Words and photographs by Makeda Viechweg
Most students attend classes structured in a traditional way: teacher-centered, historians as references, four closed walls, and strict, academic curriculum. But what if the best way to learn focused more on non-traditional, student engaging, modern-day events and influences, and learning outside the classroom?
This was the question addressed at the Hip-Hop and Pedagogy workshop at the CUNY Graduate Center last month.
This discussion was part of “The University Worth Fighting For,” a series of workshops – sponsored by the Futures Initiative – that tie student-centered, engaged pedagogical practices to institutional change, race, equality, gender, and social justice.
Moderated by Futures Initiative fellow Kashema Hutchinson, the workshop was conducted as a cypher – a freestyling or battling event taking place in a circle derived from hip-hop culture. The organizers arranged chairs in an angle for more space, and hip-hop infographics decorated the walls as a way to break the traditional educative space setting.
Yadira Vargas, a participant in the workshop, shared her reasons why hip-hop should be seen through an academic lens. “The authors that we encounter in the classroom are old, dead, European descent people,” said Vargas, a student at CUNY’s LaGuardia Community College. “When it doesn’t reflect the youth reality…it contributes to poor grades, behavioral issues and dropping out of school.”
Hip hop can help connect traditional education with popular culture and aid in learning. To test this idea, participant Steven Pacheco, a student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, asked the audience, “Put your hands in the air if you listen to hip hop.” When a majority of hands went up high, Pacheco thanked the audience for its honesty.
All participants in the workshop “kept it real” by dressing to represent hip-hop culture. “If you saw me like how I’m dressed right now in South Bronx, I’d probably look a lot more menacing and intimidating,” said Pacheco. “But I also argue if you saw me in a suit things would be a lot different. I feel the violence of hip-hop not being accepted in education every day.”
Participant Kia Thomas, a CCNY Black Studies major, highlighted the importance of keeping black women front and center in the conversation. “A black woman’s perspective inside of and participating with hip-hop can inform the student’s understanding of various complex topics such as intersectionality, institutional injustice, and radical black feminism,” she said.
Touching on Thomas’s comment, Pacheco pointed out a startling observation.
“There are three black men in this room,” noted Pacheco to a silent room. “If you look at society, where do black men have an opportunity to self-determine what their narrative is? […] I would say hip-hop. If education is supposed to be the prime credible messenger of rhetoric, discourse, analysis – all of the elite things in society and we’re not here, what do you think is going to happen?”
Founding Director of the Futures Initiative Cathy N. Davidson stressed the importance of centering student voices in the discussion about changing the way higher education is taught. “I don’t understand education if it isn’t for the people we’re educating,” said Davidson.
“I know that we have funding for guest speakers,” Hutchinson added. “But I thought, if we are going to do this, we’re going to do it through the students, the people we’re educating…why not give the students a platform. I wanted them to tell their story.”
For upcoming events go to futuresinitiative.org