November 2, 2012

Last week, I spent seven minutes in one of my University of Virginia classes fighting the fancy projector in my classroom. It may have been unfair to direct my ire at an unsuspecting projector, but as with many of my colleagues here, I am tired of machine-centered thinking — and with administrators who stress the value of machines over people. Lately, opening e-mail often leads to a stream of curses at administrators who issue summonses to town-hall meetings or hand down new projects that have little to do with teaching or research. With all of these bells and whistles, I’m afraid we are losing sight of our primary mission.

That’s why I’m ready to hit restart. During a moment of solidarity this summer, as U-Va. took to the national stage to save President Teresa A. Sullivan’s job, it seemed that the university might become a model for defending public higher education in the United States. Instead, the climate on campus today feels worse than ever. Every few weeks, a new command comes down from on high, agitating some portion of the faculty, then before anyone can do anything, another command appears, sometimes contradicting the first.

In the aftermath of those steamy summer days of counter-revolution, everything at the university apparently needs changing: the curriculum, the administrative structure, the library, the development plan, etc. But much of what goes on at the university works just fine and has for a couple of hundred years.

Yes, we need change and innovation. We need to figure out how to pay university workers wages they can live on, and we need to figure out what to do with digital media. We need to continue to push hard for diversity and to make the education we offer more accessible. We who work at an institution built on slave labor need to work especially hard at these things. But still, we do some things well, and we shouldn’t forget that.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to start tracking the things that work here. I went to the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies for its “Meet the Fellows” afternoon. The Woodson Fellows introduced themselves and their projects, and for 90 minutes, I listened to a group of pre- and post-doctoral scholars discuss a stunning array of projects, from the practices of a religion I’d never heard of to a quantitative analysis of violent conflict in Africa to an ethnography of gay black communities in the District of Columbia. These projects came from many disciplines and perspectives. But the fellows worked together because they believe that the unfettered mind is the university’s greatest resource. Even in these lean times, they get two years simply to do their academic work. And they reminded me that education really is about ideas.

Teaching at the university founded by the third president of the United States is, by any standard, a great job. But these days only a small portion of my day is devoted to teaching and scholarship. Most of it goes to e-mail, reports and unnecessary meetings.

In a week when we were asked to develop revenue-generating master’s programs, to rethink our college-wide undergraduate curriculum, to defend the music library and to develop technological initiatives, it can be a relief to just teach the old-fashioned way. So after my projector battle, I went into class with a photocopy of a letter that a 16th-century courtesan wrote to a mother who wanted to make her daughter a courtesan.

I asked my students what those two pages told them about what it was like to learn in the 16th century. They gave it the old college try, relating the letter to Machiavelli, the presidential election and date rape. Then, instead of trying to make the technology work, we took the madrigal score and sang it. They made music the old-fashioned way. After they sang, they looked out the window at a public art project designed to raise suicide awareness and asked great questions about the value of life in the Italian Renaissance and the work the creative arts can do.

So, to my university’s Board of Visitors, President Sullivan and Dean Everyone, I’d like to offer this reminder: The way my students learn has nothing to do with “strategic dynamism.” It has everything to do with being in a place that gives them the space, time and luxury to think. We should not forget the events of the summer, but neither should we forget, in the name of progress, all that has worked so well for so long.

The writer is an associate professor in the McIntire Department of Music at the University of Virginia.