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.
One comment at the end of the piece offered some insight. Continue reading

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:


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


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

Prospective PhD Seeks English Dept with Strong Focus in African-American Literature, Writing & Composition

I also enjoy long walks on the beach, travel, and Oxford commas. But who doesn’t?

I’ve been sending a lot of e-mails lately with the words “prospective PhD student” in the subject line. Yes, friends, it’s true: it’s time for me to go back to school (again) and properly claim the unearned suffix in @tessalaprofessa. Luckily I’ve had a year + in the classroom to test my interests on crops of unsuspecting students and get inspired by their ideas. It turns out that trying to clarify my thoughts for PhD applications is also helping me tighten how I hope to teach this fall.

So what do I hope to study? Well, hiphop, obviously. But having never been a literature major, I also want to ground my knowledge of hiphop in a study of African-American literature and letters. Poetics, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, a solid hold on modernism–rife with buzzwords I bandy around but am overdue to master. And I want to study writing pedagogy. That’s where finding programs I like has proved hard. But the thing I’ve learned the most about hiphop music over the last two years is that these songs constitute writing–and every time I’ve wanted to push the contours of how we conceive of writing in my class, hiphop has been long ahead, waiting for me to catch up.

When I originally chose to teach freshman comp about hiphop, it was because I was a graduate student looking to do something fun. My own required freshman writing class had been deadly boring and I figured if eighteen students were going to have to write four papers each and (more importantly) I would have to read all seventy two, they’d better be about something fun. It was only after the class began I realized what a teaching boon it was to ask students to engage with their own contemporary media landscape. A year later, when the department began rolling out its reflective writing program, I realized that rap is often reflective. And when I began teaching Argumentative Writing, it dawned on me that rap makes sophisticated and well-supported arguments. You know, like I ask my students to do. Heck, Kanye often uses a three-part verse structure. Bet you never thought of him as an Aristotelian thinker!

Yesterday I signed on to Facebook to see this definition of privilege from Duke scholar Mark Anthony Neal making the rounds:

The very essence of “privilege” is when you enter into a space and are fundamentally unaware that not only have you changed the conversation, but have made the conversation about you.

“Uh oh,” I thought. Extra yikes-points since I recently changed the subheading of this blog from “journal” to “diary,” to better account for its personal subject matter. But then I wondered how crucial that “unaware” part is to the deployment (and the destructiveness) of privilege. Ever since I’ve entered hiphop’s discursive space, I’ve been aware that my status as a white woman somehow changes the terms of the conversation. And despite my parents’ fears that my desired area of expertise is unmarketable, I remain convinced that it would be easier for me to exploit the position of a white hiphop scholar than to be ignored because of it.

Michelle Pfeiffer…and a bunch of kids in the background

When I started writing this blog I was explicitly interested in how I fit into the hiphop narrative–why a white girl would be interested in these topics to begin with. And there are still questions there worth investigating–the effects of an urban public education on my goals and attitudes, for example, or how hiphop makes anger, bravado, and political radicalism sexy in ways that don’t seem available to white women.

But as my hiphop interests shift more firmly toward teaching, learning, and argument, I must say I’m relieved.  The first time I ever had my own classroom was on a summer ESL teaching gig in China. I remember laying in bed at night, stressing out over the next day’s lessons, when I realized how rare it was that I worried about anything except myself. Indeed, my natural inclinations are privileged. When I was a graduate student, teaching interrupted a lifestyle centered around a big writing table in a nice apartment that cost most of my monthly stipend (read: free money). But each day I teach demands that I get off my ass, break the bubble of my solitude, and actually give of myself.

Of course, teaching hiphop in a classroom full of mostly white students invokes other questions of privilege. I’ve had multiple classrooms with not a single African-American student, and not seeing often means forgetting. But when I do have students of color, it’s not their job to draw attention to the demographics of our classroom: its mine. I try to create a classroom space that recognizes privilege, absence, and irony–and also humor, compassion and inspiration. Both are challenges. But you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and I’ve learned you catch more prejudicial assumptions with encouragement than beration. Anyway, as Kanye would say, #ITSAPROCESS. Peace out, friends.

I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, I’m not a racist.

It only took a few weeks after a student coined the word “hiphopocracy” for me to realize that I wanted to write a book of essays collected under this name. This one word evoked connotations of community, democracy, and hypocrisy that all seemed so central to the way I was beginning to read and teach hiphop texts and culture. It took a tip from a tech-savvy friend to re-envision this project as a blog, and then I had to find my sea legs – that is, my voice.

It’s interesting to me how central the question of my own whiteness is to this blog. Back when I imagined this as a book of long-form essays, I’d envisioned the emphasis as being on a critical reading of rap texts coupled with reflections on education and the possibilities for a hiphop pedagogy. But transitions in conceptualizing my own work have parallels in how I’ve learned to understand my role as a teacher. When I first designed College Writing on The College Dropout, I imagined that this rap-centric course material would fill my classroom with students of color. In fact, out of more than 100 students so far, I’ve had two African American students, both women, a significant minority of Asian and Asian-American students (both East and South Asian), and a huge majority of White students, mostly from Michigan. With this demographic makeup I’ve come to reenvision my teaching from an earlier (more self-aggrandizing) model that saw me appealing to African-American students “on their own terms” (whatever that means) to a more realistic vision that has me modeling to White and Asian-American students how to talk about race, gender, popular culture and urban space in a way that is intellectually critical and, most importantly, respectful.

As you might imagine, one book that was really instrumental to my self-concept as a teacher was Mark Naison’s memoir White Boy, which I discovered in David Leonard”s reflection on the subject on Mark Anthony Neal’s blog, Left of Black. In his memoir, Naison, a white professor of African-American studies at Fordham University, charts his journey  from a Jewish kid growing up in Brooklyn through his time as a history student at Columbia and his activism in Harlem to his present position at Fordham. Naison writes like an historian, focused on events rather than ideas, and so as I read I felt myself wishing he would say more about the content of his academic work and how he felt it related to the spaces in which he was teaching and learning it. Instead, much of the value of this book for me was reading the history, via Naison’s life, of radical leftist movements through the sixties and seventies and the way racial politics shifted during that period.

This term, for the first time I am also teaching a different class, an Advanced Argumentation course structured around Dr. Neal and Murray Foreman’s reader That’s the Joint! To keep us rooted in the primary sources, we spend Friday’s class each week listening to and close reading a rap song. To get us started off right, we began this schedule last Friday with Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.” As I set up the speakers, one of my (white) students asked, “Do you usually listen to this song?”

“Sure,” I answered. “Don’t you?”

I think one of my most important roles in the classroom is to show my students that rap can be enjoyed as more than a minstrel show. This is directly related to my recent critique of Cecil Brown and Tricia Rose’s views of white listeners, casual disbelief of valid motives that is not uncommon to these two thinkers. Because I have to ask: how are white listeners supposed to take hiphop seriously if they can’t take themselves seriously as fans, true fans? Teaching hiphop has taught me to take myself more seriously as a fan because I have to model respect and appreciation to my students.

Chapelle’s Show: “I Know Black People” w/ Dr. Mark Naison

In White Boy, Dr. Naison talks a lot about his relationship with a Black woman and how that experience both personally and socially connected him with Black people and heightened his awareness of race’s role in American society. My own formative experience with the Black community was in my high school choir in Chicago. I’d often enter the choir room to see students grouped around the piano, singing gospel songs they all knew and I didn’t. Like Naison on the basketball court, choir was the place where I was the racial outsider, where my academic success meant nothing and I had to bust my butt to keep up. It was the space where I learned to sing “Precious Lord” and “Elijah Rock” and where I came to understand that in other parts of the city, my Black classmates participated in a rich community life that it would have been just as easy for me not to see.

In a recent guest post on Left of Black, Mark Naison writes about the role of love in good teaching. Next week in my Argumentation class, we’re talking about a chapter called “No Time for Fake Niggas: Hip Hop Culture and the Authenticity Debates,” which probably means it’s time for the class talk on whether we can use the word “nigger” and, if we’re lucky, larger questions about authenticity in hiphop scholarship.  Naison writes, “It is precisely the importance of building trust which is absent from the dominant discourse about education today. ” Responding to my occasional discipline issues, my mom recently suggested I pull back from my class, separate myself from them. “I can’t,” I said. “Community and relationships are so important to what I’m trying to do.” When it comes to questions of authenticity and good intention, we need not only to trust and love our students, but also ourselves.

“Malcolm, Malcolm. You white bitches done killed Malcolm.”*

When I was a sophomore in college, I applied for and received a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, which consisted of a sizable cash stipend and summer research funding aimed to help me pursue my expressed goal of becoming a professor. Being an MMUF fellow at Princeton also involved monthly meetings with other undergraduate and graduate fellows, casual talks with professors of color, and a fancy annual banquet in which some professor or other reiterated every year how miserable the PhD process is, and enjoined upon us to keep on keepin’ on.

The goals of MMUF are as follows; it was my job as an aspiring sophomore to convince my school’s committee that I met them:

The fundamental objectives of MMUF are to reduce, over time, the serious underrepresentation on faculties of individuals from minority groups, as well as to address the consequences of these racial disparities for the educational system itself and for the larger society that it serves.  These goals can be achieved both by increasing the number of students from underrepresented minority groups who pursue PhDs and by supporting the pursuit of PhDs by students who may not come from underrepresented minority groups but have demonstrated a commitment to the goals of MMUF. (mmuf.org)

That’s me, at the end: “students who may not come from underrepresented minority groups but have demonstrated a commitment to” these goals. The irony of it all was that MMUF, which had previously been a fellowship for minority students, was forced by anti-affirmative action legislation (I believe under the Bush II administration) to broaden its selection criteria from racial to ideological.

Six years later, I’m an MFA holder teaching hiphop studies to college freshmen (but still a white woman with an ambiguously ethnic name).  Last semester, after one of my sections was in a classroom after a white man teaching a course on jazz and before another white man teaching a course on African cities, I turned my attention to novelist Cecil Brown’s Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department? The Disappeareance of Black Americans from Our Universities (2007).  The book opens to the author wandering across the greens of his alma mater, UC Berkeley, and wondering, like “one of the characters in the film Dude, Where’s My Car?” (ix), Dude, where are all the black students?

I was interested in this book not only because of my own experience as a white woman teaching Black subject matter to largely white and Asian students, but (more importantly) because Mr. Brown taught a course at Stanford called “From Homer to Hiphop,” and a peruse of this book’s Table of Contents online revealed that the author professed to have rediscovered Black Studies in the streets, among the hiphop heads. I was keen to read his arguments about the rifts between written and oral cultures of information.

I empathized with Mr. Brown’s statistics on the erosion of affirmative action policies in the last few decades–my courses are as much a commitment to diversity as an expression of my own interests. And many of his arguments were provocative, like his suggestion that while “special programs are established to help [Asian and Asian-American students] with their writing and speaking skills” (94),the same effort is not made to bring other students of color up to speed.

But what ultimately disappointed me about this book was Mr. Brown’s blanket dismissal of genuine white interest in hiphop music, an exasperation I see again and again in black writers’ work on hiphop. Brown suggests “rap music helps white youth deal with their fear of girls” (99), and that “White attraction to Black pimps are…symptoms of an unconscious desire to escape the structured life of the mechanical world” (102). But he’s never open to the possibility that white listeners empathize with rap’s critique of a racist and hypocritical society. I was reminded of Tricia Rose’s seminal Black Noise, where the author sneakily suggests her bias:

Jazz, rock’n’roll, soul, and R&B each have large devoted white audience members, many of whom share traits with Norman Mailer’s “white negroes,” young white listeners trying to perfect a model of correct white hipness, coolness, and style by adopting the latest black style and image. Young white listeners’ genuine pleasure and commitment to black music are necessarily affected by dominant racial discourses regarding African Americans, the politics of racial segregation, and cultural difference in the United States. Given the racially discriminatory context within which cultural syncretism takes place, some rappers have equated white participation with a process of dilution and subsequent theft of black culture. Although the terms dilution and theft do not capture the complexity of cultural incorporation and syncretism, this interpretation has more than a grain of truth in it. (5)

Look how Ms. Rose deftly undercuts the possibility of “young white listeners’ genuine pleasure and commitment” and then invokes the terms “dilution and theft” without taking responsibility for them.

Some of the only welcoming language I’ve seen is in the introduction to (Asian-American) Jeff Chang’s wonderful Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, where he declares of the hiphop generation: “Whom does it include? Anyone who is down” (2). Even the provocateur Nas, after calling out to all his “kike niggers, spic niggers, Guinea niggers, chink niggers,” reminds his posturing audience, “They like to strangle niggers, blaming niggers, shooting niggers, hanging niggers, still you wanna be a nigger too?” (“Be A Nigger Too,” Untitled).

In Cecil Brown’s 1969 novel, The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger, the titular protagonist sits with the only Black woman he’s found in Copenhagen and lays his hand to her pregnant form:

He felt the small lump running smoothly under his fingers as she brought his hand smoothly over her brown hot belly.

“That’s a baby,” she said.

“Really,” he said. He was scared stiff.

“A white baby, ” she said.


“Does it make you feel a little bit disgusted?”

“Yeah, I think so.” (124)

* from Cecil Brown, The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger, 105.