At MACSEM 2019, we had a great and efficient speed-mentoring session! In this session, students and mentors with different backgrounds and specialized areas had an opportunity to sit down with each other and discuss specific student concerns such as challenges in teaching, fieldwork, and career paths. To further this instructive communication and to reach out to more young scholars who might not be able to attend the conference, we decided to launch a quarterly Students Q & A column that will feature one mentor each time answering the most concerned questions from students. This column, created and run by students, will provide both students and early career researchers with useful resources and personal insights from experienced mentors on writing, teaching, funding, and other issues that are related to ethnomusicological work and life.

And here is our first column! We welcome more questions and suggestions from students and early career researchers. Nominations (including self-nominations) for mentors and interviewers are welcomed as well!

Shuo Yang, MACSEM Student Representative

PhD student, University of Pittsburgh


VOL. 1, 2019

Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Pittsburgh
Fields:  South Asia;  postcolonial studies; development studies; ethnography; film studies; Bollywood film.


I have always been interested in the intersections between development and music. Before pursuing a PhD in Ethnomusicology, I worked in the field of human development—first volunteering in a maternity hospital in Hyderabad, India, and then building a primary school and designing its curriculum in a village near Kolhapur, India with a Swarthmore College Foundation Grant. These experiences inspired me to pursue a degree in Ethnomusicology in order to align my inherent interests in musical performance with past experiences in human development.

In my current research, I specialize in the music of South Asia, and continue to explore the myriad connections between development and music. In my current book manuscript, I tell the stories of a sociocultural history and musical ethnography of the Manganiyar, a community of hereditary musicians who have maintained music within a patronage system as their caste and livelihood for centuries. By reconsidering the role of traditionally considered subaltern communities like the Manganiyar in a postcolonial society, I engage with questions of discourse, tradition, and preservation in order to examine the ways Manganiyar musicians use music as a way to empower and mobilize their communities.


1. Do you have any suggestions or interesting activities for teaching sensitive issues like race, gender, and cultural appropriation?

SA: I make sure to always teach sensitive issues like race, gender, and cultural appropriation in my courses. For many of my undergraduate students who are either Music Minors or are taking my class to fulfill a general humanities requirement, it’s the only exposure they will have to these important topics in college! These issues can be uncomfortable to talk about and they are not always in my wheelhouse of expertise, but I think it is important for undergraduate students to be exposed to them in an academic context, to be given opportunities to discuss and ask questions in the safe space of a classroom, to learn about different points of view, and to be able to intelligently speak about these issues outside of class.

First, I try to shape the class space in a way that encourages students to speak to each other. This might mean moving chairs and desks or holding that specific class meeting in a different space that allows for interaction. I make sure to not stand in front of the class during discussions, but sit down and join students. Second, I always approach sensitive issues first from a theoretical perspective in order to keep the discussion somewhat neutral at the beginning. I also like to give the students some background and terminology to help move discussions forward. Third, I leave a lot of time and space for class discussion, letting students speak to each other rather than to me. And fourth, I give students the opportunity to say things they might not have felt comfortable sharing in person in class by having a follow-up assignment for them to express their opinions and experiences in writing.

There are a few activities that I have found helpful for addressing sensitive issues. I have done a voluntary privilege walk/exercise followed by a class discussion about the results (I always make sure I participate as well for students to get to know me better as a person and to also encourage participation). I’ve played short videos to break the ice, like Ken Tanaka’s "What Kind of Asian Are You?" I’ve also used various commercial advertisements and ad campaigns to spark discussions in class.

2. Are there opportunities to teach beyond teaching assistantships?

SA: The short answer is, YES! I recommend all graduate students to get as much experience teaching as they can. Even if students don’t plan to go into teaching as a profession, it enables us to continue learning about a subject. I find that I learn something new every time I teach an undergraduate class even on my own research specialization! It also helps us to think outside of our own ways of doing things and provides powerful feedback.

I recommend getting in touch with local cultural organizations, senior centers, or youth programs in your community. Guest lecture in other classes besides the one for which you are a TA. Give lectures or volunteer to teach classes in schools and universities when abroad while doing fieldwork or traveling more generally. Take a look at what’s going on culturally in your town/city and see if you can get involved by giving pre-concert/event lectures or leading workshops.

I did not take many opportunities to teach as a graduate student, however I had a "pre-doc" position during the last year of my PhD at Kenyon College as a Marilyn Yarbrough Dissertation/Teaching Fellow. I really learned how to teach there by not only teaching my own classes for the first time, but also attending teaching workshops, watching senior faculty teach, and inviting senior faculty to observe my teaching and give me feedback. There are a number of these pre-doc opportunities, especially at small liberal arts colleges throughout the country--I recommend looking into them.

3. How do you recommend students find more funding sources outside the school system, especially for ABDs, parents, and international students?

SA: It may be tedious, but my first tactic has always been to "Google" it! I have spent hours doing online searches for grants, fellowships, and other funding sources based on keyword searches. Many scholars have CVd accessible online, so find your academic role model’s CV online and see how they funded their own research. Keep asking senior advisors, scholars, and graduate students in a similar position to you in terms of area specialization, nationality, personal situation, etc.

I recommend that students always apply for everything out there to the best of their ability. Writing proposals is one of the easiest ways to become a better writer and you also are able to get your name out there even if you aren’t awarded the grant in the end. I have found that "money begets money," meaning that if I get a small grant, I’ll be in a better position to get a bigger grant, and so on, so take small amounts of money and less prestigious sources as seriously as large amounts of money and more prestigious sources.

Also, it is a good exercise to conceptualize your research project in different ways. I’m not saying to apply for funding sources that are irrelevant for your research, but to think outside the box and practice tweaking your proposal to fit different funding opportunities. This might mean moving around parts of your proposal to emphasize different aspects of the research. In the end, this will only help you to think about their project in different ways, and might result in funding!

4. Do you have any tips for the process of writing, revising, and tailoring grant proposals?

SA: I grapple with this every day! I think it’s important for students to keep in mind that writing is difficult for everyone. It’s hard work, it’s isolating work, and it takes time for that work to pay off--no instant gratification for us in academia! I recommend carving time out every day to practice writing. Some people work better with many short breaks. Others work better having long stretches of time. So be honest with yourself and figure out what you personally need to be successful and stick to that. Also know that even the best writers go through many, many drafts of a piece of writing before it is in any shape to submit or publish. It is always good to have colleagues to read your work and for you to read theirs. Getting peer feedback is invaluable and also seeing the process your colleagues go through to write can help.

5. How can we prepare ourselves for fieldwork other than doing coursework?

SA: One can never do enough preparation for going into fieldwork, but at the same time, there are so many unforeseen circumstances that are specific to the fieldsite, the researcher, their interlocutors, etc.

If you can manage to make at least one preliminary trip before doing your actual fieldwork, I recommend doing that as a sort of "dry run." That way you’ll know what kind of equipment you’ll need and techniques you’ll be using beforehand.

If you’ll be using audio-visual recording devices, please be comfortable with all of it before you start fieldwork! The last thing you want is to go into an interview/recording session/important event and you can’t get your camera to work! I highly recommend using audio-visual recording in your fieldwork. Even if you don’t plan to do anything with the recordings, they may be useful when you are writing after you have left the "field." I have found that the multi-sensory nature of audio and video recordings in playback helps me when I am writing post-fieldwork.

6. How to get started in publishing and looking for sources?

SA: I recommend starting your publishing career by writing book, album, and film reviews. This is a wonderful way to get more familiar with the writing and submission process, get your name out there to journals and editors, and give yourself some solid first publications for your CV. Talk with your advisor or senior scholars about getting in touch with journal editors looking for scholars to write reviews.

Take a look at CVs of senior scholars whom you admire--in what journals have they published?

And most importantly, spend time with journals that you like to read to see what kinds of articles, theoretical frameworks, areas of study are published there. This will ensure that when you do submit an article for publication, that it is a good fit for that journal.

7. How to balance between life and work to avoid burnout?

SA: Take breaks. Make sure you have activities scheduled into your day that are meaningful and enjoyable for you--whether it’s cooking, hiking, sports, playing music, or reading for pleasure. Make sure you take time every day to do those things.