Arguments against Georgetown sociology course on Jay-Z

In a story that continues to have legs, here is the summary of some arguments against the sociology class about Jay-Z at Georgetown:

While the chairman of Georgetown’s sociology department defends the class, outraged students like junior Stephen Wu have called it “poppycock” and said serious scholars should be delving into Homer not Shawn Carter (Jay-Z’s real name).

“The great bard inclines toward the divine; he brings to light much of the character of human nature and puts man in communion with higher things,” Wu sniffed in the Georgetown campus newspaper, The Hoya. “Rap music frolics in the gutter, resplendent in vulgarity and the most crass of man’s wants.”

Other critics contend Dyson is giving a pass to a rapper who made his bones with raunchy lyrics that ripped women as greedy gold diggers in songs like “Big Pimpin’.”

The two arguments are these:

1. Whether colleges should be teaching about the best of Western Civilization, a constant argument on college campuses. Can any “popular” topics be taught about on campus? Can there be room in a curriculum for both the “great books” and modern topics? This is a broader issue about what belongs in a college curriculum.

2. The content of Jay-Z’s lyrics which can be crude. Should these lyrics simply be condemned and never discussed or could classes like these try to provide some context and explanation?

Another matter in this article: the professor of the class, Michael Eric Dyson, is described first as a “TV pundit.” It does appear Dyson is often in the media but he also has a doctorate so he is not simply another commentator. I don’t know Dyson’s work at all but does calling him a “TV pundit” also denigrate the subject of the class?

I wonder if underlying these arguments is also the idea that this class sounds preposterous compared to a perceived need for American students to pursue STEM degrees.

Defending Georgetown’s sociology class on Jay-Z

Georgetown’s sociology class on Jay-Z (“SOCI -124-01 or Sociology of Hip-Hop — Urban Theodicy of Jay-Z”) continues to draw attention from a wide variety of sources but one recent report contains a twist: defending the class from those who criticize its relevance.

“This is not a class meant to sit around and go, ‘Oh man, those lyrics were dope,’ Dyson said, who is a Princeton-educated author, syndicated radio host and ordained Baptist minister. “We’re dealing with everything that’s important in a sociology class: race, gender, ethnicity, class, economic inequality, social injustice. . . . His body of work has proved to be powerful, effective and influential. And it’s time to wrestle with it.”

The class has already filled its 80-student enrollment cap the first week of the semester, which forced Dyson to relocate into a larger classroom that can hold 140 students. In the lecture hall scheduled every Monday and Wednesday, students gain insight of rap music’s political impact in a different light. Drawing parallels to other prominent figures such as civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois and the rhymes of rap legend Notorious B.I.G., Dyson’s teachings discusses Jay-Z from his street hustles to ascending to the top, which have sparked many conversations on campus…

Regardless of some disapproval from parents, the 53-year-old is serving as a bridge in which ideas about hip-hop can reach a younger audience. Timonthy Wickham-Crowley, chairman of Georgetown’s sociology department, supports Dyson’s course by arguing that the study of Jay-Z’s work is a valuable tool for sociological examination.

“When [Dyson] comes out of the classroom, he has students in tow and there are these animated, engaged conversations going on,” he said.

It would be interesting to hear more from these parents: do they think that hip-hop is an inappropriate topic for a college class or are there are other concerns? It would be interesting to know whether this course helps promote sociology (it’s relevant!) or contributes to the criticism that we study “soft” topics (you’re paying that much money to go to Georgetown and you’re learning what?).

Also, the quote in support from Dyson from the department chair here is not the greatest sociological defense: it is a popular course that is stimulating conversation. Rather, the better defense comes from Dyson himself who suggests the class is really about “race, gender, ethnicity, class, economic inequality, social injustice…” (We could also add culture to this mix.) In some ways, the topic here isn’t that important (it could be Lady Gaga, for instance, or Hollywood blockbusters or how gender is portrayed in advertising or the NFL) but rather how sociological topics are part of everyday life.

Washington Post gets to reporting new Jay-Z sociology class at Georgetown

Earlier this week, I linked to a report from MTV about a new sociology class at Georgetown on Jay-Z. More mainstream media sources are now getting to this story including the Washington Post. Here is what was  reported on their Celebritology blog:

As noted by MTV’s Rapfix blog, Georgetown — otherwise known as the institute of higher learning unofficially endorsed by Justin Bieber — is offering a fall-semester-only class called “Sociology of Hip-Hop: Jay-Z.” The three-credit, twice-weekly lecture is taught by professor, author and Jay-Z proponent Michael Eric Dyson, who tells MTV about the course: “We look at his incredible body of work, we look at his own understanding of his work, we look at others who reflect upon him, and then we ask the students to engage in critical analysis of Jay-Z himself.”

Presumably that critical analysis does not involve speculation regarding ridiculous rumors involving Jay-Z’s wife Beyonce and their baby, aka Sasha Fetus.

Hip-hop has frequently been the subject of university classes; Duke University offers an African American studies class called “Sampling Soul,” which focuses on hip-hop, black cinema, social movements and other topics. And last spring, Bun B of the Underground Kingz served as a distinguished lecturer at Rice University, where he taught a religion and hip-hop course.

But focusing so intensely on a single rapper is somewhat rare. And it presents the unique opportunity to write a killer paper titled “Get That Dirt Off Your Shoulder: Obama, Politics and the Social Implications of ‘The Black Album.’?”

I’m sure someone could come up with a more comprehensive list of college courses on the subject. This might be much more interesting than this particular sociology course which focuses on a hot celebrity.

But this got me thinking about several articles about the news industry I’ve seen in recent years: just how much must traditional news sources write and emphasize the celebrity stories that seem to drive web traffic? A couple of things matter in this Jay-Z story: it involves a well-known celebrity (and the mentioning of the crazy rumors including Beyonce probably doesn’t hurt) and the course is being held not just at any college but at prestigious Georgetown. Beyond those two features, does it really matter which celebrity, which department, and which prestigious college this involves? To some degree, newspapers have always reported on prominent people though it probably involves a lot more celebrity news today.

A second question: does anyone go to the Washington Post exclusively or first for celebrity news or is it like a bonus after one consumes the political and business news? Are there people who don’t trust celebrity news unless it comes from more reputable sources? How does the Post decide what celebrity news to publish – I assume they don’t want it to be too scurrilous ?

Also, I would like to note that this blog reported on this story before the Washington Post.

Georgetown sociology course on Jay-Z

If there are sociology courses on Lady Gaga, why not one on Jay-Z?

Noted educator and author, Michael Eric Dyson, has taken a new spin on generic education. He is now teaching a class at the prominent Georgetown University, based solely on Jay Z. The course, “Sociology of Hip-Hop: Jay-Z” is a 3 credit course offered this semester…

While some speak negatively about hip-hop’s vulgarity and rawness, Dyson sees no point in going against this phenomenon and clearly supports including rap in the cannon of education. “Speaking out against rap music is useless, and it’s futile. The reality is there’s criticism for everything, but Jay-Z is one of the most remarkable artists of our time of any genre, and as a hip-hop artist he carries the weight of that art form with such splendor and grace and genius,” he said. “I admire the way in which he carries himself and the incredible craft that he displays every time he steps up to the microphone.”

The course covers Jay-Z’s book “Decoded,” Adam Bradley’s “Book of Rhymes,” Zack O’Malley Greenburg’s “Empire State of Mind,” as well as other articles and films about hip-hop in general. “We look at his incredible body of work, we look at his own understanding of his work, we look at others who reflect upon him, and then we ask the students to engage in critical analysis of Jay-Z himself,” Dyson explained.

Dr. Dyson reiterated that hip-hop is an important subject that people should take seriously and learn about, and the interest level at Georgetown is very high. “Well you know if you have an average size class of 30-40, and then you got 140 students signed up that tells you right there there’s an extraordinary interest,” he said, “I think that’s why it’s important for young people to see that the rhetorical invention of African American culture needs to be taken seriously with one of its greatest artist.”

I suppose it is appropriate that this is being reported on by MTV.

I’m sure some will see the news about this class and say, “Can you believe what passes for a college education today?” But there are at least three defenses for this.

1. The topic is popular. Clearly, college students and others are listening to hip-hop and watching the behavior of its stars so why not address this in a college classroom? Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it is not worthy of study. In fact, taking an academic approach to a popular topic has the potential to hit college students in their everyday activities and tastes.

2. The class could touch on a bunch of interesting topics such as race, social class, city life, culture, lifecourse and generational change, and how hip-hop has evolved from its start in 1970s New York City and has spread far and wide. For example, we could ask how this has spread to the American suburbs – does listening to hip-hop now while driving down leafy suburban streets in a Honda Civic mean something different than when hip-hop emerged? In this argument, hip-hop is just the means by which students can enter the world of sociology.

3. Studying “American” music is important. While classical music might be the high culture standard, it began in Europe and was imported into the United States. Studying blues and jazz, the beginnings of rock music, and hip-hop provides insights into how American culture and experiences, particularly the African-American experience, is translated into music and performances.