15 Minutes with…the Dent Medallist (interview with Elizabeth Eva Leach)

For the first of this new series of blog features, we caught up with the 2013 recipient of the Dent Medal, Professor Elizabeth Eva Leach (University of Oxford), during the RMA’s 50th Annual Conference in September at the University of Leeds. Here she reflects on her career so far, offers some advice to younger academics, and considers some of the broader issues pertaining to twenty-first-century academic life. There was so much to talk about that the interview far exceeded our initial plan of two minutes, but if you’re still left wanting to know more, Prof. Leach regularly blogs and tweets too! Many thanks to Prof. Leach for agreeing to be our interviewee!


Listen to the interview here


If you could give one piece of advice to your graduate student self, what would it be?

I think that I had to do my own thing as a graduate student, and if I’d have given myself advice I would have thought, well, what does she know, she’s only some forty-year-old person who doesn’t know anything. The main bit of advice I think I would have given was to take up real tennis, which is a sport that I only took up six or seven years ago and that I very much enjoy, but I wish I started earlier because I’d be better than I am now. In terms of professional things, I think I had to do most of the things that I did in order to get where I am now, intellectually, and I think, in some ways, nothing is wasted. Even if things don’t produce research, they feed into a sort of negative result which may be just as fruitful.

How did you make the transition from doctoral student to university lecturer, and what difficulties did you experience in making that transition?

I had a JRF. I was one of the lucky people to get a post-doc at an Oxford college, in fact at St. John’s College, Oxford, where I had a larger research budget than I enjoy today, so it was kind of a golden time. The difficulty was actually knowing what to do next. Until you get post-doctoral, you’ve been jumping through a number of hoops: you’ve had GCSEs, then you’ve had A-levels, then you’ve had your degree, then you’ve had your masters, then you’ve had your doctorate. They’re all quite short-term hoops and suddenly there’s another short-term period during which you really have to think much longer term. That was what was difficult for me. In some ways, I think I didn’t use that time particularly well. In other ways, I had to do that floundering around in order to find what I wanted to do next. It was profitable in the end but it didn’t feel like that at the time. I loved being at St. John’s – great dinner, great wine – but in terms of the intellectual focus it was less closely managed than it might’ve been.

How, if at all, do you think the discipline of musicology, academia and universities in general have changed since you did your own PhD, and are these changes for better or worse?

It’s changed quite a lot since I did my PhD. I was doing my undergraduate and my PhD at the time when the New Musicology was just creeping into undergraduate syllabuses – not at Oxford, I have to say, at that time. But certainly by the time I was a graduate, that more contextual and cultural approach had become very established. I think that’s a very good thing. I think that the broadening of musicology has actually been one of the best and worst things about the changes that have happened. It’s great because musicologists are now open to all sorts of methodological approaches. Music reaches into every aspect of everything and it’s possible to chase music into sociology, into anthropology, anywhere in the world, deep into the past, possibly into the future, into scientific disciplines, and so on. That’s great. The problem with that is, of course, that music appointments haven’t expanded in the same way, so the dangers are that things get lost. As a medievalist, I feel this in particular. There are far fewer positions for people working on the sorts of things that I work on than there were in the past because music departments haven’t expanded as the discipline has expanded. I wish they would. Another thing that has massively changed is the managerial culture, which has some good benefits in terms of the professionalization of the discipline – particularly in terms of teaching it’s much more professional than it was when I was an undergraduate – but it comes with a lot of very difficult political decisions. I think sometimes the layer of administration that is present is detrimental to the pursuit of learning and study, and sometimes it’s focussed on other concerns, which maybe seem as though they’re no-brainer concerns – like ‘we have to make money’ – but actually can have ramifications that are very negative.

What, would you say, is the most important factor in obtaining a postdoctoral fellowship? 

That’s easy: luck. People who get them deserve them, but people who don’t get them deserve them too. You’ve got to be lucky.

As an avid blogger yourself, is there one single piece of advice you’d give to students who aspire to write a blog?

Yes, I’d say go ahead. I think if it’s a group of students blogging about a particular subject, that’s a slightly different kind of blog from a single person blogging. If you’re going to blog on your own, my advice would be keep it professional. It’s really like a sort of online dynamic CV.

Do you know any good medievalist jokes?

Yes, but they’re too rude to tell!

What is your favourite and least favourite aspect of your job?

In terms of favourite parts of the job, there are lots. Teaching is definitely one of them. I really enjoy teaching undergraduates and graduates, and, indeed, mentoring post-docs as well. The other thing that I really enjoy is the intellectual freedom and in some senses the freedom of time you have: you can set your own timetable, set your own agenda, and you can work out what is relevant to your own project at any particular moment, so I value that. Least favourite thing is definitely email, which is rather excessive, often very unnecessary and also strays into times of the day that are not useful for people to be doing email. So many of my contemporaries have problems sleeping, and I’m sure it’s that blue-screen interaction too late at night. The other thing I don’t like is travel for work purposes, which I find very stressful. I think I’m unusual in that. I think a lot of academics really thrive on the ability to go to conferences in exotic places and so on. I’m happy to travel for pleasure but I find travel for conferences quite difficult to fit into my timetable and I find it takes a lot out of me, physically and mentally.

What has been the most surprising or unexpected aspect of your career so far?

I was very surprised to win the Dent Medal. I suppose you expect me to say that, but I really was, genuinely. I read the email and I thought it was a wind-up to start with but it turned out to be true. One is always surprised to win prizes because it’s a bit like getting post-docs: there’s a certain amount of luck involved and there are lots of people who don’t win prizes for things that they should have won prizes for. The other one is the Machaut book, which got the RSA award, which was also very surprising because musicology doesn’t feature very high up in the Renaissance Society of America’s agenda, normally, so that was quite pleasing and surprising. I was delighted.

What would be the one most important piece of advice you’d give to doctoral students aspiring to a career in academia?

Think long term. It’s so difficult to think long term today because one is faced with the casualization of the profession: you have three-year things here, two-year things here, one-year things here, ten-month positions to cover somebody’s leave. It means that you tend to forget that you have to think about the things you want to do in the next five-year period, or in the next ten-year period, and what sort of things you want to be working on towards the end of your career. So, trying to have not quite a whole-career perspective – because things happen so serendipitously and you don’t quite know where things will take you – but certainly to have a five- to ten-year plan is a really good idea.

Who or what inspired you to become a musicologist? And what drew you specifically to the study of medieval music?

Becoming a musicologist was easy: the thing that inspired me was music. I think most musicologists, probably, can say that. My inspiration wasn’t, though, playing music. I did do quite a lot of music performance as a child, but I was more interested in being a composer. That’s really what led me into musicology, and that’s what led me into medieval musicology as well because as a composer I was very interested in notation, the problematics of notation, and how difficult in particular it was to notate temporal events in a way that I found satisfactory. I wanted to do an edition option for finals when I was at Oxford; it was my final year project. I spoke to John Milsom, who, at the time, was at Christ Church, and explained this to him – I don’t know if many people know, but John Milsom is also a composer, as well as being an expert on sixteenth-century music – and he said what you really need to do is to do an edition or something which is in a notational idiom, or a notational idiolect, that thinks about time in a different kind of way. He was thinking specifically of the ‘Ars Nova’, fourteenth-century notational way of thinking about time, that has a division into two and three simultaneously, that isn’t shown necessarily by graphic signs, that is context dependent, and that has the capacity to have proportional relationships that are rather different from how we would think of being able to notate them today. He said the person you need to meet is Margaret Bent. She’d just arrived in Oxford, at All Souls, and he introduced me and I did my edition option with her. I did two Machaut motets and after that I was hooked. I’d had earlier exposure to medieval and early renaissance music – a school friend had some of David Munrow’s records, and I also had a subscription to an early CD club, when CDs first came out, where you always got their CD of the month, and there was a Dufay CD – I think it was a ‘Missa L’homme armé’ and various motets, by the Hilliard ensemble – which I listened to a lot and found interesting and strange.

If you weren’t a musicologist or academic, what would you like to be?

If I were not me at all, if I wasn’t just not a musicologist but I was not Elizabeth Eva Leach with her many problems about going on stage and things, I would like to be a fantastic operatic soprano, particularly doing Wagner and Strauss and doing the role of Brünnhilde to great critical acclaim. That could be my life’s ambition there, but I could never do that. If I were me as I am now, but not a musicologist, I’d be a lawyer, probably a barrister.

Do you think that it’s important to maintain a work-life balance and, if so, how do you do it?

I think it’s vital to maintain a work-life balance. How do I do it? It’s quite complicated because there are some grey areas for academics. Having intellectual interests pervades all parts of your life, so then it becomes very difficult to think about if I’m reading a novel, for example, when it’s giving me thoughts about the interaction between oral and written forms – is this something that is not work-related, or is this work-related? I operate quite a strict timetable for myself, in terms of making sure that I do take my statutory holiday allowance, which I think most academics don’t, and trying to constrain the working time into a reasonable working day and a reasonable working week. It’s partly because being a feminist is a very important part of my life, and I’ve had conversations with female colleagues who’ve been very worried about having children, about not being able to be around for meetings after five o’clock. They think that they’ll be not sharing the burden properly if they spend time with their families and I think this is completely ridiculous and completely wrong. Therefore, I think we, all of us, have a duty to work family-friendly hours and family-friendly timetables. Musicology is not the fourth emergency service. We should be able to have a life outside our day jobs, but that doesn’t mean we switch off as academics, it doesn’t mean that we switch off as thinking intellectual people, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t influences coming in from the rest of the life. I do think it’s important to allow space, mentally, to relax and unwind, and to stay healthy and to have good relations with your friends, family and whomever you want to spend your time with when you’re not at work.

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