William Cheng, a professor of music at Dartmouth College and a 2022–23 fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, loves video games. He has studied and played them through a complicated and trailblazing career in academia, where he says that caring for the “whole person” is often “perceived to be extracurricular and kind of secondary.”
Cheng is the author of “Sound Play: Video Games and the Musical Imagination” and the co-editor of “Queering the Field: Sounding Out Ethnomusicology.” He has also written and edited other books exploring the intersections of music, ethics, and social justice.
Cheng says that his dissertation is one of his favorite projects he’s worked on. The dissertation came out of a realization that his experiences of playing a piano and with a video game controller were similar. In his dissertation, he tried “to understand both by exploring them together.”
“I got to play a lot of video games, and that was fun,” he says.
As a tenured professor at Dartmouth, Cheng teaches “Video Games and the Meaning of Life.” The class involves activities ranging from watching live streams of people playing video games to having intense conversations on the themes present in these games, like the nature of beauty, death, and violence.
Throughout the semester, he is sure to check in with his students, asking them to answer anonymous questions about their mental wellbeing. “Very few people are doing okay,” he says. “When I share these results in class, I don’t know if they’re surprised, but I think they’re hardened by the sense of shared struggle and the possibility of solidarity.”
Cheng’s care for his students comes, in part, from his own experiences in academia.
Cheng explains the mental exhaustion he felt throughout college, graduate school, and his postdoctoral fellowship as the building up of “mental crisis debt,” like credit card debt. He eventually needed to recompense through therapy and severing his sense of self worth from his productivity.
“I didn’t take care of myself,” he says. “I wish I could have received more explicit permission from a book or from a mentor to really just back away and think about what actually matters in the long arc. Not just academia, but also life.”
Cheng says that he has thought about quitting academia “every month or so” since he was in grad school. “It seemed like an individual was too powerless in these now really massive money-preoccupied institutions to make any kind of lasting change,” he says.
Cheng says that he had difficulty speaking about this because he does not want his students to think he is not passionate about teaching. His students are his greatest source of hope, he says, and smiles as he fondly recalls their curiosity, activism, and even their moments of boredom or sleepiness.
Alongside his work in video games and music, Cheng is a scholar of care ethics, advocating for caring for oneself in higher education. His 2016 book “Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good” illustrates the problems with striving for rigor, productivity, and merit.
“It can feel so low when your value as a human being is tethered to, let’s say, academic achievement,” Cheng says. “And then, when the domain of your life doesn’t work out, it feels like a blow up to your professional persona or to your personal persona because we have a hard time separating the two in our mind.”
As Cheng sees it, pairing productivity and self-worth is taught to children when they are young. Cheng grew up in Canada playing piano under the system used by the Royal Conservatory of Music, where examiners score students from grades one through 10 as well as those pursuing advanced diplomas. His earliest memories of playing piano focused on passing exams that quantified music. He felt the adjudicators focused on judgment instead of feedback for improvement.
“My constant struggle is trying to figure out who I am aside from the work I do,” he says. “And I don’t think it’s ever too early to start thinking about that.”
Correction: April 3, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that William Cheng is the author of “Queering the Field: Sounding Out Ethnomusicology.” In fact, Cheng co-edited the volume.
Clarification: April 3, 2023
This article has been updated to clarify that the Royal Conservatory of Music also scores students pursuing advanced diplomas.