Sobriquet 77.3: On Punks and Academia

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A few days ago, one of my former students sent me a link to "The Rise of Punkademia," Leon Neyfakh's recent essay on the increasing amount of academic interest in the burgeoning field of "Punk Studies." The article, which appears in this past Sunday's edition of The Boston Globe, opens by presenting two seemingly irreconcilable facts:

  1. Punk rock and academic life are mutually exclusive. "Being an academic," Neyfakh writes, "is not punk. Being a graduate student is not punk, and neither is being a professor. In fact, most people would probably say that academia in general is about the least punk thing that a person could ever be a part of. Submitting papers to journals, clamoring for the approval of esteemed colleagues - it's hard to imagine a lifestyle more at odds with the snarling embrace of chaos and the violent rejection of authority that have been associated with punk rock ever since it body-slammed itself into existence in the 1970s."
  2. Punk rockers often pursue academic careers and some even study punk. According to Neyfakh, "the academy is full of former punks . . . And while many of them have abandoned their youthful passions . . . others have stayed invested in punk culture, not only by continuing to identify with it, but by taking it up as an object of academic study. Together, these punks-turned-professors have built for themselves a small but growing niche - one that's dedicated to better understanding what punk was, what it has become, and why anyone should care."
This contradiction, Neyfakh continues, "presents special challenges to those who attempt to study it" both because of punk's association with a staggeringly wide range of ideological attitudes and modes of social expression and "because, at its core, punk is essentially hostile to what academia represents." Indeed, "[s]cholars who take on punk find themselves working amid bedeviling contradictions, as they try to methodically define a culture that refuses definition, rejects method, and denies the very idea of expertise." Thus, rather than attempt to reconcile the aforementioned contradiction, Neyfakh devotes the bulk of his essay to tracing the history of punk studies, leaving the reader to pass or reserve judgment as he or she sees fit.

As a "punk-turned-professor," to adopt Neyfakh's term, I must admit that I instinctively wince when I hear about people studying punk culture as an academic subject, but I also understand the impulse. So, how can I simultaneously balk at the idea of studying punk in a classroom while believing punk to be a worthy subject of academic inquiry? I'll answer my own question with a story.

Punk as Self, Punk as Other

Several years ago, as a graduate student, one of my students came up to me to ask if I had heard about "the punk class" that was being offered during the summer session. I hadn't. My student proceeded to tell me that, when he saw the class listing in the course catalog, two things immediately came to his mind: first, that "Erik must be teaching the class" and, second, "Erik would never teach a class like that!" When he checked the listing, however, he found that another graduate student would be the instructor. My student was simultaneously relieved ("Erik didn't sell out!") and appalled ("how could X even think about teaching a class on punk rock?") when he found out who was teaching the class. 

I knew the fellow. We had taken a class together and our interactions with one another had been perfectly cordial, but I was galled. As I mentioned, I knew the fellow. I knew that his musical tastes were eclectic and that he had a couple of punk rock albums in his mish-mash of a music collection, but I also knew he was no punk rocker. Nor did he claim to be. And that was the problem. I felt like he was a tourist visiting my native soil and acting like he knew everything about it after spending the bulk of his vacation in the airport gift shop. Needless to say, when I saw that he had dutifully shaved the sides of his head to fashion a mohawk, I felt a stab of indignation in the pit of my stomach. Abandoning the carefully-combed coiffure and the preppy wardrobe he'd sported as long as I'd known him just in time for the first day of class felt premeditated, like an attempt to establish some sort of last-minute punk rock street cred before walking into the classroom. The fact that he reverted back to his original style (save for a newly-shaved head) within days of his transformation suggests that this radical shift in fashion sense was either a gimmick or a failed attempt at strengthening his ethos. Either way, the whole thing felt insulting.

Both my student's reaction (that if anyone should teach a course in punk rock, it should be me, the graduate student who once discussed Millincolin with him while wearing a Screeching Weasel tee-shirt and who, moreover, would never teach such a class in the first place) and my own response to the whole ordeal (there's something insulting about non-punks teaching a class on punk) reflect the dilemma Neyfakh discusses in his essay. In each response, there are two distinct sub-reactions:

  1. Punk rock and academic life are mutually exclusive. My student was both shocked that I, a person he associated with punk rock, might "sell out" by bringing punk into a university lecture hall and that someone he did not associate with punk would attempt to teach a class on the subject. Whereas the former reaction assumes that punks in academia would know better than to sanitize the scene by dissecting and codifying it within the proverbial Ivory Tower, the latter expresses the belief that non-punk academics would simply not "get" the scene enough to do it any justice. Similarly, my feeling of having somehow been violated by someone taking "my" scene and plumbing it for scholarly purposes reflects my own instinctual sense that punk's adoption by academics would cheapen the movement or otherwise render it impotent. 
  2. Punk rockers often pursue academic careers and some even study punk. Both my student's initial assumption that, if anyone should teach a punk class, it should be me and my indignant response to the very existence of the fellow's course acknowledge the fact that, for better or for worse, punk and punks have become part of the academic world.
In other words, precisely what Leon Neyfakh says.

But there's another problem lurking in the background. Why did my student feel I would be better suited than my colleague to teach the class and, furthermore, why was I so insulted by the fact that another graduate student thought highly enough of something I love to teach a course on the subject and even adopt its fashion sense?

Could it be an inherent desire to preserve tribal identity? 

Punks tend to self-identify as Other. No matter how mainstream Green Day or Blink-182 may be, punk culture operates in opposition to the mainstream. The "us" of a given punk subculture implies a "them" and, not infrequently, that "Them" has a nefariously suggestive capitalized first letter. For many punks, then, our self-identification as punks separates us in a very real way from the mainstream them. Thus, while "punk" may not have a universally-accepted definition among the scene's adherents, there is nevertheless a sense of community among most self-identifying punks. As the Other, we often resent attempts by non-punks to define us because such attempts risk reducing a dynamic, overlapping body of interrelated movements to a stereotype, an ossified cliché. It's quite Sartrean, really.  

We see similar patterns of resistance among some students in other courses of academic study, particularly in the now-proliferating demographic-specific disciplines such as Women's Studies, Africana Studies, American Studies, Queer Studies, Jewish Studies, or Native American Studies. There are some people who believe members of a particular demographic are best suited to teach a course about their culture because only individuals within a given society can truly understand it. Martha Biondi, a white associate professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University, alludes to this tendency when she acknowledges that "[t]here probably are students who wouldn't enroll in a black studies course with a white professor" and that some students "may at first say, 'I wonder if this person is qualified" (qtd. in Dawn Turner Trice, "More Whites Teaching Black Studies Courses," The Network Journal, 19 March 2009). Generally, I agree with Biondi, who expresses her "belief that students are incredibly open-minded" and tend not to assume demographic membership is the only way to secure the qualifications to teach a course on that culture. Indeed, if we were to follow such an ideology, we would never have classes in Ancient Studies, Egyptologists would be out of work, and I'd never have the opportunity to take a class in Babylonian history. 

So, why did the idea of a punk course being taught by a non-punk bother me so much?

My guess is that I was less bothered by the fact that the instructor was not a punk than I was by the fact that he was not especially knowledgeable about punk rock. Unlike the white professor teaching a black studies class mentioned above, the instructor of the punk course barely knew his subject, and that was the problem. After speaking with him and some of his students, it became apparent that he was merely intrigued by punk and imagined that his limited understanding of the subject was sufficient to justify teaching a class. Thus, his by-the-book transformation from preppy-to-punk-to-preppy was insulting because it fetishized punk rock. In dressing himself up in a stereotypical manner, he displayed an infuriatingly cavalier assumption that he knew what he was doing, that he knew what punk was. Lacking more than the most superficial of conceptions of punk, he became a cartoon, a caricature. There were elements of punk in his attire, sure, but they lacked conviction and he ended up looking as if he had dressed up for Hallowe'en three months early.

I suspect a good deal of punk's supposed incompatibility with academia stems from the understandable fear that outsiders like the instructor of the punk class would reduce a living movement to a series of dry conference papers and peer-vetted journal articles that missed the point entirely. Unfortunately, the possibility is a very real one. But, as Neyfakh observes, many punks have gone to graduate school and bring an insider's familiarity with them to the classroom. It's the same passion that inspires punks to study their scene that also inspires skepticism about outsiders sapping it of its vitality.

Gabba, Gabba, We Accept You, We Accept You, One of Us, One of Us!

The second thing I'd like to discuss is the notion that the academic life is not punk. As Neyfakh writes, "[b]eing an academic is not punk. Being a graduate student is not punk, and neither is being a professor. In fact, most people would probably say that academia in general is about the least punk thing that a person could ever be a part of. Submitting papers to journals, clamoring for the approval of esteemed colleagues" is not punk. Such a statement relies on two prejudices. First, it assumes that punk is anti-intellectual. Second, it presupposes that academia is, by nature, defined by the production of esoteric scholarship and neurotic social maneuvering. Of course, there are anti-intellectual punks and the rise of the corporate university has brought some less-than-desirable elements of the business world into some academic settings, but I would argue that punk and academia can be quite compatible.

Punk Professors
We can find evidence of punk rock's embracing of higher education as early as 1982, when the Descendents released Milo Goes to College. The album, with its famous caricature of Milo Auckerman, the band's nerdy and bespectacled lead singer, staring out from the cover, is a direct reference to -- and celebration of -- his decision to pursue a biology degree at the University of California, San Diego. Auckerman, who still performs with the band, now holds a doctorate in biochemistry and, despite working as a researcher at DuPont, continues to write and record intelligent, catchy punk music with one of the most well-loved punk bands in America. And Dr. Auckerman is hardly the only punk rocker with such a high level of education. Bad Religion's Greg Graffin famously completed his doctorate at Cornell University and lectures at UCLA, the Bollweevils' Daryl Wilson is a medical doctor, and the Offspring's Dexter Holland is A.B.D. in molecular biology at USC, to name but a few. And you know what? In all my time in the punk scene, I have never once heard a single person say anything other than "that's awesome" in response to learning how many punks have earned doctorates.

Education Is Punk
In "Chickenshit Conformist," Jello Biafra rails against the "close-minded, self-centered social club" that the American hardcore scene has become. He laments the "lack of ideas" in the once-vibrant punk community and wonders "will the punks throw away their education" and end up becoming "[c]hickenshit conformists / Like [their] parents." In other words, education is the antidote to the poison that is American complacency.

Indeed, academia is one of the only environments that welcomes the sort of critical thought and social criticism so many people associate with punk rock. Not surprisingly,then, two of the more influential political theorists in the punk scene, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, are highly respected academics. Seriously, what other profession would have made it possible for Paul Avrich, a professor at Queens College, to collect, disseminate, analyze, and comment upon one of the largest bodies of anarchist literature in the world?

Thus, being a professor can, in fact, be one of the most punk things one can do. Sure, one could very easily settle into a comfortable life of comparatively bland scholarship. One could even conduct research that helps lead to the development of weapons...but one could also publish essays on social injustice and work with students to bring real change into the world. As a professor, one has the opportunity to introduce young people to new and challenging ideas that will bring new perspectives to their thinking and inspire positive action. A professor can, in the natural course of a class, raise important questions about issues of perennial interest to punks: inequality, racism, sexism, poverty, political corruption, corporate power, American exceptionalism, colonialism, oppression, free speech, liberty, and dissent, among many others. Punk is a movement that questions authority, interrogates presumptions, encourages change, and inspires action. A good college education will do the same thing. Whatever the vector, whether it's a Dead Kennedys album or a lecture on the collapse of metanarratives in postmodern speculative fiction, it's the content that matters.

To me, punk was always about using my brain and seeking the truth. As a professor, my job is to get my students to use their brains and seek the truth, too. I've never seen more compatibility in my life.

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This page contains a single entry by Sobriquet Magazine published on November 9, 2011 2:35 PM.

Sobriquet 77.2 was the previous entry in this blog.

Sobriquet 77.4: In Which Sobriquet Hits the Airwaves is the next entry in this blog.

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