Professor uses Jay-Z to rethink dominant culture

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A 200-level English course focused on the rapper Jay-Z is allowing students to reflect on current societal issues, their backgrounds as individuals and their current ways of thinking.

By challenging students’ biases and stereotypes, developing unique assignments and content and constantly altering the curriculum to reflect students’ interests in current pop culture, adjunct English professor Roberto Garcia has created a safe and respectful environment for students to have dialogues about mature topics.

“Even just learning what the topic for the class was, that was immediately a heads up that it was going to be a little bit different from other classes,” says Rebecca Huizar, a former student of Garcia’s class. “The course really gave you respect for hip-hop music. The skills you learn in a class like that are just different than what you would learn in a typical, traditional class.”

Fall 2017 marks Garcia’s fifth semester teaching the English 212 course “Rethinking the Dominant Culture: Jay-Z and Modern America.”

Garcia, who also is the director of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, teaches students about the history of hip-hop and rap, which includes the Brooklyn-born Jay-Z, to show the impacts the genre has made on American culture and society.

“We’re bringing all of these different themes together to show that hip-hop is a genre of music that unites people,” Garcia says. “I think that’s one of the central themes within the class.”

The topics go far beyond those to discuss how hip-hop relates to social justice-related themes like poverty, stereotypes, discrimination, spirituality and feminism.

“We look at specific artists, and we start to pull out the themes within their music,” Garcia says. “I teach them how to separate art from artist; I think that’s central. I also push them on critical thinking and rethinking some of their own positions and perspectives on hip-hop as a genre of music.”

Gabriel Negranza, a junior biochemistry student, says he waited until after the first day of the class to purchase the textbook because he didn’t think “Jay-Z: Essays on Hip Hop’s Philosopher King” could possibly be the textbook for a college course.

“The class stimulated conversation and discussion,” he says. “I didn’t even think that I held a lot of stereotypes, but the stereotypes I held about hip-hop artists especially were totally shattered.”

The idea behind the course originally came as Garcia was earning his doctorate degree from Central Michigan University. In one of his final courses, the students were asked to write about a leader that they admired and later present on that leader.

“My go-to’s at the time were Dr. King and Malcolm X. I could write about them in the dark with little to no research or help because I’ve written about them so many times,” Garcia says.

However, Garcia had a wildcard in the back of his mind that he was hesitant to actually go through with: Jay-Z.

“While we were in groups brainstorming [after pitching the idea],” Garcia says. “One of my peers in the course, a white woman, said ‘Roberto, I don’t want to hear about Dr. King or Malcolm X, I know all about them. Can you do Jay-Z?’”

The suggestion from his classmate inspired Garcia to go through with the project on Jay-Z, a presentation that was very well received by his classmates and instructor. Later as a faculty member at SVSU, Garcia was further inspired to turn his project into a fully developed course and curriculum offered at the undergraduate level.

“(Associate professor of English) Kim Lacey was instrumental in helping with this course,” Garcia says. “When she taught a course based on ‘Orange is the New Black,’ that’s really what gave me the courage to propose this to the English department and say, ‘Hey, I think we can build a course around Jay-Z and hip-hop.’”

One of the most enjoyable parts of the course for students is the lyric decoding exercises, where the class dissects what the artists are really saying in their music, as opposed to just listening to it.

“As we decode the lyrics, you can see that the students realize that (the lyrics) are a little bit deeper than they appear when (the students) are just listening to it for the fun of it or listening to it with friends,” Garica says. “They also find inspiration in the stories of the actual hip-hop artists.”

The communication-intensive course includes three formal papers, a presentation, weekly writing/journal assignments and attendance/participation.

For the final paper, which is accompanied by a presentation, students are asked a simple but thought provoking question: What did you learn?

Garcia says students have gone in a variety of directions with such answers, from describing a growing interest in hip-hop music to recognizing stereotypes and biases they had in their own lives that they had never before realized. Additionally, the accompanying presentations have also taken unique spins.

“Some of the students turn into rappers,” Garcia says. “They develop a rap for their final presentation as part of the presentation. It’s amazing to see that they are willing to be uncomfortable.”

Former student Marq Williams, a communication junior, recalls a student who presented a poem for her final project that had a tangible impact on her classmates.

“I had to present after her and I was like, ‘Wow, how can I top that?’” Williams says. “(Garcia) asked her to keep it to save for future classes so he could read it to them. It was amazing.”

The rewards, both academic and psychological, have been echoed by many of Garcia’s students and graduates.

Williams says he learned a lot about hip-hop and America in general through the class, but his experience went far beyond just general knowledge.

“It was actually pretty amazing how Mr. Garcia taught the class,” he says. “The impact he had on all the students, not just me, was amazing. Coming into class every day was my favorite.”

Huizar, Negranza and Williams all feel that the unique topics in the course and the overall environment led to better and higher levels of learning.

Garcia agrees that this is a goal of the course.

“Because it is a communication-intensive course, the students start to open up, and they start to engage with these conversations through a critical, reflective approach,” Garcia says. “What they’ve been able to do is create dialogue in their own homes about eliminating stereotypes and looking at their own implicit biases.”

While special topics courses such as English 212 are not overly common at SVSU, they have proven beneficial to many students looking for a unique way to learn while discussing current issues and trends.

“They provide options for students,” Garcia says. “Of course, we have our outlying standards for outcomes, but the curriculum is what the faculty can develop. I think it’s important to have choice for students. I think it’s important to think differently when it comes to curriculum and how to teach reading and writing.”

Garcia’s English 212 – Rethinking the Dominant Culture: Jay-Z and Modern America course is also being offered in the Winter 2018 semester, and Garcia is looking forward to building more relationships with students and tackling complex issues, but also being personally inspired by those students.

“The goal for any educator is to impact the brain,” Garcia says. “But if you can change the heart along with it, I think that’s really what it’s all about. It’s humbling for me as an educator working with these young people on this campus.”

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