For the last two weeks, Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson‘s sociology class, called “The Sociology of Hip-Hop: The Urban Theodicy of Jay-Z” has been both harshly criticized and staunchly defended within Georgetown and beyond the Hilltop.
The latest contribution came from Spin‘s Brandon Soderberg, who defended Dyson’s course in a blog post Friday. Responding to earlier criticism in Spin and Gawker, Soderberg made the case for studying Jay-Z:
Jay-Z’s lyrics would work just fine in a literature or poetry class (Decoded is basically his own Norton Critical Anthology of Jigga), But that’s irrelevant to this discussion because, as nearly everyone who mocked the course seemed to ignore, Dyson is teaching a Sociology course! And Jay-Z’s career is perfectly suited for the study of that discipline.
Whether or not Soderberg’s words will be the last on the subject, November has seen this popular, seemingly innocuous sociology course become the subject of vehement criticism.
The first salvo in what turned out to be a media flood was the harsh criticism of the class in the Hoya by Stephen Wu (COL ’13). Wu did not mince words in his description of the genre Dyson chose to examine in his course:
Who honestly thinks that the productions of Carter can compare in any way, shape or form with the Homeric corpus? 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. Rap music frolics in the gutter, resplendent in vulgarity and the most crass of man’s wants.
While Vox disagrees with Wu’s blanket description of all rap music, we are mildly entertained/disgusted by the image of a resplendently vulgar and crass rap music frolicking in the gutter.
Wu’s article prompted an immediate response in the next issue of the Hoya from two seniors who took Dyson’s course on the sociology of hip-hop in 2009. Lauren Reese (COL ’12) and Mike Schoppmann (COL ’12) defended the study of modern hip-hop artists and situated Wu’s column within a broader racial context: “Wu, consciously or not, is embodying our society’s apprehension and bias in appreciating the work of seemingly ‘uneducated,’ structurally marginalized minority voices and represents the barriers that prevent black artists from participating in critical discourse in our country.”
At the same time that the on-campus debate over Dyson’s course raged within the pages and on the website of the Hoya, the national media began to weigh in on the academic value of the class. On November 3rd, The Washington Post‘s pop music critic Chris Richards wrote a relatively tame, non-critical article about Dyson’s class for the paper’s “Style” section.
In response to Richards’ article, Gawker‘s Hamilton Nolan provided an incredibly self-righteous verbal beatdown of Dyson:
I admire Michael Eric Dyson in this sense: he has carved out a perch in which nobody in his professional orbit is in a position to point out the fact that students would be much better served by just listening to some hip hop than by reading hundreds upon hundreds of pages of Michael Eric Dyson’s ponderous, unbearable, stiff academic interpretation of hip hop that was only slightly better than average to begin with.
Which brings us back finally to Soderberg’s response to Nolan’s withering criticism of Dyson. In his blog post for Spin, Soderberg took exception with the Gawker writer’s dismissal of the value of a sociological study of Jay-Z:
“The most MTV-friendly rapper this side of Kanye,” is how Nolan describes Jay-Z at one point; and although it’s intended as a slight against the rapper(s), it actually validates Dyson’s approach. If a crack dealer-turned-rapper-turned-venture-capitalist and his sidekick Kanye West, a visionary pop-rap auteur, child of a professor and a Black Panther, are considered “mainstream,” then that’s all the more reason to take something like “Sociology Of Hip-Hop — Urban Theodicy of Jay-Z” seriously. It should at least be enough to drop the anti-intellectual, “lolz @hip-hop” attitude.
Ultimately, this debate seems like yet another child of our Internet-driven culture that enables and encourages the expression of hyperbolic opinion to drive website traffic and sell books. Semi-manufactured controversies that ring neither true nor false increasingly characterize today’s media culture, and the representation of this one sociology course at Georgetown is no different. As the spirited debate over this course peters out, it is inevitable that something else will provoke yet another wave of feigned concern, and Vox will be there to cover it when it does.
Photo from Flickr user Rocky Mountain News used under a Creative Commons license