Whither My Blogging Habit

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placard at Sunnyvale’s Baylands Park, pictured below

Last night, as I lay falling asleep, I had this crazy notion that I needed to start blogging again, like, right now, like, at least tomorrow, because if I put it off until Monday, it wouldn’t happen, and my beautiful blog would just keep sitting here, unused, embarrassing me with its aging.

Yes, it’s been since August. You know the feeling when you’ve been meaning to call someone, and the longer you put it off, the more ashamed you feel at how long it’s been, and the less likely you are every day to call, until that person sees you’re in their city on Facebook and THEY call YOU? Or, like, you just stop being friends with them?

Continue reading

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On Ethos (or, White Woman Writing Kanye West)

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

Grades, Schmades

Last week I started to have this funny feeling, a feeling I had never had before. My students were e-mailing each other the first drafts of their Unit 1 Blog Posts, and I was reading with such glee how much this whole literacy-based inquiry had captured their interest. Every Single One of them engaged their personal literacies in the service of some kind of argument about what literacy means or how we teach reading and writing today. Every Single One of them challenged a traditional portrait of literacy that only values alphabetic, academic reading and writing. That is to say, every single on of them did, to some extent, what I asked them to do on their assignment sheet, and what I really wanted them to do. They engaged.

Zen, Motorcycle Maintenance, and a Crashed Crop Duster in the Background

Zen, Motorcycle Maintenance, and a Crashed Crop Duster in the Background

And for the first time ever I had this crazy little feeling like, I didn’t want to give them grades. Continue reading

I spent 900 days in TA orientation and All I Got Was This Lousy Blog Post Idea

Q: Why, oh, why do we blog?
A: So that the Internet will remember all the ephemera that otherwise get written in notebooks, lovingly stored and transported around the country with every move, and never opened again!

Here is what I learned in six days of TA orientation. Continue reading

Rapping About Rapping: Remembering Writing Studies

via BedfordStMartins.com

via BedfordStMartins.com

A month from today I will leave the house I share with my partner in Sunnyvale and I will fly from San Jose to Chicago to spend two days catching up with family and friends. On the 11th, I will pick up my UHaul and drive it to Michigan, collect my belongings from my boyfriend’s basement in Ann Arbor, hitch my much-missed Honda Civic to the back of the truck, and drive along the great lakes to Syracuse. TA orientation starts on August 14.  Continue reading

Is Beyonce the Trillest Feminist Ever, or Whatever? An Annotated Bibliography

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click the pic to listen to “Bow Down” at Huffpost.com

Beyonce’s inauguration performance, half-time show, and the recent release of her new single “Bow Down” have provided grist for the production of an enormous amount of writing.

Or, to use another metaphor:

Beyonce’s inauguration performance, half-time show, and the recent release of her new single “Bow Down” not only made waves, they have left a wake of scholarship and criticism behind them.

joan morgan beyonce tweet

As the whole country, and certainly the popular media, have accepted Beyonce’s Napoleonic christening of herself as “Queen Bey,” these last three Beyonce experiences have spawned conversations about whether Bey is a feminist, post-feminist, capitalist feminist, black, black enough, the Queen of Pop, ratchet, anti-feminist, and so on. A few days ago she released “Bow Down,” which commands the listener, “Bow down bitches, bow down bitches.” You know. ‘Cause she’s the queen. And you ain’t.

If I have any argument to make in this post, it’s that Beyonce knows she can say whatever she wants and the whole country will flip their shit about it. Whatever her use of “bitch” signifies about feminism, post-feminism, or anti-feminism, the one certainty here is that Beyonce used it on purpose and knew it would problematize our picture of her as a Michelle-Obama-hugging-post-racial-feminist. Because Beyonce has her image on lock.

Mostly what I want to do here is simply marvel at the size and scope of the cultural conversations generated by this song, that halftime performance, that inauguration lipsync and non-apologetic press conference. As pop culture scholars, we should be thanking her for pushing the envelope, rocking our boats, giving us something to type about. And here I defer to my colleagues and offer a selection of rockin’ readings about Queen Bey, listed in order of how much they fascinate me, though all are fascinating. (I didn’t find boring links for y’all!)

Ok, here we go:

Maco L. Faniel contextualizes Beyonce’s “Bow Down”  in southern rap history and aesthetics (Maco L. Faniel Blogs)

Mark Bittman eviscerates Beyonce for her PepsiCo endorsement deal (fascinating for Beyonce’s cultural saturation, even into the food column – The New York Times, “Why Do Stars Think It’s O.K. to Sell Soda?”) (I also wrote about that post before)

Rahiel Tesfamariam and Joan Morgan sound off on Twitter about “Bow Down’s” use of “bitch” (check out their whole feeds from 3/20 and 3/21)

RN Bradley considers “Bow Down” as a flirtation with the ratchet (Red Clay Scholar)

Avidly examines the masks of Beyonce’s face, at the Superbowl and in the more distant past (Avidly, “On Beyonce’s Face”)

Guthrie Ramsey argues that the scandal over Beyonce’s inauguration lipsync is part of a historical American obsession with authenticity (Dr. Guy’s Musiqology, “Beyond Beyonce Gate: Looking for the American Authentic”)

Anne Helen Petersen decodes Beyonce’s Tumblr and then argues for Bey’s ambivalent relationship to feminism (ok, these could be at the top of the list, but I link to Petersen all the time, so read those other great scholars first- Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style, “Decoding Beyonce’s Tumblr”)

GQ’s cover story on Beyonce has no philosophical problem sexifying and celebrating Bey simultaneously (interesting mainly for the sexy pics and the philosophical problems raised, but not acknowledged- GQ, “Miss Millenium”)

David J. Leonard thinks haters on the Halftime Show are enforcing a “politics of civility” (NewBlackMan, “Beyoncé, The Super Bowl and the Politics of “Civility””

In the wake of the Super Bowl, Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak christens Beyonce the King of Pop (Gawker, “Beyonce Knowles is the King of Pop”)

Ann Powers argues that Beyonce’s Super Bowl show is kind of the apex of black American female pop performances (NPR, “The Roots of Beyonce’s Super Bowl Spectacular”)

Sophie Wiener suggests that Beyonce is probably, but not neccessarily, a feminist (The Atlantic, “Is Beyonce a Feminist?”)

and, just for fun:

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.

[Movie Review] Django Unremarkable

django

Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, begins “somewhere in Texas, 1858.” A quirky German dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) stops a traveling band of slave traders to buy Django (Jamie Foxx). Turns out Schultz is a bounty hunter, and Django can identify a troupe of three brothers with bounties on their heads. After Django turns out to be a natural at shooting people, Schultz offers him a bargain: work with him through the winter for a third of their return, and at the end Schultz will go with Django to Mississippi to help find his wife, Broomhilda, who’s been sold to a notorious plantation there.

To recount the film’s underdeveloped themes would be an exercise in extension, not exegesis. The obvious themes of racism and revenge, culled from a vague sense of American history, are more relied on than created by the writing. The innovation of bringing a German into the foray–who can profess surprise at America’s “peculiar institution” while still profiting from it, by refusing to release Django immediately–was flimsy, and seemed some kind of subconscious apologia for the depiction of Germans in Inglorious Basterds. While nineteenth century Germany had colonialist and racist baggage of its own, Dr. Schultz anachronistically marvels at American racism even as he profits from it.

Indeed, much has already been made of the film’s trafficking in unsurprising racial stereotypes. Django’s limited dialogue for the bulk of the movie seems based on the notion that a slave only begins acquiring knowledge the moment he is released from bondage. Early exchanges between Django and Schultz are like a tired interrogation. “Could you recognize them?” “Yes.” “Do you know what a bounty hunter is?” “No.”

My problem with this kind of exchange is creative first, and only political second. By denying Django knowledge and agency, Tarantino denies his film a dynamic character. And by having Schultz constantly (and correctly) assume Django is dumb, the dialogue gets djumbed down not just for the freedman Django but for this tired audience member as well–I came prepared for rapid-fire dialogue about politics and culture and violence and loyalty, not a dozen tired lines wasted on “Do you know what a bounty hunter is?”

As the thematically underdeveloped dialogue washed over the theater, I tried to remember what I usually love about Tarantino’s movies, what about them makes me laugh, squirm, and gasp (in awe and in disgust) all at once.  Here’s what I came up with (and I’m interested to hear if you have other reasons for QT fan-dom):

1. Witty, culturally suprising dialogue between multiple clashing characters with opposing views and divergent ways of speaking and being (i.e., the opening scenes of both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, in which groups of gangsters talk animatedly about Madonna and Big Macs, respectively);

2) The alternating normalization through dialogue and fetishization through violence of counter- or sub-cultural members of society (i.e., how that opening scene casual banter in Pulp Fiction is followed by another scene where the same characters perform highly stylized violence in a drab apartment populated by low level frat-boy drug dealers);

3) The potentially explosive agency of multiple armed and verbose characters at cross-purposes–I’m thinking here of climaxes in other films: Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo finally reckoning with her ex-husband Bill at the end of Kill Bill 2, when she’s spent two films trying to kill him, or the awesome scene near the end of Pulp Fiction when Samuel Jackson’s Jules has to talk down a couple of armed lovers trying to rob a diner during breakfast.

kill bill 2

4) The above all contribute to Tarantino’s trademark, the surprising timing and juxtaposition of violence, comedy, and drama–I will never forget laughing out loud when Jules and Vincent Vega accidentally shoot a hostage in the back of their car–“You shot Marvin!”–and then wondering how a murder could possibly have made me laugh.

5) Finally, there’s the visual spectacle of ninja-like warriors displaced into foreign cultural milieu: Vincent Vega dancing at a L.A. 50’s themed bar, Uma Thurman in a yellow track suit with a samurai sword in the snow, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) in the film projection room with designs to kill Hitler.

Always outlaws, Tarantino’s characters maintain the samurai’s code of violence and honor within the modern underworlds in which they operate. As such, the decision to make a Western about bounty hunters in the antebellum south is ambitious, but fitting for Tarantino’s sensibilities. Many Westerns begin, as Django Unchained does, “somewhere in Texas” before the start of the Civil War. While the traditional Western stays there, pushing the frontier, the law, and notions of morality and whiteness Westward, Tarantino’s main cultural innovation in his new film is to turn his protagonists back east. As they ride (incredibly quickly) from Texas to Tennessee, dragging the slave Django back into a land of laws which enslave black bodies like his, Tarantino reminds us that the old Westerns promote a nostalgia for the racist laws the frontier pushed west.

Yes, what is missing from this film isthe sense of  surprise that characterizes all of my list items above. Django ain’t surprising. The film’s main refrain–echoed by Jamie Foxx in promotional press–is how fun it is for a slave to kill white people. Oh, bore me some more. Revenge fantasies are fine–Tarantino’s made his name on them–but at least dress it up with some creativity.  The new film’s mild racism and its poor writing are related: think of Inglorious Basterds,  where the titular Basterds are a troupe of Jewish-American soldiers (including one called the Bear Jew) who hunt Nazis for scalps and carve swastikas on survivors’ foreheads. That’s an explicitly anti-racist take on WWII where Jews are recast from sniveling paupers to strong warriors, and where violence is vindictive but also creative and funny by drawing on counter-racist tropes of Jews as gold-wearing guidos and baseball successes. If I make one political speculation here it’s this: in Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino and his producers show far more concern for celebrating Jewish strength and independence–and explicitly avoiding the depiction of their pain–than they do for African-Americans in Django Unchained. In this new film, black bodies are routinely brutalized on screen and there are only two black characters with real lines, both men, and only one a hero. No troupe of revisionist black heroes here: most of the slaves in the film are silent: literally dumb. It’s as though faced with the enormous thematic universe of American slavery and plantations and bodies-for-cash, Tarantino thought he didn’t have to do any interpretive work himself. The white people are either evil and racist, or conflicted and complacent; the slaves are stupid, angry, or race traitors.

The Western turned eastward is the film’s only surprise, Leonardo Dicaprio’s Monsieur Candie its only outstanding performer– and it’s a testament to DiCaprio’s skill that he could fashion such an outstanding villain out of the tired trappings of slaveholder’s apologia. Confusing structure, underdeveloped themes, reliance on assumption. Some laughs, interesting visuals. Grade: Blech.

“She is Obi wan Kenobi teaching Luke the force” – my student’s awesome rap about our class

It only took one semester for my students to point out you oughtn’t teach a writing class on rap without at least some time teaching the writing of raps! So, near the end of every semester, we crank a beat, brainstorm rhyming words, and see if we can fill our 16 bars. And then perform! One of my freshman students dropped such hot and complimentary fire that I couldn’t resist reproducing it here…

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Oh when I fall, I all fall down

It’s usually because I tripped on my frown

Don’t clown around with Tessa Brown

She knows the difference between nouns and pronouns

She can teach you how to cite a source

She can teach you how to write a course

She is Obi won Kenobi teaching Luke the force

Actually fuck Star Wars, we want Style Wars!

Kanye, I’mma let you finish but let me say

That Matt M. is one of the best of today

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

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

LESSON PLAN

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

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

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

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

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

6. Paper 1 assignment

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dali’s “Metamorphosis of Narcissus”

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

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

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.

Putting my rhymes where my teach is

At the end of last semester, some of my students expressed chagrin that a writing class about rap never asked or taught them to write raps. So at the beginning of this semester I slotted a day for “Writing Raps?”–question mark and all, because that ish makes me nervous–and today I finally had to face the music. Literally.

We started off by talking about what Jay-Z describes in his book Decoded as the two kinds of beats in rap–the constant, foundational musical beat, and the variable meter of the rhymes–that is, a rapper’s flow. I explained that rap songs generally have four beats per line. Older raps usually have around 8 syllables per line, while newer lyrics have closer to 16–double time!

We talked about end rhyme, internal rhyme, and figurative language, then brainstormed some potential subject matter: why I’m great, why you suck, school, my hometown, money and material goods, fantasy, what I did today, random anecdotes, personal struggles.

Then we read the first verse of “We Don’t Care” aloud to, you know, get in the groove. We decided the beat we’d work on was the track from “All Falls Down.” The hook is on there, which is a nice thematic jumping-off point, too. And then–we were off. I suggested folks try to build units of 2, 4, or 8 lines, with the ultimate goal being (of course) 16 bars! To show solidarity, I promised I’d write and perform some verses with them, too.

At the end of class, about 6 people performed. So great! My favorite rhyme was from a girl spitting about her chemistry exam: she rhymed “Boyle’s theory” with “Can you hear me?” Ever the storyteller, I delivered 16 bars about my leaky travel mug.

note: not my actual mug.

Man I promise, I’m so damn tired

Woke up this morning ‘fraid I got fired!

Like my contract expired, air from my tires

Gone to the moon, asleep in my room.

Woke up, got up, make some coffee

It’s my new best friend, named Mr. Coffee

Not that hazelnut toffee, it’s the realest shit

Pour it in my travel mug and seal that bitch

Then I’m ready to go, till I see it drippin

Damn Mr. Coffee, I’m like, You been trippin?

Like my day been clipped, like my coffee mug is shit!

How’m I gonna drink this when the top don’t fit?

Right, that’s right, the top ain’t tight.

The seal’s too loose so the juice take flight.

Now I gotta go to class with these stains on my pants.

Should I go home and change them? I can’t take the chance.