Teaching Popular Culture & Challenging the Canon in Academia: Rosebud Ben-Oni with Robin Ford and Bakar Wilson

Rosebud Ben-Oni, Bakar Wilson, and Robin Ford

As the fall semester heralds in the academic year, I’ve been thinking about the canon as of late, particularly that of the U.S., and why the canon must evolve. So many voices have been left out, and the “reigning” voices shape a skewed version of history and truth itself. I’ve invited Bakar Wilson and Robin Ford, both writers and professors at colleges which are part of The City University of New York system, to discuss Race and Academia, bringing popular culture into the classroom and their breakthrough moments in teaching. Check out their advice on designing an inclusive syllabus for your class.—Rosebud Ben-Oni

Rosebud Ben-Oni: How do you bring the creative side of writing and pop culture into your standard composition class? What creative aspects do you bring to the classroom that helps them engage the texts in a more fulfilling way?

Robin Ford: Interestingly, my Intro to Literature class produced the most creative final projects. More creative than my Pop Culture class, which I thought would have had more creative ones since they have more leeway with their assignments. I gave them three choices for their final assignment: 1) Do a regular literary analysis paper, you know, go to the library, get scholarly sources, etc. and analyze an aspect of the text they chose; 2) Write an Annotated Bibliography/Filmography where they examine other texts that relate to the primary text, for example some of the stories we read have been made into movies, so they could use film adaptations as well as secondary sources; and 3) Re-imagine the story. Take it and rewrite it in some major way so it demonstrates your understanding of the story and/or author.

Bakar Wilson: Which short stories were they doing?

RF: The standard ones: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, W. W. Jacobs’s The Monkey’s Paw, Raymond Carver’s Little Things, Ernest Hemingway’s Cat in the Rain

BW: So works you’d consider part of the mainstream canon?

RF: Yea, and a couple of more contemporary ones. We read Woody Allen’s The Whore of Mensa. So I was trying to give them a chronology of where short fiction had come from. This was also the end of the semester and we had already read The Bluest Eye, Oedipus, the graphic novel Persepolis. But one student got so into Raymond Carver’s Little Thingsthat she couldn’t choose between the literary analysis and re-imagining the story. I tried to convince her not to take on too much and just choose one, but she got so into her research on Carver that she ended up reading his wife’s book on him, and several of his other story collections, on top of her regular secondary sources. She ended up creating this artifact: a bunch of old documents that would have belonged to Carver, like a high school diploma, marriage certificate, birth certificate, Alcoholic Anonymous meeting flyers, a flask, put them in a box along with her journal. The journal was written as if she had bought Carver’s home and found all his old documents and things up in the attic, and became so interested in knowing who had lived in her home before her that she did research on him. So the story was a kind of creative biography of Carver.

BW: Really! Wow!

RF: Yea, it blew my mind! She got an A+. Her paper was the best thing she had written all semester. Not just strongly researched, but well written. She included an old pack of cigarettes, and even made up fake award certificates for the awards he won during his life.

BW: Crazy! She went all out.

RF: I think leaving it open to the students, and encouraging them to be as creative as possible within the requirements. She still did a literary analysis, but the way she did it was so individual to her, I don’t think she would have done anything nearly so detailed and thoughtful if I had just said write a paper.

BW: That’s so cool that this happened. Those experiences are very rare, where they are so inspired by the work that they go that far. So I used QuestLove’s essays on how hip-hop killed Black America, which he published on Vulture. It is a series of six essays on how hip-hop has become the ubiquitous signifier of Black American culture and music, and how in music and fashion when you think hip hop, you think of Black culture. As opposed to before when there was Jazz, Blues, R&B, there were all these other genres and more diverse representation of Black culture, where as now there’s not, there’s just hip-hop. My feeling about teaching composition, we’ve talked about this before, you can bring in almost anything as long as it engages them, and with this, a lot of the class was really engaged with the essays, because they are kids of this culture. At one point I was asking them, “Who are you listening to now,” and of course, they are naming people I’ve never heard of before.

RF: (laughs) I know.

BW: Like Childish Gambino. I didn’t know who he was until my class.

RB: Tell us what you look for when designing a syllabus of readings. How do students respond to works by people of color and/or LGBT?

BW: I have a lot to say about this, as clearly we both do since we are both people of color and people who identify as LGBT. I automatically think of our experience when we did Paris Is Burning at Medgar Evers College (part of CUNY) and how that was kinda controversial.

RF: Very!

BW: Yes, many people had a real problem with that. And not just students but teachers as well. And my thing is, I’m always looking for work that’s going to challenge my students, and that’s going to force them to question their conceptions of things. Many times their conceptions of things are not always based in reality. So when you show a film like Paris Is Burning which documented a time when … well, first of all, the students weren’t even born then, so they have no concept of the ’80s, or the AIDS crisis here in New York or the concept of this subculture that was very much alive. They see it and they express their dislike for it, but at the end of the day, it forces them to question their ideas of sexuality, of gender, or identity which they had never thought about before because they had never had to, they’d never been forced to. They never had to because they’ve never been presented with this type of media or this type of lifestyle, so it’s like “Oh my god!” So I think that that’s definitely been what I think of as students are being presented with LGBT work.

As far as people of color, this semester I taught Intro to Lit at Borough of Manhattan Community College and all I taught was Black writers. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin was first, and of course they didn’t know who he was, then Gwendolyn Brooks for poetry, and they didn’t know who she was, and then August Wilson’s Fences and they didn’t know who he was either. But I did have students who responded really well, really well to Giovanni’s Room, even though it’s a novel about a same sex relationship. From what I could tell from their writing, because their writing was really engaging, a lot of them said, “Oh, this was so easy to read,” or “It really flew by for me.” The way Baldwin writes. He writes these long sentences, but his language is so engaging and he really brings the reader in because he’s so descriptive. Those elements of his writing helped them to digest his writing in a way. I try to incorporate LGBT and people of color in their writing whenever I can in my classesin Intro to Literature, in Comp, even in Creative Writing because I want them to think about those things. My Comp 101 classI’m teaching Susan Bordo’s “Beauty Re-discovers the Male Body;” that’s a conversation about gender, that’s a conversation about sexuality that they’ve never even had to face before. So that’s how I approach that. How do you feel about this?

RF: I don’t think I’ve consciously set out to teach particularly LGBT writers, but a lot of the writers I’ve taught are LGBT. I always teach something from Baldwin. I do push them. I don’t gloss over the fact that a writer is gay. I confront the students with this. It’s important to know. It’s part of the context, it’s part of the piece. Like Baldwin’s “If Black English isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me What is?”he’s writing this from France. He’s a Black Gay Male who had to leave the US to be himself. And it’s important to understanding the text.

BW: It frames the text.

RF: Yes, it totally frames the text. It would have been a completely different piece if he had been a different person.

BW: Yea, it would have been different if he had been writing it from New York, where he’s from.

RF: And I ask my class: “How do you think this would have changed if he had written this here, in Harlem, instead of France?” Last semester, for the first time, I had a couple of students who really pushed back against the discussions of race and racism.

BW: And were these students of color?

RF: No, they were White students. We read The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s novel, and I think it was just too much for them. Too much to grapple with the overwhelming and overt racism towards this little girl, Pecola, and it was too much for them to handle, so then they push back with: “White people had problems too!” And a Latino student wanted to only discuss it from the perspective of beauty; she wanted to make the analogy of beauty being an issue in the novel like size and size-ism being an issue today. She didn’t want to engage with the race part at all. But the thing is, I don’t think you can talk about Morrison and not talk about race; they are intertwined.

BW: Yes, they are intertwined, and that’s an interesting point. Obviously, that’s a book that forces this issue, and your students’ response that white people have problemswell, it’s not about white people having problems. This is about white privilege – there’s a difference. And yes, privileged people have problems, but this isn’t about that. It’s going to make you uncomfortable. If you have a discussion about race, it’s going to get uncomfortable, especially if you’re a person who is a beneficiary of that privilege. You start at a place of being defensive, instead of working through that privilege and acknowledging that and saying “OK, how much am I going to participate in that?” And re: the aspect of beauty, I think they are intertwined, because when you think of standards of beauty, they are Western standards, which is why we straighten our hair, which is why we want to lighten our skin. They are very much connected.

RF: That’s ultimately how I was able connect to some of the students who weren’t engaged, through the idea of Western standards of beauty both male and female. So they were able to read the book and look at it that way, rather than “Oh here’s this Black female professor who’s pushing this book about “Black Female Oppression!” and having an agenda. Also, acknowledging that it will make you uncomfortable. This is a book that is supposed to make you uncomfortable. You’re not supposed to enjoy the book. But at the end of the semester, I had some students come up to me and say they liked the book. It was one of the few books that they actually read all of, because they like iteven though the subject was awful. They were moved. I think you have to push them and it’s OK for them to be uncomfortable.

BW: I think that’s at the core of what a good teacher does in general, pushing them, making them uncomfortable, challenging their conception of the world.

RB: Is the canon evolving? How do you teach—in today’s classroom—canonical literature when it is not an accurate representation of this country’s past?

RF: Yes, the canon is evolving slowly, but there are still the Harold Blooms; there is pushback, but I never teach, for instance, a Shakespeare play without teaching its contemporary counterpart, preferably by a woman of color. So, I try to balance them, and I try to explain what “The Canon” is because they have never heard of that. They think it’s a on a pirate ship shooting cannonballs, like from Pirates of the Caribbean or something. So, I think it’s slowly evolving, I don’t think anyone including Harold Bloom would deny that Toni Morrison is a part of the Canon.

BW: Right, or Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Kumanyakaa, or Junot Diaz.

RF: Maybe some of the more contemporary ones are a little harder to accept for some faculty. One thing I like about where I’m teaching now is I can teach whatever I want. I have total freedom. I taught the Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis this semester. We started with Oedipus Rex, and then went to The Bluest Eye, and then went to Persepolis, and looked at the evolution of literature that way. That was the first time I would say anybody in the class had read any Middle Eastern writers, and it was accessible because it’s a graphic novel.

BW: So, even the whole idea of a graphic novel being a part of the Canon is totally challenging.

RF: I challenge the Canon all the time. I like to. I love the Canon. I love Shakespeare. And I don’t teach the Canon the same way I was taught the Canon.

BW: Well, when we were taught the Canon, there were the shining lights and God coming down from the ceiling telling us this is what true literature is, and you must love it.

RF: Right, and there is no challenging it critically. So, I tend to teach them and play devil’s advocate a lot. I want them to fight against some of the concepts that the writers are trying to communicate to the reader.

BW: But I think it’s also, “do you relate to the literature in any sort of real way? Does this relate to your experience or not?”

RF: Right. “You can’t critique the Canon because it’s the Canon.” I always start the Shakespeare section of my class by asking my students what they have read by Shakespeare. They name the popular ones: Romeo and Juliette, MacBeth, Hamlet, maybe Othello. I always tell them I hate Hamlet. “God, I just want to smack him! He’s so whiny; I just want to tell him to grow up!” My class was just looking at me like, “Oh my god! How can she say that!” My students have never heard anyone say that. I think it has a place in the Canon, but it’s just writing. It didn’t come from God. It came from a person. And you don’t have to like it, or you can like it but still think that parts of it are crap.

BW: Yeah, I agree. I think the Canon is slowly evolving due to the changes in our societygay marriage happening, people becoming more aware of the racial issues that we have been ignoring as a society. It is becoming more inclusive of writers who aren’t white, straight, and male. But we still have a long way to go. It’s important that literature represents not only this country’s past accurately, but also the citizens of this country accurately.

RF: I’ve taught Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn before, and some of the students were very uncomfortable because of the use of the N-word throughout the book. And I told them we have to put this in a historical context. When is Twain writing? What is he writing about? What period is he writing about? And he is criticizing it; he’s not saying this is ok. But I know that book is banned a lot because of the use of the N-word.

BW: Yeah, which is totally ridiculous.

RF: Totally, we can’t just forget about that part of our history. If you want to understand where we are today, you have to look at where we were. And you can learn things from how Twain critiques that time.

RB: Tell us about your most explosive teaching momentswhen did you make breakthroughs? When did you fail?

BW: I will say one of the most explosive moments for me is when I was still teaching at Medgar Evers College. I was teaching Baldwin’s essay, “Stranger in the Village.” It was a first level English Composition class, and obviously with teaching Baldwin, you have to give them background, and I brought up his homosexuality. Well, one of my students chimed in on how she felt that homosexuality is wrong and that they’re all going to hell, really inflammatory stuff. I told her that she definitely has a right to her opinion, and I’m not trying to indoctrinate her or anyone else in the class about how anyone feels about homosexuality. You can think what you want about gay people, I don’t care. You think I’m going to hell because I’m gay? Good for you. However, that type of speech is not going to fly in the professional sphere. I asked her, what if she spoke like that at her job and her gay boss overheard her? That’s your job. You’re fired because no one wants to work with a bigot. So, I told her this isn’t about me trying to change her mind about gay people. It’s about exposing her to these types of differences, so she knows what the appropriate ways to respond to these differences is in these realms, public or private because no one wants to hear that.

RF: Maybe that’s OK at your church.

BW: Right, maybe it’s OK in your church, and maybe they speak that way there, but you can’t bring that type of speech into the mainstream anymore. This country is changing its views on homosexuality. It’s more accepted now, and I don’t think anyone who is progressive would think that kind of speech is okay now. Anyway, so to be challenged like that in front of everybody, I was just like, whatever. I’m out to my students. I don’t roll up the first day of class and say, “By the way guys, I’m gay.” It comes out organically through conversation and class discussion. I share stories, I’m sure as you do, but I don’t make a big deal about it.

RF: If it comes out, it comes out. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

BW: Yeah, so that’s how I feel about it. I’m not trying to make you love gay people. I don’t care. What about for you?

RF: I’m sure I had probably many moments at Medgar Evers College just because of the student body there. But at Queensborough Community College, this wasn’t super explosive, but it was a challenge for meI was teaching “A Boy’s Life,” about a little boy who is transgender. The students put themselves in groups and they were supposed to be going over the essays they were writing about this piece. As I’m circulating, I have this one group of four students, and they are all, “This is wrong. This is gross. I don’t understand it.” I was trying to explain what transgender meant to them. Because they were just—“if you have a penis, you’re a boy, and if you have a vagina, you’re a girl. There is no in-between.” I’m like, “did you read the article?” And they did, but they were just like— “This is wrong.” So, I actually built that into the next class, and we had a full class discussion where I said— “look, I think it’s really important for you guys to be able to say how you feel about this, but I want you to keep in mind that you don’t know who in this class is what gender. You may think that I’m a certain gender, but you don’t know that for sure.” I think that made them stop and think for a minute. And I didn’t change their minds about it. I know they still feel the same way, but I think they left knowing that it wasn’t okay to make those kind of comments and to think a little bit more about what they say because they don’t know who is what.

BW: Yeah, that’s interesting because I had a conversation with one of my students in class about gender when I was teaching Baldwin’s book, Giovanni’s Room. Their essay question asked them how the main characters’ expectations of their gender dictate their choices. I feel like that’s part of what Giovanni’s Room is about. All of their choices are based off of society’s expectations of them as male and female, as masculine and feminine, versus what they actually want and desire, and so how does that dictate their choices. But in asking that question, a lot of my students didn’t realize the difference between biological sex and gender. So, I had to explain that to them and I got into several really great discussions about what gender is versus what sex is, and it was difficult for them to grasp at first, but eventually they got it, and I did see some light bulbs go off.

RF: Toni Morrison’s Sula is a great text for challenging female gender roles because Sula the character just totally flips all of those on their head and she’s just like, I’m me and I’m going to do what I want to do. And students are like, “Oh my god, she’s acting like a guy!” I like teaching that text, and the women in class are always the first ones to damn her. But I always respond withif she were a guy, would you be saying the same thing? So, then they have to stop and think. And their first reaction is, yeah of course I would, and then they’re like, well, maybe not.

RB: What advice would you have for creative writers and academics alike in how to better incorporate contemporary literature or pop culture into their syllabi?

RF: Use your own writing. One thing I have foundI put my own blog up for my classes as an example so they can see what they can do with their blogs. And I’ve shared my academic writing with my classes before when they’re doing research papers. So, they see that it goes beyond the classroom. The writing is not just within these walls. You’re learning to write in order to communicate with a broader audience. Also, teach what you love, even though there have been a couple of times when I was mad that students didn’t love the text as much as I did. As instructors, we are much more invested in teaching something that we appreciate rather than something we think we should be teaching, or we feel like we ought to appreciate when we really don’t. I’ve had students in my Intro to Lit. class ask about Charles Dickens. And I said, “I’m never going to teach Dickens because I can’t stand Dickens.” I just remember being in undergrad and thinking this is torture; I cannot stand this.

BW: Not even Great Expectations?

RF: No. I always tell my students he got paid by the word. He’s a great storyteller, but I don’t love him. I would teach maybe a movie version that I liked. But it’s one of the other canonical texts that I don’t particularly love. I felt tortured by having to read Moby Dick when I was in undergrad. I’m not going to force my students to read Melville because I’m not going to do a good job teaching it because I don’t like it. And I can find someone else of that period that I like. And I love comic books, so I try to incorporate comics as much as possible. I’m not talking about Spiderman; I mean comics that meet the criteria of literature as I define it for my students. I taught The Killing Joke this semester in my Pop Culture class, which is the origin story of The Joker, and we compared that to Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight because Ledger read that to help him prepare for the role.

BW: That sounds really cool.

RF: There’s so much stuff out there, and it’s all writing. I’m loosening up a lot more. As long as they’re writing, I don’t really care as much about what they’re writing about. It’s even less about following my prescriptive assignments. I have to do that because it’s part of my job to give very specific assignments and rubrics and all. But the best students push those boundaries and break the walls and they do something else and that’s great.

BW: I agree with a lot of what you have to say here, especially the idea of teaching what you love. This semester, everything I taught for my Intro to Lit class I love. I love James Baldwin; I love Gwendolyn Brooks; and I love August Wilson. I’m going to be really enthusiastic about those writers and their works, and so I would hope that my students see that enthusiasm and be like, “OK, he really loves this.” As opposed to teaching something like Moby Dick where I clearly am not enjoying it.

RF: Or teaching Hamlet.

BW: Oh yeah, there are so many other Shakespeare plays I would teach other than Hamlet. I would teach Othello, definitely. I would teach The Tempest, and even Cymbeline, one of his lesser-known plays. But as far as advice is concerned, I think it’s important to take risks with things that you teach. I think that it’s important to challenge your students, but also to not underestimate them. You can always find a way.

RF: I find the harder you push them, the more they give you.

BW: Exactly!

RF: There are always some that fall by the wayside. But the ones that are there to actually learn somethingthey sense your enthusiasm, like you said, and they will rise to the occasion. I gave my students Paulo Freire. The entire chapter I gave them goes into his politics, and we dove into that. Grant it, they were like, “Oh my god, I had no idea what he was talking about, but I read it.” And it forced them to try and make their way through it, and I think they appreciate that.

BW: Yeah, they come out with something. I mean, there is the whole, “I did it,” sense of accomplishment thing, but also they do come out with something. And they get what they get, and they are able to take that into the next thing that they do or the next text. I’ve taught Freire’s “The Banking Concept,” and it’s a difficult essay. I tell them, this is hard. Freire alludes to so many concepts and philosophers who you have never heard of, but at the end of the day, they pick up his argument and what he’s saying. Even in the most basic standards of how we are educated as people, how we interact in the world, and what’s expected of us, they are able to pick out those things.

RF: And bring his text into their own education, the public school system, miseducation.

BW: Yeah.

RF: I don’t expect them to get the same depth of understanding that a graduate class would get, but you’ve given it to them, and I think they kind of appreciate it, even if they don’t want to admit it.

Robin Ford is an Assistant Professor of English at Queensborough Community College; she received her PhD from New York University. Her writing appears on Salon, and she has been a featured guest on NPR’s “On Point.” She is currently working on her first book, an examination of student engagement in First Year Composition. Her blog Writing Identity can be found at https://robinrford.wordpress.com

Bakar Wilson is a fellow of Cave Canem and an alum of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. He has performed his work at the Bowery Poetry Club, Poetry Project, The Studio Museum of Harlem, and The Asian-American Writer’s Workshop among others. His poetry has appeared in The Vanderbilt Review, The Brooklyn Rail, and Flicker and Spark: A Contemporary Queer Anthology. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Bakar received his BA in English from Vanderbilt University and his MA in Creative Writing from The City College of New York. He teaches at Borough of Manhattan Community College at CUNY.


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