Trevor Pinch and Gratitude

On December 16th, my friend and colleague Trevor Pinch passed away. Plenty of people knew Trevor better than I did. But Trevor helped me to understand what it means to be a person in the academic world.

The most important thing I learned from Trevor is gratitude. I don’t mean the platitudinous “practicing gratitude” thing that goes around every so often. Trevor had this “I can’t believe I get to do this!” affect about him. He just lived it; if he worked at it, it produced the kind of effortlessness one finds in a master musician. He understood what an immense privilege it is to be a tenured academic. This is something that is all too often forgotten. And it’s really hard to see right now, as Covid makes everyone’s job immeasurably worse and more stressful. But it is still true. We are paid to talk about ideas, and not only books, but books we find really interesting, often with people we find really interesting. We are also paid to read them and write about them.

It is hard to express how rare and special and profound Trevor’s simple acknowledgment of this fact–“it is amazing we get paid to do this”–is in my world. Part of it is the break between the reasons people get into academia and where they find themselves in it. People get in for those intellectual reasons, but soon things start to cloud and crowd and push us away from those things and towards overwork, the stress of precarity, or if we’re the lucky few tenured, an absolutely obscene amount of middle-management box checking, paper pushing, and occasionally being forced into positions that contradict our own values. All of that sucks, but the fact that we get to spend some of our time doing meaningful work–work we believe in–is a privilege. Most people don’t, and for the last two years, some of them have also had to risk their lives to do it.

Trevor was also a great example of a successful academic: he listened as much as he talked, was always curious about others’ work, kept reading and showing interest in the work of new scholars and actively promoted it, and mentored generations of students. He took his turns at service; he helped build at least two fields as spaces for others to do work. I say at least two because I only know of the two we share, Science & Technology Studies, and Sound Studies.

He was also opinionated but aware of his own opinions and limits. Several times we had a conversation about politics and scholarship, where he asked me about something he didn’t “get.” We’re not going to be good at everything, and Trevor never pretended to be.

Although he was the wrong generation for it, he also had a bit of a punk rock attitude to what he studied. Sure, he could talk about physics, or epistemology, but I am certain his best selling book was his coauthored history of the Moog synthesizer. Even in supposedly critical fields scholars too easily confuse the quality or sophistication of the scholarship with the intellectual prestige of the object of study and its conformity to the bourgeois value systems of academics. I have occasionally seen it first hand in our two shared fields. In our conversations, anyway, Trevor just. did. not. care. Of course, I met him late career, and he followed the standard path of establish yourself with a high prestige object and then branch out to stuff that your advisors wouldn’t have wanted you to study. So he could! But that kind of work has also made space for many other people.

Later on, Trevor also became one of my cancer friends. I have two kinds: there are the friends who really went out of their way to look after me when I am going through shit; and there are people who are also going through shit, with whom I can talk about going through shit. Trevor started as the first kind and became the second kind. I just pulled up an email from February 22, 2010. I was in a 2-week hospital stay that I refer to as “the longest period of my life.” I could not talk (well, maybe by then I was talking again) so I was reading and writing a lot over email from the hospital. Trevor wrote me about his travels, an exciting conference he’d been to, some books he was reading, and some music tech stuff he knew I would find interesting. He also talked about the beauty of the desert. It was an utterly banal email, but also discursive, caring, and detailed enough to stimulate my imagination.

Sadly, later on, I would be able to return the favour. But then: we got to the kind of talking the other sort of cancer friends do. The conversations were more personal, as you might imagine, but still with Trevor’s somehow effortless gratitude for the opportunities he had, even when it was just about being close to his daughter.

There’s so much else I could say, like all the great things I actually learned from Trevor about my own fields. And about being a scholar and a musician. But this is what I will say for now.