Can the academy be a bandstand?

Stefon Harris's Ted Talk

There's a lot for academics to learn from Jazz musicians, and particularly their conception of the bandstand. Harris argues that there are no mistakes on the bandstand, there are only opportunities that go unrealized. If, in the middle of a performance, he plays a particular note which could change or influence the direction of the piece, it either affects the other musicians or it doesn't. If it doesn't, it is not a mistake, it's an unrealized opportunity:

"So there is no mistake. The only mistake is if I'm not aware... if each musician is not aware and accepting enough of his fellow band member to incorporate the idea.. if we don't allow the creativity..."

If we view the academy as a bandstand, then other peoples scholarship merely provides opportunities for the field to go in different directions. If the field does not go in that direction, it is not a reflection on the quality of that person's scholarship, though it may say something about that scholars' relationships with other members of the field.

In other words, the literature review is not a hazing activity. It's an exercise in listening, and being aware of what others are doing around you. It is part of a larger process of engaging others which includes collaboration and conference participation.

The only way to really make change in your field is by engagement. Take another lesson from Jazz. Harris explains that he as a musician can force his idea on other band members, but that will stifle their creativity:

[If he forces an idea musically] "It's kind of chaotic because I'm bullying my ideas. I'm telling you come with me over there. If I really want the music to go there, I have to listen. This is a science of listening. It has far more to do with what I can perceive than what I can do. So if I want the music to get to a certain level of intensity, the first step for me is to be patient, to listen to what's going on, and to pull from something that's going on around me. When you do that, you engage and inspire the other musicians and they give you more, and gradually it builds." (emphasis mine)

Those interested in making a change in their fields or in the larger academy are wise to learn from Jazz musicians. Don't bully the field in the direction that you want to go. Listen, take from a pre-existing thread, engage the scholars around you, and it will gradually build.