April 12, 2007

My Old School Education

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I was standing in the check-out at Wegman’s on Friday afternoon, when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed one of my favorite professors waiting in line behind me. I had taken two rigorous literature classes with him, one of which sparked an interest in the American prison system and, subsequently, a burgeoning desire to go to law school. After a genuine hug (not one of those one-armed, half-hearted squeezes), he professed to having read my column. “I was talking about you behind your back the other day,” he told me. “She used to be so serious — where did this party girl come from?” I was like a deer in headlights, stammering an incoherent reply as the cashier tapped her foot impatiently behind me. My worst fear regarding my column — that an adult other than my unusually tolerant mother would read it — had come to light.
His question worried me, and I spent the weekend considering my transition from somber bookworm to bubbly socialite. Finally, in a deliciously ironic twist, I have traced this evolution back not only to this very professor, but to the University itself.
Let me backtrack. For me, dancing has been the great social equalizer, allowing me to shed my otherwise bashful demeanor and befriend complete strangers. Generally, my interest in dancing resulted from a fascination with hip hop; those complex rhythms created by words tripping over beats just scream to be moved to. Now, there are four elements of hip hop: DJing, MCing, Breakdancing and Graffiti. While Madlib’s “Shades of Blue” may have fostered my love of the DJ element, a full-fledged obsession with the remaining three was actually inspired by courses that I’ve taken here. Yes, Cornell, I blame you for my undeniably rhythmic assets.
Although hip hop isn’t exactly pervading the Courses of Study book, its inclusion in more contemporary literature classes is increasing. Last year, a new English course on 1980s literature featured units on both breakdancing and graffiti. Our concentration on the former kicked off, literally, with a performance by Cornell’s own Absolute Zero in the front of the classroom, continuing with a general survey of B-boy fashion, music and terminology. We then moved on to the origins of graffiti, that “menace writ large,” focusing on how Keith Haring legitimized this art form to a society otherwise terrified by its increasing appearance on subway cars and city walls. The course’s syllabus included interviews of graffiti artists conducted by Norman Mailer, and the film “Downtown 81,” starring Jean Michel Basquiat casually spray painting his way across New York City.
The professor I ran into at Wegman’s teaches a course on American prisons and policing tactics. At the time, he included in his syllabus songs such as KRS-One’s “Sound of Da Beast” and N.W.A.’s “F___ tha Police,” both of which, to say the least, present dire pictures of brutality and racial bias in American policing. Picture this: we’re sitting in a lecture room in Baker Hall, unsure of what to expect as the professor solemnly attaches his iPod to a speaker system. The volume is deafening, and that first “Whoop! Whoop!” of the KRS-One track literally echoes through the halls, most likely causing dozens of Chemistry majors to drop their beakers in surprise.
Not only did we listen to these tracks more than once (much to the dismay of those Chemistry majors, I’m sure), but the class also spent several days deconstructing them. This was a shock to my sophomore brain: whereas I had spent the previous year surveying the great classics of English literature, I was now analyzing the word choice, flow and tone of KRS-One and Eazy-E. These controversial beacons of old-school hip hop led me to Public Enemy and De La Soul, and I followed Prince Paul’s production to Handsome Boy Modeling School and other, more modern artists. I kept the professor’s lyric handouts in my book bag, using them as inspiration to jot down original lines of my own during lags in other classes.
My interest in hip hop arose, perhaps unnaturally, from these critical analyses. In my own gushing, dorky, English-major way, I am fascinated by the climate of postmodernism and urbanity in which this movement emerged. Hip hop begs to be studied and appreciated as literature, art, music, politics, history, sociology and revolution. If, like me, you love the music, I urge you to exercise even the most limited opportunity to study it in an academic setting. To those professors who brought hip hop into their classrooms, well, you can talk about me behind my back all you want: I wouldn’t be the person I am today without you.