Michael: Hi, I'm Michael Burns, and I'll be introducing this conversation track.
[fade into Lamar's "Alright" and then fade out]
Michael: On our first track, we play a clip of Kendrick Lamar's "Alright," a song that has become a Black Lives Matter anthem, chanted at protests across the country. We start with Lamar's "Alright" because all four of us taught with the song or with Lamar's (2015) To Pimp a Butterfly. Our conversation starts with Yanira. She is responding to Tim, who earlier in the conversation described the way that his students responded to Kendrick Lamar through their classroom discussion and assignments. In particular, he talks about how they gave him the response that he wanted. The conversation moves to discuss embodiment, with myself and Tim adding in our experiences of teaching about race and with hip-hop in the classroom.
Yanira: So, I want the students to take me out of it, but in a different way. I was thinking a lot about the presumed expertise, maybe, that students attribute to a person of color teaching about racism in a way that ends up discrediting the teacher. So you [Tim] had students trying to do what you wanted out of the assignment, and I had students straight up resisting the assignment. As I mentioned in my reflection, my more generous read about it was that we need to do more work to contextualize sound and music as potential sites of analysis. So that was my more generous read. My less generous read is that there's a resistance here to the actual content and what is challenging in terms of race and issues of racism. And so, I sort of wanted students to write me out too, but from a different place. And in a place that didn't erase me, though, in the classroom, but from a different place where they didn't delegitimize the content based on the fact that they saw me as presumably an expert and presumably too invested in it to be objective about it. And I don't even want to use the word objective—you know, objectivity is…
[note: You may hear sounds of a very young scholar, Yanira's son Cheo-Luz, contributing throughout this conversation, but we don't transcribe his contributions throughout.]
Yanira: Yeah, credible, but not necessarily a truth. You know? And so… this was an issue that came up, and I really wanted to hear from all of you because my response is not that you then try to present this as more objective. But then what do you do? And so what I was doing was associating this with Adam Banks's (2006) theory of access, and thinking, Oh, this also happens with content. For certain teachers, transformational access has to relate to content, because sometimes we want to teach a certain content, and we don't really have access to it in a way that students would be receptive to it, because they're looking at the body, they're thinking the body is overly invested in these questions, and so there's a rejection of the content. I'm not sure if this came up for…
Michael: I should say "yes" out loud instead of just nodding in affirmation. [laughing]
Tim: Yeah, you gotta jump in with both feet and both hands.
Yanira: And I'm interested in your classroom, Michael, because you're teaching seniors, right? So I wonder if it's a little different when you're teaching seniors and they've read more in the field, or…
Michael: Yeah, I don't know. It's a weird situation at West Chester. So the one time I ran that African American Rhetorics course as a seminar… The way they do the scheduling is that there are a whole bunch of these seminars that are on offer, and it's kind of political as to who gets the time slots that are going to be more appealing in terms of enrollment, right? And it just so happened that that year, I'm the new guy, and so they put me in a time slot that's appealing. So the folks that sign up aren't even necessarily signing up to the course because of the topic. They're signing up because it fulfills a requirement in a time slot that fits the rest of their schedule. That is not to say that everybody wasn't, right? 'Cause there were a handful of kids who showed up because of the content, but there's also some folks who, you know, need the time slot. So that made it weird already. And there's definitely kids that are invested, that come in posing the question about what is this and what does it mean? Totally receptive and totally willing to take on whatever kind of work we do early on with the sociolinguistic aspects, and with the history of language acquisition, and with the history of Black English and language politics. And then totally embrace this Afrocentric approach to using a different theoretical framework to look at these texts.
[While you may hear sounds of a very young scholar, Yanira's son Cheo-Luz, contributing throughout this conversation, we decided not to transcribe all of his contributions to this conversation.]
But then there are some that are like, "Yo, this is hogwash," you know? And I don't know how to challenge that. I don't even know if I have the energy to challenge that. I don't even know if it's [sigh] … I don't want to say my place, you know? But… just like I told Tim, like… "Go get yo' boy." This is where white privilege, and whiteness as a particular positionality, can do work in terms of challenging some of those attitudes, right? Like you say, Yanira, sometimes if it just comes out, if the idea comes out of this mouth that's attached to this particular body, then it's already deemed invalid.
Tim: Yeah, I'm thinking too about Ben. I know, you and I, we get checked up in our evals about "Why does this whole thing have to be about race?" But it's not to the level, obviously, that Yanira and Michael do. And I think what's interesting is that part of the white body at the front of the classroom… that I'm seeing through the ways students reacted to Ben's and my approach, versus Yanira's and Michael's, is that, when there's a white body in the classroom it seems to be easier for students to buy in by treating it as a merely academic exercise, right? So, like my students ended up dodging some of the deepest work by just kind of writing—like a lot of them just said, okay I'll write as if this essay is to an audience that doesn't like hip-hop and I'm just trying to show them that Kendrick's alright, right? That Kendrick's different from the rest.
And that emerged out of a moment of confusion when we were discussing the assignment sheet, and I was like, "Put it like this: This is why there's different audiences. Has anybody read the Source magazine?" And nobody had. So I was like, "Put it like this: If there's a crew that listens to hip-hop on the daily they want to hear something different about the album than if there's a person that's completely shut off to hip-hop because they think they hate it, for whatever reason. So, imagine the people in your life, and try to write something that will enliven them to let them see that they need to hear this message for some reason or another." And then they turned that into—many of them, too many of them—turned it into a merely academic exercise, to put it in its place. And it makes me think of the white habitus that we've been thinking about, Michael, in some of our other work. The white habitus says, okay if we're gonna deal with diverse texts, we'll keep them in their place by dissecting them as a merely academic exercise, done at certain times, in certain places, completely balkanized.
Tim: Yeah, exactly. So when white dudes do it, they're like, "Alright. This is the saw that this cat's riding on, so I'm alright with that and so I'll just minimize it by making it just academic." Whereas your bodies read as political already, so that's an impossible response. So what does whiteness do there? It's just outright rejection. Dig the heels in 'cause there's nowhere to slip out.
[Lamar's "Alright" to fade]
2. Did We Move?
Ben: This is track two, and you're listening to The Coup's (2012) "Strange Arithmetic," a song that Yanira used to open up her class. Instead of maintaining an unjust status quo, making students into victims, The Coup calls on teachers to tell us how to "flip this system."
In this track, we use our experiences teaching with hip-hop to theorize about the place of hip-hop as content and/or theory in a composition classroom. Yanira opens with questions that give the track its title, "Did we move a bit?" In other words, did teaching with these sounds make space for our students to understand such political music as credible content in the writing classroom? Michael jumps in with a "yes," talking about the surprise many students have when they encounter hip-hop in a political vein, or even re-listen to mainstream hip-hop using an Afrocentric rhetorical lens. This leads me to reflect about the importance of how we frame hip-hop as a text in the class and leads to a discussion about how we engage different levels of listening that students will often bring into the classroom.
[The Coup's "Strange Arithmetic" continues to play and then fades out]
Yanira: I'll put this to all of you: Did teaching with sound, or teaching with To Pimp a Butterfly, with hip-hop… Michael, with the songs you picked, the Lauryn Hill… do you feel that… in terms of the outcome of the course, did that create more of a space for this kind of material or this kind of content to keep being taught in the classroom in terms of the reception? Did we move a little bit? Do any of you feel that we moved a little bit… where you had students feeling like, oh, okay I could see another class like this happening with this kind of content?
Michael: Oh, for sure. And I think, the mainstream orientation to hip-hop music in particular is all through the commercial vein, right? There's no ready access to hip-hop that's engaging in political work unless you know where to go. If you're not looking for it, you're not going to find it. And that's intentionally so. So they're… surprised… that there's this orientation, that there's another… space for content, another space for political identifications and resistance that exists within that form, that they don't get if they're only listening to—I don't want to name names, but, commercial radio.
And then what happens… so I mentioned the Childish Gambino, right? So this kid loves Donald Glover and is listening to Childish Gambino, but he's listening to it from a Eurocentric orientation; he's listening to it from a commercial perspective. He goes back and reads it… through the Kawaida perspective, and he's saying, "Oh, wait a minute! There's something else that's going on," right? So he's starting to see that the… theoretical lens changes and therefore even the text itself takes on different meaning, and he can see that there's some political efficacy even in this stuff that may be deemed as commercial at first glance, right? So… it could be my delivery, it could be the way I present it, that makes them receptive to it.
But the whole thing… like we have these particular rhetorical traditions that we're beholden to, that emanate out of this Eurocentric trajectory, for better or for worse, as not arbitrary but political. And also there's no… other than the fact that there's a power play at work, there's really no good reason this stuff is what's on the plate most of the time, right? It just so happens that that's the stuff that got picked up and got carried on. So they start to see that, "Okay, wait a minute. You mean that there are other rhetorical traditions that have other values and have other priorities that then facilitate a completely different understanding of the text?" And so, I don't even think that it matters necessarily that it's African to them, sometimes, just that it's different, and they understand that there are implications to the theoretical perspectives. If it winds up giving them more perspective to Black culture and to hip-hop culture in particular, then that's cool, too. So that they recognize that there's always something political with the language practices, and even the way we start to understand and interpret them. Or the theory that we use, too, and that's productive as well.
Ben: That's one of the things, Michael, I really appreciated about your assignment, was how clearly you lay out African rhetorical practice… and so their analysis is guided in this way. And I was thinking a little bit about Tim's assignment, where it seems to be more about… using To Pimp a Butterfly as theory, as a text that's on the same level as any other text we use in the classroom. And then I was thinking about when I had framed in my class… my class was around political rhetoric using To Pimp a Butterfly for a week as one of the texts we were looking at as a piece of disruptive political rhetoric. But… I had some white students in the class… like one, for example was always running, she said, to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, like that was her running album… And what I could read from her politically was that, I don't think she was really in line… either politically or culturally with To Pimp a Butterfly. But it was, like, different than a text you would read, right? When you're reading a text… if you don't agree with the message of it, then you just drop it, right? But if you're listening to something that has lyrics and sound, you can be into it without being into the message or even knowing what the message of it is.
So I had some students that were kind of like into the music, but weren't really clued into what the message of the music was. But then putting the frame of, like we're going to look at disruptive political practice… and so then they had to read these songs in a different way. And so for some students, they were reading songs that they already liked in this one way, but didn't understand in this other way. And so thinking about that… maybe part of what I'm thinking about is the power of, how do you frame the use of hip-hop, or of sound, music as text in a classroom? And how that determines what students end up getting out of it, in a way is going to be different than a text they will read.
Michael: Yeah. You make me think, too, of the distinction between consuming it and listening as a critical practice, right? The student you describe is just engaged in an act of consumption. So she's hearing it, but she's not listening to it. And I think that's a practice for… a lot of the music, especially hip-hop, right? Like you talk about divesting from… like there's a particular emotional and pathetic response to it. But the critical engagement is not there, in terms of… God forbid if they actually listen to the lyrics of some of this shit [laughs] … the industry would shut down, you know? Like mainstream radio would totally shut down if people really listened to the words. I think! I don't know! I would like to think that that's the case. Like it's just a matter of how the listeners are engaging, how they're positioned… there's no agency in the act of listening. There's a passivity and a consumption which gets to the point of capitalism, right? Like there's a consumerist, capitalist attitude in terms of the way they drink up or imbibe or consume the music, as opposed to it always already being positioned as… in the cipher, so that they, as listeners are also critics, and positioned to respond to it actively, right?
Tim: Right. What can I make with this? How do I respond?
Tim: I'm called to respond.
[The Coup's "Strange Arithmetic" on outro]
3. Avoiding Multiculturalism
Yanira: Yanira here. The intro song for this track is Ms. Lauryn Hill's (2014) "Black Rage (Sketch)." Michael describes the song in his reflection, noting how it demonstrates the terms of Maulana Karenga's (2003) African rhetorical practice, with its rhetoric of possibility, reaffirmation, rhetoric of community, and rhetoric of resistance. In this track, Michael and I go back and forth about how to avoid a multicultural approach, one that is described in some detail in Ben's reflection through the work of Vijay Prashad (2014). This connects to other tracks where Tim begins a conversation around avoiding comfortable, schooled responses to race and racism.
[Ms. Lauryn Hill's "Black Rage (Sketch)" continues to play and then fades out]
Yanira: So I left with this question: Do I teach a class where I'm trying to teach about racism and not say the class is about racism? Because that's an issue in itself.… I was left thinking, in what ways does hip-hop or soundwriting then become a dance around the actual thing that you want to… and the danger of not just saying, this is a class about race and racism in the U.S., and then we can use these tools to talk about that, too.… And there's a tension there, right?… The two things are that they either going to shut down because you're being really direct about the thing, but if you're not then there's going to be this possibility of… So, one thing about your course, Michael, you're grounding it in Geneva Smitherman's (1977, 2000) work, and I'm thinking that is so powerful. Because I did pieces like Sherman Alexie's (1997/2012) piece, Gloria Anzaldúa's (1987) piece, June Jordan (1985/2002), and because those pieces allow for like more of that multicultural approach to texts that allowed students to write themselves in relation to these issues in a way that was more comfortable. And so I was left thinking, really a lot, about what does it mean to teach with hip-hop about race and racism and justice without really foregrounding that. Which I thought, Michael… the text you used to frame the class did a little bit more of that, in some ways.
Michael: Yeah. The language… foundational stuff helps a lot, you know…. There's… and I guess I should be used to this by now, but you know… this notion of Black people speaking broken English is still a pretty prevalent idea even among senior-level English majors, right? So to kind of deconstruct that, and be like, "Well, actually, no. It's systematic, and… actually there are particular… historical and social factors that lead to the language being constructed the way it is." And like, kind of getting into it a little bit like… I think it's really good fruit for those kids.… It starts to… make it apparent that there's something else that going on here… that the language is so distinct reinforces the idea that the culture is also distinct, and that's there's really some different ways that Black folks and people of African descent and people of European descent have been enculturated into American society. And from there, then, it's a little bit easier to say… that just because there is a difference at a cultural level doesn't necessarily mean that one is really better than another.
So then where does the power come into play? Then why is there still a difference, then? Or why is it that the one or two Black kids in the class who do speak Black English have been… made to feel like shit because of the way they talk? Or they're denied their cultural background. Or they're denied their history… they're denied their home language, right? So in that way, it's really productive. To connect it to hip-hop then, I think hopefully gives them some historical context for why the music is the way it is and why it does what it does. But at the same time, back to the earlier point, what's flowing in the mainstream… and really, the practices of actually engaging those mainstream texts, or consuming that mainstream music… facilitates the multiculturalist stuff that you were talking about, right?
Yanira: Yeah, in a predominantly white institution… I'm still struggling with the frames… My approach was to sort of break down… writing as the only form or the only communicative practice, right? And then maybe having everybody see how they have home languages. But then that sort of, again, created that multicultural approach where, "Oh, we all have home languages…"—back to Keith Gilyard's (2016) point of, like, sameness of difference models, right, when it comes to being translingual. So people were really comfortable with that. The thing that I'm struggling with is inviting students in, because I'm in a predominantly white classroom and I don't want to create a scenario where I'm teaching about… or that we're engaging these texts… as if were talking about an "other" over there that we're studying. In other words, how do I help everybody understand that we're all implicated in these conversations? And it's not just that we're talking about African American Vernacular English over there, as this other thing that we study. Or hip-hop as this thing that is happening over there. Or racism as this thing that is happening over there. So trying to get everybody, sort of implicated in the classroom, and at the same time avoid that sort of multicultural sense of… or that sameness of difference model that sort of comes up.
[Hill's "Black Rage (Sketch)" fades in, fades out]
4. The Cipher
[Oddisee's "Belong to the World" plays]
Tim: This is Tim Dougherty. The intro song for this track is Oddisee's (2015) "Belong to the World," a song that on the surface is about breaking free of boxes, but also about ways of finding deeper belonging and connection as an immigrant. I plan to use this song and Oddisee's album The Good Fight in my upcoming classes, in part to open up conversations around immigration.
In this track, we draw on David Green's (2011) work that reimagines classroom practice as a cipher. We start by making distinctions between the cipher as a generative practice of accountable response to classmates as fellow makers, and the typical writing prompts we ask for, like the academic essay, as a schooled response that often position students as detached armchair critics, less accountable to the readings and less accountable to each other as makers.
[Oddisee's "Belong to the World" continues to play, then fades out]
Tim: But the other thing I want to ask is, what type of genres are we asking students to respond in? Because schooled responses, and this is why I'm so tired of this… schooled responses are made to say, "I need to find a thing to critique about it," right? Like, I wonder about a cipher, where it's like, the audience is our class, and the most powerful response wins, right? And gets to choose the next type of response were going to do, right? So that, it's not about who can better critique some stupid thing about it to show they did the school thing. But it's about, like, being together and making something.
Yanira: So back to these creative processes, these creative practices… and Michael, the theories of possibility that come off of African rhetoric…
Michael: And that move too, then… it facilitates the cipher, right? It doesn't let you off the hook in terms of where your criteria come from. So if the criteria are generative… then we're already positioned as informed listeners, not passive, right? But the listening becomes an active… or the reception… or we become an interlocutor at that point. So there's an exchange that's taking place. And the text only means because of the way we decide we're going to listen to it, right? So then, that rules out the passive consumption, or the commodification of the text, regardless of what it's offering.… It's interesting.… So you just flipped the script on that, then. So it didn't have to do necessarily with what particular text we present, it has to do with the type of ways we're encouraging students to read the text… that's more important.
Tim: And how does school position us as armchair critics who aren't actually engaging, that we're just like… passively writing it off… but if we position it as a cipher, you have to generate something. Like, what comes next?… If we approach it as makers rather than critics, that's a whole different bowl of wax.
Yanira: I guess I want to challenge… because soundwriting, responding to this call is about… engaging in a practice… I guess the reason I brought it up is because, again, turning to practices… so yes, I'm all for that. Absolutely, let's have different practices in the classroom. And yet we all sort of had a little moment of thinking about soundwriting as a practice, and thinking, "But wait. Practices can still sort of take on the dominant logic." Particularly because of the structures we're working under, right? Because we're working in the academy…. I guess, to Carmen Kynard's (2013) point, we either have to foreground a different history to the academy, before engaging in certain practices. And then, to Adam Banks's (2006) point… not allowing these practices to become the next capitalist commodity, the next capital hotness… you know, the next thing you can abstract and reduce… and reproduce, right? And the one thing I can think of that sort of resists that is having those really uncomfortable conversations… that have us all… in the messy funky of it, right? Because we can't settle so easily.
[Oddisee's "Belong to the World" fades in]
Ben: Yanira asks Tim to explain more about the cipher in the classroom, especially as a replacement for the writer's workshop.
[Oddisee's "Belong to the World" fades out]
Tim: So, for instance, like… to Michael's point, this idea that when we talk about who's going to win the cipher, we have… these framing conversations…. So if we all agree that this is about getting free… and we just read some Black feminist work about framing the fact that until Black women are free, until Indigenous folks are free, nobody's free, right? And so, if we agree that that's a value of our cipher, that the response should be generative to move towards freedom. Do we all agree to that? Okay, we all agree to that. Do we then agree to this, right? That, until those currently furthest from freedom… are free, then none of us are free, can we go there, right?… It's like this sense of like… Y'all were talking with Ira Shor about this, that it's about testing the limits of how free people want to get, right? And making that decision together.
But, to your point, Yanira, and to your question, I've found the only time that I've used the cipher with depth was in an elective [course] at Syracuse, in a style class. And I made the whole thing about cipher with style play. And it was… fabulous. The best class I ever taught, by far. And it's hard for me to disambiguate whether that's because they were all writers, that were psyched about it and were committed, right? Because when I tried to drop a cipher on the class this semester with the Kendrick Lamar stuff, folks were just like, "Nah. Not gonna happen." And part of it, I think, was because I was trying to cipher in this limited way of like, "Let's cipher our summaries." Whereas in the style class, it was always about the power of, "What's your response? What's your generation? What's your contribution to… okay, we're all working on repetition, anaphora, whatever. Who did the best anaphora?" Right? And that sense of like, that playful little… it was competitive, but it was playful and it was joyous.
And it took us to really interesting political conversations about the politics of language and why folks win. Why folks want to share certain things or don't want to share certain things. But it was the first time that I had people having these conversations about each other's writing, instead of about the text we were reading. And there was an investment there that was different, it was just fundamentally different. And it's like this elusive, mountaintop moment for me, that I'm like, "How do I capture that in a first-year writing class?" And it might not be possible to the extent that it was in the majors' elective class. But, I think part of it could be that if we flip the script on what writing is right out the gate, and say like, "Look, you need to respond in a way that's trying to get us more free," in response to Kendrick Lamar or Oddisee or Rapsody or Jesse Williams's speech, or whatever, right? The Black Lives Matter platform website, right? Your response has to… the goal is… we come back to the cipher, who can help us get more free, right? And it doesn't matter what your response looks like, and then we decide. I'm interested to see what that would do.
Yanira: That sounds great. It seems to challenge, like… it is anti-capitalist in a way, in a really interesting way, in that it's affirming… not affirming of the product, but like the potential to create… and not affirming of the thing you read… the self-affirming aspect of it… it's not this competition for this… and this other thing out there, but like, self-affirmation feels important in that practice. That's really interesting. I think I would totally like to try that in a classroom. I mean, in the end, conversations about, sort of audience… that's come up for me. How do we best reach these audiences?… I think that that could be really wonderful, too, in getting at like the genius, the absolute genius of these texts, these hip-hop texts, or soundwriting texts.
Tim: 'Cause it's like, "I'm responding to this"—so some students will be safe and play it summary… and then I've had emcees in every one of my classes at West Chester, and some are gonna try. Like, they're gonna try to put a verse down, you know? And then it's like, then students are watching their peer try to do what Kendrick did or what Rapsody does, and being like, "Whoa. That's hard," right? "'Cause I see you as somebody that's pretty good, and like whoa!" You know?
Yanira: Yeah, and it does this think of like, the hierarchies of skills… when it comes to writing, then, shift quite a bit, so that's pretty interesting.
Tim: That's the thing that struck me, when like David Green… when I first heard David Green talk about this, the writing workshop as a cipher…. So the cipher has always been about building chops, right? It's always the playful competition to build your chops, for the album or for the mixtape… but the cipher is like a lived, embodied… we're all in the circle, pushing each other. Because we all care about each other building our craft, right? And that's the spirit I want to capture in a writing class. Like, I can't think of a better way to frame what I want to happen in a writing class. And so often my students, like… the audience problem of the writing class is because it's so fake, and I've been trying to… innovate these convoluted ways for them to imagine audiences that they can care about. And it's just hit me that what David is talking about with the cipher is that you make the workshop so intensely community normed about what's generative and what's powerful, that the audience is there now. But the only way to do that is if everybody feels like they get to make the shit they want to make, and try to make it better.
Yanira: So Michael… you've mentioned… this idea about working with these elements in a predominantly white classroom. Like… at some point you mentioned, "We're in a structure in that they love Black genius, but the bodies aren't there." So that you end up with things like the mixtape. So how do we conceive of using these practices, but avoiding that kind of outcome?
Michael: Yeah, that's a good problem. I don't know. You know? I'm trying to picture myself pulling this off, Tim.
Tim: [laughs] Well, I think we all have to do it together. That's a lesson.
Michael: And wondering what it looks like, you know? Yeah, I don't know.
[Oddisee's "Belong to the World" fades in, fades out]
5. Beyond Simply Soundwriting Pedagogy
Ben: We had planned to start this track with "Hell You Talmbout," a song released by Janelle Monáe and the Wondaland Collective (2015). It is a song that lists the names of Black people killed by police and vigilantes in the United States. But after I cut one version of this track with "Hell You Talmbout" for the introduction, it felt wrong to fade out the song for a discussion about pedagogy. Even if a connection could be made, this isn't a song to fade out. It feels too real and necessary to play in part.
In the question of how to use soundwriting in the classroom, we've discovered our own complications using sound. How do we honor contexts and history? How do we honor the urgency of social movements? How do we honor the fact that many names, most recently [in 2016] Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and Korryn Gaines, must be added to this list?
By using the song, are we circulating an important political message, or turning an important political message into an academic object? And, as we discuss and reflect on these complex and important questions, our due date for the project drifts further into the past. The need to finish our own soundwriting products comes into tension with our need to be accountable to movement work inside and outside of the classroom.
In the end, we've decided that instead of playing the song here as introduction, we will invite listeners to find the track, available free on Soundcloud, and to listen or re-listen to it with their full attention on the music and message.
In our final track, Yanira asks "Who did soundwriting in their classrooms?" I respond, followed by Michael, Yanira, and Tim, all talking about assignments, complications, and outcomes.
Yanira: Now, who actually produced a podcast in their class? I guess, what did folks assign? Or, how did it go? I'm interested in that.
Ben: I think that out of the four of us, I had students actually produce podcasts, and then Michael has podcasts as an option in a class that hasn't run yet. Right?
Michael: That's right.
Ben: So, you want me to talk about how it went?
Yanira: I guess about the potential of that kind of work. That was something I was really curious about. I mean, I didn't end up producing podcasts with my students. There was an assignment that was a bit different than anything I've done.
Ben: So, I thought… I gave all of my students an A on the podcast, just across the board. And I was more or less explicit about it in the class. I was like: I just want you to look at a song, analyze it for its political disruption and just like, I want to listen to it in the car on my way back from Pennsylvania to New York, and I want to enjoy it, and I want to give you all As, and that was kind of my way of setting it up. It wasn't a high stakes thing that they were producing. And I thought that was kind of important—it was more a process.
When Tim, when you were talking about the cipher and you were talking about how "the academic mode is critique," and I was thinking about Michael's assignment and I was thinking about the way that I had framed it where it wasn't about critique. It was about, "Where do you notice the political disruption in this song?" Or, you know, it was like Michael's: "Where are you identifying these criteria of African rhetorical practice in these songs?" That sort of analysis was more about understanding and a deeper reading of the text instead of a critique of them. And since mine was around political rhetoric instead of—it wasn't just limited to hip-hop music—it was political rhetoric and they could pick whatever music they wanted, but I gave them a long list of examples. And so they were listening to like Creedence Clearwater Revival and reading up about the Vietnam War. They were listening to Green Day's (2004) "American Idiot" and learning about the United States under the Bush administration, which was like an event long in the past for most of my students.
And I could feel and hear the deeper engagement in the music, the listening instead of consuming that was happening. So I was really heartened by that. And I'm going to do it again with changes, making sure that all of my students have the same access to it, and thinking of the classroom from certain moments as soundbooth. Let's do all of the work in the classroom together instead of: You go off with your laptop and all the frustrations that arise. And then I had people coming to my office the week before finals week and it was due in 24 hours, and they still hadn't been able to figure out how to record on their computer because they've got a glitchy microphone.
Technologies are presented to us as if they are this democratizing force in society—they are sold to us that way. And then realizing in the classroom how, okay, I was moving away from this academic essay which was supposedly this oppressive force, and then I'm switching all of a sudden and now we're doing podcasting, and the technological gap that that meant for some people meant that all of the structural, the systemic hierarchies that come through, were again exposed. Because it was like: Oh, I've got to borrow a laptop from the library, and I can't download the program because of this restricted access, or I'm working on this old loner computer that doesn't have a microphone that works. And so this was not—without a lot of work—this is definitely not a democratizing genre. It is not a democratizing genre on its own to say: Hey, we're doing podcasts and aren't you all glad?
Michael: That's Banks's (2006) material access that is emerging there again. At the time that he wrote it, it just had to do with getting a computer. Now it's more nuanced when we're asking them to perform particular tasks with computers that are beyond just composing writing, right? When we're talking about web-based compositions, we're moving into another realm. And then the experiential is the next stage, then… like, are you familiar with it, can you make it do what you need it to do?
Yanira: I love that this analysis gets applied transnationally. Like: Folks in other countries don't have this. And I'm like: That's actually happening right here. That's not just a transnational experience. And actually it can be very reductive about how we perceive transnationality and think about other countries and technology. So that's really interesting.
I guess I was asking because, Tim, you were talking about sort of the summary and the critical summary as one of the things that you assigned. And thinking about what people did in the classroom and wanting to know. At some point I had some of the students translate some of the readings into a political poster, moving from one unit to the next and to a visual. And I guess where I ended up was that it wasn't just soundwriting that I was getting at, but how do we look at different genres to disrupt the essay as the central genre? And then soundwriting fitting into that whole mess, right? So we're not replacing one genre with another.
And I guess what you'd said, Ben, about the soundbooth sounds exciting. Like the idea of working with podcasts from the get and not as some final assignment sounds really exciting.
Tim: Yeah. That's what I found with my multimodal assignment, too, which was the final assignment. One, students were spent by the end, and it's like they're making it around Thanksgiving, and they're just like: "pssss… you want me to do what?" And my response was like, well let's do more of a smorgasbord, right? It doesn't just have to be one album. And that's why I love, Ben, your assignment, where it's like: Find a song. Right?
It's all folk music, as Hurray for the Riff Raff and Louie Armstrong remind us, right? Louie says, "ain't never heard no horse sing a song." You know, and so positioning hip-hop as folk music, right? And this sense of, you know, everyone can find the political disruption. I love how pointed your prompts were, both Michael's and Ben's, as you mentioned, Ben. Mine ended up being a complete joke, the multimodal piece. I was trying to replicate what Marc Anthony Neal and 9th Wonder (Neal & Douthit, 2015) did by saying, you know, pick a song off the album and extend the argument of that song through the visual, through written, through your voice, however you want to do. And what folks ended up doing was as groups. Almost without fail there was like one leader in the group that had a vision and they went and found a bunch of pictures on the internet and they just played the song over it, and it became like a remixed music video. But it didn't have the teeth that the Duke University one had because they were working with archivists and special collections librarians at Duke, so the images that the students had access to the night before as they were trying to get it done in between the job that they're working and the other five classes that they're taking, it just felt slapped together. And it made me think that we need to have the cutting room, right? The videography and sifting through the pictures… that needs to happen in the class. Just like the soundbooth has to happen in the class. And I need to figure out how I can actually facilitate that work cause I'm not that good at it.
Michael: Yeah, there has to be a way that we actually bridge that material gap and experiential gap too. Because we want them to engage the text critically, right? So, I don't know how much is it necessary—I mean, getting back to embodiment, right—it's necessary that they actually spend the time on the task and get their hands dirty and do the digging, to a certain extent. But we've actually got to support them in that, too, so that they don't become frustrated and this becomes just…
Tim: …another task.
Ben: Or the product without the understanding, which is where Yanira had left her reflection. If you jump to producing the thing when you haven’t had students even take the album seriously or the topic seriously.
Yanira: Yeah, at that point I sort of followed Adam Banks's (2006) advice, and I'm like: Okay, the podcast is not going to be of service here just as a podcast. I think we need to keep engaging with this and asking what are these resistances? What's happening? The ideas felt more important than just producing a neat podcast on something. And so I ended up there. And ultimately, it was joyful for me to teach with sound. It was different. I do want to hold onto that because it created a different classroom regardless, and in some ways opened up really, you know, great conversations, important tensions. Because I was rethinking that maybe those are failures but you know I ended up thinking: My goal wasn't to get everybody to just fall in love with this album; that really wasn't it. It wasn't to try and convince, but to open up important conversations and to just seed something.