Q&A with music professor William Cheng

by Paulomi Rao | 1/10/17 2:00am

Inspired by his recently diagnosed chronic pain condition, assistant professor of music William Cheng wrote a book about the importance of taking care of ourselves and our communities in our academic and daily lives. “Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good” received the 2016 American Musicological Society Philip Brett Award, which honors “exceptional” musicological work in the field of LGBT studies, and was named by the Times Higher Education as a 2016 book of the year. This term, Cheng is teaching music courses on video games and on changing the world through music. The Dartmouth sat down with Cheng to discuss his book and how writing it has changed his personal life and his teaching style.

What inspired you to write “Just Vibrations?”

WC: Often I feel like care and compassion are sidelined to extracurricular activities rather than vital components of what makes education and social life so important. With my chronic pain condition diagnosis, I realized that during my time in college, graduate school and a later post-doc with the Harvard Society of Fellows, I was constantly driven by a pressure to be resilient and exceptionally strong in terms of character and not complaining too much about difficulties by forcing my way through papers, lectures, my dissertation. Once I started to divulge my struggles, I recognized how many of my friends were going through very similar things. Once you begin to share information with others, my peers felt inclined to reciprocate stories, and it soon became apparent to me that there are a lot of things that go unspoken in academia. At light, academia appears as a very robust and word-driven profession. But in reality, people don’t talk about personal illness or disability for fear of seeming weak, unapproachable or unfit for their jobs as researchers and teachers.

How have the personal lessons explored in your book impacted your teaching style at Dartmouth?

WC: I began to incorporate themes of disability and overall talking about disability into themes of my classes in some way and it has helped to foster a sense of compassion in students for diversity in different people’s abilities and needs. The lessons I’ve learned in the book have shaped the way I teach to the extent that I want to make sure each student feels welcome in the class despite their musical proficiencies and that they can feel comfortable to talk to me about their insecurities, hopes and goals.

What makes this book more unique than your other publications?

WC: “Just Vibrations” contains a chapter that lays out my life just on the page. Although it makes me vulnerable and insecure to have my life laid out like that, it also can be empowering, because it has allowed me to say everything I’ve wanted to say in the past but have been previously too reluctant or fearful to express. The previous book [In 2014, Cheng published “Sound Play: Video Games and the Musical Imagination,” which examined video game audio and challenged traditional conceptions of sound] and other publications I’ve done have been a bit more traditional and don’t contain the same type of personal narratives, but I felt as if “Just Vibrations” should either contain all or nothing. So, I went all out with the personal divulging of information.

How has seeing the positive response of “Just Vibrations” impacted your next goals? Do you see yourself changing anything in the future?

WC: The response to “Just Vibrations” has urged me to continue to explore how to make academia and education a better place. I don’t just mean more rigorous, disciplined or robust but a place where much needed conversations between professors and students can really come out and help everyone involved. I’m hoping that this can inspire some students to realize their own life stories can be worth telling and hearing. In an ideal world, they shouldn’t have to be ashamed of having an illness or suffering pain or having things that have affected the way they live and study. It’s really a collective responsibility on all of us to cultivate compassion so we can break down these barriers.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

WC: My colleagues and students at Dartmouth have really helped me in writing this book. I began when I first arrived at Dartmouth and the entirety of the book was written in Hanover. It feels like a book of place. Even aside from a few direct anecdotes about Dartmouth, this book is guided by the spirit and location of the College and for that I am very grateful.

The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.