Higher Education, Model Minorities, and Music

In the grand tradition of the Jewish Intellectual, most of my family members work in or around academia. There’s good historical reasoning behind this: the one area where it’s pretty much always safe to be a Jew is higher education. In entertainment circles, Jews have shitloads of institutional power but can’t appear onscreen unless they get nose jobs or play the fool; in finance, Jews remain securely entrenched, but inevitably you’ll court the greedy Shylock stereotype (see: Goldman Sachs, Bernie Madoff, most of Obama’s financial team); in lobbying and law “¦ well, everybody hates lobbyists and lawyers, so that doesn’t count. Academia in the U.S. is the only place where a Jew is considered 100% White and has standard White privilege. Granted, there are Socialism accusations all over the place (holla to my blacklisted forebears!), but we’re typically insulated from anti-Semitism, at least within the greater institutional structure itself.

Mind, this wasn’t always the case–not too long ago, Jews weren’t allowed into plenty of schools, private or public. That, however, went kaput a generation or so past, and Jews have an enormous institutional advantage in higher ed–not so much disproportionate as in line with what other “true,” “non-ethnic” Whites enjoy. It’s kind of fun! I never worry that my ethnicity holds me back from admissions, fellowships, teaching gigs, institutional approval “¦ of course, I get grief from a few old guys for being female, but if anything, being a Jewish female actually helps me in the sense that the heads of half the departments root for me as “one of the tribe.” As a Jew, I have an In. It’s been quite enjoyable, and a remarkably pleasant change from growing up in Virginia in the 1970s and ’80s, where adults were still getting used to the concept of non-Black folk who weren’t blondes (don’t get me started on the blonde thing; I swear, I get all rage-y trigger-y about blondes. If you’re a blonde, I preemptively apologize).

Nowadays, as an educator primarily working with foreign students in U.S. universities, I’m encountering another version of what it can mean to be ethnic in higher ed. I’m (broadly) a writing teacher, largely for Korean students pursuing doctoral degrees in the U.S. (roughly 85% of my clientele at the moment); most come here with a Master’s degree from Seoul National University, and more than half have additional Master’s from various U.S. schools. Of these, all but two are women; approximately 75% are in music programs; and a slight majority of those are performers. Unfortunately for both my bank account and my rather alarming temper, that majority is starting to slip: I’ve lost three female Korean DMA (Doctorate in Musical Arts) candidates in the past year or so, completely through the efforts (and/or lack of effort) of a few fuckwads in the institutional structure.

New York City does not lack for non-Whites. Flushing is the single most ethnically and nationally diverse community in the world, the city boasts the largest Haitian and Puerto Rican populations outside of those islands, everyone is assumed to be from “somewhere else” “¦ this is a city of immigrants. As has always been the case, the children of these immigrants make heavy use of the educational systems; the international nature of the city also attracts many foreign nationals to its schools. Logically, NYC schools should be the last place to run into petty, unfounded biases based on skin color and accent; it should be a given that less-than-fluent and heavily accented English in no way indicates a less-than-astute mind. However, in all the music departments of the NYC institutions I’ve worked with/for/in/around, there are people in positions of enormous power who treat my students with the utmost disrespect for their intelligence. One person in particular, unfortunately the head of the performance division at a major university, seems to take a dislike to certain students for little or no reason, and continually thwarts their progress on the grounds of insufficient subject mastery.

I have taught most of the women pushed out of the degree program by this guy; I can say unreservedly that all were quite intelligent and capable in the non-performance areas of the program (one was doing some straight-up brilliant work in her thesis). So imagine my surprise when, one by one, I kept hearing about well-prepared exams being deemed unsatisfactory, solid dissertation proposals being rejected as weak, and insightful commentary being dismissed as unworthy of consideration. What was this fuckery? Was it just the one guy with too much power deciding to give shit to people who, as Korean women specifically, were generally raised to submit to the opinions of their professional superiors, and would also be afraid to seek redress in a system where they had no connections to power? Was the problem system-wide? Why these women in particular?

There are some striking similarities in the women targeted:

1) They’re quite smart, and therefore attempt to contribute more in discussion and tackle complex subjects than less intellectually-oriented students. When White performers do this, they are typically revered as “true artists”; however, East Asians in particular are expected to excel at technical mastery alone. I’ve seen institutional bias in music schools of all degree levels against those who defy such expectations.

2) Being smart, these performers push themselves to use more difficult vocabulary to better express their ideas; the result is an uptick in opportunities to hear broken English. The saddest part for me is that this aspect is specifically where I come in–yes, writing must be academic, formal, and idiomatic, and that’s what I help with. The students I like best are those who push themselves beyond simple, already-mastered language. Why would someone penalize those putting the most effort into things, those challenging their limits?

3) I didn’t realize this for a while, but two of the three women pushed out recently (and both of my current students struggling to stay in) are singers. Within the music world, East Asians are generally assumed to be instrumentalists, and only a few vocalists have risen to the top of the field. Again, where reality defies stereotype, the reaction on the part of the people in power is one of confusion, and therefore defensiveness and rejection.

Back to the “smart” thing: East Asians are considered a “model minority” in most professional areas of the U.S., most certainly including academia. However, transfer that model to a context in which there are conflicts–put a supposedly acquiescent and silent woman in an artsy, less-intellectual field, and watch her nonetheless express an active mind–and you automatically see a bunch of threatened old guys who expect everything to fall in line with an imaginary system in which all Asians are meek and modest, all women are governed by emotion and lack pure logic, and all singers are just plain stupid. The number of men pushed out of the program? Zero. Number of Whites pushed out of the program? Zero. Number of native English speakers pushed out? Zero. Despite the fundamentally international and multiracial nature of a university in a city of immigrants, and despite the likewise international context of the professional music world, the victims of institutional bias in these cases were uniform in cultural markers.

Most of my students know that I’m Jewish, and have commented enthusiastically on the similarities they see between traditional Korean and Jewish culture. The overarching thread is of the importance of education; with music in particular, there’s emphasis on the professional mastery achieved by international players in eras of significant migration. I love this connection, and am fairly devastated that there are people within the field whose actions threaten the bridges we’re trying to build with words and music. I have spent the past year trying to convince some of my students to go higher up in the power structure and complain about their treatment; I’ve offered to use my name, to go directly to people with whom I have influence, to act with the utmost discretion to ensure that nothing can be traced back to anyone I work with. In the middle of February, after yet another comprehensive exam attempt was rejected, someone finally spoke up, albeit softly; I’m waiting for permission to work my connections with the Jewish Intellectuals who lead the department, and for my students to return to work on their dissertations with me. Hopefully it happens soon, or I (and my landlady) will regret that my family of academics never sent any feeler cousins into the financial sector.

17 thoughts on “Higher Education, Model Minorities, and Music”

  1. I’m going to be speaking broadly here. Female Asian vocal students are almost never on par with vocal students from the western world. It has to do with how women are “trained” to speak in those gendered cultures. The breathy, nasal, stereotyped “Asian” girly voice is no joke, and part of adjusting that toward a doctoral-level vocal program is completely changing the way these women speak. It can take years to combat the fears that come along with speaking “assertively.” While abstractly sad, it’s not really anyone’s fault if these women don’t meet the criteria for the school. Getting the degree you want from the school you want is not a birthright. Music schools are conservative and have their own internal cultures.

    I know you’re coming at this from an academic perspective, but there are real reasons why Asian women are not always a great fit for American vocal programs.

    1. However, you’re missing the point–they are not being pushed out because of their vocal prowess–which, incidentially, is quite strong, given that most have been taught for a very long time how to differentiate between speaking Korean and singing classical Western repertoire–but because the department folk think they’re unintelligent based on their language skills. You’re making the mistake of conflating two issues.

      As for the vocal fit, if a person has been accepted into a program, the presumption is that said acceptance was based on their meeting the standards applied. Furthermore, speaking broadly on ‘Asian women’ in voice is absurd; Hindi is very different from Thai, from Chinese, from Japanese. The languages all have varying degrees of nasality, tonalism, pronounciation… just as English accents do. It doesn’t get much more nasal than North Carolinean, North Central Plains, Baltimorean… but no one would suggest that someone born in Charlotte is fundamentally incapable of vocal prowess because of it. You’re making an invalid assumption that speaking and singing are treated the same way by performers. That is emphatically not the case.

      1. I admitted I was speaking broadly, and you yourself brought up the students’ being singers and the attendant stereotypes as a contributing factor to being booted. If you’re not a vocal teacher, you can’t decide whether they’re good enough. Additionally, I’ve seen students get accepted to music graduate programs on potential that they ended up not fulfilling. Lots of music students get kicked out of lots of music programs for not toeing the line.

        Not to negate your feelings, but there’s an aspect of institutionalized music graduate programs that you don’t seem to be 100% attuned to. It’s actually worth investigating: lots of women get accepted into music programs with great ideas for expansion and they’re kicked out in part because there’s no one on staff who’s an expert in that branch of the field/qualified to be a thesis reader. Modernists are almost always accepted and then marginalized, if not entirely kicked out. I was accepted into and then kicked out of my first music history graduate program. I met the technical standards for admission but did not mesh well with the acting standards of the department as it operated at that time. It happens and it’s common.

        1. Actually, as a vocalist and graduate of conservatory in addition to my current activities in higher ed generally, yes, I have a fairly good idea of how programs work. These women are very much meeting the vocal demands of the department, as I mentioned; you, not having heard them perform, would not know this firsthand, but given that I did teach and study voice extensively, you can take my assessment at face value.

          You also seem to confuse ‘speaking broadly’ with making invalid generalizations. You do realize that Asia contains over 100 language families, yes? Those families are vocalized very differently, so to talk ‘broadly’ of such things is to make assumptions based on your own limited understanding rather than the vast range of factual evidence.

          Finally, it’s not my ‘feelings’ that you are attempting to ‘negate’: it is cold, hard reality. It appears that you are taking your limited experiences and opinions and attempting to read them as broad-based evidence. That is a form of institutional privilege and indicative of, frankly, an unearned sense of superiority akin to “I am a boy and I am telling you this.”

          1. I wasn’t trying to tell you how to feel. I was reminding you that you’re not their vocal teacher and it is therefore not up to you to declare them fit for the school. Comment on their writing, which you see and assess daily. But you can’t know what’s going on in their vocal lessons.

      1. I encountered them while in my own doctoral music program. Which is why I respect, but don’t necessarily take at face value, a writing teacher’s outrage at the music department’s assessment that these students are not living up to the school’s expectations. It’s like if your EN-101 teacher vouched for a math major who was flunking her math courses. If you’re not working in the department of the student’s actual major, I’m not sure you get a say as to whether the student deserves to stay.

    1. There is indeed… that’s what I’ve been trying to get them to do! I’d prefer to just bring up the situation myself–there are some higher-ups in the department who I know I can trust–but the students I’ve talked to are terrified that it will come back to them.

  2. Thanks for this! Couple of questions:

    Do the people pushed out of the programs include Asian-Americans? Non-white and non-Asian students (American or not)?

    Where do these women end up after they’re pushed out of the department?

    Can I go and shank some of the department heads?

    1. The people I’m referring to are all Korean nationals, although some end up emigrating here for good. None of my current private students are American by birth, and none of the Asian students I have now are U.S. citizens. After the foreign nationals leave the program–whether because of graduating or being pushed out–they may apply for visas to stay here, but most of my students have returned to their countries. The ones pushed out, unfortunately, return without degrees to show for their time, money, and effort, and will have considerable difficulty finding institutional teaching positions. In essence, they’re fucked.

      As for shanking… GET IN LINE. Seriously, I have a bounty out on one guy’s head. He’s not even a performer–what is he doing as head of a performance division?? He doesn’t have the degree his students are candidates for! I detest him, sososo much.

  3. My reaction: LSDFKJLEOISJALD!!!!!

    What the Hello Kitty?! I know it’s been tough for East Asian men (don’t hear much of Southern, Southeast Asian or Pacific Islander) to make inroads, but there are musicians who are lauded. My mother follows the career of Chinese opera singers here.

    But it didn’t occurr to me to wonder where are the women? I’m not in touch as you are professionally or through your extracurricular activities. It’s so maddening.

    It would take a revolution within these women to gather up their individual courage, group together, and fight against what they’ve been taught (programmed?). I hope it happens.

    White standard in action, ick.

    1. It’s funny, ’cause it’s very much a matter of which division of the music programs people are in. I just had a Korean theorist over, and she doesn’t get any of this crap; my historians are told right away to use editors, but nobody ever questions their intelligence. But the performers… they just get the double whammy, treated as dumb both by virtue of being performers rather than strict academics, and because of their ESL status. Utterly frustrating.

      A group revolution would be great, but it won’t happen. The only reason it managed to be brought up last month (quietly) is because the person in question failed another exam she was well-prepared for and figured she had nothing left to lose.

  4. This is a great piece, 14K. You always bring a new, valuable perspective.

    Your piece is so timely because just today I was reading an academic article about how ESL students, especially SE Asian students, faced steep discrimination within academia – any lack in English proficiency is seen as a sign of low intelligence by some professors. These professors then complain about the “ESL Problem.”

    I mean, I’d known about this reprehensible treatment of ESL students since I started college and could see it happening to ESL students for, but the article included anonymous quotes from professors and it was those quotes that really, really hit home to me. I cannot imagine in what world speaking about your students in that way is even remotely appropriate. Referring to them as a “problem”? I can’t even. The ESL “problem” as it stands for educators is only a problem in learning how to adapt out-dated rubrics for a global classroom. It’s about learning how to grade on content while addressing the needs of your students. It’s about seeing your students as individuals (to the extent possible, I know about the demands on professors and the huge class sizes some face).

    I don’t know where I am going with this exactly. Right on, 14K. You’ve given me a new wrinkle to think about.

    1. English is the worst language to learn, and thank goodness I learned it as a preschooler. It’s ridiculous to shame foreigners for not mastering this language which is chock full of irregularities, where exceptions to the rule are rampant and random.

      As for sounding like native Amurikans or Brits, there is a problem among Asians. In their native lands they study English early, much earlier than American students begin foreign language. However the style of teaching is primarily focused on reading and writing. Speaking is a whole other universe. And the problem is the lack of native speakers in the countries to meet the needs. Don’t like how foreigners sound? Then take the time out to help them, kindly, not in a rude pedantic way. And spend time abroad, or send your college aged kids to teach. Better yet, volunteer with these classes.

    2. Oh, totally. Honestly? There’s an aspect of laziness to it, in the unwillingness to adapt to the current reality of the global classroom. When I was teaching a college course, I told everyone on the first day that, if they had problems with writing in general and/or English writing in particular, they should make use of the excellent tutors the school provided for that purpose. Easily 3/4 of that class was at least bilingual, and probably about 1/3 were ESL. I had no issues with papers from them, because everyone who needed it was getting the editing/tutoring help.

      At the university level, when you’re dealing with older, entrenched professors, they don’t always feel the need to change their ways for the benefit of the students, and that’s what I’ve run into with my private students. The schools in question aren’t providing the services their students need… an old boyfriend from college had to wait a year to start school because the school decided he needed more English proficiency–there weren’t ESL resources at the school, but they didn’t enroll him and take his tuition and THEN deny him the help he needed! If there aren’t systems in place for your foreign students, you shouldn’t accept them in the first place unless you’re willing to work around the language issue… and this should be a given in a NYC school.

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