Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: “Where are they now?”.
Landing a teaching role outside of the US was always a goal for Rick Deja. So when he was offered a job teaching in South Africa, he simply couldn’t pass it up. Rick graduated from the University of Illinois with a PhD in musicology in 2016. He is currently a lecturer (the equivalent to an assistant professor position) in ethnomusicology at the University of Cape Town (UCT), where he teaches courses on music and culture from Africa and other world regions, advises graduate students’ research and writing, curates a collection of traditional and historical instruments, and leads a student music ensemble performing Pan-African Jazz and Popular music.
While at Illinois, you had a Fulbright-Hays dissertation completion fellowship that enabled you to conduct dissertation research in South Africa and Malawi. How did this experience shape your career trajectory?
Obviously on a practical level it provided significant research and intellectual grounding to eventually work as an ethnomusicology professor. Moreover, the experiences and relationships that came out if it contributed to being able to work effectively here in South Africa and this area of the world more broadly.
I noticed that following graduation, you engaged in teaching curriculum and development in a few different ways (visiting professorships, an online course, and a postdoctoral teaching fellowship). How did those experiences lead you to the role you are in now?
I had visited UCT in 2013 and saw a tremendous potential in the fact that equal status is given to opera, jazz, classical, and African musics both in terms of performance and academic settings. When I interviewed for this position, there was a desire to have someone interested in utilizing various modes of teaching within these contexts and across genres. Part of what I do now has involved developing new curriculum, course content, and methods that include commercial, folk, and classical genres from Africa and other parts of the world, in order to speak to varied interests of students within the music school.
Can you tell us about your decision to work at a university outside of the United States? Was this a goal for you? What surprised you about transitioning to higher education in a different country? What has been the biggest adjustment for you?
Yes, this was a goal for me. I started graduate school well after my undergrad degree, and had a career working within the world music industry, especially African jazz and popular music both in Malawi and the US. So for me, it was important to be in a place close to my “research” sites. I write research in quotes, because for me it’s not just something I study; it’s what I do as a musician and collaborator, so I very much wanted to be at a university on this side of the world.
In terms of the biggest adjustment, I would have to say it’s twofold. One is just managing the mundane—every aspect of life and any intuitive behavior that would normally go unnoticed, now has to be negotiated, which is to be expected, but the cumulative weight is notable. Within this, though, is navigating an extremely nuanced and intricate socio-political landscape within a prominent university in post-apartheid South Africa.
In addition to teaching, you also curate the Kirby Collection (a collection of musical instruments used in Southern Africa before 1934) and you frequently perform music in South Africa and neighbouring countries. What are your tips and tricks for balancing everything?
It is a bit tricky, but that’s the beauty of this particular position. All of these are part of the job, so-to-speak, and I’m really lucky to be in a place that requires, or rather, allows me to utilize several of my skills. The Kirby Collection is located in the College of Music, and my performances locally and in Malawi are either part of my research or my teaching. Again, I’m fortunate to be in a school that is both a research institution and music conservatory, so both my scholarly and applied work with music is valued and supported. But yeah, it’s difficult, and I manage it by establishing a weekly routine, and avoid much work on the weekends. I find I am more productive during the week this way.
Is there a particular course, professor, or experience at the University of Illinois that has impacted your way of thinking?
All of it. I mean, sure, my main mentors, Tom Turino and Donna Buchanan, were highly influential in ways that can’t be quantified, but I can tell you multiple things I learned about every professor I had, and most of my peers. Taking classes in other departments and being involved with the Center for African Studies was crucial as well. In a way, working outside of my department and cohort set a pattern of seeking interdisciplinarity in subsequent institutions, as well fostering a far richer non-academic and social life than I would have ever imagined.
What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?
Pay attention to everything, not just in terms of course content, but about yourself, about how you learn, about skills you develop to make it through grad school and life. Don’t forget to experience other things: see a play or a concert or comedy or art or trees. Do things slightly outside of your comfort zone, but also be kind to yourself.
This interview was conducted by Emily Wuchner who is the Thesis Coordinator at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys playing the bassoon, watching sports, and hanging out with her calico cat, Gracie Sue.