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A week in the life of faculty supported by the Institute

November 1, 2017 | By Mark Katz, IAH Director
Mark Katz
Mark Katz, the director of the UNC Institute for the Arts and Humanities, is photographed with a set of turntables in the beats lab at Hill Hall on August 18, 2017, in Chapel Hill. Katz teaches courses on music and technology in the UNC Department of Music. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

It was quite the week. Over the course of just a few days in mid-October 2017, I found myself hosting a hip-hop performance at the Smithsonian, lecturing at Oxford, and appearing on national television in Azerbaijan. I want to take a moment to reflect on that hectic week because, as odd as it may sound, it is directly a product of the mission of UNC’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities, where I serve as Director.

The final stop of my journey was Baku, Azerbaijan. I was there as director of Next Level, a U.S. State Department–funded cultural diplomacy program, to check in on a team of hip-hop artists. The team was in the middle of a two-week residency, leading workshops and performing with local youth and professional musicians. One day we were invited to “Yeni Gün” (literally, “New Day”), a morning show on Azerbaijani national television. After our artists performed with a trio of traditional mugham performers, the host asked me to explain Next Level and relate my impressions of Azerbaijan. Speaking diplomatically in short, clear sentences is just one of the things I accomplished that week that had not come up in my training as a graduate student. Another was to stand on stage, as I did at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and offer some audience-friendly patter in between introducing a variety of hip-hop performers. Representing UNC as part of the inaugural ACC Festival of Innovation and Creativity, I had gathered hip-hop artists connected to Next Level and designed a 45-minute program intended to give the public a vivid sense of what modern diplomacy could look like. As with my appearance on “Yeni Gün,” I found the experience simultaneously challenging and exhilarating. I was stepping in front of the public eye and out of my comfort zone.

In between DC and Baku, I was engaged in a much more traditional set of scholarly activities, stopping in England to give lectures at Goldsmiths, Southampton, and Oxford. These were the traditional scripted public talks with PowerPoint presentations delivered to students and scholars, and were drawn on two books in progress. But even these lectures were different from the ones I had given earlier in my career, as they both focused on projects that engaged non-academic audiences. In fact, at Southampton, I also participated in a roundtable discussion called “Music and the Public Good.”

I often marvel at—and am grateful for—the unexpected places my career has taken me, and as a graduate student, or even as a junior faculty member not so long ago, I would never have imagined a future with a week like this. More specifically, I never expected either to be in the public eye or collaborating with musicians. After all, I wrote my master’s thesis on a certain rhythm in the music of a long-dead composer, and my dissertation—on music and technology—stopped at World War II, well before the era of hip-hop.

I credit the Institute for the Arts and Humanities for opening these new possibilities to me. In 2011, before I became director, I was fortunate enough to receive a grant from the Institute’s Innovation Fund, a short-term initiative designed to encourage faculty to explore new paths in their scholarship or teaching. I used the funding to create a set of team-taught courses that brought professional hip-hop musicians into the classroom, not simply as guests, but as full partners whose voices and experiences would be a constant presence. One of these partnerships led me to co-found a project called the Beat Making Lab, an international workshop that sent two of my collaborators, producer Apple Juice Kid and hip-hop artist and educator Pierce Freelon to teach music-making to young people around the world. In 2013, Pierce connected me with a State Department call for proposals to create a program that looked a lot like the Beat Making Lab. Not long thereafter, I developed and became director of Next Level. I hadn’t trained for this in graduate school either, but the collaborative, entrepreneurial, pedagogical, and public-facing work on my Innovation Fund project prepared me for what became a vital new phase of my career.

My recent three-continent week—but more importantly, the career I currently enjoy—simply wouldn’t be possible without the support of the Institute. And this brings me to the Institute’s mission: “to empower faculty to achieve their full potential by creating community and cultivating leadership.” The Innovation Fund was only one of the ways in which the Institute empowered me. The Faculty Fellowship Program brought me into an interdisciplinary community of scholars that broadened my intellectual horizons; the Academic Leadership Program prepared me for the responsibilities and challenges of overseeing complex organizations and enterprises, like the Department of Music and Next Level (not to mention the IAH itself). In fact, every day I spend in Hyde Hall I come in contact with a diverse community of thinkers and leaders, whether faculty, administrators, guest scholars, or the wonderful IAH staff. Without realizing it, all of them—guided by the Institute’s overarching mission—prepared me for that memorable week, and for the many adventures yet to come.