Ethnomusicology and Parenthood

Since its inception, I have been an avid and enthusiastic reader of the “Parenthood and Ethnomusicology” blogs. A father of a three-year-old and a PhD Candidate, I have found great comfort and a sort of virtual camaraderie with the others in our field who, like me, are continually in the process of figuring out how to be both parents and ethnomusicologists.

Ben Dumbauld

I have noticed some common themes that have emerged within all the entries in this series, perhaps the foremost being the balancing act between the unique stresses of time, travel, and finances that come with being an academic and having a family. Yet as I read through the blogs, it seemed to me most authors were dancing around a question that remained unarticulated, but at the same time a question that I imagine almost all of us have asked ourselves at one point or another: is this worth it? To what degree is an academic life, as it exists today, conducive to raising a family?

Perhaps this question has gone unspoken for good reason. It seems so loaded. Who am I, after all, to determine what is good or bad for another person’s family? This being said, I think there are some positive conditions we can objectively point towards when it comes to raising children: financial security, a safe living space, and dedicated time to one’s family, for example. As I get closer and closer to completing my 25+ years in school, it is with these factors in mind that I have begun deeply considering whether I should continue to pursue a career in higher education.

Make no mistake, I carry absolutely no regrets in my choice to pursue a PhD. I have no doubt shed my fair share of tears, and have screamed existentially at pretty much every wall in our small New York City apartment in pursuit of this damn piece of paper. Like many of the previous posters, I found myself raising a small child while also studying for the comprehensive exams and pursuing fieldwork, and my wife could devote a whole gallery to pictures of me, book in hand, infant son sleeping on my chest. Yet, through this process I have emerged with something indispensable: the feeling that I have found my voice, and through finding it have become a better, more articulate, and more empathetic person. Thanks to my academic training and fieldwork, I also have story to tell—one I hope is the first of many.

But now I come to the point where I have to consider my next steps. I first met my wife just a few months before I was to move across the country for my PhD program, and, falling in love, I asked her to join me. She (thankfully!) agreed, and we quickly packed up and left under the assumption that our time in New York would be temporary, a stopping point to our final location, that yet-to-be-determined college town where we would raise a family, she would go back to school, and I would slowly climb the long ladder toward tenure. Yet, in the last six years of residing in this urban stopping point, we have settled in. We married, had a child, and moved to a bigger apartment. We got careers: my wife has a good position, and a job I took six years ago as short-term summer employment has grown unexpectedly into a career, complete with a salary, benefits, and opportunities for promotion.

I wonder now, should I leave this all behind upon graduation to continue to follow the dream of a tenure-track career in a quaint college town? As I examine the current academic environment, that dream seems increasingly like a mirage. I look at my colleagues a bit ahead of me: some indeed received the tenure-track position they very much earned immediately after graduation. But the majority I know have been bouncing around from visiting professorship to post-doc to visiting professorship, living in three cities in three years. Others stay where they are, gigging between local colleges and universities as an adjunct professor without benefits or security in the hopes something with some actual permanence will materialize. After uprooting once, am I ready to do it again, now with a family tagging along? Asking my wife to leave a career position she has worked very hard to attain under the paltry assurance that I will have a visiting professorship for a single year seems clearly out of the question. Nor do I have any interest in living six months to a year without my family in the hopes that such a temporary position becomes permanent—especially when it is all too often the case that the future of visiting professorships are entirely outside my control as a teacher and scholar, relying rather on the continual uncertainties of funding and “student interest.”

My primary concern with not entering academia in such conditions is my fear that I will be silenced. After spending years of fieldwork with Romanian-American musicians, I have developed a deep desire to share their story to those that will listen; something I worry I will be frustrated by my potential lack of academic associations. Will publishers not take me seriously for being outside of academia? Or then again, what new opportunities will I have to tell my story, not having to adhere to whatever trend my senior, tenure-granting colleagues find most illuminating to the current academic paradigm? Might I get even more writing done in a stable non-academic career than a possibly years-long, stressful search for that next adjunct position, post-doc fellowship, or visiting professorship?

In writing these confessions, it is not my intent to garner sympathy, and I fully recognize that I am speaking from a position of innate privilege within both academia and society at large. I know very few have the financial means to attain the level of education I have receieved. I also realize that the academic environment is one which, in general, continues to enact policies that favor men over women, fathers over mothers. If anything, I write this as a call for an additional conversation. While talking about how we as mothers and fathers can manage to operate within academia, let’s also bring light to whether the structures of academia in the contemporary environment are moving in a direction which is increasingly unfriendly to scholars with families. Assuming the neoliberal corporatization of higher education continues, let’s start imagining what it will look like when thousands of recently-minted PhD scholars, when realizing academia no longer offers them the basic assurance that they might be able to modestly raise a family, collectively turn their backs to the ivory tower.

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