A Department Is Like…

Alex Golub on Academic Departments as Factory, lab, guild, studioAn interesting heuristic model. Not too dissimilar from Eric Raymond’s well-known The Cathedral and the Bazaar. More specific to academic departments but some of the same ideas.Do people work together or against one another? Is there a clear hierarchy? Is status constantly negotiated? Are members “ego-less?” Are projects monolithic? And this idea that we should choose one model is more appropriate than the others. Even though they’re presented in a fairly balanced fashion, one gets the idea that a (classical) studio sounds like a more positive context for experimentation and research than a factory. And while Golub’s explicit about the factory being a fairly negative model, the gradation from one end to the other is merely implied.

These analogies often remind me of one old Garfield cartoon in which he tries to find a cliché for life in general.

From memory:

Garfield: Life is like a turkey. No matter how you slice it, it’s still turkey. Life is like a fine cheese, it gets more precious with age…

Jon: Looking for the meaning of life, Garfield?

Garfield: It must be on the table somewhere!

Yes, some academic departments feel more like factories, guilds, labs, or studios. With different degrees of studioism, labishness, and guildity. Others feel like bazaars, convents, or plantations. (A friend’s lab director called himself a slave-driver.) Speaking of guilds, the former head of the musicians’ guild of Quebec, Émile Subirana, allegedly called his own organization a legalized maffia.

Depending on perspectives and goals, a department may be different things to different people. To some department chair, it may feel like a kindergarten (with faculty as fighting children) while the same department might feel like a Kafkaesque bureaucracy to a new student. And people looooove (it’s Valentine’s day) to complain about their department. Yet a department is “merely” an administrative structure.

Like Anthony Seeger, many of us don’t believe in departments (Seeger, Anthony (1997) A Reply to Henry Kingsbury, Ethnomusicology 41(2): 250-252). Not that departments don’t exist. But that they shouldn’t exist. Or, at least, they’re not the only way to think of academic work. Incidentally, Seeger has worn several hats in his academic career, including curator at the Smithsonian. He might be better known as an ethnomusicologist (because ethnomusicology is, too use another cliché, like a village where everybody knows everyone else) but he’s also an anthropologist and an altogether well-rounded scholar, IMHO.

To go back to ways to talk about academia. Analogies, analogizing, metaphors, clichés, models… Here’s another one, frequently used by Jean-Louis Van Veeren the head of the MIDI studio at Cégep Saint-Laurent’s College of Music. Samba schools. Seeger himself mentioned these in an encyclopedia chapter on musicians and social status: Seeger, Anthony (1998) Social Structure, Musicians, and Behavior. In The Garland encyclopedia of world music. Olsen, Dale A. and Sheehy, Daniel E., ed. Pp. 54-65. Garland Pub.

According to both Van Veeren and Seeger, Samba schools are interdisciplinary by design. Van Veeren usually emphasized the fact that learning in Samba schools may be rather undirected, “organic,” and experimental. Seeger talks mostly about that Samba schools are structured, competitive, and neighbourhood-based, although the end result (at Carnival) looks like “free-for-all.” They may be talking about different things but those two ideas aren’t incompatible. And, for musicians at least, this model isn’t too negative.

Then there’s the model of the open seminar. Preferably located in a nice, quiet, temperate region (say, the French or Italian countryside). With people coming together from different walks of life, working in different capacities. Poets, musicians, academics, etc. Discussing issues as they see fit. Interacting in different ways. A dense and multivalent network. Not guaranteed to produce outstanding work. But the fun is in the process. Some Prix de Rome recipients seem to have benefitted from something like that. And it’s not so far from the Medici Effect.

These are just examples, scenarios, models. Other ways to typify academic institutions is through characteristics, features, qualities. Many of them have negative connotations: insular, incestuous, consanguine, inward-looking… Others have different connotations depending on perspective: competitive, elite, meritocratic… Yet others have positive connotations: convivial, collaborative, congenial, innovative, humane…

So? Which type of context do you want to work in? Why?

3 thoughts on “A Department Is Like…”

Leave a Reply