Love, Hiphop, and Genre: Syracuse

In the last two years, as I’ve revised my pedagogy to center writing studies content in my composition classrooms, there have repeatedly been words–terms, concepts, really–that I joke with students they’ll be sick of by the end of a unit or semester. Last fall, in my freshman 105 class, they were: literacy, discourse, and composition.

This term it was all genre. Genre, genre, genre, genre, genre.

Yes, I took my department’s challenge to use genre as the lens through which we approached all assignments and concepts, using genre to access the same concepts of students’ literacies (what genres do they write in?), discourse (what are the discursive demands of different genres?) and even, yes of course, hiphop. (Who knew sampling was a discursive practice with its roots in African-American rhetorical practice? Oh, ok. We did. But my frosh didn’t. But now they do!)

I want to take this opportunity to reflect about how this went.

First of all, my successes. And there’s one I’m really proud of: this is the best I’ve ever done at convincing my non-humanities students–and in today’s preprofessional university, this is most of them–that writing will matter for them in their major and their career. The engine of this recognition was their third unit assignment, which asked them to research a genre they expect to write in in their major or career and interview at least one person who writes in it regularly. My students researched press releases, sports play-by-plays, children’s books, spoken word poetry, medical textbook chapters, biomedical research articles, engineering field reports, event planning proposals, movie reviews, lab reports, health and safety plans, and more. And beyond recognizing about the real audiences, exigencies, and discourses engaged by these genres, they also repeatedly noted and reflected upon the fact that writing was going to follow them into their futures, a reality many had not accepted when they first entered my class.

Without a doubt, this is my greatest success this semester and the biggest boost I got from the genre-centered approach, because I have been trying for my five years as a composition instructor to communicate to my students that there is no person in the 21st century who does not have to write on the job, and who is not more successful when they can do so with a clear sense of message and proof.  I was finally able to achieve this pedagogical goal by deputizing my students to go out on their own and seek out the genres they would need in their own lives.

Now my failings. To be fair to myself, I’ll note that most of them were curricular snafus borne from this being my first time teaching this version of the course. I note them here mostly for my future self, for when I teach this class again.

First of all, and it’s a biggie, I need to teach visual and multimodal rhetoric more explicitly, more smartly, and with better readings. I gestured at it in class but in my putting off the reading assignments to find something good to assign, I ended up forgetting to assign a reading and that let to my students giving really boring, ugly powerpoints.

Second: if I assign presentations again, no powerpoints allowed.

Third: if I require students to bring in a 3D object again, we need to have some make art time in class together. A lot of students brought in, like, a handout or a cookie. No shade to cookies, but, ya know.

Four: always build in drafting. I didn’t for the first unit blog post, and there wasn’t much time for student discussion after presentations, and that was bad. More feedback from the class always. Also, this reminds me that I really want to do full-class workshops in the future and center student writing as course texts more. The challenge for me here is that it is always so hard to cut down the assigned readings to make space for this. But I just have to do it.

FIve: I had students tweet and take images of each other in media groups so they could respect each other’s privacy wishes about sharing content on the web, but then other students could also share as well. I should have just had everyone live tweet everyone and have each student start their presentation with a statement of how they wanted their content shared or not and their privacy protected.

Six: I had a students make a Storify but I didn’t have them comment on each other’s Storifys using the little built-in comment thing. So I should do that!

Ok enough with those quibbles. I want to close by brainstorming about next semester, when I teach 205, the required critical research course for second-semester sophomores.

The version I taught last spring and summer moves through three units: an opening critical reading unit, where I give the students a bunch of articles about hiphop, discourse, literacy and education; a research unit, where they identify a research question and pursue it independently; and a paper-writing unit, where they write the paper. Also usually I make them reflect at the end, because I ❤ reflective writing.

Mostly I need an excuse to teach this article, a lawyer’s inquiry into the traffic stop scene in “99 Problems.”

I wonder what would happen if I made them research method, genres, and research questions in their fields, design a project for that field, and then execute it? I like that idea. I also like the idea of them keeping a blog all semester and I ALSO like the idea of having a class blog where one student is responsible for writing a course recap every week and then we workshop it in class the next week. What do y’all think of that? TB, out.

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On Ethos (or, White Woman Writing Kanye West)

I recently published an essay in The American Reader, “Yeezy Rising,” which related mainstream media’s persistent mockery of Kanye West to historical discourses around lynching, a public media spectacle which celebrated the dehumanization and murder of outspoken, upwardly mobile black men. The piece was generally well-received, especially, I noticed, by other white academics. Despite my promotion of the piece and my social media connections with scholars of color, however, I also noted that writers and thinkers of color generally didn’t seem interested in my article. I found myself wondering if I had mishandled my subject or if it was somehow offensive or distasteful to a more sensitive and discerning crowd.
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One comment at the end of the piece offered some insight. Continue reading

SCHOOLED [the first three pages of my imaginary Comp/Rhet book]

[for the first meeting of CCR 611, history of composition, we were asked to write the first three pages of our future first book in the field– pure whimsy, of course, since we’re all first and second years. Here’s what I came up with.]

Rap is a referendum on America’s failed schools. In a moment too reminiscent of our own, urban youths stood outside the walls of schools with no budget for art class and made a whole culture out of the detritus of the society which had discarded them. From spoken language the rapper spat verse; the DJ scratched the break beat into vinyl; writers painted reclaimed language on subway cars; postmodern dancers fashioned studios out of cardboard; all of these children, artists and intellectuals, dropping the sweet science of hiphop. Continue reading

How does one learn to teach writing? (the teacher reflects)

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You may have noticed that some of my recent blog post titles are alike. That’s because the last paper assignment of the semester in my freshman English course is to write an essay that answers some personalized version of the question, “How does one learn to write?” I received great papers on how one learns to write thesis statements, how one learns to write through their mistakes, how Kanye learns to rap and graffiti writers in Style Wars learn how to bomb, etc. And in working on this project with my students (lesson plans for which I have yet to put up), I began thinking about how I learned to teach writing. Because this was my last semester teaching at U of M, at least for a while and likely for a long while or forever, the question seemed pressing and I began taking notes. Given that I’ve blogged lesson plans all semester for the expressed purpose of reflecting, taking a moment to formally reflect seems apt.

The list I ended up with is a combination of stuff I’ve learned to do, assumptions I’ve learned I hold, and activities or practices I want to incorporate in the future. I’ll split them up that way.

1. Assumptions I’ve learned I hold

  • Put the argument up front, in the introduction. Have a thesis statement. Have topic sentences and conclusion sentences that relate that paragraph’s work to the thesis. Hell, have paragraphs. Don’t relate your argument to the world. Just get in, prove what you’re proving, and get the heck outta there.
  • Group similar topics of conversation together in the paper; i.e., the same quote or source shouldn’t be discussed on different terms in different places, if it can be avoided (and it usually can).
  • Words can always be cut out.
  • Papers that went through multiple drafts are always better than those that didn’t
  • On a related note, you don’t fully know your argument until the end of writing–writing involves more discovery. Ergo, take that argument you found and draft it back into the beginning of the essay
  • Close reading is contextual: what you find should depend on what you’re looking for, and what you’re trying to prove
  • The difference between a (sophisticated) essay and a(n unsophisticated) report is the former’s acknowledgement of and critical approach toward its source material
  • The difference between “specific,” “explicit,” and “precise”: say a student writes, “Kanye’s verse holds a lot of emotion.” Asking them to be specific entails the questions, Which verses? Which words, which emotions? Then say they revise to, “Kanye’s words “X Y Z” are really important because they contain a lot of strong emotions about how he feels about problems in his community.” That is pretty specific, but it is not explicit. Which emotions? Which problems? Precision is when the author says, “Kanye’s words ‘X Y X’ and ‘A B C’ both connote strong anger” and I ask, can you be more precise, i.e., shade the differences in emotion between the two? Two moments are never identical, only more similar than different.
  • Complexity is crucial. Don’t ignore difference, incorporate it.
  • Don’t speculate, close read. Don’t moralize, illuminate.
  • Never use these words you used in high school: credibility, flow, counterargument. Replace them with truth, logic, complexity.
  • Writing has to be about something. You can’t prove a claim about the world or hiphop or writing or the University of Michigan in five pages, but you can prove something about that text, that song, that video (or their conjunction). And this small expansion of the documented universe is what we call scholarship.

2. Things I’ve recently learned to do (and want to do more of and refine my practice of):

  • Model argumentation by blogging my lesson plans for use in class
  • Use short creative writing assignments to teach students empathy not just with other ways of living but also with other ways of writing
  • Keep records of class and online participation  so that course participation grades are meaningful
  • Use rubrics, which I used to hate, so that students can see their feedback in the context of what better and worse work looks like
  • When students come to office hours, ask them to articulate their papers’ strengths and weaknesses before I read it, so that they develop reflective skills and I don’t give an impression of my omnicience and their dependency
  • Use the scientific method to describe the writing process, where planning and drafting involves making hypothesis, testing them against the evidence, tabulating results and drawing conclusions
  • To state the obvious, I’ve learned to teach writing through hiphop and plan to continue doing so. I’ve learned to do this through organization around a single album, and in a more cross-chronological survey fashion. I hope to refine both. I really want to teach a Ready to Die class. And a hiphop studies survey course. One day!
  • Use reflective writing to help students engage with their own writing practice

3. Things I want to do or want to do better

  • Use research questions as the first step in every writing project
  • Have students engage with real web texts more, through assignments like editing Wikipedia or Rap Genius, or writing blog comments
  • Teach close reading better and more thoroughly at the beginning of the semester
  • Have a discussion about quality and criticism at the beginning of the semester so that students don’t think my rules are arbitrary but instead see recognizing quality as a project for them to actively participate in
  • State these assumptions clearly at the beginning of class!
  • Start an online journal for students to publish and edit their awesome papers
  • Use wikis or google docs for students to collaboratively write documents that will outlast our one semester

So, it’s not enough to ask the question–I made my students answer it, and I ought to do the same. I think one learns how to teach writing by teaching writing. That’s where all these notes came from–teaching writing is the only crucible that works for this difficult and necessary task of learning how to be a better teacher. If I were one of my students, the above would have only been my first outline: now would begin the process of going back through old lesson plans, finding quotations to document how my teaching practice has changed, and crafting all those quotes and claims into a gorgeous argumentative paper that proves I learned to teach writing through teaching writing. Luckily, I’m the teacher – so I’ll just stop here.

How do I learn to write lesson plans so that they’re useful to my students? (50 Cent and Hiphop Masculinity)

50-cent vitamin water

After I wrote my post on 9th Wonder’s lecture at Michigan, in which I argued that 9th modeled producing skills for the audience, I started thinking about what skills I could model for my students. I was already aware that I try to model respectful, specific language when talking about touchy subjects like race or sexuality. But what I really want to model is skills – and my skill, the reason I teach a writing class, is that I’m a writer. But it’s frustratingly hard to model writing practice in the classroom. Usually I’m either lecturing or reactive, giving tips or offering feedback. It’s rare that I actually write something my students see. I have one short close reading that I hand out, but that’s it.

Yet lesson planning is a kind of writing I do before class every day. By arranging a set of texts and a set of questions in 120-minute chunks, I’m using my writing skills of argument, research, evidence, and structure to arrange materials for students so that the texts tell a story and build an argument. When students make connections between texts in class, the secret is that I did a lot of the work for them already – I arranged the texts for that class.

This semester, my advanced class English 225 had an A/V hookup, so toward the end of the semester I began experimenting with putting my lesson plans up on our class blog, instead of keeping them private on my precious looseleaf. And I like to think that by making my lesson plan public, I’m modeling the early work of argument: following the hunches that put texts in dialogue with one another, explaining their links, formulating questions. Making space for argument to begin. Anyway, I did this twice this semester. The first time was about falling masks in Afrodiasporic literature + music, and the second is about 50 Cent and hiphop masculinity, below.

The text that follows is what I posted on our class blog and showed on the overhead projector during class. I had students get into small groups. After each video or audio clip, I asked students to discuss some of the questions I raised in their groups, and then we talked over the same issues as a class.

Marc Lamont Hill writes that (perhaps falsely) outed rapper “Big Daddy Kane was hip-hop’s playboy extraordinaire. With his good looks, braggadocious lyrics, a flashy persona, and even a pimp-like name, Kane’s very identity signified a carefully crafted and extravagantly performed masculinity” (Hill X).

A decade and a half later, another rapper who “extravagantly perform[s] masculinity” is 50 Cent. In his lyrics and videos, 50 Cent’s performance of masculinity makes specific claims about what it means to be a man. This masculinity is in relationship to oneself, to material goods, to women, and to other men.

Examining a selection of 50 Cent’s music and videos, we can ask what values his image projects. What does it mean in this universe to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? What is the nature of heterosexual courtship and relationships? Which characteristics are valued and which are scorned?

Listen: “Many Men”

Many men, many, many, many, many men
Wish death ‘pon me
Lord I don’t cry no more
Don’t look to the sky no more

Have mercy on me
Have mercy on my soul

Somewhere my heart turned cold
Have mercy on many men
Many, many, many, many men
Wish death upon me

Watch: “Candy Shop” ; “Window Shopper”

Byron Hurt’s mini documentary “Barack and Curtis” explores the impact of 50 Cent’s masculinity on the American conception of black masculinity, and then compares that image with the image of then-new President Barack Obama. According to Hurt, how does the appearance of Obama challenge the vision of masculinity presented by 50 Cent?

Week 2.1: Theses and Claims, or, Foregrounding our Conclusions

Now you want a photo, you already know though, You Only Live Once, that’s our motto, baby, YOLO, and we bout it e’ry day, e’ry day, e’ry day, I can’t see with all this looseleaf in the way:

LESSON PLAN

1. Logistics: books, blog issues, sign up for Google+, blog this week re: Code of the Street

2. Participation: what makes good participation? Reflective writing on past participation, goals

3. Framing: today is about making claims based on evidence. Drafting: sometimes we don’t know conclusions til the end of writing first “experimental” draft, in editing we put them back at the beginning.

4. Code of the Street: reactions? What claims does Anderson make? How does he get his evidence? As critical readers, our job will be to look out for how he analyzes his evidence and draws conclusions from it.

5. Mini essays: exchange with a partner, underline best moments of close reading; try to write 1 sentence that synthesizes those moments: a thesis!

6. Paper 1 assignment

NOTES

1. So Michigan has Gone Google, which makes some things confusing (like I have to sign out of my own Gmail account to get into any Umich sites) but other things possible (like switching from CTools forums to class blogs on Blogger). So I’m asking my students to register for Google + so that I can send them updates about notes on the blog, clarifying comments about homework, etc. So far I’ve found Google+ to be confusing looking and un-ideal, but at the same time I’m grateful for a social networking possibility that uses my University identity and not a non-professional one like Facebook.

2. This bit is on a tip I got from someone in our Writing Program, a potential first day of class activity that hopefully is a bit empowering and inclusive as well. I ask the students what constitutes good classroom participation, and tell them we’re going to make our own rules to govern what that means for us. So up on the board goes a nice list of tips about keeping the conversation moving, not making personal attacks, being focused. (Yesterday I also had to add: actually, actively participate!) Then I give everyone a moment to write these down, and ask them to consider these part of our course policies.

This is followed by our first reflective writing assignment of the course, which I remind them is supposed to make them better students and writers by keying us into our own strengths and struggles in learning and writing. So I ask the students to take 5 minutes to answer the questions, How have I participated in class in the past? Which aspects have been hard, and which have been easy? After a few minutes, I add: Please take a moment to write down just one goal to focus on in class participation this week only, today and at our next meeting.

3. Then I say today’s class is about making claims based on evidence. I offer this (confusing) analogy to the scientific method: you have a hypothesis (a hunch), you do some tests (write a draft), and by the end you know your conclusions (your claims). Except in writing, we edit so that our conclusions come at the beginning. Case in point: Anderson’s introduction.

4. Time to meet those new participation goals! For today folks read the preface and introduction to Code of the Street. Reactions? This was the first semester I asked students to read these early pages and I’m so glad they did, because a lot of students responded strongly to Anderson’s impressionistic walk “Down Germantown Avenue.” His careful tracing of changing race and class dynamics along a single street resonated with lots of folks who have a similar route at home–we heard lots yesterday about Detroit and some Brooklyn, too. Then I turn our attention to pp. 10-11 in the preface and discuss Anderson’s methodology, i.e., where does he get his evidence? and discuss what it might mean to be a participant-observer. And then we turn to pp. 32-34 in the introduction and consider some of his introductory claims about what the “code of the street” actually is–a code that uses violence and respect to govern inner-city residents’ behavior, whether they themselves are law-abiding or not. And I make a little note that our job as critical readers is to make sure Anderson has evidence to support these claims.

5. Then I ask students to find a partner and take out the mini essays they wrote for today, 2 pages that mega-close-read the titular phrase of either “We Don’t Care” or “All Falls Down.” First I asked how this experience was. Yesterday I was really glad to hear comments like, “At first I didn’t know what to say and I kept repeating myself, but then I found new things and I could have written even more.” Awesome. And I like to admit to them that this assignment was designed for a reason, to force them to stay with so few words and really dig in. (In previous semesters I just asked them to write a close reading of “All Falls Down” as a pre-write assignment, but this new version achieves the aim much better of forcing close, sustained reading.)

So, I ask students to exchange papers with a partner and to read this new essay looking for and underlining places where the author did their best close reading: places that make an interpretive claim about what work certain literary devices do. (So not just saying, “This is a simile,” but offering a hypothesis about what that simile achieves for the song.) After they do that for a while, I ask them to look for patterns in what their partner found in those underlined passages. Did the close reading keep returning to a theme?

I have the students show their partners where they did their best close reading–this is our first mini workshop and we’re keeping it positive. Then I ask them to hold on to their partner’s papers and, looking at all that great underlined close reading, try to write one sentence that synthesizes all the best analysis the author did. Look: you just wrote a great thesis statement. Then I solicit some volunteers and we think about those sentences together: getting more specific here, inserting the name of the song there, etc. etc. I tell them that one skill I hope they leave this class with at the end of the term is to be able to look at their own paper (or another’s, if they’re working as an editor), and say, What am I really arguing here? And slip that out and put it front and center as the opening thesis claim.

6. Paper 1 assignment. Sheesh, things are moving fast! Here it is:

Your first assignment asks you to use your close reading skills to analyze and make an argument about a single song. Please answer ONE of the following prompts in a 4-page essay.

1)    Use the rhetorical elements of argument, speaker, and audience to analyze the song “We Don’t Care.” Using lyrical and musical evidence from the song, make a specific, supported argument about Kanye West’s rhetorical style, message, or argumentative techniques in “We Don’t Care.”

2)    Consider the live version of “All Falls Down” on John Legend’s Solo Sessions Vol. 1: Live at the Knitting Factory album (posted on our blog). Make a specific, supported argument about how musical, lyrical, or spoken evidence from this song affects the argument West makes. (OPTIONAL: Compare the live version with the studio version of the song, and incorporate their difference into your argument.)

3)    “All Falls Down” is a highly narrative work, with characters, plot, and setting. Make a specific, supported argument that examines how West uses elements of narrative or story to make an argument in this song.

Essays should be as close to 4 pages as possible, double-spaced, and titled, with 1-inch margins and in Times New Roman. Treat the “first draft” like a final paper. Successful essays will zoom into specific elements of the song in question, not try to explain the whole thing, and will make specific claims that are supported by direct evidence from the song’s lyrics, music, or other vocals.

In the past, I only gave students option (2), but now with this big refocus on argument, I didn’t want to exclude the wonderful argumentation of “We Don’t Care.”

That’s all, folks. I gotta go teach this piece. Peace. -TB

As We Proceed….to Give You What You Need… (Here, Have My Course Materials)

Wassup, fools! It’s Labor Day Weekend, the annual last weekend of summer when a lot of people are on vacation but I am at my desk, editing syllabi for a new calendar year.

When I started teaching “College Writing on The College Dropout” two years ago, I was an MFA student with a simple purpose in mind: to make sure the required freshman writing class I taught would be more enjoyable than the one I took when I was a freshman, which I hated. And from the moment I started teaching, it was clear to me that this was something I’d have to write about.

That first semester teaching was Fall 2010; the following summer, I did some research for the English Department on the subject of reflective writing. Among our research team, my subfocus was new media, and blogs were a large part of my research. In fact, blogs have tons of reflective writing applications. They archive student writings for future study. They foster a writer’s awareness of their audience. And that pithy-casual blog tone we all know so well  actually helps young academic writers break out of an academic register and let their own voices and experiences come into play. But one of the most important things I remember reading (in Will Richardson’s wonderful Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and other powerful Web tools for the Classroom) was that to teach effectively using blogs, you needed to know what it was like to have a blog. If we in the English Department were so sure reflecting on writing made students better writers, wouldn’t it behoove me as a teacher to reflect on teaching?

(Full disclosure: Around this time, I told a friend I wanted to write a book of essays on hiphop. She said, “Why wait for a book deal? Go start a blog.”)

Dali’s “Metamorphosis of Narcissus”

That December, about eight months ago, I started writing this thing, and it has been wonderful–a place to reflect on rap, on teaching, on pop culture. Indeed, I like this stuff so much I’m about ready to go back to school for it. So, in the interest of my future research and remembrance of times past, I’m going to try something new this semester: starting on Tuesday, I’m going to post all my lesson plans and course materials up here. If you’re a writing teacher, feel free to ape (with credit to me, please). This new initiative is inspired as much by the principles of transparency, crowdsourcing, and remix as by my own personal interest in recording and reflecting on my lesson plans. Heck, my course already makes use of free, online materials like song lyrics, music videos, and other blogs and periodicals. I’ve spent a lot of time honing this freshman writing course, but that only makes me want to share it with you. If you want to teach “College Writing on The College Dropout,” please be my welcome guest. (Heck, if you want to take this class along with us, please do! Though I won’t grade your papers–I have enough of those already.) If you have thoughts or comments on my lesson plans, I can’t wait to hear them. If you’re my former student, the time is ripe for your revenge: tell me (and the world!) if this stuff actually worked. In the process, I hope to learn more about my teaching style, to remember those little lessons we learn every day but too often forget, and to give a lil’ sumt’n back to this hiphop universe that has given me so much.

More soon, friends. Til then, happy Labor Day. -T.

LOOK AROUND YOU: Toward a New (Exegetic) Hiphop Pedagogy

The BBC Comedy series Look Around You, initially aired in Britain in 2002, begins with a 20-minute pilot episode about Calcium. In the show, which is designed to mock earlier generations of British educational videos, “the white element,”  Calcium–which here in its powdered form highly suggests cocaine–is subjected to a series of inane experiments. The viewer is instructed to write results down “in your copybook.”

The second episode of the series, “Maths,” opens with a shot of a young black teenage boy looking anxiously around a streetcorner. Soon we see that he is serving as lookout for a white friend, spraypainting a wall. “Look around you,” narrator Nigel Lambert instructs. “Look around you. Look around you. Have you worked out what we’re looking for?” Lambert instructs, over a shot of the white teen spraying a white wall with a red C. “Correct,” he concludes. The boys flee, leaving behind a wall covered in a large, difficult equation involving infinity, square roots, and pi. “The answer is: Maths.” After announcing that the largest number is forty-five billion–“although mathmeticians suspect there may be even larger numbers”–the narrator then proceeds to explain that MATHS stands for “Mathmatic Anti Telharsic Harfatum Septomin.”

While I am no expert in British humor, I cannot help read this show as the white establishment’s confession (at least via Britain, the motherland) that its educational practices are stupid, arbitrary, and meant to leave you nothing but confused. (In one experiment on cocaine–I mean calcium–Lambert instructs the viewer to stir a solution with a glass stirring rod–or a pencil. I am reminded of the stringent lab conditions in my own high school chemistry classes.) In the wake of Kanye West’s insipid #FuckMath tweets and the riots in London being blamed on the rioters’ “perverted social ethos,” I cannot help but see deeper meaning in a show that satirizes education and begins an early episode–the first after the pilot –with a shot of a black teen looking anxiously for the police while his white friend writes graffiti, ironically, about math(s).

And if you don’t believe a single shot of a black man can give meaning to a whole film, you haven’t seen Night of the Living Dead.

When I teach the concept of Signifyin(g) to my freshman writing students, I use an excerpt from Henry Louis Gates’ The Signifying Monkey which resonates easily with the experiences of my class. Gates writes of a 1983 New York Times article about a group of students from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who, put off by the tests by McGraw-Hill they took each year, wrote their own test and sent it off to the publisher to be completed. Gates writes that “The examination, a multiple-choice intelligence test, is entitled ‘The In Your Face Test of No Certain Skills.'”‘ The students’ teacher allowed the students to write their own test after “one of [his] students looked up and asked what the reason for the test was, because all it did to him was make him feel academically inferior” (65-66).

The students devised a test to measure vocabulary mastery in street language. They sent ten copies to McGraw-Hill, where eight employees took the test, only to score C’s and D’s. One of the test’s questions…is an example of the most familiar mode of Signifyin(g). The question reads, “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” The proper response to this question is, “Your mama.”…”Your mama” jokes about in black discourse, all the way from the field and the street to Langston Hughes’s highly accomplished volume of poems, Ask Your Mama…The presence in the students’ test of this centuries-old black joke represents an inscription of the test’s Signifyin(g) nature, because it serves as an echo of the significance of the test’s title, “The In Your Face Test of No Certain Skills.” (Gates 66)

Until now, the term “hiphop pedagogy” has referred to a matrix of ideas about teaching that combine activism, critical pedagogy, using hiphop in classrooms (often to engage marginalized student populations) and an attention to the ways in which rappers already function as teachers and knowledge purveyors in their communities (e.g., Priya Parmar’s Knowledge Reigns Supreme: The Critical Pedagogy of KRS-ONE, 2009).

While using hiphop in the classroom is critical–indeed, I am doing it myself–we need to be paying attention to what rappers themselves have been saying in their art about why school failed them. This is what I mean by an exegetical approach–we need to look to the texts for the answers, which are already out there. Why did the best lyricists of our generation hate school? Why did the college graduates in Public Enemy find violence to be their most potent metaphor (Chang)? KRS-ONE explained of his own self-education, “I was held back twice in the 8th grade due to truancy…I dropped out of the ninth grade and psent the next two years studying in the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza…I leave home in pursuit of philosophy and emceeing. [By] 16 I had exhausted the library” (Parmar 58).

Though I teach extremely successful students, the questions Kanye West asks in his 2003 debut The College Dropout still resonate with them: Why am I in school? Why should I stay here when my teacher says I’m a “retard” (“We Don’t Care”)? Why do I need to go to college to get a job when people just hire their nieces and nephews? Why is the valedictorian of my high school working at the Cheescake Factory?

It took me a little while to build up to this place, but I hope that exploring rap music for insights, criticisms and suggestions on school, schooling, teaching, teachas and learning in rap will become a central pursuit of this blog–and I hope to hear from other folks who are out there lookin…(g).