June, 2019

Celebrating the Pomp, Mindful of Circumstances
Eileen M. Hayes

Each spring, students, parents, faculty, and administrators gather to observe the year’s commencement exercises. For students, the Trio section of Elgar’s March No. 1 provides the sonic backdrop for a day that is marked by reunions with family members and sighs of relief at having made it to the finish line.

This month, I call attention to some of the less visible work of faculty (circumstances) and the surprise announcement of businessman Robert F. Smith that he was relieving the student loan debt of all those graduating this year from Morehouse College (pomp).  My travel down this path was prompted by my appreciating a faculty member for “working” commencement, meaning, taking part in the annual procession of faculty that attend such events.  Her off-the cuff response of “It’s not work” caught me by surprise but I did not pursue the matter further.  It is true that taking part in the annual exercise does not compare with evaluating undergraduate essays, preparing doctoral exams, adjudicating scale juries, conducting end of year concerts, observing artist teachers in the classroom, evaluating end of year recitals, and teaching lessons and classes.  Yet, our colleague’s reaction reminded me of other work that faculty carry out throughout the year that is invisible or goes acknowledged.  I thought in particular of the additional requests for mentoring and advising that faculty of color report receiving from students of color; again work that is invisible in our reward and recognition structures.  If work is not seen, then how can it be acknowledged?

Last week, I met with a retiring faculty member at a local coffee shop for an exit interview.  After chatting, I asked the associate professor to share the reasons behind her decision to retire.  The voice inside my head insisted that the answer was already known to me; she must be of full retirement age or close and having achieved a fulfilling career, she is ready for the next chapter in her life. To my surprise, she said that she was retiring because she couldn’t take it anymore – not the people, campus, her department or our College, but the workload, grind, the challenge and burden, as she put it, of three new preps for semesters on end.  To be sure, the workload context my colleague described does not resonate with all, but I know that it resonates with some and I would include under the heading of burdensome, the travel between campuses that many adjunct faculty across the country must undertake in order to fulfill teaching obligations while making ends meet.  It is possible that some experience their work as a privilege while for others, that experience is refracted through stress and over-expenditure of energies. Both sets of circumstances are important. Our collective ability to empathize is compromised when we assume a one size fits all interpretation of our experiences as music faculty.

The video of Robert F. Smith’s address to the graduating class reveals the glee of commencement attendees, including members of the platform party who were also surprised by his announcement.  Smith’s donation responds to a national context in which, in 2017, 66% of graduates from public colleges had loans with an average debt of $25,550; and 75% of graduates from private nonprofit colleges incurred loans with an average debt of $32,300.  It would be interesting for us to do a deep dive into the student loan debt incurred by our music majors nationwide.  Many of our majors will not have their student loans paid off by a generous billionaire.  In contrast, in the commencement program in which I took part this spring, the University’s food pantry was credited for its exemplary outreach across campus.  The presence of campus food pantries acknowledges the rapid rise of food insecurity amongst college students, a situation that pertains particularly to first-time students, first-gens, students who are raising children, and single parents.  

Again, the experiences of faculty and students are varied but it is worth bearing in mind multiple perspectives as we take advantage of the summer’s different pace to pause, re-energize, tend to projects in progress, and celebrate our calling and achievements.