A Kind of Usefulness
By Gabriel Solis
At the beginning of the Spring semester 2010, when the University of Illinois administration announced that all employees would take mandatory furlough days, I was interviewed by the News Gazette, our local paper. I took issue with the use of furloughs to address the university’s budget problems—in part because they seemed (and indeed were) fiscally insufficient, but more importantly because they suggested a theoretical discontinuity between teaching and research. We were asked to do no work one weekday per month; but also to take the furloughs without a visible impact on our teaching. To explain why teaching and research are, at least ideally, inseparable for humanities faculty at a Research-1 university, such as ours—indeed, how they create a productive feedback loop—I told the story of how I wound up doing research into the music of Indigenous people of Australia and the southwestern Pacific. The story is a positive one, I think, and a tidy package.
In a nutshell: having finished my first book, on Thelonious Monk’s music and the history of jazz in the last quarter of the 20th century, I needed some new, large research project. I could, certainly, have continued to investigate jazz and American music-culture—and in time I have—but I wanted to do something different first. My teaching has always revolved mainly around theory and method seminars in ethnomusicology and a large, 100-level, gen ed course on world music. While teaching those courses I had become interested in Aboriginal Australian music. My interest stemmed from a number of things, but most importantly the fact that in all the world, there was no place I had learned anything about where music and dance were accorded such importance. They were, as I read, a total social and cosmological fact. Music and dance encapsulate the creative power of the ancestral spirit beings who made the earth as we now know it, and they are a primary modality for managing land, law, and the structures of sociability. Over the past five years I have travelled regularly to Australia, doing fieldwork with Aboriginal communities in remote North Queensland and Sydney and have recently expanded my work in the area to include Papua New Guinea, doing research in collaboration with professors at the University of Goroka. In addition to writing about this material, I have begun teaching it, with good results. The students seem to enjoy it, it helps crystallize my understanding of the material—as teaching generally does—and it adds a distinctive feature to our course catalog. It is, as far as I can tell, the only such course presently offered at an American university.
I expected some push-back from somewhere when the News-Gazette article was published—administration, tuition-paying students and parents, non-university folks—because, ultimately, I think we professors have it good. Our jobs are neither arduous, dangerous, nor insecure, in comparison with many, and despite how it feels sometimes, we are well compensated for our labor, in the greater scheme of things. We—I—have relatively little to complain about, and I imagined some would balk at what they might perceive as complaining—particularly unseemly, given the larger economic picture at the time.
I was surprised, though, to hear, on local talk radio, the morning the article was published, the only real objection to the piece was not to my general point (that furloughs were an inadequate response to the university’s very real financial straits, and that they fundamentally misconstrued the nature of academic labor); rather, the caller was shocked and appalled that the state of Illinois was wasting its money paying someone like myself to research and teach about Australian Aboriginal music. What value, what use, what point, the caller wanted to know, could that possibly serve taxpayers, students, the state at large?
I do not know how best to argue the case for what I do, and for this research and teaching in particular. Given the recent publication of Academically Adrift, which suggests (among other things) that students in the humanities show more significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over the course of their college years than students in many other programs, I might posit that regardless of the particular topic, students who learn about Aboriginal music and dance from me are better off for it because they have learned something about critical reading and have had feedback on their writing. That is: whatever the topic, my classes and those of my colleagues in the humanities are potentially valuable for their educational process. But I am inclined to argue something further, that the specific work I do in Australia and the Pacific is of some real use, value, and meaning in the world and in the interconnecting worlds that make up the University of Illinois. I am so inclined because I think we, humanists, choose topics for study not at random, but for good reasons; not always reasons that are easy to articulate, or even ones of which we are fully aware, perhaps, but good reasons nevertheless.
What might the specific value of studying indigenous music from literally the other side of the world be for the various constituencies served by a flagship land-grant university? I believe the opportunity to transition from the received exotica perpetuated in virtually every corner of Western popular culture about the Pacific—about indigenous people around the world—to a more informed view is fundamental to building a clear understanding of the world our students and we live in. It gives students—particularly those whose upbringing is typical of our students at the University of Illinois, middle-class, suburban—a vision of the world that is fundamentally different from the one they see in the 24-hour news cycle, read about in most media, hear about in casual conversation.
As Chickasaw nation scholar Jodi Byrd has said,
“As the twenty-first century faces looming economic and environmental disasters, along with territorial wars initiated by current and former superpowers, questions of living convivially at the expense of Indigenous peoples will continue to haunt us even as we strive to reorganise political structures in ways that are inclusive for all. Until the ongoing colonisations of Indigenous peoples around the world are recognised and redressed, the project of liberal democracy, no matter how inclusive it becomes, will remain a lost cause.”
This, to me, is one of the values of the humanities in the contemporary academy. Indigenous peoples of the southwestern Pacific may never command airtime in the U.S. media, but I will have done a small part to raise the subject.
Each of us studies something that, on the face of it, is obscure in its own way. In my own case that means giving students a new perspective on the histories that brought Western people into contact and in time relations of domination with Indigenous peoples. For another it may be studying little-remembered 17th century English poets, and yet another it may be understanding changes in the idea of night in early modern German-speaking lands. We all do so—at least ideally—not to lose ourselves and our students in a world of our own, and not to fortify the walls of the ivory tower. Rather, the effect of our collective endeavor is to upend the everyday, to disclose the strangeness of received wisdom, to trouble the surface of experience, and to show the centrality of knowledge at the margins. I believe this is a kind of usefulness.