The New Year is a time for new goals and fresh starts for most people. But for the academic music community, it’s a time to take stock of your work from the last year, estimate what you think you’ll get to in the first half of the new year, and shrink it into 350 carefully chosen words. It’s the elusive abstract, one meant for your subfield’s most ambitious and visible meeting (one of three, with mine being the American Musicological Society Conference). Nothing is quite as terrifying as having your research–your raison d‘être–judged on 350 words. It’s not so much a new beginning as it is a culmination of past work and approximation of future work.
To mitigate any red flags, it’s best to have everyone in your network essentially vet your submission, have your advisor steer you away from cliches and jargon (or add some, as the case might be), and tear it apart until you aren’t quite sure how the original version got to the one you’re about to submit. I didn’t do any of that this year. Not because I didn’t want to. But because this year, I have a small child.
Said small child and I got sick more times than I can count in the last three or four months. That means I don’t have care for her, as childcare centers refuse to have a sick child around others. So I take “time off” to be a mom, caretaker to my baby, and occasionally to take care of myself. To help support the additional costs of a small child while a graduate student, I take on additional paid work that must be done each week, taking up the little bit of free time I have on these sick weeks. Add in additional projects that I take on because I can’t say no, and postpartum health issues that I’m still working on, and you have a situation where the 350 words of my abstract are not as carefully chosen nor vetted by my network.
Still, I think they came out OK. Could they be better? Always. But my research is sexy, contemporary, and–importantly–relevant. It gives me a little bit of an edge over projects on really interesting but small corners of music from hundreds of years ago. But lest I get too confident, the majority of abstracts are rejected each year, so I won’t be surprised if mine is too. And I certainly won’t be able to place the blame anywhere but on my last-minute work.
To add to it, I also wasn’t able to offer a set of eyes to other colleagues looking for feedback. That kind of inter-community network is almost as important as getting your research selected, as it builds your internal reputation.
Rather than turn this into a sob story, I’d like to take a cue from the many who view New Years as a fresh start. It may not be on the academic timeline but I think there’s no better time than the present to make scholarly goals for a new year. My goal is to do a little each day, as is feasible. It’s easy to have a sick day and think you can’t do anything, or have most of your day taken up by something else and not use the 15-minutes you have to read or write a sentence. But I’ve learned over the last year that waiting for the perfect situation to write holds you back. I mean, it was only 350 words, right? Here’s to a new year, new abstracts, and new productivity goals.