Teaching with Twitter / Teaching Reflexion / Teaching Post-Diss

For the past couple years my posting on this here blog has been incredibly slow. However, as I’ve reentered the classroom this fall, I’ve remembered the genesis of this blog as a space to talk about pedagogy. Suddenly, now that I’m teaching, I’m thinking in blog posts again. Hope to see you more often in this space.

As you also know, for six years at the University of Michigan and Syracuse I taught composition courses focused around hiphop; during my two years off, I wrote my dissertation about this same subject. After analyzing my curricular materials and my students’ writing as well as those products from another teacher’s class, and doing a bunch of historical inquiry, reflective writing, and literature review, I produced “SCHOOLED: Hiphop Composition at the Predominantly White University.”

It was strange writing this diss while not teaching. I kept finding things I did wrong, or wanted to do better, but all I could do was write about them. I realized that I was centering cisgendered Black men in my course materials, and not raising up the voices of women and femmes. I found I wasn’t being vulnerable with my students, and was acting like the same old know-it-all white lady teacher my core beliefs wanted to disrupt. I found I wasn’t teaching my students to locate themselves reflexively vis-a-vis their research subjects, and so was promoting treating hiphop as a commodity rather than a culture. To put it succinctly, I found I could do better.

hashtag adweek

from Adweek

Now, back in the classroom, I am trying to be a different teacher: reflexive, vulnerable, intersectional. And I’m still learning. Still finding boundaries between my students and my new, open self. Still looking for ways to make my class the space where my students can get free. Still searching for the cultural hooks that will power my students to read, reflect, and write. Still listening to who they are, what they want, and what they need. Still learning what young people know, and can do.

One of the things that hasn’t changed is my practice of taking my students onto Twitter. But now this practice has a new context, as I’ve shifted my FYC course from a hiphop focus to one on “hashtag activism.” My students and I are reading hashtag manifestos like “This Tweet Called My Back” and Alicia Garza’s #BlackLivesMatter Herstory. Indeed, this shift in the content I teach emerged directly out of my realization, as I reflected on and through my dissertation, that women of color were not centered in my teaching, and needed to be.

I’ve been trying to talk openly with my students about the risks and rewards, what we rhetoricians call the “constraints and affordances,” of teaching on Twitter. As a class about the hashtag, I feel that students need to engage the medium we are reading and writing about. That’s a cultural rhetorics approach: you can’t theorize something if you don’t do it, have never done it. At the same time, my students have a right to privacy and protected data during their education. We write on a private WordPress site and students have the option of using locked or even alternative Twitter accounts; even so, though, any engagement with a public writing platform (compared with our university managed curricular space) is a compromise, one which compels students to share their identities and data with the corporation, even if their immediate audience stays small.

So far, however, I’m pleased with the changes in my teaching. I see all my students participating more, a critical shift away from the white male dominated spaces I used to lead. I see us engaging with women of color in our classroom discussions and our writing, and I’m looking forward to us directing even more of our financial resources in their direction. I see my students and me thinking deeply about what it means to create knowledge ethically, in our conversations, our citation practices, and our writing. I’m excited to share what we find with you as I continue to learn.

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Thoughts on Composing / (A) Composition

You know you’re a writing teacher when you read an awesome article that combines content, form, style and structure to make its point clearly and beautifully and think: I want to put this in a syllabus. Or so it was for me, with Larissa MacFarquhar’s requiem for Aaron Swartz in last week’s New Yorker, which you should read.

But actually, I don’t want to talk about that piece. I just squeezed it in there for kicks; I actually want to begin with a moment in another article from the same magazine issue, a profile on jazz pianist Jason Moran. There is a moment where Moran is teaching a lesson at the New England Conservatory of Music to a student named Chase Morrin.

“How would you play that song another way?” Moran said when [the student] finished.

“Is that rhetorical?” Morrin asked.

“No, it’s not. I want you to do it now.”

Morrin started again, but Moran immediately rebuked him for imitating the style of a famous piano player. “I don’t want to hear that stuff,” he said. “You’re more creative than that. That’s good for him, not for you. I want you to go somewhere else.”

Morrin began playing very fast, almost antically.

“Stop,” Moran said. “Stop. it’s its own rhetoric now. Once you start doing a bunch of arpeggios, it’s like an exercise. In the beginning, you didn’t know where things were going. I want us to maintain that uncertainty. I don’t want to see autopilot. Where I want you to start is, I don’t know. I want a whole lot of I don’t know.”

Then the article moves to Moran’s next lesson.

This moment reminded me of a meeting with my creative writing thesis advisor, my senior year of college. We had been meeting every week or two to talk about my work. For the first month or so, I had been attempting a novel about a student who gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby. But it was bad, and then Juno came out, so I switched to writing short stories, which were better. My advisor wanted twenty pages every week. I would send them and we would meet in his office in the arts building on Wednesdays, which was the only day he was on campus, or sometimes we would get a beer. And I remember once, we were in his office, facing each other each from our own slim couch, the afternoon light falling on us through west-facing windows, and I said something to the effect of, “Inspiration is weird. Where does it come from.”

And instead of really answering me, he told me to read Bob Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles, which had recently been released, that Dylan had a better answer for me than he did. So I went and read Dylan’s book, and listened to the not seminal album, Oh Mercy, around whose recording the book revolves, and smoked cigarettes out of my dorm room window and watched the people walking on the street beneath, knowing they’d never look up. And at some point I went back to my little couch and kept reading and that day or another day found the part where Dylan describes a song as a thing that kind of hovers in front of him, and you can’t get to close to it, and if you try to grab it, it will vanish, so you have to just sort of respect its distance from you, and slowly approach it through writing.

(I looked for the passage just now on Google Books but without much luck. A keyword search for “inspiration” turned up nothing; “in front of” fared slightly better. I found this: “This song is like that. One line brings up another, like when your left food steps forward and your right drags up to it.” But even that’s not quite what I remember. I think it was in pp. 150-200. Maybe you will find it.)

Bob_Dylan_Chronicles,_Volume_1

And I remember the first semester I taught composition full-time, I had one class where everything was just right–the kids where great, the classroom was big, with an A/V hookup. The professor before us taught a class about jazz, and I thought maybe that left us some good vibes in the room. We had a bunch of musicians in that class, music students studying jazz guitar and cello and music composition, and when I assigned the writing-on-writing paper at the end of the term, I said they could write about writing music if they wanted, and some of them did. One girl turned in a bunch of MP3s with songs she’d written, and her essay was all about them–where they came from, what they meant.

It’s funny, a few weeks ago I wrote this post on Jewish-African-American relations, and ever since then I’ve felt this pressure to write the follow-up posts I promised, on all sorts of important topics I detailed in that piece. And in the process of not following up I realized that part of the hang up is that I write about Jewish-Afroamerican relations every day, I just don’t share it with you: because in the novel I am writing, have been writing forever, my Jewish main character moves from a relationship with a black man to one with an Arab woman. But y’all don’t see that book, because that’s the difference (for now, at least) between writing fiction and writing a blog.

On Friday I was working on this scene where my protagonist finds another character dead in her apartment. I’ve written this scene maybe three or four times; I was looking through some old drafts. The funny thing is, all of my drafts from grad school are beginnings. Together they add up to almost the whole novel, but every time I turned pages in, they started at page 1. I remember a professor at grad school telling me to be patient, that you can’t write a whole novel at once, that I had to let the thing unwind. Now, finally, I’ve managed to hide this death til the middle. But it’s taken me five years to learn how.

About Jason Moran, the jazz pianist, the established saxophonist Greg Osby said this: “I could hear the history of the piano in all that he did. He wasn’t like a twenty-one-year-old who wants to play everything he knows all the time. It was not a bombardment. he did all the right things, and more.” Later, Moran gives a student to another lesson, Jiri Nedoma, who is working on an original composition. “‘You have to add an introduction,’ [Moran] said when Nedoma finished. He balled his hands together and opened them as if to reveal something. ‘Unfold the song slowly,’ he said. ‘You can’t show me the whole thing at once.'”

And now my mind flies back to college, to my last March and April there, spent writing a thesis, when I would take my laptop to the reading room in the music library, and face wide windows that looked out into green spring trees. I remember rewriting the same story from the perspective of three different characters, how little details emerged each time, how the friend could see around corners that the aunt couldn’t. Those were the days when I felt like I could be a writer, like there was nothing better I would rather do than sit in a room, looking at the trees, taking real life and making it something greater, something with language and form.

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.

9th Wonder Knows How to Talk to College Kids

9th Wonder at U of M

Two Thursdays ago I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by producer 9th Wonder here at the University of Michigan. While I knew him as the producer behind rap group Little Brother and a co-teacher of the “Sampling Soul” course with Mark Anthony Neal at Duke, the filled auditorium I arrived to attested to his fame as a producer who’d also worked with many of the biggest names in hiphop and R&B.

Two elements of 9th’s talk struck me immediately. Tunes were already playing when we arrived, with what turned out to be 9th Wonder’s Serato projected from his laptop to the screen behind the podium. So the first thing I noticed was how this talk not only incorporated music into its very fabric but also modeled producing as a function of technology and passion both. The other striking element here, evident from the moment 9th began his talk with a discourse on his own sports fan-dom–complete with the confessions that he had to take a spin around the Big House and that he bought a “Buck the Fuckeyes” t-shirt–was his calculated and charismatic approach toward college students. The man knew his audience.

These two pedagogical techniques–modeling and pathos, we might call them–continued through a wonderful talk in which 9th Wonder used the story of his own exposure to music as the narrative backbone for the history of hiphop itself. He compared Motown to Young Money with the qualification that Motown wasn’t “so top heavy,” with Wayne, Nicki and Drake “up here” and everyone else, let’s be honest, down below. He solicitated responses and laughs from the audience, and his remarks were tailored to our contemporary experience of pop culture, with the occasional admonition. In speaking about “Yo! MTV Raps,” the first hiphop-based show on TV, he explained, “If you missed it, that was it.” With the internet, you just go Google the thing. But he seemed nostalgic for those analog days: that scarcity of product “made hiphop live forever, it made music have a longer shelf life. It made us talk to each other. It made us make friends.”

His talk was peppered with music: “This was the first rap song I ever heard.”

Discovering sampling was like “a wormhole.”

The Native Tongues era was “the most progressive moment in hiphop ever,” and Q-tip’s great innovation was to say, “I’m not gonna sample James Brown, I’m gonna sample jazz.”

“This is what I ran into,” 9th explained. “This is what hiphop is.” On the screen behind him, we could see him search through his music collection, pulling out songs with labels like “Workshop Samples” and “Michigan lecture.” He told the story of a kid in the Bronx called Clive Davis throwing a party in 1973 and inventing hiphop by honing in on “the best part of the record, which is also known as the break.” On the screen above us, 9th clicked “Loop,” updating Kool Herc’s technique for the digital age. “And he would chase the break. That’s a loop. Cats would come out and dance–he called it break dancing.”

There was a note of tragedy, sometimes, in the lecture. Sometimes facetious, like when 9th played “Fallin in Love” by Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds and confessed, “That’s probably the one that just hursts the most,” or Debarge’s “Stay with Me”- “They just took the whole shit, man.”

But other times he seemed upset by the implicit purpose of his task, to rehabilitate hiphop’s image from our side of the screen. “Hiphop is bigger than just your radio and TV screen,” 9th said. “There was a time when we had our poets,” like Rakim, but those days have lapsed. “As Black folk,” he lamented, “we tend to give things away.”

In the Q&A session I asked what he teaches when he has a whole semester and as he ran through a syllabus that included “two weeks on just Wu-Tang Clan,” a new framing appeared: “1968-1997, from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the assassination of B.I.G.” That struck me as the greatest tragedy of all–not the corporatization or the musical generations forgotten to time but the easy framing of a movement by the deaths of two great poets, orators, lyricists.

When 9th played a song his head bobbed and the heads of the audience members moved along with him. A student sitting beside me got a flashback glimpse of eager young me with my hand raised, dying to be called on. At the end of his talk, 9th Wonder bolted to attend the rapper buddy back in NC. “He doesn’t know I’m coming,” he called, as he ran up the stairs. “Don’t tweet that.”

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.

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.

Am I Making My Students More Racist?

Sometimes I worry that my course reinscribes racism. My students come in with frequently racist assumptions about how closely the content of rap songs mirror the totality of Black life in America, which come out in our class discussions, and then, these Stereotypes, Misconceptions and Caricatures, just hang there, floating around. Somewhere between Elijah Anderson’s ethnography of North Philly in Code of the Street and James Cone’s exploration of slave theology in The Spirituals and the Blues, the notion that violence is part of the African-American cultural inheritance entered some of my students’ minds.

“Don’t be racist, guys.”

I never say that. Usually the only indication I’ll give if I think a student is wrong is that I’ll ask if anyone else has another opinion on the subject. Ask for additional thoughts enough times and a more subtle, complex notion will emerge from the swirling misconception that constitutes the early moments of many in-class conversations.

Why the patience, TB? How can there be an excuse for letting such comments go unchecked? As I mentioned to my students yesterday (on an unrelated note), there is a method to my madness.

1. The funny thing is, my students LOVE Kanye West. More than one of them has called him “in my opinion, the best rapper and definitely producer of all time.” This is funny because they have never heard Illmatic, Ready to Die, or Paid In Full. They are not joking when they refer to Kanye as gangster or street or to his hard-core urban upbringing. They were toddlers in the ’90s. Meaning, we have a lot of work to do, context-wise.

2. I am anti-censorship. I believe there is value in all of us airing our opinions in the interest of a civil discourse that actually gets us somewhere, moves forward, instead of conversation crippled by political correctness. My presence in the classroom is like the market: guiding discussion forward with the invisible hand of my (not-so) innocent inquisitiveness.

2a. When I’m quoting lyrics that use it, I say the word “nigger.” I hate, I really hate, that horrible hyphenate,  “n-word.” Did anyone see  Zooey Deschanel (in character) use the word “M-Word” on SNL last Saturday to describe the middle finger? That’s how “N-word” makes me feel: like I am participating in ridiculous censorship that is anti-antiracism in its preclusion of a productive conversation about racism. I mean, this is a college classroom. And while not all my students use this word–and I never make anyone, or chastize n-worders–I want my classroom to be a mature, safe enough space that we can quote the lines we’re analyzing. I have a sneaking suspicion that the white folks for whom this word makes them the MOST uncomfortable–all the censors out there who don’t listen to rap but jump down rappers’ throats, Al Sharpton included–are the ones who have this word inside of them, who might use it, maybe who have used it in private, and so they don’t want to hear “nigger” because it freaks them out–not for Black folks’ sake but their own.

2b. On a related note, on a concluding note: I think a teaching platform of anti-racism, anti-censorship and anti-secrets coincide in a classroom space where students feel safe to work out their cognitive kinks out loud. Race is so taboo in this country, for white kids especially, that many of my students seem to be fessing up their sense of America’s racial landscape for the first time. And whatever little closet those opinions and memories lived in before, if it doesn’t get aired out, that’s where racism grows. I’m convinced of it. We’re sweepin’ out the dust mites–and as all you housekeepers know, dusting can get dusty. But then, you know, it gets clean.

…or at least that’s what I tell myself.

POSTSCRIPT. When I was in college, the two standout cross-appointed professors between my home department, Religion, and the African American Studies Program were Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr. (Not a bad lot.) I never studied with Professor West, but I took a seminar with Dr. Glaude my senior spring that laid the foundation of so much of my reading of African-American culture today and was a total inspiration viz. the possibilities of course planning. The course moved from Michael Walzer’s Interpretation and Social Criticism at the beginning to Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual at the end. But then, through the interim, Dr. Glaude deftly wove in texts about the African-American tradition of civil discourse, how it darted in and out of mainstream cultural mores, criticizing dominant trends with two eyes open. As African-Americans said of the so-called New Israel that was the USA, “Pharaoh’s on both sides of these blood-red waters.”

And so, tucked in the middle of the semester, between the poles-not-poles of Walzer and Said, was James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Many times since then have I heard Glaude and West refer to that book and this author. And though upon first read I was too stricken with truth to think much else, I have been struck since then with the great love and strategy of Drs. Glaude and Wests’ appeals to this text from the halls of Princeton, that whitest of institutions, wherein I surely was not the only white student Glaude, West and Baldwin welcomed into his reconciliatory, honest arms. Baldwin writes of the end of his meeting with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad:

It was time to leave, and we stood in the large living room, saying good night, with everything curiously and heavily unresolved….Elijah and I shook hands, and he asked me where I was going. Wherever it was, I would be driven there–“because, when we invite someone here,” he said, “we take the responsibility of protecting him from the white devils until he gets wherever it is he’s going.” I was, in fact, going to have a drink with several white devils on the other side of town. I confess that for a fraction of a second I hesitated to give the address–the kind of address that in Chicago, as in all American cities, identified itself as a white address by virtue of its location. But I did give it, and Elijah and I walked out onto the steps, and one of the young men vanished to get the car. It was very strange to stand with Elijah for those few moments, facing those vivid, violent, so problematical streets….The car arrived–a gleaming, metallic, grossly American blue–and Elijah and I shook hands and said good night once more. He walked into his mansion and shut the door. (78-79)

Groupthink Groupies, Behold the Cipher

I keep hearing about Susan Cain’s new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. For a while I thought this book was called “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” but that’s just the sexy underside of her argument and thus the title her New York Times editor chose for her conveniently timed op-ed from last month.

In an interview, Ms. “Descartes” Cain claims that “in order to know what you really think about something or someone, you need solitude to do it, almost by definition.” As you might have inferred from my hostile tone, I find this preposterous. As a writer, and therefore a person who spends a lot of time typing alone (like right now), I’m intrigued as to why I find Ms. Cain’s claims preposterous. While I definitely have not read and do not plan on reading her book, between the op-ed and some interviews I suspect that my issue is this: while I understand Ms. Cain’s enthusiasm for solitude–indeed, my fiction-writing zone demands total, solitudinous silence–I disagree with her takedown of collaboration as creatively and intellectually unproductive. And I think her invocation of Orwell’s 1984 is ridiculous. Also Eurocentric. But let’s explore.

In my courses we do a lot of small group work. This abundance is a hangover from a summer I spent teaching English in China during college, when the point of every lesson plan was to keep our students jabbering for as long as possible. I was told that a language learner needs to say a new vocabulary word 7 times before she internalizes it. While my current students speak fluent English, they are not fluent in their critical reading, thinking or speaking skills. Class is an opportunity to redirect them to the text, to ask them to use specific language instead of vague pronouns and generalizations, to encourage them to refer to a text’s author instead of claiming, “It says.”

Often during small group work there is a lull: one group after another stops talking, though of course there is always more to talk about. In these silent moments I do my best to stay totally disengaged from my students. I stare into space, or page through my book for key quotes to return to if conversation falters when we come back together as a class. Slowly but surely, someone in one of the groups thinks of something else to say. The students realize they have to keep thinking, that I am not about to interrupt them with my own take on the text. And so more of them pipe in. Soon everyone is talking again, exploring the content of a chapter or analyzing the lyrics of a song.

Against the overlapping sounds of groups ebbing in and out of conversation, I find myself thinking of priming, a psychological concept I learned about as a senior in high school. I remember priming as a cognitive effect by which hearing a certain word–before a memory exam, for example–will increase the likelihood that a subject remembers that particular word later. I also remember reading of an experiment wherein subjects, asked to define an ambiguous word like “Mercury,” tended to vary their answers according to whether they’d been primed with evocations of planets or thermometers.

In high school Psychology class I remember feeling that priming was a kind of cheating, a sort of hypnotic trick wherein subjects did not know they were learning the right answers in advance. But now as a teacher, when I watch conversations sweep through a silent classroom like a brushfire, and I hear similar concepts and page numbers flicker between groups like flames, I do not feel that my students are cheating. Instead, I feel glad that their proximity to one another allows as many of them as possible to experience the spark of recognition at pinpointing an important idea or a telling quote.

Today, the small group work in question was to close read the third chapter title in Tricia Rose’s Black Noise, “Soul Sonic Forces: Technology, Orality and Black Cultural Practice in Rap Music.” As my students revisited this chapter, which they’d read in advance, words and phrases hung in the air: repetition, sampling, Western music, African diaspora, 808s. As conversation lulled, I scanned the chapter myself, looking for concepts my students might have missed. My eyes fell on a quote from Christopher Small describing repetition in African music (which Rose sees regenerated in hiphop):

A call-and-response sequence may go on for several hours, with apparently monotonous repetition of the same short phrase sung by a leader and answered by the chorus, but in fact subtle variations are going on all the time, not only in the melodic lines themselves but also in their relation to the complex cross-rhythms in the accompanying drumming or hand clapping…The repetitions of African music have a function in time which is the reverse of (Western classical) music–to dissolve the past and the future into one eternal present, in which the passing of time is no longer noticed. (qtd in Rose 66-67)

As I read, my students’ voices rose up again around me: first one, then two, until the whole class was talking–that is, dialoguing, arguing, learning, teaching, grappling with evidence. So I listened, glad to be the sole introvert among talkers.

What's wrong with a lil' drum circle? #OWS

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.

“You white bitches,” cont’d.

Yesterday I was surprised and excited to wake up, stumble to my computer with a fresh cup of coffee, and discover that dream hampton had begun tweeting about Zora Neale Hurston and all of Black Twitter was abuzz with personal-intellectual musings about the author, her wisdom and her work.

In under an hour, hampton was in conversation with Black intellectuals across the country like Mark Anthony Neal, Toure, and Imani Perry, not to mention the dozens or maybe hundreds of regular Black readers “testifying in my mentions right now,” as hampton put it, about Hurston’s life and work–sending facts, quotations, pictures and articles, many of which hampton dutifully retweeted, even as she headed to her grandmother’s funeral. Around noon Imani Perry tweeted, “Reading #ZoraNealeHurston tweets reminding why it is important to be here on twitter, for the creative potential of digital communication.”

Like Things Fall Apart, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was another book I dismissed in high school, then read again in graduate school only to be stunned by and disappointed in my younger self.  Despite being a writer now,  I was a dense reader in high school. I tended to get wrapped up in plots and only looked for the deeper stuff with some academic prodding. My unfair impulse is to blame my teachers for not telling me why these books were significant– “Hey, this book is about colonialism, pay attention”; “Hey, look, African American spoken vernaculars, look what dialogue can do, pay attention”–but some combination of my teachers’ politically correct unwillingness to explain why a particular book was important and my own bad attitude conspired to keep me in the dark.

I try to explain my intellectual position (to myself as well as curious others) as that I am a student of Black culture. As I readily confess to my own students, I’m no expert in hiphop, Black letters, or Afrodiasporic literature. But I’m reading as much as I can. Teaching and blogging are helping me do that; so is my Twitter feed, which (with its spread of rappers, Black intellectuals and African American news sources like the Root and the Griot) is as misleading a marker of my racial identity as my course information or my name.

Around 11:45 yesterday, hampton tweeted (after a comment [now missing from her timeline] on Zora’s “radical…privileging of ‘black talk'”)

One of my conflicts with writing Decoded was contributing to this growing idea that hip hop can be canonized in books, that books abt it +

may come to be more important that [sic] rap itself. It’s a continuing of privileging culture w/written texts over those whose impt texts are oral

Zora occupied language. She occupied the front porchers [sic] of storytellers. She was a listener. She privileged our oral traditions.

I’ll say it bluntly, and as neurotically and confessionally as I feel it: When I tell my students that we’re braving new intellectual territory together, when I invite them on a journey in the production of knowledge, when I write in my teaching philosophy that one of the reasons I love teaching hiphop studies is that students can create genuinely new, original scholarship when they apply published texts to a just-dropped single–am I just making excuses for a white academic’s co-opt of hiphop? Am I just forging space for whiteys like me to be able to participate via writing in a discourse which on a purely oral level is mostly closed to me? And what does it mean for us linguistic outsiders that Zora Neale Hurston wrote black dialect in the first place? Isn’t her foray into the written an invitation for us other writers to write back? Or isn’t it?

I don’t teach an explicitly anti-racist agenda in my classroom. I never bring up #OWS despite the e-mails urging me to stage a teach-in, and I don’t talk about my love and admiration for President Barack Obama even when I show Byron Hurt’s “Barack and Curtis” in class. But I have found, in teaching hiphop studies to largely white Michiganders, that dwelling with this material in an academic setting forces them to challenge sloppy language and generalizations, like calling people or places “ghetto” or conflating the words “poor,” “black,” or “inner-city”; and allows them language to talk about, for example, the poor, black inner-city that they roll their windows up when they drive through, or the policies of racial profiling from their policemen they see when those black neighbors drive through their white towns. And I hope that they are learning that these neighbors are not voiceless or devoid of culture–far to the contrary, they (with a diverse cohort of coconspirators) have created this movement we espouse called hiphop culture which draws on a rich tradition of African-American musical forms and has brought us DJing, graffiti, the emcee, and Kanye’s shutter glasses–which a student confessed she was dismayed to see her 10-year old sister coveting in a suburban Michigan mall.

“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.

“Really?”

“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.