ArticlesNo. 102, Spring 2018: Sounding the Break: Music Studies and the Political

Academic Labor and Music Curricula


In this paper we parse recent initiatives rethinking music curricula—in particular, those critiquing the enduring centrality of the Western art music canon—in connection to questions of academic labor and service. Many of our interlocutors ask us: “Why are conservative curricula a problem now?” The short answer is that canon-driven music curricula have always been problematic, as reflected by historical initiatives for curricular reform. However, even if the present moment in US music departments is far from unique, it does stand out in particular institutional and disciplinary ways that offer new insights into how curricular design operates and resists change. Specifically, we argue that when it comes to matters of curricular design, students of music would merit from departments thinking differently about structures of labor and academic seniority.

As we discuss, contingent faculty have recently become the majority of teaching staff in higher education. Even though this labor force has a much higher representation of minority and women scholars than tenured faculty, their control over curricula is minimal. While many of these scholars channel their desire for change into public-oriented initiatives and other forms of curriculum-adjacent academic service, this work is less valued than research and teaching, and thus contributes to a self-sustaining cycle of exclusion. Intimately entwined with the histories of music disciplines, the canon remains obstinate. In response to calls for reform, it is typically only adjusted by placing similar texts and objects in play (Natvig 2002, xi) or by mobilizing the language of “diversity” to justify and nominally amend a canon-driven curriculum. From our own positions as contingent faculty, we thus argue that the relative invisibility of academic service is a curricular issue in its own

Aside from this shifting, increasingly vocal, but still largely disempowered labor force, the current political moment also animates the long and tense relationship between the humanities and social movements. Since at least the presidential campaigns of 2016 that polarized the country on the issue of immigration, if not the Black Lives Matter movement (2013–) that shone a light on the deadly repercussions of systemic racism, there has been increased pressure on academia to recognize its complicity in imperial, colonial, racist, sexist, and classist social formations, as current social movements influence initiatives variously calling for critical teaching, diversity, and decolonization. We propose that music departments recognize the performative properties of curricula, and we suggest entry points to redressing the influence of coloniality and empire that undergird the institutionalization of music.