The present sociopolitical milieu on many college and university campuses seems to present an unwelcoming environment for conservatives, whether of the religious, social, or economic varieties. News headlines speak of violent protests followed by disinvitations of conservative speakers from campus venues, and articles bemoaning the shutting out of ideas contrary to liberal orthodoxies can readily be found in print and online. Happily, the “horror stories” that garner so much attention are the exceptions rather than the rule. While the worldview of the sociopolitical Left is certainly ascendant in academia and has been for several decades, faculty and students coming from the Right are usually treated politely, even when their ideas are not always readily welcomed.
The ability of conservatives to function and thrive as academics seems to depend upon the area of inquiry. Business and economics are often described as being more welcoming to conservative or libertarian ideas, while in the social sciences a Leftist perspective seems predominant. The arts are, in my experience at least, largely populated by social and political liberals, yet I have been able to thrive while working among colleagues and students who hold positions far to my left, and even to develop friendly working relationships with them–generally speaking I have always genuinely liked the people with whom I have worked, regardless of whatever differences we might have on various issues. To a certain extent my ability to do this is the result of simple collegiality. I know how to treat people as I want to be treated and accept that interjecting politics and religion into every conversation is not a way to be well-liked, especially when one’s views on such things differ significantly from those of the people by whom one is surrounded. And, as I am so fond of telling students, “I see and hear things that offend me every single day, but I am able to deal with it quietly because I am a grownup.”
Being polite and having a thick skin is not all that is needed to be successful, but it goes a long way. More importantly, as a professor in applied music, my positions on any number of issues of the day simply are not often relevant to my teaching, writing, or performing, and interjecting them would be extraneous and unhelpful. What matters most is whether or not I can play well, perform successfully, contribute to my field through writing, editing, and speaking, and teach students effectively. My opinions regarding pieces of legislation, political candidates, or even matters of current social and political conversation matter very little as long as I can make great music and teach others to do the same. This doesn’t mean that I am secretive about my political, social, and religious leanings–this blog is evidence enough of that–but ideas not relevant to teaching and performing on low brass instruments have never been part of my curriculum.
Even more importantly, in teaching I am fond of calling the trombone (or the euphonium, or the tuba) “The Great Equalizer.” What does that mean? It means that when a student walks into my studio for a lesson my assessment of that student’s performance in no way takes into account that person’s race, ethnicity, gender, social class, income level, religion, or any number of other categories with which people self-identify or are classified by others. The only thing that matters is whether or not that student plays better in the present lesson than in the previous one; whether or not instructions were followed, effective practice strategies were employed, and diligent work took place between meetings. Every student who does those things and produces beautiful sounds receives high marks, and every student who fails to do those things receives low marks. All are treated equally.
Like most professors, I love teaching but am ambivalent at best toward grading, especially in applied music when there is necessarily a subjective element in every assessment. While I can’t promise to always grade perfectly, I can and do promise to always grade apolitically. The Great Equalizer makes this possible, and I am glad that it does.