Friday, November 23, 2012

School's In

Zora Neale Hurston

Cool story by my friend Rajul Punjabi, who, like me, interned at Vibe, but is actually putting her education to use and writing for real sites like Huff Po. Here, an excerpt:

For homework in my undergraduate Literature course, I asked students to pen a prose piece in response to one of Jamaica Kincaid's works, emulating her format and cadence while creating their own content. For thirty fruitless minutes, I droned on, trying to explain the assignment. Blank faces, more questions, more confusion. I began to doubt myself as an educator and a human being in general. Why didn't they get it?

"Look," I finally said, exasperated, "It's essentially throwing your original verse onto someone else's beat. Like they do on mixtapes."

I had never in my life heard such a synchronized "Ohhh, I get it now."

This happens often. I can do my best to break a literary concept down to my class, but it doesn't resonate until I contextualize it in an accessible way. And in 2012, I'm confident to say that hip hop as a genre and culture is an integral tool to make almost any text accessible.

Now of course, it's easy to defend my claim in an English-based curriculum. I employ Jay-Z for his abundant usage of metaphor, allusion, and hyperbole to teach figures of speech. Tupac works when we're looking at socioeconomic backgrounds in literature. Lauryn Hill? Indispensable during a lesson on imagery and narration. And don't get me started on our close-reading of the word "swagger" nee "swag" (Shakespeare vs. Soulja Boy). It was a long, loud, two hours but no English instructor worth her salt likes a quiet classroom anyway.

Last week, during a discussion on Zora Neale Hurston's autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, a student raised her hand in class and said, "Professor, I feel like Hurston was the Nicki Minaj of the Harlem Renaissance." This exemplified a deep and thoughtful observation. The girl had taken her knowledge of Minaj's persona -- outspoken, controversial, and gender-bending -- through her lyrics and likened it to Hurston's force in the arts and feminist politics of 1930s New York City that she read about. Proud mama moment for me, another point on the scoreboard for my theory.

Hip hop is all over the college campus now -- take the sociology class at Georgetown based on Jay-Z's Decoded, hip hop as a language at Stanford, and Questlove teaching in NYU's music department this semester. It was cute and novel a few years ago when skeptics dismissed it as a trend, but this isn't going anywhere. It's not just fun. It's necessary, and this very contextualization that I cling to in my classroom is the reason why.

Read the whole thing here. Great read, although I'm personally perturbed by that Minaj-Hurston linkage. *Shudder*

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