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The official blog by the Society for Ethnomusicology

The institutionalization of ethnomusicology: Responses

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On Friday morning of last year’s SEM Annual Meeting the round table The institutionalization of ethnomusicology: Current perspectives, challenges, and opportunities, was livestreamed and the video was archived by SEM. We invited the participants of this roundtable to summarize their responses to the discussion that took place during the session. Below is the video of the full session and the responses provided by the presenters. We hope to continue the dialogue that began at the roundtable through this forum (the SEM Blog) and invite you to share this blog post widely and to add your own responses and suggestions in the comments section below. To view the archived video, click here.

Intro (summary of discussion) by Kathleen Wiens

The skills and talents that ethnomusicologists offer are vital to public culture. For many of us, public-facing work* is a life calling in which we use our skills and talents to empower and mobilize our ethnomusicological knowledge.  However, the contribution of this work within our field’s historiography is treated as peripheral. This treatment is reinforced throughout professional preparation (graduate studies) and the institutions that guide that process. Our roundtable identified ways in which academic training falls short of addressing the needs of public-facing work.

The different aptitudes and experiences of our six roundtable participants complemented one another. That the resulting whole was stronger than its separate parts was proven by the dynamic discussion between speakers and attendees. Whereas speakers identified ways in which our academic job preparation did or did not play into our current professional roles, attendees helped identify and illuminate the received wisdoms and rationales (for better or for worse) that academic culture clings to with tenacity – many of which have led to the absence of preparation for public-facing work both in the development of practical skill sets, recognition of individual talents and aptitudes, and realistic attitudes towards what public-facing work entails.

 * I use the term “public facing” as opposed to “public” or “applied” work. I use this term to describe work for which the primary intent is public engagement. This can include work that is government supported, privately funded, NGO, independent, or supported by an academic institution so long as the primary audience is public and final outcomes are aimed to be accessible by the public.

Q&A response by Kathleen Wiens

In the months leading up to the Washington meeting, none of our roundtable participants expected that we would, simultaneous to the conference, be coping with a devastating emotional blow caused by the November 11th presidential election results. Media commentators tried to make sense of the confusing result by pointing to a deep “divide” (a lack of empathy and conversation) between people of political, financial, and educational privilege in the USA and people who feel excluded from one or more aspects of those privileges. Three statements from our morning stand out to me as speaking to that perceived divide. First is a statement (I paraphrase here) made by Janet Sturman, that “insularity has led to a current divide [between academics and non-academics]; if we leave the conversation in the academy the divide will never be bridged.” Ameera Nimjee addressed “the divide” by declaring “more than ever public work is crucial work” (my paraphrase). Eric Hung pointed towards division when he explained that he teaches about public musicology as a way of teaching how to make “allyship.” Museums and accessible cultural events are among the few remaining domains in which members of the public actively seek to have their worldviews simultaneously affirmed and challenged. As a museum professional I see evidence every day that museums and cultural events become places where hundreds of thousands of people meet, talk, learn, and develop empathy for life experiences that are different from their own.

Response by Katherine Palmer

During the discussion portion of the panel, I was most struck by Cullen Strawn’s restatement of a trusted advisor’s idea that “strict adherence to disciplinarily will kill you,” which brought a spirited laugh from both the panel and audience. Throughout students’ tenure in music school, they are being pushed to assume a major (performance, music education, music history, ethnomusicology, etc.), and to develop a deep understanding of a singular discipline within music. While focus and practice within music study cannot – and should not – be discounted, encouraging students to work across these sub-disciplines and to seek out interdisciplinary collaborative opportunities will empower them in non-traditional career paths, such as public-facing, community-based work.

Collegiate educators need to reach “across the aisle” – both inside and outside the department – to foster relationships that enable this work to happen, an idea that was echoed during our discussion. While finding time to allocate for building new relationships and seeking out collaborators may be challenging, networking will eventually begin to build upon itself into a web of people, places, and resources. As the job market shifts (as evidenced by the decreasing number of collegiate openings and increasing number of terminal degree recipients), higher education needs to adjust. Ethnomusicology, in particular, is already well prepared to work towards a more inclusive music curriculum that promotes community-focused projects and research. In a world that needs more cultural awareness and understanding, let’s encourage current students to lead rather than follow in antiquated footsteps.

Response by Cullen Strawn

Ethnomusicology’s history includes chapters on the justification of existence alongside established disciplines in academe. Today one might ask for an extension of that work relative to life beyond the terminal degree, particularly for those interested in public-facing endeavors. The group discussion following our panelists’ presentations touched on shifts in the field and their impact on students, the need to recalibrate public engagement as primary work, the importance of understanding administrative and public audiences and the “languages” they speak, and our potential to add quantifiable value in contexts of partnership, among other related themes.

If academic ethnomusicology seems out of touch with market realities and has little incentive to adjust, if it persists in minimizing, however tacitly, the worth of knowledge, skills, and abilities developed in public-facing settings, if it seeks instead faculty whose qualifications sit comfortably within a familiar mold, thereby limiting needed offerings to students, students can consider using their critical training to question whether the return on their investment in undergraduate and graduate studies will likely be enough to satisfy their goals. What other professional orientations might well complement their academic credentials? What valuable resources, whether known by students’ advisors, might already be available at their institutions? Developing and maintaining such awareness requires efforts that ideally should be in motion across all strata of higher education, but that can begin with you.

Response by León García Corona

Today more than ever, the work that ethnomusicologists do is paramount.  But how can we encourage others to follow a career in ethnomusicology when salaries are stagnant across disciplines—particularly in the humanities—and when jobs in ethnomusicology continue to be scarce?

Programs in ethnomusicology—at least in the United States—continue to focus primarily on creating future ethnomusicology professors; hence, the possibilities of other career paths have been largely overlooked. During our presentation, and as our chair highlighted, touching on the emotional devastation of the recent elections, we discussed the importance not only of ethnomusicology but also of the skills needed for ethnomusicology beyond academia.

In my contribution I shared some of my experiences and projects as a producer and education specialist at Smithsonian Folkways, such as the Smithsonian Folkways Magazine (, an online publication featuring current ethnomusicological research and promoting the Folkways catalog. This publication, in the words of Folkways curator Daniel Sheehy, is located in the crucial “sweet spot” between academic rigor and publication for a larger audience. I also shared an online database of music lesson plans ( created and used by music educators, allowing them to exchange teaching ideas while promoting the Folkways brand. Last, I shared an online educational bilingual interactive site for jazz, which included a video, a map, a timeline, and a mixer ( All of these projects faced similar challenges, primarily funding, but also access to copyrighted material and the lack of IT resources and staff with the practical skills necessary to execute them.

The presentation put into evidence the need for professionals who understand the importance of fostering and increasing cultural understanding through music (ethnomusicologists) and who also have experience in practical and mundane aspects of production; promptness, fundraising, video/audio editing, html, etc.

During our final thoughts I put some questions on the table:

  • What are current offerings in ethnomusicology programs that respond to this demand?
  • How do we reconcile the need for revenue and the dissemination of knowledge?
  • In what other ways can we combine ethnomusicological training with other practical skills?
  • What can educational institutions incorporate into the core curriculum to achieve this?

As one member of the audience put it: “the face of ethnomusicology has changed,” and the sooner we realize it, the better equipped we will be to deal with our current political and social moment.

Response by Eric Hung

I have been heavily influenced by Stephen Greenblatt’s 1990 article “Resonance and wonder” (Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 43/4 [January 1990] pp. 11-34).  He defines wonder as something that is so unique, awe-inspiring, or overwhelming that it stops audience members in their tracks.  It’s a powerful feeling in the moment, but it is unlikely to affect the audience in a lasting way.  In contrast, he defines resonance as the ability of an artwork, exhibition, or performance to make audiences think about the wider world and the complex sociocultural forces at play.  Resonance might not generate “oohs” and “ahhs,” but it will be more powerful in the long run.

In my training as a musicologist and ethnomusicologist I learned how to study why specific musical traditions have resonance for their practitioners.  My training did not, however, teach the most important skill needed for public-facing work—namely, how to help my audience create resonance for themselves.  For ethnomusicologists to bridge the academic divide and be relevant to the wider world, we need to study not only who our public audiences currently are, but also to think broadly about who they can be.  Once we have identified a potential audience, which can be done through partnerships, we have to learn about the issues that matter to them.  We then need to present lectures, exhibitions, and/or performances that are informative, meaningful, and pleasurable to this specific audience.  We have to learn to not take ourselves so seriously, and must allow ourselves to be imaginative, creative and whimsical.

To be sure, some ethnomusicologists have done and are doing great public-facing work with unconventional audiences.  They are, however, the exception.  I think it’s time for our discipline to “center” public-facing work.  This involves learning from fields that have long studied users, such as public history, human-computer interaction, and marketing.  In this political and cultural environment, the future of our field depends on this.


Response by Ameera Nimjee

It seems transparent to me that humanities-based work in public-facing institutions is crucial at this historical moment. Reflecting on our roundtable and discussion, this year’s SEM pre-conference presentations, and of course the events that coincided with the beginning of the annual meeting in the election of a new President of the United States, this work bridges perspectives and facilitates dialogue in our ever-changing world. In my experience while working in museums, I have watched individuals and families engage in exhibitions and programming that discuss the history of migration and citizenship in Canada—stories that outline the framework of their daily lives and realities. I have listened to young second-generation Canadians practice Islam in secular spaces, transforming museum architecture into a space of ritual congregation. I have witnessed patrons and visitors learning about places and traditions in ways that are alternative to narratives presented by the media. As ethnomusicologists, not only can our work contribute to these experiences—it must do so.

Our panel presentations incited several trajectories of discussion, including one on how graduate students receive training in their curricula to conduct public work. Indeed, while the skills required to plan exhibitions, write in non-academic genres, and conduct data synthesis and navigate software can be built into graduate methods courses, I add that we must seek out projects that encourage parallel systems of learning during our careers as students. I began working in museums as an undergraduate student, and have since worked on a variety of projects in the worlds of curating exhibitions, programs, and performances that have challenged me to apply my research in ethnomusicology in new and interesting ways. I have worked on various project-based collaborative teams—a welcome break from the solitude of dissertation writing that has informed how I conceptualize my fieldwork, research questions, and disciplinary theory. I echo my fellow panelists in challenging the secondary position of public-facing work in ethnomusicology. The primacy of this work defines my ethnomusicology, and how I seek to contribute to my broader communities as my career continues.

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