Last week I attended the debate ‘How can universities promote academic freedom? Insights from the front line of the gender wars’, at University College London’s Institute of Education. This was a stimulating and thoughtful event, organised in conjunction with the publication of a booklet of the same name by philosopher Professor Judith Suissa and sociologist Professor Alice Sullivan (both from UCL) (free to download). Suissa and Sullivan gave short introductions then responses to the booklet came from Baroness Estelle Morris (former Labour Secretary of State for Education), Professor David Ruebain (Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Culture, Equality and Inclusion at the University of Sussex), Professor Arif Ahmed (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge) (Akua Reindorf was unable to be present). With a debate focused upon the issues of biological sex against gender, it would be hard to deny that the panel was dominated by those believing that the former is not simply subsumed within the latter, though I gather various proponents of the primacy of gender and/or trans individuals (the lack of which was noted by Ruebain) were invited but declined to participate. The discussion centered around the evidence and arguments in the booklet for concerted attempts to silence, no-platform and ostracise ‘gender-critical’ scholars, a phenomenon also identified in a recent Times Higher Education Supplement article by early career scholar Laura Favaro (also available at this link), based upon interviews with 50 academics involved with gender studies. Favaro found many examples of a culture of fear, self-censorship, gatekeeping within journals and academic networks, and a total lack of frank and open discussion on what are undoubtedly contested areas. Various panellists and members of the packed audience at the event related similar experiences. What I have not seen is gender-critical feminists attempting to have their opponents censored, no-platformed, or hounded from their positions, though some have naturally responded very negatively to highly abusive comments towards the former, sometimes advocating sexual or other violence.
Morris argued that the disputes relating to sex and gender were about ideology versus evidence-based reasoning. Sullivan argued that some university Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) organisations can be and have been infiltrated by those from activist groups with extremist views. Ahmed, who paid tribute to Suissa and Sullivan, recognising the concerted hostility they will have faced, also noted other areas of intolerance, such as a tendency to brand anyone in a university who was or is a supporter of Brexit as a bigot. Despite being a 200% Remainer myself, I would be hard-pressed to disagree that this is the case, and can see how much of a problem it is. Ruebain was the one panellist giving a somewhat different view, arguing that we need to understand the contexts in which contested examples of academic freedom occur, and also suggesting that the issues here are so intensely personal and emotionally felt by many that it is hard to subject them to the usual processes of academic critique. This may be the case, but personal feelings do not seem to be a concern for those engaged in quite vicious and abusive hate campaigns against those associated with gender-critical views, often trying to force them out of their job, as occurred with philosopher Professor Kathleen Stock at the University of Sussex, after facing a huge mobbing campaign from by students and colleagues. Ruebain also compared current debates with the fervent disputes between second-wave feminists and disability activists in the 1980s over such issues as abortion rights. One questioner argued that the situation depended a lot on the institution at which one was based, noting that UCL’s record on defending academic freedom and staff was exemplary, but the situation was rather different at the Universities of Birmingham or Sussex. A somewhat more ambivalent account of the debate was published by Jim Dickinson for Wonkhe.
Academic freedom is in my view an utterly essential component of university life, a non-negotiable prerequisite of scholarly rigour and integrity. I nonetheless find it disappointing to find that there are more than a few academics, including some in senior positions, who have a rather dismissive view of the whole concept. In part I believe this is relates to one of the most troubling recent phenomena in academia, its infiltration by activists, uninterested in any scholarly knowledge other than that which bolsters their a priori positions, who attempt to recruit in their own image, limit curricula and teaching materials to those things which concur with their activist beliefs, and can act shockingly towards other scholars or students who dare to disagree (more to follow on fair engagement with students of multiple political perspectives in a subsequent blog post). Also at stake is the legacy of postmodernism, sometimes imagined now to be a dated movement of the 1980s and 1990s which no longer carries any sway, but some of the aspects of which, in particular extreme relativisation of concepts of ‘truth’ (often in opposition to straw man characterisations of positions insisting on 100% objectivity), and the somewhat later dissolution of scholarship into politics, continue to be major presences on the academic landscape.
Stock has written of her memories of pugilistic debate from faculty members (mostly men) with visiting speakers from when she was a Masters philosophy student, which seemed frightening at the time and designed to humiliate the speakers. But for all the problems with this (and it is certainly possible to conduct robust debate in a more civilised fashion), she believes that what came later was worse. Stock observed an exaggerated synthetic ‘niceness’ in debates, but combined with unctuous name-dropping, endless rules around debate, rather arcane rituals for raising hands and fingers, and often banal questions. This did not however remove the aggression, but simply directed it elsewhere. In the absence of proper open debate, many would revert to surreptitious means to undermine others, through mass denunciations on social media, many ad hominem attacks, complaints, hidden campaigns, and so on. As so often, those enforcing an agenda ostensibly about ‘kindness’ could be amongst the most vicious in trying to silence those who disagree with them on anything. One professor has even described debate per se as ‘an imperialist capitalist white supremacist cis heteropatriarchal technique that transforms a potential exchange of knowledge into a tool of exclusion & oppression.’
Suissa and Sullivan (whose excellent booklet I will not describe in detail here, as I would prefer that people read it themselves) find ample evidence of both students and academics attempting to suppress free speech and academic freedom, and make various key recommendations. These include the maintenance of the university as a pluralistic space which welcomes diverse views, avoiding official ideological viewpoints on behalf of institutions and the use of political lobby groups in shaping policy or providing training, and while recognising that activist networks have a place in academia, they must be independent of the university administration. They also advocate education of staff and students on academic freedom and the value of productive disagreement, including its legal and philosophical bases, the promotion of academic freedom alongside equality, including the appointment of a champion for academic freedom within the senior leadership team, and further promotion of collegiality (sometimes a misused term taken to signify concurrence with a dominant ideology or promotion of a collective ‘brand’ – see below) and tackling harassment, providing security of tenure, signalling institutional support for academic freedom, and defence of the pursuit of truth. An article on the booklet, in particular the need for appointment of champions of academic freedom, can be read here.
What does ‘academic freedom’ mean? Many at the debate agreed that it was a different concept to ‘free speech’, though the two do overlap. In a paper I gave in ‘Musicology and Academic Freedom’ at the Music and the University Conference at City, University of London in July, I enlisted several definitions which I wanted to share here as well as some other arguments made in this paper. Whilst the concept can be dated back many centuries, it is generally accepted that the moder definition has its roots in the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt and the founding of the Berlin Universität in 1810. Humboldt published an essay entitled ‘Über die innere und äussere Organisation der höheren wissenschaftlichen Anstalten zu Berlin’ (1809-10), which has been translated as ‘On the Spirit and the Organisational Framework of Intellectual Institutions in Berlin’, Minerva, vol. 8, no. 2 (April 1970), pp. 242-250. The following are amongst the most pertinent passages:
Since these institutions [universities] can only fulfil their purposes when each of them bears continuously in mind the pure idea of science and scholarship [these two terms are used to translate Wissenschaft], their dominant principles must be freedom and the absence of distraction (Einsamkeit).
At the higher level, the teacher does not exist for the sake of the student; both teacher and student have their justification in the common pursuit of knowledge. The teacher’s performance depends on the students’ presence and interest – without this science and scholarship could not grow. If the students who are to form his audience did not come before him of their own free will, he, in his quest for knowledge, would have to seek them out. The goals of science and scholarship are worked towards most effectively through the synthesis of the teacher’s and the students’ dispositions.
The state must always remain conscious of the fact that it never has and in principle never can, by its own action, bring about the fruitfulness of intellectual activity. It must indeed be aware that it can only have a prejudicial influence if it intervenes. The state must understand that intellectual work will go on infinitely better if it does not intrude.
Now as regards the organisational and material side of the relationship of the institution to the state, the only concerns of the latter must be profusion (in the sense of mental power and variety) of intellectual talents to be brought together in the institution. This can be achieved through care in the selection of persons and the assurance of freedom in their intellectual activities. This intellectual freedom can be threatened not only by the state, but also by the intellectual institutions themselves which tend to develop, at their birth, a certain outlook and which will therefore readily resist the emergence of another outlook. The state must seek to avert the harm which can possibly arise from this source.
The heart of the matter is the appointment of the persons who are to do the intellectual work.
The state must not deal with its universities as Gymnasia or as specialised technical schools; it must not use its academy as if it were a technical or scientific commission. It must in general – with certain exceptions among the universities which will be considered later – demand nothing from them simply for the satisfaction of its own needs. It should instead adhere to a deep conviction that if the universities attain their highest ends, they will also realise the state’s ends too, and these on a far higher plane. On this higher plane, more is comprehended and forces and mechanisms are brought into action which are quite different from those which the state can command.
The young person, on entry into university, should be released from the compulsion to enter either into a state of idleness or into practical life, and should be enabled to aspire to and elevate himself to the cultivation of science or scholarship which hitherto have only been pointed out to him from afar.
The way thereto is simple and sure. The aim of the schools must be the harmonious development of all the capacities of their pupils. Their powers must be focused on the smallest possible number of subject- matters but every aspect of these must be dealt with to as great an extent as possible. Knowledge should be so implanted in the mind of the pupil that understanding, knowledge and creativity excite it, not through any external features, but through their inner precision, harmony and beauty. [. . . ] A mind which has been trained in this way will spontaneously aspire to science and scholarship.
Humboldt’s writings should be read in the context of the traditional German division between universities on one hand and academies of the sciences and arts on the other. He definitely favoured the former, and suggested that the latter have only really flourished where there are few universities. Academies had less strict requirements for selection of staff, compared to the habilitation required in a German university. Humboldt also believed the state should take exclusive control of appointments, rather than faculties:
Although disagreements and disputes within a university are wholesome and necessary, conflicts which might arise between teachers because of their specialised intellectual interests might unwittingly affect their viewpoints.
This important point is at odds with common processes for selection in the UK today.
From Humboldt’s ideas came the twin concepts of Lehrfreiheit (freedom to teach) and Lernfreiheit (freedom to learn), as subsets of Wissenschaftsfreiheit or Akademische Freiheit. These concepts developed through the course of the nineteenth century.
Another hugely important intervention in the development of the concept came from philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce, in his lectures delivered at Cambridge, MA in 1898 (collected in the 1992 Harvard University Press volume Reasoning and the Logic of Things: The Cambridge Conferences Lectures of 1898), in particular that entitled ‘The First Rule of Logic’, in which he compared the situation in American universities deeply unfavourably with their German counterparts in terms of free intellectual inquiry and in particular the link between this and teaching:
…inquiry of every type, fully carried out, has the vital power of self-correction and of growth. This is a property so deeply saturating its inmost nature that it may truly be said that there is but one thing needful for learning the truth, and that is a hearty and active desire to learn what is true. If you really want to learn the truth, you will, by however devious a path, be surely led into the way of truth, at last. No matter how erroneous your ideas of the method may be at first, you will be forced at length to correct them so long as your activity is moved by that sincere desire. Nay, no matter if you only half desire it, at first, that desire would at length conquer all others could experience continue long enough. But the more voraciously truth is desired at the outset, the shorter by centuries will the road to it be.
In order to demonstrate that this is so, it is necessary to note what is essentially involved in The Will to Learn. The first thing that the Will to Learn supposes is a dissatisfaction with one’s present state of opinion. There lies the secret of why it is that our American Universities are so miserably insignificant. What have they done for the advance of civilization? What is the great idea or where is [a] single great man who can truly be said to be the product of an American University? The English universities, rotting with sloth as they always have, have nevertheless in the past given birth to Locke and to Newton, and in our time to Cayley, Sylvester and Clifford. The German universities have been the light of the whole world. The medieval University of Bologna gave Europe its system of law. The University of Paris, and that despised Scholasticism took Abelard and made him into Descartes. The reason was that they were institutions of learning while ours are institutions for teaching. In order that a man’s whole heart may be in teaching he must be thoroughly imbued with the vital importance and absolute truth of what he has to teach; while in order that he may have any measure of success in learning he must be penetrated with a sense of the unsatisfactoriness of his present condition of knowledge. The two attitudes are almost irreconcilable.
A range of statements followed from the American Association of University Professors, of which the most important is the ‘1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure’, which was and is endorsed by a wide range of US institutions:
- Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
- Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject [my emphasis]. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.
- College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.
The idea of limitations on academic freedom with deference to religious or other related principles now seems archaic in the modern secular university, but is understandable in the context of its time. What exactly is entailed by the phrase ‘respect for the opinions of others’ is open to much interpretation (certainly it is hard to see how this is true of those who regularly brand their opponents fascists, communists, colonialists, white supremacists, and so on), but there can be proper arenas and frameworks for this, through scholarly forums and the like, in which any aspect of someone’s arguments can be rigorously debated so long as this does not trespass into the realms of personalised attacks on an ad hominem basis, invoking factors irrelevant to the work. Most arguments, within reason, should be allowed a fair hearing but so should challenges to such arguments. To separate individual from work is harder than ever, however, in a time of intense subjectivity in scholarship, in which some make their case essentially on the basis of who they are and the experiences they have had, rather than the cogency of their arguments, as identified in William Matthews recent article for the THES.
In the UK, the most significant definition of academic freedom in recent times came about in the 1988 Education Reform Act, specifically in the so-called ‘Hillhead amendment’, named after Lord [Roy] Jenkins of Hillhead, which appeared within Section 202. This concerned the appointment of a body of University Commissioners (following the abolition of tenure), who would have various tasks:
to ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions;
Similar principles, presented in a more elaborate fashion, can be found in the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel:
III. 4: Institutions of higher education, and more particularly universities, are communities of scholars preserving, disseminating and expressing freely their opinions on traditional knowledge and culture, and pursuing new knowledge without constriction by prescribed doctrines. The pursuit of new knowledge and its application lie at the heart of the mandate of such institutions of higher education. In higher education institutions where original research is not required, higher-education teaching personnel should maintain and develop knowledge of their subject through scholarship and improved pedagogical skills.
VI. 26: Higher-education teaching personnel, like all other groups and individuals, should enjoy those internationally recognized civil, political, social and cultural rights applicable to all citizens. Therefore, all higher-education teaching personnel should enjoy freedom of thought, conscience, religion, expression, assembly and association as well as the right to liberty and security of the person and liberty of movement. They should not be hindered or impeded in exercising their civil rights as citizens, including the right to contribute to social change through freely expressing their opinion of state policies and of policies affecting higher education. They should not suffer any penalties simply because of the exercise of such rights. Higher-education teaching personnel should not be subject to arbitrary arrest or detention, nor to torture, nor to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In cases of gross violation of their rights, higher-education teaching personnel should have the right to appeal to the relevant national, regional or international bodies such as the agencies of the United Nations, and organizations representing higher-education teaching personnel should extend full support in such cases.
VI. 27: The maintaining of the above international standards should be upheld in the interest of higher education internationally and within the country. To do so, the principle of academic freedom should be scrupulously observed. Higher-education teaching personnel are entitled to the maintaining of academic freedom, that is to say, the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies. All higher-education teaching personnel should have the right to fulfil their functions without discrimination of any kind and without fear of repression by the state or any other source. Higher-education teaching personnel can effectively do justice to this principle if the environment in which they operate is conducive, which requires a democratic atmosphere; hence the challenge for all of developing a democratic society.
VI. 28: Higher-education teaching personnel have the right to teach without any interference, subject to accepted professional principles including professional responsibility and intellectual rigour with regard to standards and methods of teaching. Higher-education teaching personnel should not be forced to instruct against their own best knowledge and conscience or be forced to use curricula and methods contrary to national and international human rights standards. Higher-education teaching personnel should play a significant role in determining the curriculum.
VI. 29: Higher-education teaching personnel have a right to carry out research work without any interference, or any suppression, in accordance with their professional responsibility and subject to nationally and internationally recognized professional principles of intellectual rigour, scientific inquiry and research ethics. They should also have the right to publish and communicate the conclusions of the research of which they are authors or co-authors, as stated in paragraph 12 of this Recommendation.
VI. 30: Higher-education teaching personnel have a right to undertake professional activities outside of their employment, particularly those that enhance their professional skills or allow for the application of knowledge to the problems of the community, provided such activities do not interfere with their primary commitments to their home institutions in accordance with institutional policies and regulations or national laws and practice where they exist.
The UK 2017 Higher Education and Research Act (which came in the wake of a wide range of changes to Higher Education from 2010 onwards and established the Office for Students, superseding the earlier Higher Education Funding Council for England and Office for Fair Access), contained relevant material on academic freedom in Section 2(8):
In this Part, “the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers” means—
(a) the freedom of English higher education providers within the law to conduct their day to day management in an effective and competent way,
(b) the freedom of English higher education providers—
(i) to determine the content of particular courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised and assessed,
(ii) to determine the criteria for the selection, appointment and dismissal of academic staff and apply those criteria in particular cases, and
(iii) to determine the criteria for the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases, and
(c) the freedom within the law of academic staff at English higher education providers—
(i) to question and test received wisdom, and
(ii) to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions,
without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at the providers.
For wider reasons beyond the scope of this article (but which will appear in a piece to be published in the THES in the week beginning 3 October), I do question some aspects of complete autonomy of higher education providers, which I do not believe has ever been wholly meaningful in light of wider bodies dedicated to the maintenance of standards (until recently by the Quality Assurance Agency). Furthermore staff deserve wider protection in terms of selection, appointment and dismissal practices, through employment laws which exceed the priorities of individual providers. Nonetheless, sections (a) and (c) are sound bases for the conducting of academic work.
In 2020, The Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group produced a document entitled ‘Model Code of Conduct for the Protection of Academic Freedom and the Academic Community in the Context of the Internationalisation of the UK Higher Education Sector’. Whilst recognising the difficulties inherent in defining academic freedom satisfactorily, this group emphasise the following freedoms, drawing upon the 1988, 1997 and 2017 provisions:
- teach, discuss, assess, define the curriculum and study within their areas of academic expertise and/or inquiry;
- promote and engage in academic thinking, debate and inquiry;
- carry out research, and publish the results and make them known;
- freely express opinions about the academic institution or system in which they work or study;
- participate in professional or representative academic bodies;
- not be censored; and,
- fulfil their functions without discrimination or fear of repression.
These should not supplant the earlier definitions, but can be combined with them to demonstrate the priorities, and this provides a good basis for formulating working definitions.
Finally, the 2021 Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) bill (based on the white paper ‘Higher Education: Free Speech and Academic Freedom‘) from the UK Department of Education, still going through Parliament, lists the following duties for Higher Education Providers (HEPs):
A1 Duty to take steps to secure freedom of speech
(1) The governing body of a registered higher education provider must take the steps that, having particular regard to the importance of freedom of speech, are reasonably practicable for it to take in order to achieve the objective in subsection (2).
(2) That objective is securing freedom of speech within the law for—
(a) staff of the provider,
(b) members of the provider,
(c) students of the provider, and
(d) visiting speakers.
(3) The objective in subsection (2) includes securing that—
(a) the use of any premises of the provider is not denied to any individual or body on grounds specified in subsection (4), and
(b) the terms on which such premises are provided are not to any extent based on such grounds.
(4) The grounds referred to in subsection (3)(a) and (b) are—
(a) in relation to an individual, their ideas, beliefs or views;
(b) in relation to a body, its policy or objectives or the ideas, beliefs or views of any of its members.
(5) The objective in subsection (2), so far as relating to academic staff, includes securing their academic freedom.
(6) In this Part, “academic freedom”, in relation to academic staff at a registered higher education provider, means their freedom within the law—
(a) to question and test received wisdom, and
(b) to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves at risk of being adversely affected in any of the ways described in subsection (7).
(7) Those ways are—
(a) loss of their jobs or privileges at the provider;
(b) the likelihood of their securing promotion or different jobs at the provider being reduced.
(8) The governing body of a registered higher education provider must take the steps that, having particular regard to the importance of freedom of speech, are reasonably practicable for it to take in order to achieve the objective in subsection (9).
(9) That objective is securing that, where a person applies to become a member of academic staff of the provider, the person is not adversely affected in relation to the application because they have exercised their freedom within the law to do the things referred to in subsection (6)(a) and (b).
(10) In order to achieve the objective in subsection (2), the governing body of a registered higher education provider must secure that, apart from in exceptional circumstances, use of its premises by any individual or body is not on terms that require the individual or body to bear some or all of the costs of security relating to their use of the premises.
(11) In this Part—
references to freedom of speech include the freedom to express ideas, beliefs and views without suffering adverse consequences;
“registered higher education provider” and “governing body”, in relation to such a provider, have the same meanings as in Part 1 of this Act
A3 Duty to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom
The governing body of a registered higher education provider must promote the importance of—
(a) freedom of speech within the law, and
(b) academic freedom for academic staff of registered higher education providers and their constituent institutions,
in the provision of higher education.
The bill goes on to list responsibilities for students unions, governing bodies and the Office for Students in these respects and in particular the creation of a Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom to monitor that such commitments on the part of HEPs are upheld.
While the bill is certainly not without problems, and may undergo further amendment before becoming law, I do believe overall it is a step forward. Those on the left who are committed to free speech and academic freedom should be prepared to concede some value in a piece of legislation introduced by a Conservative government.
Risks to Academic Freedom
In my own field of music/musicology, various recent events have highlighted issues of academic freedom. One is the affair known as ‘Schenkergate’, relating to the publication of a special issue of The Journal of Schenkerian Studies in 2020 in reference to the article by Philip A. Ewell, ‘Music Theory and the White Racial Frame’, Music Theory, vol. 26, no. 2 (September 2020). The controversy related in particular to an article by Schenker scholar Dr Timothy Jackson, making arguments about the prevalence of anti-semitism amongst African-Americans, and also arguing that the lack of involvement of African-Americans in music theory had much to do with the low incidence of classical music in the common upbringing of members of this community. Jackson found himself removed from the editorship of the journal as a result. He contested this in court and a Judge determined that this may violate his First Amendment rights. Prior to this, Jackson responded with an article for Quillette (‘The Schenker Controversy’, 20 December 2021) arguing for many fallacies in Ewell’s argument and reasoning.
The second affair was the resignation from a chair in musicology at Royal Holloway in the summer of 2021 of Professor J.P.E. Harper-Scott (who I will refer to as ‘Paul’, as that is how all who know him address him), about which I blogged earlier. Paul published an article online about his reasons for leaving academia, which included the following:
Without direct experience of academics until I went (as the first of my family) to university, I naively imagined them to be how they were presented in novels and TV programmes: sometimes quite bumbling and unworldly, but always committed to the pursuit of truth, never trusting in a commonplace ‘fact’ without subjecting it to the most serious sceptical scrutiny. This did not turn out to be true.
[…] It is a place filled with generally quite well-meaning people, but on the whole not with brave people, not people who are willing to follow the truth wherever it leads.
[….] I would put the problem in this (Kantian) way: I wrongly supposed that universities would be critical places, but they are becoming increasingly dogmatic.
This was followed by an example of a statement on the need to ‘decolonise’ the classical musical canon (on which subject I published an article in The Critic in July of this year), which was an example of what Harper-Scott deemed dogmatic, with a suggested alternative which he felt was more in the spirit of critical scholarly inquiry.
I share many of Paul’s concerns, and am also concerned with the trajectory of events relating to Schenkergate. But these relate to what I perceive as a range of factors which serve to limit and condition academic freedom in academia. So I offer the following list of these, some of which would concern those on the left, some those on the right, but all of which I think should concern anyone for whom academic freedom, defined more or less in the ways above, is a defining aspect of a university.
External Pressures from Industries and Institutions
I wrote more extensively about this subject in earlier blog posts here and here, but wish to emphasise (in line with the arguments in the later blog post), that in no sense should this be taken to imply that I oppose external engagement. I am referring to the situation whereby academics enter into partnerships with external institutions and bodies, which may be commercial, state-supported or partially state-supported. These partnerships may relate to research, teaching or both. In particular, I have in mind the situation in which the external institutions provide some financial support for these activities. If there is no such thing as a free lunch, there may also be no such thing as a free teaching or research grant. For such institutions to ask that their finance or other support entail concentration on certain areas is fair and to be expected. But what if the results are not necessarily what the external body wishes to hear?
The point may be made most clearly through reference to wider examples. Suppose that some major manufacturing corporation sponsors some research into the effects of particular types of manufacturing upon the environment. Perhaps the researchers in question may find their work leads them to the inexorable conclusion that this specific corporation are responsible for a range of environmentally damaging actions in the course of their regular activities, contrary to their own promotional material which argues that they are an environmentally-friendly corporation, also drawing attention to the fact that they sponsor this research in order to bolster such a thing. If the researchers felt under pressure to artificially modify or not publish their findings, for fear of not upsetting the corporation, this would in my view severely compromise academic freedom and integrity.
There needs to be some commonly agreed set of principles which become a basic prerequisite for academics entering into some partnership with an external institution, whereby they are free to follow where their research leads them without fear of the institution blocking their access or terminating the partnership prematurely, and also so that future partnerships will not discriminate against those who may have written critically about the institution in the past.
The Complex Relationship between Research and External Practice
This relates to concerns explored in some depth in the conference on ‘Writing on Contemporary Artists’ at the University of Surrey in 2017, organised by Christopher Wiley and myself, and features both in the 2020 Palgrave Macmillan, volume we edited, Researching and Writing on Contemporary Art and Artists: Challenges, Practices and Complexities, while in a specifically musical context will feature in our forthcoming Routledge volume Writing about Contemporary Musicians: Promotion, Advocacy, Disinterest, Censure. This subject is also discussed at more length in the two earlier blog posts linked to in the previous section.
What happens when academics are dealing with living or recently living practitioners or their estates – writers, composers, artists, directors of institutions, critics, promoters, and so on? Or if they have strong external connections with some of these people beyond academia? How free can they feel to write and research these independently, at least considering perspectives on them and their work which may not necessarily coincide with their own self-presentation, that of their publishers, and so on?
Is the role of academics to be ‘advocates’ for these figures, or is it the case, as I believe, that a too-strong application of this principle (as opposed to simply researching things to which one is sympathetic, which is a different matter) can easily result in hagiographic treatment? How do academics maintain critical independence without the fear of being frozen out of some of these people’s circles, their materials, and so on (a situation I know various scholars have experienced)? I have certainly felt the pressure when writing about a range of living composers whose work I also play, and to some extent upon whom I rely upon for some good favour, writing new works for me, recommending me to festivals to play their work, and so on. I am still unsure about the feasibility of reconciling this with being a critical scholar.
One of the factors afflicting a fair amount of writing on new music, in my view, is a failure to consider this. As I have written about in the case of various such writings, a position of defensive advocacy, coupled to attempts to pathologise any who disagree with a 100% favourable view, leads to something more akin to promotional material than more sober scholarly work.
There are of course also plenty of practitioners themselves active within academic arts departments. Whilst some are engaged in the type of more dispassionate scholarship characteristic of the humanities – and I would like to count myself in that category – in other cases the work is of a different nature, framing practice in terms of research questions and context, with the use of verbal material essentially to articulate the ways in which it qualifies ‘as research’. Artistic practitioners frequently have external careers, working in an alternative economy in which critical thinking is by no means necessarily respected or admired. Sometimes simply saying the right thing to the right people, those in positions of power able to do favours, and not questioning all sorts of dominant ideologies operative in these circles, is a much better bet than asking more difficult questions. This can lead to a situation which I conceive as ‘two cultures’ of scholars and practitioners in terms of the attitude and approaches they take.
These issues do, for sure, also apply to those who, as I do, seek to write in non-academic arenas about the arts (or other disciplines), for various reasons, not least because of the differing role that value judgement might play therein. But I think it is possible to differentiate between academic and other writing and not confuse the two. It is less clear where the distinction lies with non-written forms of practice.
Top-down demands by institutions.
In any institutions with a degree of central control of teaching and research, individual academics may find themselves in conflict with the explicit demands or requirements of their department, school, or whole university. Some may try to specify the contents of curricula, or require academics to fashion teaching in general towards generalised criteria of employability. In other cases, support and internal funding for research may rely upon its falling within certain areas, which may be fair enough, but could also require the employment of certain methods which themselves might be more likely to produce certain types of results. These factors might affect the extent, for example, to which teaching can realistically focus on critical perspectives upon the industries or institutions for which students might be looking to work, to link to the first point.
Elsewhere, policies relating to diversity or ‘decolonisation’ might dictate choices or approaches to their teaching, at worst precluding critical treatment of certain types of subjects, and conversely requiring only negative or pejorative attitudes towards others. It is notable in my experience that some who are ferociously defensive of their independence in other contexts can also be supportive of top-down policies in these respects.
But I believe it is important to maintain independence right down to singular academics when it comes to precisely how they conduct their teaching and research. It is fair that departments need to require that certain things are taught as part of a programme, and that certain knowledge and skills are imparted, but the approach to so doing should be left to the individual academic as far as possible. In this respect I have a lot of sympathy with the 2021 Higher Education Bill.
This said, as I will argue in next week’s THES, I do believe that there is a requirement for provision of certain core subjects to a recognised level in all regionalities of the country (not least to facilitate ‘commuter students’, not wishing to incur huge amounts of debt through moving away from home to study), and in this article will advocate some type of tertiary ‘national curriculum’, a more rigorous form of the types of subject benchmarks previously provided by the QAA. Nonetheless, it should still be possible to maintain freedom of individual academics within a framework of encouraging pluralistic perspectives and debate.
Different academics, sometimes of very different or opposing views, work together in departments. A further concern in terms of academic freedom has to do with pressures to conform with prevailing orthodoxies within a department, not questioning these or colleagues who propagate them, so as to maintain a consistent ‘brand’ for a department which is competing with others for students.
Sometimes the term employed here to put pressures on individual academics is ‘collegiality’, understood as working within a set of parameters, not markedly questioning them in ways which are incompatible with a group view. But this is not consistent with what I think is a decent definition provided in the UNESCO 1997 document:
UNESCO 1997, VI. 32: The principles of collegiality include academic freedom, shared responsibility, the policy of participation of all concerned in internal decision making structures and practices, and the development of consultative mechanisms. Collegial decision-making should encompass decisions regarding the administration and determination of policies of higher education, curricula, research, extension work, the allocation of resources and other related activities, in order to improve academic excellence and quality for the benefit of society at large.
All of this is entirely compatible with permitting academics to work without feeling pressure to conform or fashion their work in line with some ‘majority view’ in their department, and I think this is also essential.
Need to concentrate work in particular fields.
Securing academic jobs depends a good deal on one’s particular field and the job opportunities available. In the UK, fewer than 20% of students take traditional BMus or BA courses with a humanities approach which includes historical, analytical, critical and other types of musicology. The remainder take courses in musical theatre, music technology, popular music to a lesser extent, and certain types of musical performance, all of which are primarily vocationally oriented. As a result, the openings for historical musicologists (especially those working on early music), music analysts, and indeed ethnomusicologists working on the non-Western world are limited. Even those already holding university positions can come under pressure to shift in certain directions in light of changing provision, and some have encountered redundancies as a result. To link to a point made earlier, in some contexts a more critical view of the music industry, compared to some presentations of it as a model of diversity and inclusivity, may create problems for the individual academics if they are seeking work in institutions wedded to such a view.
Here I would look back to the Humboldt model and make what now seems a radical suggestion, which is that appointments should be administered centrally by the state rather than individual institutions, so as to ensure a fair distribution and representation of plural areas of teaching and research. Individual departments may recruit ‘in their own image’, and this can have the effect of shutting out openings for academics who once again do not fit with the dominant ‘brand’.
Here I have in mind the view put forward by William Cheng, in his 2016 book Just Vibrations, which has received positive endorsement from a range of leading musicologists (see for example here and here), though others have written very critically about this (see also here). Cheng is dismissive of academic freedom and even of ‘the belief that academics have a right to pursue their work free from political pressures and without fear of termination’. In place of this he advocates a musicology which he says ‘upholds interpersonal care as a core feature’. This is hardly compatible with Cheng’s own dismissive remarks about other musicologists and musicology, but is part of a certain view, usually linked to the term ‘social justice’, seemingly innocuous, but which in reality requires that researchers comply with an unyielding political agenda and fashion their work towards this. A recent position advertised at the University of Southampton Music Department which included ‘social justice’ in the job title. I do not see the difference between this and advertising a position in ‘Music and Support for Jeremy Corbyn’, ‘Musicology and Brexit Advocacy’, and so on – it appears entirely unreasonable and a constraint on academic freedom to specify a specific political outlook in a job description, and this should be investigated in terms of employment law. The view of Cheng and others reminds me strongly of the dictates in various undemocratic countries, in which academics and artists found themselves under strong pressure to propagate particular political ideologies, or find themselves facing censure, termination or worse. This should be utterly unacceptable to anyone concerned about academic freedom.
A new study conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Nick Hillman, ‘“You can’t say that!” What students really think of free speech on campus’ (June 2022)) suggests that very significant numbers of UK students prioritise what they regard as demands for safety and protection from discrimination over free speech, wish to place issues such as sexism and racism outside of the boundaries of legitimate debate, would limit expression of views which offend certain religious groups, and so on.
We hear in many places about the vital role of students as ‘consumers’ who make the activities of universities possible, definitively placing teaching rather than research at the centre of their activities. The pressure on institutions to respond to demands from these ‘consumers’ can be intense, and it is by no means guaranteed that they will always act to protect the freedoms of academics in the face of student pressure.
Here I think we do need statutory measures implemented and enforced by the state, and also welcome some of the proposals in the 2021 act for this reason. For students to be able to hound out academics because they do not like some of what they have to say (as opposed to illegal activity or other things which transgress the inevitable constraints on free speech which need to be enforced by law) is to produce a culture more reminiscent of Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution.
While formal disciplinary mechanisms precluding academic freedom in the Western world may not be that extensive, there are other pressures which can lead to self-censorship. These include increasingly precarious employment. In the UK there is no tenure system, and – as we are witnessing in other areas of the arts and humanities at present – academics can find themselves dispensable.
Some on the left often advocate for silencing of those they deem racist, transphobic, etc., but are highly defensive when others are accused of anti-semitism (or when those associated with genderist politics are accused of misogyny). Some on the right focus on anti-semitism (which ought to be an issue for those of all political persuasions) or advocacy of views they associate with terrorism, but are more defensive with respect to other things. I believe that only in very blatant and explicit cases should any of these be used as a justification for limiting academic freedom. Anti-Zionists and gender-critical feminists should not feel that their view is illegitimate in academia.
Critical subjects should remain a presence in all universities. All academics must be free to follow where their research and convictions take them, even if their conclusions are not what their institutions, external partners, or colleagues want to hear. To fashion one’s work according to the demands of any of these is another fundamental betrayal of academic freedom.
Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Panel at the Royal Musical Association 2019 – Part 2. Papers of Darla Crispin and Peter Tregear.Posted: October 31, 2019
In my earlier post, I detailed the contents of first two papers at the important and well-attended session at the Royal Musical Association Annual Conference 2019 by Larson Powell and Darla Crispin. Here I will do the same with the third and fourth papers by Darla Crispin and Peter Tregear, and then append some wider thoughts of my own on the occasion.
Darla M. Crispin, ‘Artistic Research in Music: Brave New World – or Harbinger of Decline?’
Crispin’s paper focused on fundamental questions appertaining to the field of artistic research and the ways in which work in this field might be judged. She began by offering four fundamental questions:
- How do we measure value in artistic research?
- Have we really resolved how to do so in the separate cases of art and research?
- Can artistic research offer fresh insights into our value systems for the separate worlds of art and scholarship, as well as its own hybrid world, or will its influence contribute to a free-for-all situation where all value is subjective?
- Perhaps most fundamentally, how is artistic research in music to develop a more trenchant self-criticism, as the field moves toward maturity?
None of these are easy questions; Anglophone academics may be familiar with particular manifestations thereof in the debates about practice-as-research. Artistic research is a distinct concept, however, which has not yet gained the same currency in English-speaking academia as in parts of continental Europe. Fundamentally, this entails research into artistic practice, carried out by active practitioners, but generally presented in a written form (so the practice itself does not constitute the final output). Crispin argued that this paradigm ‘is more one of a fusion of artistic practice and research, leading to a third entity‘, in comparison to the UK model in which ‘the research retains its distinct identity as research‘ despite operating through the medium of practice, drawing upon concepts from Christopher Frayling’s influential essay 1993 essay ‘Research in art and design’.
Crispin, who has worked extensively at the centre of artistic research programmes in Ghent and Oslo, described how, when the field of artistic research was new, many sought a workable definition such as would facilitate the development of new work methods, courses and programmes and associated curricula, and could be used to validate new advanced degrees, in particular the PhD in artistic research. However, the co-existence of both the UK and continental models has created further complications and controversies, one response to which was the following 2015 statement from the Association Européenne des Conservatoires, Académies de Musique et Musikhochschulen (AEC):
‘Artistic Research shares with other research focussing its study on the arts the aim of promoting the understanding, and thereby the development, of artistic practice; however, it is distinctive in the emphasis it places upon the integral role of the artist in its research processes. Artistic practice is the source from which it draws its questions and also the target towards which it addresses its answers.’
But, as Crispin observed, this statement, attempting to satisfy multiple factions, is ultimately rather bland, and stronger choices need to be made, not least with respect to the thorny question of value of such research. The complexities of the issues has resulted in a relative slow pace of development of a critical framework which, Crispin maintained, requires something ‘couched in terms of words’. Those who believe that the research element is located in the art itself (I am one of those who believe it can be) must look for a critical framework in non-verbal terms, and so existing scholarly concepts of critically need to be rethought.
Crispin alluded to the classic ‘holy trinity’ (my term rather than hers) of criteria for scholarship and research: originality – rigour – significance. The most problematic of these for many existing forms of artistic creation is rigour, and so Crispin asked how artistic self-reflexivity might be rethought as conducive to such rigour, rather than antithetical to it, not least through a reappraisal of traditional scholarly distrust of subjectivity. With this in mind, she produced the following chart:
Very loosely, Crispin asked whether the left hand column tended to represent ‘Art’, the right hand one ‘Research’? But she refined this so that items 1-3 and 5 in the left hand column, and 1-2 in the right hand one could be considered ‘Art & Research’, No. 4 in the left possibly ‘Art only’ and the remaining 3-5 in the right possibly ‘Research only’. I am less convinced that No. 3 of the latter is so far from a good deal of artistic creation, whether the contrast between the first items in either column really amount to more than a caricature of either field, or whether No. 2 in the left amounts to more than romantic mythologisation of the artistic process, and so on, but sometimes stark contrasts between polarised conceptions can be useful in order to dramatise fundamental issues. The chart certainly speaks to me in terms of (sometimes reified) conceptions I have encountered, as for example when I was once told by a senior academic that the real criterion for scholarship is that it is ‘objective’, as if this were such a clear-cut thing (this was from an individual working in a field which in general is characterised by a good deal of speculative hermeneutics, and relatively unsubstantiated assertions). Ultimately, the right hand column says more about what those who police scholarship use as criteria for dismissing it rather than revealing much about what actually constitutes the richest work.
Crispin argued that there was a requirement for ‘the further development of clear methodological frameworks within which subjective enquiry can be carried out’ (I could not agree more and would add that all types of research, not just ‘artistic’, need these). She presented an interesting and productive dichotomy between ‘untrained subjectivity’ and ‘expert subjectivity’, recognising that subjective reflection can nonetheless reflect wider expertise and training.
There are major implications, however, for the manifestations of such considerations in terms of the possibilities of healthy and robust academic debate. To embrace subjectivity means, according to Crispin, ‘to narrow the distance between what one says and who one is’. This brings with it major dangers, whereby the distinction between a legitimate scholarly critique and a personalised attack becomes unclear. I have noticed how many who insist on dramatising their subjective presence in their work – including those who preface every paper with some ‘statement of positionality’ or the like – are quick to use the fact of this blurring of boundaries to avoid actually engaging with the substance of a critique and simply cry foul.* Crispin noted the relative lack of ‘the internal cut-and-thrust of polemical debate’ within artistic research, and called for more informed criticism, which can only come from peers.
Is this likely to happen? Crispin did not answer this wholly unequivocally: she noted how artistic research has been as likely to absorb the worst as the best aspects of more long-established disciplines, but had the potential to shape itself as an arena for addressing fundamental questions of art, and could reach out to wider musical or music-making communities as a result. These are strong ideals, though there is a long way to go. A tendency on the part of some artistic researchers to pepper their writings with the maximum number of references to jargon taken from various vogueish intellectuals (at present, Alain Badiou and Bruno Latour are very much in fashion), not always in order either to clarify arguments, nor situate them meaningfully within a wider theoretical context, but simply to add a ‘scholarly’ aura often to writings in which the findings relating to artistic practice are relatively modest, hardly encourages engagement with such texts on the part of wider communities of musicians.
But artistic researchers depend primarily for their existence on winning favour and prestige within narrow academic communities, and convincing sceptics (sometimes including university bureaucrats with little investment in artistic disciplines at all) that they deserve recognition comparable to their colleagues in STEM and other fields. Crispin’s clear-sighted awareness of these continuing problems was made manifest in her final quote, from Elin Angelo; Øyvind Varkøy and Eva Georgii-Hemming, ‘Notions of Mandate, Knowledge and Research in Norwegian Classical Music Performance Studies’, Journal for Research in Arts and Sports Education Vol. 3, No. 1 (2019), pp. 78–100:
‘Overall, attitudes, hierarchies, positions, disciplines and profiles in performing programmes seem to be challenged by academisation processes. This could be met by maintaining silence, or also by the will and interest to communicate and actively participate in dialogues. ‘Publish or perish’ is a bad ideal for higher music education, unless one redefines what is meant by ‘publish’. Unless classical performers engage in (verbal) discussions about who their peers should be and what norms classical music educators should follow, and why, then these judgments will be left to non-musicians.
A final conclusion in this article is, therefore, speak! Who is better qualified to say something about mandate, knowledge and research in and for higher music education than higher music educators themselves (teachers/leaders/researchers/students)? Only by verbalising the challenges, inviting dialogue and questioning of the qualifications (or the lack thereof), might one facilitate the academisation processes to work for and not against higher music education.’
However, there is still a fair way to go in terms of combating anti-intellectualism on the part of many practical musicians (and indeed, some of the academics who idolise them) and the converse tendency of musicologists to pass judgement on musicians and others involved in the music business, but assume that no-one other than other academics are entitled to any judgement on them and their own work.
* A particularly egregious example of this was a comment from Georgina Born in a 2016 debate on music technology at my own institution, in which she insisted the critique by Björn Heile, in his 2004 essay ‘Darmstadt as Other: British and American Responses to Musical Modernism’ of her deeply problematic neo-liberal polemic Rationalising Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Insitutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde, could only be motivated by sexism. This article contained what was actually a relatively moderate critique on Heile’s part, focusing primarily on the fact that Born arrives at over-arching judgements on a whole body of musical work on the basis of reading associated statements rather than independent engagement with the sounding work.
Peter Tregear, ‘Telling Tales in (and out of) Music Schools’.
Perhaps the most hard-hitting and cogent paper in the session was the final one, by Peter Tregear, looking at fundamental questions of the role of empirical truth in musicology in the light of recent polemics. Tregear kindly provided me with an earlier, longer draft of his paper (which is currently under review for a special issue of Twentieth- Century Music edited by Wolfgang Marx, entitled ‘Music and Musicology in the Age of Post-Truth’, for publication in 2020) with important material I would like to reproduce here.
In this, Tregear recognised that the types of fact-finding and testing of propositions undertaken by musicologists are of a different nature to those of empirical scientists, while the traditionally important role of the untestable factor of aesthetic judgement takes the discipline away from empirical truth. However, he noted the now-familiar fact that ‘fake news’ and disinformation have come to undermine scientific findings when they better suit particular individual values or political agendas, and that a similar phenomenon is occurring in musicology:
‘It used to be considered a given of scholarly practice that when a musicologist proposed an idea it would be assessed primarily on the basis of the cogency, originality and rigour of the arguments that support it. The broader community of scholars would then assess the underlying validity of an argument by scrutinising both its inherent reasoning and by comparing it against a body of pre-existing knowledge. To this end, musicological discourse has traditionally held itself to account in ways comparable to scientific practice despite the fact that the musicologist does not only deal with empirical facts. However, with theoretical buttressing from ideas such as postmodernism and deconstructionism, it is possible at the same time to profess a profound scepticism of the very idea of truth in scholarship.’
Examples of this given by Tregear include the way in which even to make reference to immanent musical qualities is frequently interpreted as an expression of social biases on the part of the musicologist (Tregear alluded to Pierre Bourdieu, but this position reminds me more of the various Soviet strictures on ‘formalism’ in music, culminating in the 1948 Zhdanov decree), or that all choices of areas of research and teaching are portrayed merely as a means for particular social forces to exercise and protect their power. Tregear recognised positive dimensions to this, in terms of the potential to engender proper debates about musical value, but also pointed out that this requires levels of intellectual rigour and breadth of perspective such as would enable ‘specifically musicological interests and concerts’ to rise above ‘the general din of today’s opinion-saturated, post-truth culture’. He noted the difficulties of this in a culture which distrusts ‘experts’, as diagnosed in such books as Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason (New York: Pantheon, 2008), Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) and others. With this comes a situation in which sustained thought is overshadowed by comment, opinion, and ironic refusals to commit to anything, and culture becomes, in the words of political scientist Patrick Deenen, ‘synonymous with hedonic titillation, visceral crudeness, and distraction, all oriented toward promotion consumption, appetite, and detachment’.
Such a situation both threatens and conditions musicology in particular ways, according to Tregear. His diagnosis of particular outcomes included ‘The elevation of feeling over thinking‘, especially in autoethnographic writing (the subject of a further round-table in which I participated later the same day). Quoting Brydie-Leigh Bartleet and Carolyn Ellis (from the introduction to their Making Autoethnography Sing/Making Music Personal (Bowen Hills: Australian Academic Press, 2009)) on how autoethnography supposedly encourages the conveying of ‘the meanings of vibrant musical experiences evocatively’ rather than ‘dry descriptions’, Treager echoed some of Crispin’s comments about the dangers of over-elevation of subjective experience per se, in his observation that ‘It quickly becomes more important to declare how one feels, than to show why one thinsk something, about a musical proposition or musical work.’ All that really matters is the ‘authenticity’ of one’s personal experiences, and there is less incentive for musicologists to look beyond the limits of these (one might add that this sort of academic narcissism is the very converse of the type of multi-perspectival approach which is surely a necessary condition for any meaningful commitment to diversity). All that remains is personal taste, and any conflicts in this respect can be about to little more than the manifestation of institutional power structures. Any possibility of generating some larger communal identity for the purposes of solidarity is lost behind ‘a cloud of authorial subjectivities’.
Especially perceptive was Tregear’s concomitant observation that when the self is everything, then this leads to a devaluing and deskilling of music teaching and scholarship, the disappearance of any type of critical consensus for the evaluation of work, and of knowledge systems such as those provided by music theory and historical narratives. Even peer review becomes relatively meaningless. The situation he describes is depressingly familiar, though many of the claims made about power structures seem to little bother some of their strongest advocates when it comes to their own positions within such structures, and claims to expertise (I was reminded of the furious reactions on social media to the semi-serious conclusion to my contribution to the 2016 debate ‘Are we all ethnomusicologists now?’)** Tregear was adamant of the vital role of universities in bolstering and defending ‘the possibility of objective truth’ (though it was clear this was conceived in a more contingent manner than that to which I alluded earlier), promoting and disseminating public knowledge rather than merely lived experience.
The second aspect of Tregear’s diagnosis, ‘An increasing aversion to the principles of scholarly writing‘, brought in the principal object of his critique, the book Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2016) (available to read in full online for free here), essentially an attack on the bulk of musicological writing. Cheng is a one-time pianist who now primarily writes ludomusicology (the study of music for video games). I will return to Tregear’s critique of Just Vibrations presently. Tregear cited as one sign of the breakdown of the scholarly values in musicology was the growth in APA (‘Harvard style’) referencing , enabling academics to present ideas as if they were established facts, in the manner of scientific discoveries (I have noticed how often Edward Said’s highly contentious and widely contested arguments, especially in Orientalism, are regularly used by new musicologists and ethnomusicologists in this respect – ‘We know (Said 1978) that Western writers portray the ‘Orient’ in order to exercise their power and domination over colonial subjects’, etc.). Tregear noted an acerbic critique of this from Russell Smith (‘Let’s stop pretending academic artspeak reflects actual research’, The Globe and Mail, 31 October 2017).
The third point of Tregear’s critique was ‘An over concern for utility‘, whereby musicologists are instructed by Cheng to direct their work towards specific social goals or goods (a simple rehash of very old utilitarian arguments which have traditionally been used to undermine academic autonomy, or those in music from the advocates of Gebrauchsmusik, and then the similar doctrines as enforced in fascist and communist regimes). Tregear asked who should determine what the appropriate types of goals or good should be, and continued (in a somewhat Adornian fashion) to note how this approach could not but help but shut out any sort of reasoned dissent. Cheng’s prognosis would lead to the situation in which institutions commission academics to write supposedly authoritative scholarly histories of themselves, but with the clear understanding that these must not highlight some of such institutions’ more unsavoury elements (this has been a major consideration in ‘official’ histories of institutions in post-1945 Germany which were also active prior to 1945, or in musical institutions with dark histories of abuse and bullying, all of who require Persilschein).
Following this, Tregear alluded briefly to the ‘grievance studies hoax’ carried out Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian, in which seven fabricated papers (one of them a rewriting of a chapter from Mein Kampf) were accepted by major academic journals. Tregear suggested that this happened primarily because such papers appealed to a sense of righteousness, and particular identity groups, and this type of authority took priority over any other form of reasoning or observation. Personal biases, once viewed as something to guard against and if necessary correct, have become a reigning scholarly principle. With the eschewal of any attempt at disinterest, what remains, according to Tregear, is what literary scholar David Palumbo-Lui calls (in the context of modern languages) ‘a morbid constellation of egotism, arrogance, self-enclosure, and normalized self-interest’, and also, as identified by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, limited skills encountered in students in terms of analytical thought, reasoning and written expression. This situation will surely be familiar to many, and is sometimes replicated and perpetuated by other academics who were themselves schooled in institutions which devalued these types of qualities.
In the version of the paper presented at the RMA, Tregear began by paying tribute to Tamara Levitz’s keynote lecture the previous day, ‘Free Speech and Academic Freedom’ and her worries about the ‘implications for musicology of the age of democracy’s demise’, feeling his own work dealt with similar themes. Then he moved straight to Cheng’s book, placing this in the context of ‘a renewed identity crisis in musicology’, and noting Cheng’s claim the discipline might ‘renegotiate the means and purposes of careful labor, intellectual inquiry, and living soundly’. Tregear noted the primarily favourable reception this book has received, even in a mildly critical review-article by Kate Guthrie (‘Why we Can’t All Just Get Along’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, vol. 143 (2018), pp. 473-482), and attributed its impact to a variety of factors: the authors association with influential US professional musicological networks, the decision of the publishers to make it available to read for free online, but also ‘its self-declared progressive and confessional style’, leading it to win the Philip Brett Award of the American Musicological Society in 2016.***
To Tregear, Cheng’s book, while rightly encouraging a broader consideration of what and who musicology is for, also ‘gives us a clear warning as to what is also now at stake’. Some of this was simply through over-reaching, as in the exaggerated claim that a ‘musicological ear’ could add depth to the analysis of the use of a siren sound to close a TV episode. But Tregear was also sceptical of Cheng’s definition of musicology as ‘all the activities, care, and caregiving of people who identify as members of the musicological community…’, believing that this makes the crisis of identity in musicology all the more acute.
Tregear did not deny the value of musicology which entailed advocacy, and noted how this was unavoidable in his own work on music history in Weimar Germany. At the same time, he recognised that his own training led him to attempt to identify particularly bias, and how this might distort research (and, by implication, one should try to correct this). He cited American Social Psychologist Lee Jussim and others’ pertinent observations on how when we are ‘motivated by high moral principles, such as combating global warming, or advancing egalitarianism, such motivations may lead to practices that threaten [research] integrity.’ (Lee Jussim, Jarret T. Crawford, Sean T. Stevens, Stephanie M. Anglin, and Jose L. Duarte, ‘Can High Moral Purposes Undermine Scientific Integrity?’, in The Social Psychology of Morality eds. Joseph P. Forgas, Lee Jussim, Paul A.M. Van Lange (London: Routledge, 2016), 190). Ultimately, Tregear believed that the scholarly nature of musicological research is the source of its ethical import, the detachment this requires making it possible to relate findings to the work of other scholars, wider bodies of knowledge, and society-at-large.
But in contrast to this, Cheng’s view is that most of the traditions of scholarly writing are simply designed to ‘impress people, win arguments, and elevate one’s status’, drawing upon the concept of ‘paranoid reading’ from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (in her Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), an arch-example of the sort of tendencies identified in the longer version of Tregear’s paper). Against Cheng’s dismissive evocation of how musicologists are ‘trained to write in a manner that preemptively repels potential knocks against their work’, Tregear asked whether this wasn’t the precise thing which enables good academic writing ‘to justify its claim to be taken seriously as a public utterance’, rather than ‘a mere assertion of the taste, desires, beliefs, or caprice of the researcher’. The musicologist generates trust from their reader by justifying their claims on the basis of reasoned propositions or facts.
Cheng writes disparagingly about ‘aesthetic autonomy’, ‘academic freedom’, recommendations of ‘Let music be music’ or ‘Let scholars be scholars’, which all allegedly displace attention ‘from the role musicologists ought to be playing as “care givers and social agents”‘. I see no place for scholarly values of any type here, only political judgement on the part of Cheng (one wonders why he is particularly concerned about owning a university position, rather than working as a political activist?) Tregear presented the danger of a priori political values overriding other scholarly ones through the 2000 libel case launched by writer and holocaust denier David Irving against historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books. In the words of chief expert witnesses, Professor Richard J. Evans (whose expert report can be read here, an essential read for all concerned about questions of historical truth; a shorter version is to be found in Evans’ book Telling Lies about Hitler: The Holocaust, Hitler and the David Irving Trial (London: Verso, 2002)), the trial was about the ‘very creation of historical knowledge from the remains the past has left behind’. Whereas earlier commentators had often sought to dismiss Irving’s work on the basis of his politics, and others of a mainstream conservative position but little specific expertise in his area had erred to believing it had some historical value despite the politics, Evans’ approach to the texts was relentlessly forensic, involving fact-checking and various other types of scrutiny, revealing how Irving distorted sources, ignored them when they did not suit his purposes, read them deliberately out of context, or applied wildly different standards to different types of sources, for example requiring the highest standards of corroboration for anything said by Churchill, while taking Hitler’s words at face value. As Tregear put it, Evans was able to defeat Irving’s misreadings of the past (and his investigation has probably done far more to discredit Irving’s propaganda than anyone else had managed) ‘by being – indeed – rigorously paranoid‘.
Tregear charged that Cheng’s demands can lead to scholarly outcomes which are neither progressive nor innovative, because the lack of the traditional disciplinary tools and types of discourse undermine the rhetorical and moral authority of musicology (I suspect one reason Cheng is unable to see this has much to do with a in-group, out-group attitude which precludes any real constructive debate with anyone who does not already agree with him on the matters he believes to be important). Furthermore, when ‘research’ becomes overtly about advocacy, the systems of disciplinary accountability and peer review become relatively meaningless, and the result truly would be ‘a jostling for power and patronage’.
With this in mind, Tregear argued that musicology also needs ‘to undertake a serious system examination of the impact on musicology itself of the changing institutional context in which scholars like Cheng are flourishing’. He noted the damning findings of a 2017 University and College Union (UK) report (‘Academic Freedom in the UK: Legal and Normative Protection in a Comparative Context’) that despite the purported norms of academic freedom, the commonplace reality is one of ‘bullying, psychological pressure and self-censorship’, with university managements employing administrative tools, metrics, research exercises, student evaluations, and so on. The claim that empowering students to make consumer choices would, according to the UK Department of Education, ‘shine a light on poor quality teaching and ensure standards are driven upwards’ leads to the situation, as diagnosed by Nichols, by which ‘the layperson becomes accustomed to judging the expert’. Managers and administrators now call the shots, and require loyalty to them (and, I would add, often the uncollegiate requirement of loyalty to a specific institution and its own staff over and above any working elsewhere) over any loyalty to values immanent to a particular discipline. The following quote from Nichols, cited by Tregear in the longer version of his paper, is especially pertinent:
‘Emotion is an unassailable defence against expertise, a moat of anger and resentment in which reason and knowledge quickly drown. And when students learn that emotion trumps everything else, it is a lesson they will take with them for the rest of their lives.’
The important conclusion derived from this by Tregear in the longer paper is of an unholy alliance between ‘self-oriented’ scholarship, and the demands of managerial cultures in universities, citing the following chart from Marc A. Edwards and Siddharta Roy (in ‘Academic Research in the 21st Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition’, Environmental Engineering Science, vol. 34, no. 1 (2017), pp. 51-61), demonstrating the pervasiveness of corporate language and values:
Tregear recognises that academic and institutional autonomy have never been, and likely would never be, completely pure and unmediated concepts, and also that disciplinary standards change over time, sometimes radically, but the nature of the types of change he was describing, as spearheaded by Cheng and others, have little to do with the very nature or requirements of the discipline of musicology. He attributed this to the failure of music academics to hold their own administrative leaderships to any kind of account (in fairness, I would say that many such academics are struggling with precarity and fear of losing their positions, and so are forced to operate in a dog-eat-dog academic climate of fear, though Tregear does allude to this), and the removal of democratic structures such as used to allow academics to elect their own Vice-Chancellors. In this sense, I would argue that Cheng and others are essentially providing a new spin upon corporate academic ideals. It is no coincidence that such a view finds most currency in the USA, where the corporatisation of academia may me more advanced than anywhere else in the Western world.
In conclusion, Tregear maintained the view that universities and disciplines such as musicology can still teach a capacity to make ‘rigorous, sustained, reflective, truth claims’, while recognising that he belongs to a group that have traditionally been the chief subjects and beneficiaries of such a thing, and also that the traditional tools of scholarship do not guarantee that the findings will transcend limitations of class, ethnic origin, or other identity groups. Nonetheless, he still argued that one should attempt to think beyond particular allegiances and identities, and institutions should seek to bolster and defend rational enquiry and the possibility of objective truth rather than narrow forms of knowing which rely primarily upon lived experience. Musicology is unlikely to effect serious social change, but can at least, according to Tregear, ‘help us develop and refine the kinds of thinking and hearing that can make us more valiant for the pursuit of truth’ in the world.
**This was the following:
‘I will end with a reapplication of Marcel Mauss to this field of ethnomusicology itself. Its participants offer up endorsements for the right theorists, the right canonised and revered ethnomusicologists, the right political outlook, generally that sort of ‘consumerist multiculturalism’ which accords well with modern neo-liberalism, to those who are in a position of power above them, and are rewarded for this through promotion and research grants in a process of exchange. Collegiate relationships within hierarchical academic structures are made possible through this process of reciprocity. This may be an unfair caricature, but no more so than many of the analyses in this body of work.’
It was not clear whether those ethnomusicologists fulminating about those on social media, often in an ad hominem manner, realised the point being made in re-applying the type of unsubstantiated allegations routinely made by them to other bodies of individuals to ethnomusicologists themselves.
***Philip Brett was another writer who wrote dismissively of musicology as being anything other than ‘cultural politics’, and the very concept of ‘scholarship’ (in ‘Round Table VIII: Cultural Politics’, Acta Musicologica, vol. 69, fasc. 1 (Jan-June 1997), pp. 45-52). He called musicology ‘not a happy word’ which ‘attempts to give a sort of academic legitimacy to an activity which goes on in most cultures – thinking, talking, and gossiping about music and judging it.’ (‘Are You Musical?’, The Musical Times, vol. 135, no. 1816 (June 1994), pp. 370-376). This may be an apt description of Brett’s own work, but not that of plenty of others, and I would find it difficult to set much scholarly value in a prize named after someone who did not believe in scholarship.
The questions demonstrated a clearly positive and supportive attitude towards the papers, perhaps with a greater degree of general consensus than many of us on the panel had imagined would be likely to be the case. Just one suggested that while it may be easy to present this type of ‘conservationist’ view at a conference like that, things might be different at that of the American Musicological Society (though the implication that this latter should be afforded some primacy needs questioning, unless one takes a Trumpian view of the axiomatic superior importance of anything taking place in the United States of America).
The then outgoing President of the Society for Music Analysis (trustees from which, of whom I am one, were well-represented amongst the audience for the session), Julian Horton, opined that ‘our discipline has lost its object’. Rebecca Herrisone, from the University of Manchester, asked the fair question of whether a simple need to gain and maintain students, in the face of an increasingly ruthless marketplace, might be driving deskilling. How departments can survive in such an academic climate, without joining in a ‘race to the bottom’, is one of the major challenges today, though ome can cynically appropriate this situation to legitimise the sorts of dumbing-down they desire anyhow (not that Herrisone was remotely doing this). Roddy Hawkins, also from the University of Manchester, asked a question to Moreda Rodriguez relating to research-led teaching, the exact details of which I do not recall precisely. Another individual who I did not know wondered whether a renewed emphasis on notation would risk centering ‘the canon’ again at the expense of other composers, though did not necessarily give a reason why this would necessarily be a bad thing.
Nicholas Reyland (RNCM) asked us all what we believed to be the major threat to music education. Some responses to this were a little muted, though Moreda Rodriguez made clear that she believed the main danger was the loss of any common ground, vocabulary and set of references with which musicologists could talk to each other. I myself opined at this point that to me the primary danger was that it would simply become subsumed within other disciplines and cease to exist in its own right, and that this was a danger of an excessive focus upon interdisciplinarity, in which music and musicology are invariably the junior partners.
One of the 2019 RMA keynote speakers, Tamara Levitz, was especially positive about the session, and mentioned some of her own strong reservations about the work of Cheng, which has had a relatively unquestioning acceptance in much of the US (and in many reviews in academic journals other than that of Peter Tregear). There was also a productive exchange between Levitz and Powell on the role of theory in teaching.
Knowing of Levitz’s own pathbreaking work on the teaching of Busoni and the ideas of the Junge Klassizität in early Weimar Germany, and also of the related work by others on the panel (Tregear and I have worked extensively on this area, while Powell and Crispin have written on composers active during this time, and Moreda Rodriguez’s work deals with a similar historical period) I raised the question of whether attacks in recent decades on musical autonomy are really so new, considering how widespread similar positions were in Weimar Germany (from Ernst Krenek, Kurt Weill, Hans-Heinz Stuckenschmidt, Hanns Eisler, Heinrich Besseler and others, and fuelling the movements of Neue Sachlichkeit and Gebrauchsmusik). This generated further discussion which continued outside of the forum. There is always room for scepticism about any movements in academia, art or elsewhere which claim that their work constitutes a thoroughgoing break with practically all that has gone before, and makes claims for originality without necessarily sufficient historical knowledge to be in a position to make such claims, and the new musicology is no different in this respect.
Some Thoughts from the Session
As convenor and chair, I was extremely pleased with the session and the responses. Every speaker presented original, measured, but cogent arguments, unafraid to challenge some of the most malign tendencies in our discipline, even when propagated by individuals with significant institutional power. The seemingly less contentious thoughts of Crispin on subjectivity and the ways in which academics might engage with this while upholding scholarly values, took on a different flavour in contrast to the ideas of William Cheng as presented and critiqued by Tregear. Cheng’s position is not particularly new, just more explicit in its overt dismissal of scholarly truth than most of its postmodern predecessors. I take a somewhat more benevolent view towards the possibility of autoethnographic writing than Tregear, believing in the possibility of generating genuinely new knowledge through critical self-reflection on one’s own work and experiences, but nonetheless certainly recognise the self-obsessed type of writing which he identifies as laying claim to this concept.
Moreda Rodriguez’s paper was also sharp in many of its findings, not least the extent to which some of those laying claim to the rhetoric of the ‘global’ continue, say, to identify the whole of the ‘Americas’ with the United States, thus perpetuating an arch-imperialist view. But her paper and Powell’s may have contained some of the most positive messages for ways forward, in her case recognising the value of attempts to draw the boundaries of music history more broadly than hitherto. But at the same time, she does not underestimate the scale of this task, and notes the huge limitations of superficial work in this respect, especially that which appropriates such an important area of study in order simply to make petty virtue-signalling points about ‘West versus the rest’, and in the process practically ignore hugely influential (in a global sense) developments just because they happen to have occurred in the West.
Tregear’s paper entailed the most far-reaching critique of contemporary musicology or indeed wider academia. I would like to extend his points relating to the overlap between advocates of a self-focused approach to academic writing and the priorities of university managements. But I believe the neo-liberal meeting of minds goes further, in areas of musicology and cultural studies in particular. There is a long and distinguished tradition (coming from such distinct thinkers as Walter Lippmann, Theodor Adorno, Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, Richard Hofstadter, Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, Jim McGuigan, Greg Philo and Naomi Klein; but in diametric opposition to cultural populists such as Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, John Fiske or Andrew Ross) which maintains that the meanings of culture and media and their effects upon consciousness are not always determined wholly by the immediate cultural producers (in the sense of the artists) nor by the recipients (listeners, viewers, readers, etc.) but can also reflect and propagate other priorities and agendas determined by the powerful industries behind such culture. It would be surprising if this were not the case, considering the vast sums of money such industries spend on marketing, market research, advertising, focus groups, and so on, or if this did not have some impact upon a wider cultural sphere, including that which is less big business. But this view is hard to square with the uncritical adulation of popular culture (and often, by extension, the ultra-commercialised sphere in which much of it exists), and the belief that such culture empowers both musicians and listeners (in contrast to much maligned ‘high culture’, the alleged hierarchies and hegemonic values of which are dissolved in a culture operating first and foremost in the marketplace). In the work of Susan McClary or Georgina Born, and their countless acolytes in academia, a ‘romancing of the marketplace’ has become so commonplace that it can be viewed as highly contentious even to question it. The links between this world view and the agenda of the neo-liberal university, equally concerned to portray the market as an empowering force, could at best be described as naive, at worst as wholly cynical.
Powell’s identification of the important distinction between semiotics and communication theory was new to me, and explains a good deal. His advocacy of a combination of semiotics/topics with reflective hermeneutics is extremely promising, as is his insistence on a properly dialectical rather than narrowly hierarchical approach to the relationship between different parameters within a film. It is disappointing, even shocking, to hear some of the outright misrepresentations and uninformed claims he identifies, not to mention the simplistic and often didactic strictures, but I know these are far from atypical, especially in popular and film music studies. Why is there such a cavalier disregard for basic factual accuracy or fair representation of sources? I believe this has something to do with a beleaguered and automatically defensive reaction on the part of members of certain sub-disciplines, believing their field to be disrespected but then acting in such a way as to make this into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
On the other hand, one might argue that there is a simpler explanation of why various others are hostile to fact-checking, scrutiny of arguments or any of the other processes which are used to discern the distinction between scholarly and other forms of writing. As I argued in a paper over a decade ago, and will return to in a future article, the renditions of the work of Carl Dahlhaus in particular by McClary, who lends her endorsement to Cheng’s book, entail a shocking number of flagrant misrepresentations, disregarding of material which does not suit her prior arguments, quoting out of context, and so on. While the stakes are obviously less serious than in the case of Irving, the scholarly practice is not much better. Only a few have been prepared to pursue such aspects of McClary’s work (one good example is Tim Carter’s ‘An American in…?’, Music & Letters, vol. 83, no. 2 (May 2002), pp. 274-8). Others simply reiterate her work without checking it against the sources it claims to represent, and – whether unwittingly or otherwise – help to consolidate such misrepresentations and render them ideology. This is the essence of how post-truth propaganda works, and it is disappointing to see this process prevalent in academia, and the ways in which it does indeed facilitate ascendancy within power structures. Only a properly ‘paranoid’ approach can serve as a corrective.
Without any conception of scholarly truth or value other than nebulous demands that work should do ‘social justice’, how is it ever possible that work can be marked, peer-reviewed or otherwise evaluated fairly by those adhering to the type of post-truth view expounded by Cheng and others (as found in some of Just Vibrations‘ more hagiographic reviews, such as that by Kyle Devine, writing in Music and Letters – a large section of which was reproduced in one of the targets of Devine’s ire, the blog Slipped Disc, which ran a series of earlier blogs on Cheng’s book). Such processes may need be subject to vigorous scrutiny and if necessary appeal, because of the very real risk of censorship of all who do not adhere to a narrow political outlook. The grievance studies hoax is just the tip of the iceberg of a wider corrosion of academia, which is certainly not total (or else academics such as me, or the others in the panel, would not really be at liberty to critique it), but still a major force. It is also time to look at the working of academic power structures, as begun by Tregear, it to examine on what basis Cheng and others have been able to acquire institutional power, just as they malign others in this respect.
The reception of the book Rethinking Contemporary Musicology will be interesting to view, and is sure to include various significantly more negative responses than encountered in this forum. But, despite hearing privately a couple of rather petty responses which nitpicked a few small details rather than engage with the wider arguments, I was encouraged to find the number of people (as witnessed in subsequent discussions after the forum) who felt the importance of much of what was discussed, and indeed felt more at ease discussing such issues themselves as a result of this forum.
+ These and other issues are addressed in my three forthcoming essays ‘Ethnographic Approaches to the Study of Western Art Music: Questions of Context, Realism, Evidence, Description and Analysis’, and ‘When Ethnography becomes Hagiography: Uncritical Musical Perspectives’, both in Research and Writing about Contemporary Art and Artists, edited Christopher Wiley and Ian Pace (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2020), and ‘The Ethnomusicology of Western Art Music: Territorial and Methodological Concerts’, in Rethinking Contemporary Musicology.