Published online: 1 March 1994
Everyone is talking about characteristics of academic discourse. Heated exchanges over political correctness, power-establishing exchanges, and classifications of people, music, and styles of expression seem to follow me as I move around the country. We have an ever-present and appropriate concern with our style of communication and the interpersonal, intellectual, epistemological, and institutional ramifications of that style.
Conversations over the years about the essential process of selecting words in expressing ideas have become more revealing to me. I try not to use the word "should" because of a beloved friend's description of its guilt-inducing effects. I have been fascinated, instructed, and cautioned by Geertz's description of Javanese, Balinese, and Moroccan conceptions of self in his article "From a Native's Point of View" (1984). I am grateful for the unfamiliar dimensions of the verb "compose" revealed in Keil's (1979) explication of the Nigerian Tiv's conception of the verb dugh. In an increasingly connected world, Clifford (1988) discusses the predicament of culture, of cultural representation, of language in an era when global interrelations, rather than local autonomy, form a basis for diversity.
My work has required that I move between academia and public school music classrooms, and that I maintain language and styles of communication appropriate to both. As many of you know, I have not always been successful in this cross-cultural effort, but it has made me aware of some potential problems in academic exchange.
First, there is the problem of assuming that there is substance in habit. When asked to respond to the issues raised in a recent presentation, a colleague launched into a critique of the presentation that was more redolent of the habit and form of the critique than it was instructive about the insights of the responder. It brought to my mind Maslow's observation that if the only tool one has is a hammer, one tends to treat everything as if it were a nail. This happens all the time in academic exchanges.
In another recent example, a professor responded to Michael Greene's observations about what he perceives as threats critical to the continuity of music in public school education. The response was a gleeful verbal broadside critiquing Greene's style of communication. Grateful that Greene has been willing to establish a relation between organizations representing music recording and music instruction, I couldn't imagine why Greene would be more or what is worse, solely concerned with his language or style of presentation than with his observations regarding collapsing support for music in public education. Why would our response to critical issues be confined to the way observations are expressed? Accuracy of reporting is a valid solitary concern, surely not only a style of presentation.
Second, there is the problem of a closed system of communication. Inquiry, curiosity, open-mindedness, and even intellectual vulnerability to new relations and alternate revelations seems to me to be the responsibility of a professoriate. Stimulating engagement, demonstrating rapport, providing structure, and insuring a two-way interaction assists interpersonal and interperceptual alignment of those involved in a dialogue. In fact, dialogue can provide ideas that would not be possible without an open exchange between colleagues. When open-mindedness is shared on both ends of a dialogue, issues can be revealed, refined, and expressed in ways that transcend what either could accomplish alone. In terms of intellectual traditions, I am thankful for critical theory, because it has furnished a lucid rubric in terms of which the questioning of basic assumptions is expected. From my perspective, this has had a vital and positive effect on my intellectual life and that of my students. However, critical theory does not supply a template for creating a solution for the state of affairs it exposes. Therefore, I am forced to open myself to a theoretical perspective that is related to the kind of questions I am asking. The explication of an academic position is an important event. I wonder if the exchange is helped by a style of response that is negatively constrained by habitual patterns of response and calcified positions.
A third problem is the negative personal and institutional effects of powergarnering humorous quips and acerbic asides that identify and belittle the characteristics of other faculty members or their work. Although sometimes all too accurate in the caricature they create, these exchanges are poisonous for longterm respectful relations among colleagues and across music disciplines. They are like secondhand smoke in that they foul the atmosphere within which we interact. Our ideas and mutually confirming dialogue shrivel and can even die. It came to me this week, as I was observing one of our brilliant virtuosic colleagues who is caught in the habit of that style of response! Why don't we mutually agree to identify that kind of language as meaningless? It does not add to effective faculty relations. It excoriates and drains energy from music administrators. It does not support our magisterial responsibility for developing musical knowledge. It does not contribute to the musical education of our students. It seems to feed emotional and physiological illness. Smoking can be sent out of music buildings why can't we banish, by mutual consent, sotto voce labeling, poisonous, even if humorous, verbal garroting. I certainly respect the right of a fellow faculty member to be caught up in that style of expressions, that pattern of verbal behavior, but it has no ideational clothes. It does not contribute to collegiality, although it demonstrates a need to win, a need for power, and a need to cut a way to the top of an interpersonal heap.
Conversations about characteristics of academic discourse are never completed, even if welcome. Exchanges that search for and examine newly refined, expressive dimensions of language and interactions can help us in our appropriate concern with styles of communication and their ramifications. I am encouraged and empowered by the increasing number of academic forums that are based on compassion and mutual respect and a healthy sense of humor.