Begin the Fugue, Part II

Vocationtional Vicissitudes

After existing in this bootcamp space for the past few months, I feel like I am walking away with a very fresh take on what it means to teach in a vocational, rather than a liberal arts setting. When the goal of the teaching is unabashedly “be useful in a neoliberal vocation” context, there’s a lot less theory (of course something I personally wasn’t the biggest fan of for hopefully obvious reasons) and much more honesty about what this specific type of student wanted out of their education: new opportunities for employment.

I want to be very clear that I do not think that this approach should be the default goal of education (even though that is the new constant pressure), but now having experienced living in this bizarro world where success is defined solely by employment I now have a lot more opinions about the “value/values” demarcation in education. In many ways, I very much agree with many goals of Flatiron in that there is a huge hole in the way things are set up now for vocational job training that doesn’t fit the traditional guild/apprentice model (electrician, plumber) and there should be more opportunities for people to accomplish this if they want.

This is especially true if it will lead to a marked difference in quality of life when it comes to their income. This absurdly large differences in income has been benefiting people (white dudes) in tech for a long time, and opening it up to others via education is imporant. It makes me very happy to have worked for a company that has made this a priority and has allocated scholarship money for those that are underrepresented in tech and to have been able to pass on those opportunities to people I know personally.

Of course the idealist in me would go so far as to try to steer the next part of this conversation away from idea of social mobility (why don’t we just pay people all more than living wages and avoid classist ideas that value white collar above blue collar work) but the realist in me knows that this structure is entrenched in Western society right now so if there is a way to open the door to making more money and better quality of life for people through work, then people who can open that door need to open it as wide as humanly possible.

Emulating Ideas from Vocational Education

Reflecting on the vocational versus liberal arts really has me thinking about that and what the future of what higher education could be. Many of my academic colleagues know the pressure of being asked to demonstrate “transferable skills” in their curricula. I literally was praised today for including a line in a course I plan on teaching this Winter for explicitly saying I will talk about career paths within music psychology. Students rightly want to be able to make a living for themselves when they graduate.

But if we just follow the job market and placements as our only metric for success, I feel as though we really betray the entire goal of education. If you do think that, you need to get yourself a copy of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs immedietly. Now I don’t want to fall prey to Rule Number 2 of grad school (“Be on the lookout for false dichotomies”) thinking we can’t have both, but as more pressure is put on higher education to use employment as a KPI (a new term I learned this year) there is a lot higher ed can and should take from the vocational/bootcamp model. If so much can be accomplished in so little time that can lead to better chances at employment, I am sure there is time during a four year undergraduate degree to equip them with what they need for employment (if they want to do this) that is not just a few resume review sessions.

I know this might not be as big of a deal for some of my STEM colleagues or students, but I do think about what this would look like if there was some sort of vocational option for music students (my home field). The irony is also not lost on me that when I talk about music students, I understand the historical links to a music conservatory, which again is all about going on to “work” as a professional musician (having lived that life myself). But the reality that every one of my conservatory friends found post-graduation is that it is really, really hard to have a “normal life” as a performing musician. You can gig a lot and do a fair bit of teaching, but you often find that many of your colleagues are bank rolled by their wealthy spouses or parents. And on top of that, the hours don’t align with the “working day” (which I know not everyone wants anyway). Or you can go on tour and basically give up your “normal life”.

If you do this, you can be in the position to make a living, but it’s not exactly normal. I know things are a bit different for Music Ed, but I’m more thinking about the many jobs that people with really fantastic music educations could do, but either don’t know exist or have zero job preparation to get themselves that role. For example, the graduate student in musicology who has their finger on the pulse of the fantastic ideas going around academic circles, but would never have anything in their curricula about putting theory into practice at something like an arts organisation, let alone the connection from a professor to put them in touch with the person to get them employed.

I could easily imagine what a summer intensive might look like for music students (especially grad students) looking to pick up the skills they would need to go alt. I am sure there are tons of major orchestras or larger arts organizations that would benefit tremendously from music students who are like what I just described, but lack the mental model as to what power tools they need to be effective. Just learning basic data literacy, enough programming to wrangle data and make convincing visualizations for the board, and tools for thinking to not make rookie inferential mistakes could all be learned in a setting like this. Of course how I am thinking about it takes much more of a quant focus than what would traditionally be offered in a music school setting, but that’s kind of the point in that you’d be able to do both. I can’t emphasize enough how much computer and research/data literacy (not even mastery) can add value to your organization when you couple it with the pre-existing expertise you have of your domain.

I am sure a small group of students who just wanted to learn these in-demand vocational skills over the summer or an alt-semester, they’d be ripe and ready by the end of it to go on and help arts organizations or work somewhere else. Maybe even set it up to lead to internships or something? The new skill set would give them comfort in knowing all their eggs are not in the one basket that is music performance or the “academic job market” while not losing the culture of total immersion in music. Just a little bizarro world like the one I have been living in for the past year for them to enter for a few months to give them something different.1

Of course I don’t know who is going to pay for that or if students would be interested, but it’s got my mind ticking after seeing what can be done in three months when you just stare into vocationalism.

The whole experience teaching in this context thing really felt like if you’ve had the chance to learn a second language (non-natively) like being a white kid learning Spanish in secondary school and even though you’re learning Spanish, you’re also learning more about English because you had no idea what you took for granted about your own language. I will definitely be re-doing many parts of my teaching statement after the past nine months here.

I won’t be able to implement these zany ideas anytime soon, but I did want to put them out there now since I think this push for vocational skills within the liberal arts will only become stronger as funding continues to drop for higher education and students withdraw from enrolling until they can go back on campus.

I’ll just end this section again here with repeating that I do not think that this emphasis on jobs should be the new standard for higher ed, but rather stealing ideas from the bootcamp model, annexing it as something separate for students who are interested, and then actually pulling this idea that liberal arts degrees need to be about employability out of the curricula so we can focus on deeper issues than just getting jobs.

Now knowing I won’t be doing this next, what might I be?

This takes me to Part III of this series of me having a lot of time to think the past month, but no ability whatsoever to concentrate on my professional research.

  1. I can already hear the response of “There is no room for this in the curricula! We barely can let go of Set Theory!” Maybe one day it can be a fun Twitter conversation.↩︎