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.

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Confessions of a White Girl Neither Stopped nor Frisked

I’ll make this brief, because the point is brief and I’m nervous putting this out there. This morning I read this NYTimes blog post “In Subway, Activist Records Stop-and-Frisk He Says Proves Its Dark Side” which refers to the video, above (which you should watch). Stop-and-Frisk has come into broad national attention lately, with the wonderful opposition march in New York on Father’s Day. Who knows why now is the time. Perhaps Trayvon Martin’s death–and Geraldo Rivera’s response?–reignited our attention to how black bodies in hoodies are stamped with a criminal suspicion the moment they leave the house.

I don’t have that body. Police don’t stop me on the street to harass me. A few times, walking home at night in my parents’ bar-heavy neighborhood in Chicago, police have stopped to make sure I’m okay.

But more importantly, police have stopped me smoking marijuana in public in Chicago, and I was not frisked, not harassed, and never, ever arrested. The Chicago Reader reports that “marijuana is believed to be used at similar rates across racial groups, yet African-Americans account for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those convicted, and 92 percent of those jailed for low-level possession in Chicago” (Dumke and Joravsky, “How Chicago Said Yes to Pot”). I tell you my side of the story because white kids who get away with possessing pot are the invisible flip side of the injustice of criminalized marijuana. Put in other words–and in the light of the Reader’s statistics–young people of all races are getting high, but nearly only African-Americans–78% of arrests! 92% jail time!–are effectively criminalized by this criminal activity.

Marching on Fathers’ Day to end Stop-And-Frisk, NYC, 2012

I remember smoking a joint in a park in what must have been the summer of 2005, when the police approached my friend and I. Caught red-handed. We put it out but the two cops saw the dead roach on the ground and picked it up. “Do you have any more?” one of them asked. “Don’t lie.”

“No,” I said.

“Let me search your bag,” he told me. I handed him my purse and, lo and behold, I’d been lying. He dumped what was left of my pathetic stash on the ground and crushed it under his shoe. “I told you not to lie,” he said. “Now I have to give you a ticket.” And he wrote me a $35 ticket for being in a city park after closing time.

If we had been black males, I have no doubt my friend and I would have been taken to jail that night. Lots of white kids smoke pot, and lots of their criminalized behavior gets noticed by the police. The difference is, we don’t get arrested for it, we don’t get put in jail, it never goes on our records. And, because Stop-and-Frisk is a racialized agenda, white kids carrying drugs (but smart enough to keep them behind closed doors) never get randomly policed and caught for possession–only people of color do.

The Reader reports that Chicago’s new marijuana law allows ticketing but doesn’t prohibit arrests.

[Roosevelt professor Kane-Willis] says she thinks the fines are too high for the poor young men most likely to be ticketed, and she worries that police won’t have any reason to stop making arrests. “My concern is that there’s no incentive to ticket,” she says. “The worst case, we end up with the tickets and the arrests. Best case: we end up moving to tickets and do something about the racial gap.”

One convoluted silver lining I see in this? Maybe, faced with budget crises, the police will take the opportunity to really ticket everyone who gets caught riding high in the Chi. And who knows what political forces will be awakened when white teens come home with $250 tickets for smoking doobies in the city’s public parks?