Chin up, girl

Have I told you about the time I was almost expelled from Harvard for plagiarism?

By and large, I enjoyed my time at Harvard, mostly because of the people that I met and the musical opportunities that were presented. It was a generally happy and stable time in my life, though marred by a few truly awful moments; this was one of them.

Let me back up. At that point, Harvard didn’t offer any music performance degrees, and so I was majoring in music composition. My course load included a plethora of music theory and analysis classes, many of which I shared with my then-boyfriend, who was also a composition major.

An assignment for one of these classes required a harmonic analysis of a Chopin work with some gnarly harmonies, and said boyfriend and I sat down to examine the piece together, as we had done countless times before. We found that conferring with each other about our analyses helped us understand the piece more fully, and although we disagreed on some points, we generally approached things in a similar fashion. So, we shared our work, and except for one section of music, we were in harmony (pun intended) with our ideas. We then trotted off to our respective computers to type up our papers, which were handed in to our professor the next morning.

A day later, I was called in by the head of the music department and accused of plagiarizing my boyfriend’s paper.

Let me step back again. Harmonic analysis is an unusual beast. Essentially when we define harmonies, we define them in the context of a key area. When your key changes, harmonies are then defined within the new key. What would be analyzed as a “iii” chord in C major would be a “vi” chord in G major. How you label a harmony – how you “spell” it, as we say – depends on what key you think you’re in. Key areas are foundational in harmonic analysis, and thus determining the point at which the key has changed is a critical decision.

Explained another way, let’s look at Marie Antoinette (didn’t expect that pivot, did you?). When determining the moment she became the Dauphine of France, you would probably say it was April 19, 1770, when she was married by proxy to Louis-Auguste, the Dauphin of France. You could make an argument that the date was May 16, when the ceremonial wedding at Versailles took place, because it was an event more symbolic of the union. The May 16 idea is an interesting perspective; however, technically and legally speaking, April 19 is correct.

In our analyses, the section over which my college boyfriend and I disagreed was the harmonic equivalent of the argument above. He said May 16. I said April 19.

My trial (not officially, but it was called a “hearing”) was overseen by Christoph Wolff, preeminent Bach scholar and German of the old school. (I seem to have a bit of a history with old-school German teachers; Otto-Werner Mueller was my teacher at Curtis.) Our papers made similar points, and the analysis was laid out in similar ways. Clearly, the girl was copying her boyfriend’s paper. It didn’t matter that the two papers diverged on a critical key change.

It didn’t seem to matter that, from a technical standpoint, my analysis of that key change stood on far firmer ground – and was, in fact, called the “correct” conclusion. If I were plagiarizing, what explains this correct analysis?

My boyfriend and I were brought in separately. We both stated the truth; we worked on the analysis together, agreed about most things, disagreed on a handful and then went off to write our separate papers. Our analytical points were laid out in a similar progression because we had gone over the points in that particular order together. But, no. The girl is clearly copying from the boy. That’s the only logical explanation.

I mean, there was no way to view the accusation but as an affront to the capabilities of my gender. Did anyone consider that my boyfriend had copied ME? My (female) TA went to bat for me, brought in other musical opinions from other professors (my analysis came out on top for everyone). If she was incapable of doing her own work, argued my TA, how did she come up with this accurate analysis? Why is she being accused, and not him?

Finally, justice prevailed – after a few male professor vouched for the quality of my work in their classes, and after days of turmoil on my part, Wolff begrudgingly agreed to drop the accusation. I’ve often wondered if it was more that he couldn’t prove that I was guilty, rather than that he believed my innocence .

Plagiarism is an expulsion-worthy offense. I could have been kicked out of Harvard.

I feel fortunate to have been brought up in a post-Title IX world. I feel fortunate that my parents encouraged me to do what I wanted to do, even if it was to pursue a career in which, at the time, there was next to no female representation. I feel fortunate that, thanks to Times Up and Me Too, there is far more enlightenment about the indignities women have had to face for time immemorial.

None of this, however, can ever undo the fact that my life could have been derailed by a single man, because he thought that a girl couldn’t possibly be right.

But I’m here, and I know I’m right. And for those women who have faced sexism (and it’s uglier cousin, misogyny) and have been burdened by the lived trauma of being told you’re not good enough because you’re a woman, I feel you, I support you. We are good enough. And we always have been.

Harvard’s motto is Veritas. Truth.

3 thoughts on “Chin up, girl

  1. seskona1icloudcom says:

    Wow! Been there- had it happen to me: a Dude🤣 I say this (as) whilst at Oxford my DPHIL thesis SO original the committee sent six (6!) months checking every single item- from footnotes to diagrams. Problem? They could not accept the fact my thoughts & arguments were far more original than anything they’d EVER written. Yes! It’s true. Intellectual jealousy knows no boundaries! I agree with everything you’ve stated about sexism BUT! Intellectual jealousy is extremely more prevalent in the rare air of academe. Ivory towers don’t enjoy getting shredded by newcomers. Sarah- all I may say (personally speaking) is if you don’t tow the politically correct party line (whatever that means!) best to put on your intellectual armor & pack you brain with arrows of truths that are fact based then Press On! Fire away! The Truth Does Set Us All Free!


  2. Bonjour, Sarah aka “La Maestra”.
    Anite and Lynda said in stereo: “YES! Well played, Sarah.”
    Unfortunately we still live in a world where sexism and misogyny exist even if I think it is less prevalent than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Women around the globe are still facing ‘Macho men’ at different levels. It is a daily task to counter act their shameful acts of sexism and misogyny. There are ‘variants (or strains)’ among sexist men too. It doesn’t only belong to virus.
    Being the minority as a man in a women’s world I wasn’t in a position for being a macho type. At Laval University in Québec city where I did my degree we were 8 men and 53 women. It does reflect roughly how it is in my profession. When I was with Health Canada they sent me to Dalhousie University. I was the only man and French speaking among 20 women. I was so shy to speak at the beginning because of my accent even if I passed the TOEFL at McGill. One day a classmate said: “Sylvain, don’t be shy to speak in English. French accent is so sexy.” Wow! Was it a sexist comment? Nah! I didn’t care. I can only tell you that I wasn’t shy anymore after.
    I don’t have any problem with women = men with all goes with it (jobs, cooking, laundry, taking care of your kids,…).
    I just hope that one day sexism and misogyny will be a vague souvenir in the history books.
    Keep doing magic with your wand and your Talent, La Maestra.


  3. Wayne Zelenak says:

    Sarah, I loved your narrative, as usual, dispelling the ludicrous perception by shallow-minded men, that women aren’t good enough. You proved your point with your life story. Veritas Vos Liberabit (The Truth Will Set You Free)



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