A Reflection by Timothy R. Dougherty
From the World House to the M.A.A.D. City
Where I'm Coming From
Like Ben, I'm a straight, cisgender, white boy. Mid-30s, a bit older than Ben but still often confused for a student. I'm teaching back in the same town where I went to high school, about a 45-minute drive from Philly. Both sides of my family have deep roots here in Lenape Country as Irish Catholic settlers. From what I can tell, we first came to Philly, and my grandparents participated in the great white flight that has for generations directed resources towards suburbs like West Chester and away from communities of color in Philadelphia. I have responsibilities to this place and to be clear-eyed about that history.
Ben's invocation of Stokely Carmichael's (1966) gut check to white activists helps me to quickly articulate the real work that I feel is demanded of white folks like me in this contemporary moment. But it is also more than that. I've been a music head from day one, and hip-hop was my first true love. It was the first music that I felt I discovered beyond my parents' influence. I remember culling through BMG catalogs, picking out all the cassette tapes I could get for a penny. I chose LL Cool J, Salt-N-Peppa, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. I also rocked R&B like Bell Biv Devoe and Biz Markie and Mary J. Blige. When I finally got a CD player, the first disc I bought was Arrested Development. I think the second one was Tribe's Low End Theory. My political education began with hip-hop: Public Enemy, De La Soul, Tribe, MC Lyte, Latifah. And as a white boy in the suburbs, I wasn't alone. To me, hip-hop wasn't party music. It wasn't a dance to celebrate culture without a lens on power. It was a dose of reality focused on power, a reality that too often seemed bleached out of my suburban existence.
As I began to become more conscious of my privilege as a white man and began to work towards political consciousness and anti-racist solidarity, I spent a few years thinking of my young obsession with hip-hop as appropriation or exoticization, and I'm sure that it was in some ways. But it was also an invitation to solidarity and undoubtedly sowed seeds in me for anti-racist action. In Bakari Kitwana's (2006) Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop, he argued that hip-hop offers an opportunity to organize coalitions across difference, and he described white hip-hop activists as white activists invested in hip-hop who place a "radical analysis of race at the forefront of their engagement with other social and political issues" (p. 172). Kitwana saw some white hip-hop activists coming to activism first and to hip-hop second. For others, he claims that hip-hop itself helps to radicalize them. I know that without my early experience with hip-hop, I wouldn't have been prepared for the activism I dove into in my college years. To keep with bell hooks's (2000) theme, hip-hop undoubtedly helped me to love justice and to see the structures of power that often prevent it. Hip-hop helped me to start a path towards becoming an anti-racist educator.
With that said, I don't center my first-year writing classroom on hip-hop. In the framework put forth by Marc Lamont Hill (2009), my approach has always been more of a "pedagogy with hip-hop" than a "pedagogy about hip-hop" (pp. 122–123).1 Yet, I'm also with Hill when he reminded us that pedagogies of hip-hop are crucial social theories worthy of the center of a contemporary writing curriculum aimed at helping students love justice. As he put it:
pedagogies of hip-hop reflect the various ways that hip-hop culture authorizes particular values, truth claims, and subject positions while implicitly or explicitly contesting others. By framing these issues as fundamentally pedagogical, we become theoretically equipped to frame practitioners of hip-hop as engaged cultural workers, critical intellectuals, and public pedagogues whose intellectual production both reflects and constitutes a variety of identities, discourses, and power relationships. (p. 120)
Put simply, Kendrick Lamar and all the other MCs making dope tracks are important social theorists to listen to. What's more, many of our students already are listening. Many of my students casually consume hip-hop on the regular. Most of the students on my campus are white like me, and many are coming from suburban Philadelphia families much like mine. I resemble the majority on my campus, and I want to invite these white students who casually consume hip-hop to learn to love justice through it. What's more, the more I've taught at West Chester, the more I feel it important to decenter whiteness in my writing curriculum. Not only do I want my students who love hip-hop to get a more critical lens for what it can do for them, but I want all my white students to have to contend with its insights. Perhaps even more importantly, I want my students of color to see theorizing from people who look like them at the center of the writing curriculum they experience in their first or second semester on campus.
What I Did
To that end, I've typically tried to orient my classroom loosely around intersectional politics. I've done this to try to show students the interconnections between many different struggles, as well as to open the door for students to write about a wide variety of things that are important to them. I teach in a program that emphasizes rhetorical genre instruction in the context of a cultural studies framework. The genre framework encourages instructors to craft assignments in real-world genres so as to help students practice meeting a rhetorical situation with a rhetorical response appropriate to their goals. One caveat of the class is that at least one genre has to be a thorough analysis of some sort that approximates the careful moves expected of scholarly writing.
I fulfill that requirement with a critical review patterned after a review of a book, movie, or other piece of culture. The cultural studies framework, on the other hand, is meant to enable the class to meet a general education diversity requirement at the school, and I take this as an invitation to center the class on anti-racism and feminist intersectionality. I've typically had students read and write a critical review of Martin Luther King's (1967) "The World House" essay from his Where Do We Go From Here? In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and Kendrick Lamar's new album dropping, I was inspired to revise my syllabus so as to make Lamar's (2015) To Pimp a Butterfly album the theoretical centerpiece, replacing "The World House" as the "text" that students would deeply "read" and "review." To get a deeper sense of that assignment, check out the assignment sheet below.
After working deeply through Kendrick's entire album and having students compose written reviews of the album, the class broke into groups for a collaborative final project that would focus on one track from the album to remix. I based this assignment loosely on the assignment that Mark Anthony Neal and 9th Wonder (Neal & Douthit, 2015) did to have students create music videos for a track from Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet. I allowed students to choose the medium of their production, only asking that they extend Lamar's argument into a new context or a new audience. Check out the full assignment sheet.
How It Went
To contend that this assignment sequence was an unmitigated success would be a lie. While I think most of my students—even the self-avowed hip-hop heads—came away with a deepened understanding of the political power Lamar (2015) was trying to communicate throughout the album, the writing and composing they engaged ultimately remained pretty safe. While students chose to focus on many different themes in Lamar's text—the religious undertones, the themes of addiction, colorism, police brutality, poverty, and overcoming adversity—I was struck by the ways that many students seemed intent on gearing their reviews to me as an audience. (For more on how teacher embodiment affects pedagogical outcomes, see our first conversation track, titled "Embodiment," around the 7:30 mark.)
One day in class, we were discussing what I meant by the audiences that I ask them to write for in the assignment sheet, and I reminded them that it's a much different review if you're writing to people who think they hate hip-hop than if you're writing to people who are already fans. We discussed the rhetorical strategies you might employ in the introduction based on these different audiences, and a good majority of my students chose to take the strategy of writing to people who weren't fans of hip-hop. In doing so, they sought to convince their imagined audiences to listen to Lamar's album because it wasn't like all that other hip-hop that's so focused on drugs, guns, and women. I couldn't help but think back to that day in class where I suggested that writing to this audience might be a useful strategy.
I also couldn't help but wonder what my students really thought of the album and its resonances in cultural life outside of their relationship to me as grader. What's more, despite the realness with which Lamar wrote of the hierarchical politics that resonate simultaneously in Compton, the music industry, and the larger United States, a great majority of students chose to focus their essays on the ways in which Lamar overcomes his adversity to still achieve greatness. These two strategies both set up Lamar as exceptional and participate in the bootstraps narrative that Lamar and other politically-minded rappers seek to undermine.
In the collaborative final project, students largely chose to locate images that deepened the message of one of the songs on To Pimp A Butterfly, creating a music video that deployed Lamar's music with found images and created text to deepen the message in some way. The results were mixed. I couldn't help but feel the final assignment needed more time and more energy. As it worked out, students seemed to be tired of working with the same material for the second assignment. Rather than seeing it as a deepening of something they were interested in, as I'd hoped, many articulated a fatigue for working with the album again. As such, some of the pieces I received felt inspired, but many felt thrown together and piecemeal. Even though I'd required a storyboarding of the project to look at drafts, many students didn't take deep advantage of this opportunity to sketch and revise. As such, the transformative power of working with sound, text, and image together seemed squandered.
How I'd Revise
As I revise, I want to center the class in pedagogies with hip-hop even more fully. The solution I want to try is more hip-hop and more sound woven throughout. I am upset about the ways that students often framed Lamar as an exceptional figure in hip-hop. I am also bummed that students seemed tired of making with the same album by the end of that class. To that end, in this next iteration, I plan to introduce three albums instead of just Lamar. In addition to To Pimp a Butterfly, I'm going to introduce students to Rapsody's (2011) older Thank H.E.R. Now album as well as Oddisee's (2016) recent EP Alwasta. I want students to contend with the fact that Lamar ain't the only MC dropping knowledge, and I want them to have to think even more intersectionally than they seemed to by listening to only one album. I'm also hoping that by introducing three albums, it creates an ecology of sounds that will sustain their interest over the haul of the entire class.
In addition to these albums, I'm going to tweak the process a little bit, too. So they don't feel they need to write for me to get a grade, I'm going to introduce a grading contract instead of a traditional point scheme (Inoue, 2015). I'm also going to institute a more dialogic composing approach to students' work with the albums. Instead of my forcing of certain genres, I want to open the classroom up to an intellectual mixtape of response. I borrow this idea from both Adam Banks's (2011) and David Green's (2011) work on sound pedagogy. The idea, as I'm shaping it now, would be that students will need to compose responses to what we're listening to, but they'll get to choose the medium, genre, and intended audience of their composition. They'll have to contend with summary and analysis, but on their own terms and always in audience-specific ways.
What's more, I'm hoping to institute more ciphers into the class, especially as students are composing early responses to the albums. These ciphers will ask students to share their responses in low-key competition for a class vote on whose response is the most powerful. Following Green (2011), I see the cipher—the hip-hop cipher—as a more powerful version of the writing workshop. So, in doing this cipher, we'll get to have more conversations about process, content, and rhetorical strategies, all while giving students more agency over what and how they write in my class. The solution is not to remove hip-hop from my syllabus, but to make the practices and ethos of hip-hop more deeply engrained into the everyday activities of the class. Mixtapes of responses with liner notes. Ciphers of responses to help students see other approaches. And an analysis essay that requires students to review one of the three albums in whatever modality they choose.
Finally, I will dedicate more time to the final project. Rather than a throwaway, I want them to have time to make it deeply generative. I want to scaffold more soundwriting skills, and will happily be applying some insights I learn from the folks in this collection. But the final project will begin on day one, and it will proceed from their own burning question. I borrow this approach from Minnie Bruce Pratt, who introduced me to the "burning question" approach to a writing workshop in her famed creative nonfiction Maymester class at Syracuse University back in 2011. They will set the question and let it be deepened, challenged, reframed by the hip-hop materials they encounter. The final product will be open to their making, but it will represent a culmination of the semester's work on the question, not a fixed assignment demanding they choose one song to make a soundtrack to.
Freedom school is hard work. In the midst of Black Lives Matter and a globally important hip-hop culture, soundwriting is integral to freedom school. But the soundwriting is never more important than the freedom school itself. I'm looking forward to this next chance to help my students and myself get more free.
1 Hill (2009) contrasted "pedagogy with hip-hop," which he described as "processes for using hip-hop texts to enhance student motivation, transmit subject area knowledge, and develop habits of mind appropriate to learning" (p. 123), to "pedagogy about hip-hop," or "the use of educational spaces to analyze, critique, and (re)produce hip-hop texts" (p. 122).