the issues underlying my experience. For each scene, I suggested a potential point of change- a way in which those in power in the institution of higher ed music ed might further benefit from and facilitate the growth of students with different values and assumptions. The first scene centered around my experience attempting to learn the 3rd mvt. of the Chichester Psalms the same way I learn an Irish fiddle tune, and the various ways in which my process was not reflected or legitimized in the assignment or assessment.
In the second scene, I delved into ways in which my differing sense of what is important about music, particularly Irish music, created uncomfortable experiences for me as I attempted to complete assignments in which the richness of my music was reduced to those elements commonly focused on in Western formal music education practices.
The third scene represented the multitudinous occasions on which I’ve misinterpreted instruction, and some of the emotional and educational ramifications they have had on me and others around me.
Following a tour through these three memories, I closed with a brief consideration of pathways to change in the field of music education. It can be overwhelming and confusing to consider change in such a complex system, and one often wonders which should come first- the chicken or the egg? Perhaps “egg changes” could be seen as those in which we help nurture new ideas and values in students and developing organizations. “Chicken changes” might be when we seek to enact change in already mature individuals and institutions.
In all, I’d say my most important realization through this analysis was the importance of taking the TIME to understand each other, to go deep, and to recognize and suspend our assumptions about others and the ways in which we might make, value, and appreciate music.
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