Published: March 1, 2012 By
Adam Bradley

Hip-hop music could turn young people on to higher education, perhaps even persuade them to study at the University of Colorado Boulder.

That’s the hope of Adam Bradley, associate professor of English at CU-Boulder. With the help of a new $8,000 fellowship to enhance diversity on campus, Bradley plans to launch a one-year pilot program called “Hip Hop in the Classroom.”

That program aims to link Bradley’s own scholarly research of hip hop with local efforts to diversify curricula in metro-area middle schools and high schools, particularly those whose students include many under-represented minority groups.

“There’s a tremendous ability in students that’s often left untapped or even unseen,” Bradley says, suggesting that these students might not realize that they have the brains and passion to succeed in college [and that hip hop might provide one way of unlocking those abilities].

Hip hop as a culture “demands a level of fluency in its forms,” Bradley says, adding that hip hop uses the same “intellectual muscles that we ask our students to use when they come to CU.”

Hip Hop in the Classroom could help make the difference between a kid staying in school and dropping out, Bradley says, citing the “multiple intelligences” of students that are sometimes overlooked in today’s curriculum. “The simple fact that students can memorize thousands of lyrics and recite them on demand is an amazing thing.”

They might not realize it, but such students already know the difference between a simile and a metaphor and recognize, say, onomatopoeia—in which a word, like “boom,” sounds like what it describes.

That’s a critical skill, Bradley notes. “It’s so much more important for students to understand how language works than for them just to know the names of literary devices.”

Bradley knows whereof he speaks. He is an expert in hip hop and African American literature. He is also a person who might have never ended up in college.

Bradley was born and reared in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Los Gatos, Calif., where his first-grade teacher informed his mother that the boy could not read. Bradley’s mother, who viewed the assessment as nonsense, took him out of school. His grandmother home-schooled him for the next nine years. From her, he learned Shakespeare, Keats and Coleridge.

Bradley, it turns out, reads quite well. He has capitalized on that skill.

He co-edited “The Anthology of Rap,” published by Yale University Press, and is the author of “Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop.”

Bradley is also a noted scholar in African American literature and has particular expertise in Ralph Ellison, whose 1952 masterpiece “Invisible Man” catapulted Ellison to fame. Bradley co-edited Ellison’s posthumously published unfinished second novel, “Three Days Before the Shooting,” which informed his own analysis of the author, “Ralph Ellison in Progress,” both published in 2010.

This expertise helps Bradley understand hip hop as a cultural development and rap in particular as a lyric tradition. “We can study it as a literary form unto itself.”

As Bradley notes, teachers in some schools are using hip hop in their courses. But teachers require “a willingness to shift some of authority to their students” in order to bring hip hop into the classroom.

Teaching with hip hop also has potential pitfalls. “Hip hop carries with it so much baggage,” Bradley notes. “But so many of the lyrics transcend our assumptions of explicit language and content.” Nonetheless, thoughtfully introducing rap lyrics to coursework is “an audacious thing to do.”

Bradley has observed the use of hip hop in classrooms, both his own and those of others, and noted everything from students writing their own raps based upon canonical literature to exploring the narrative theory through an Eminem song.

“What we want to with this initiative is to capture and to record some of these best practices,” fusing classroom experimentation with scholarly understanding.

Bradley will do this with the help of the Enhancing Diversity through Action and Outreach Fellowship, of which he is the first recipient. The fellowship, developed by the Diversity Committee of the Arts and Sciences Council, aims to help faculty focus on “retention, role modeling and outreach, which could yield real and tangible improvements” in diversity.

Each fellowship will provide a $5,000 summer stipend from the college and as much as $3,000 from the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Community Engagement.

Theresa D. Hernández, Ph.D., a member of the Diversity Committee and associate chair of psychology and neuroscience, says the impetus for the fellowship was based in part on the desire to fund innovative ideas aimed at boosting diversity.

Colorado’s adult population is 3.83 percent African American, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. In the College of Arts and Sciences, African Americans composed 1.9 percent of the student population in 2011, slightly better than the campus-wide average of 1.7 percent, but still less than half of the statewide average.

Hispanic students composed about 8 percent of the CU student population, less than half of the adult population of Hispanic people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And while the percentage of Hispanic CU students has grown slightly during the last decade, Hispanics and other non-white ethnic groups in Colorado are growing faster than the state population as a whole, while growth in the white population lags behind the statewide average.

These trends lend urgency to the university’s decades-long efforts to boost diversity.

Bradley’s proposal was attractive partly because it enhances exposure to “feeder populations” of young people who might later study at CU, Hernández says. Hip Hop in the Classroom includes role-modeling that illustrates what can be done at a university.

If Bradley’s project helps some students pursue college, mission accomplished, Hernández adds. “They may or may not go to CU-Boulder, but if they go to college somewhere, that’s enhancing diversity.”

Bradley notes that Hip Hop in the Classroom has three goals: outreach, role-modeling and retention.

A key element of Bradley’s initiative is its use of CU students in the K-12 system. “We want students from area high schools to be able to relate to peers or near peers,” Bradley says.

The K-12 students would have mentors who are already in college and thriving, and the fellowship would create opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds to collaborate with a professor in implementing “cutting-edge scholarship and pedagogy through hip hop.”

By involving CU students of diverse backgrounds, Bradley hopes to increase their retention rate. In this way, Bradley’s proposal is designed to help students who are already enrolled and to encourage those who might someday enroll.

“It’s a small effort, and we’re only going to be working with a handful of schools, but it could have a profound effect,” Bradley says.

He explains that incorporating hip hop into K-12 curricula might begin with examining Shakespeare, Ellison, Dickinson, “then looking at the hip-hop canon and seeing natural linkages.”

For instance, one of Bradley’s courses presents the African American canon, but remixes it “through lens of hip hop—everthing from Lauryn Hill to Kanye West songs.” This and similar strategies aims to “make the familiar unfamiliar.”

That builds students’ competence in writing, critical analysis, which are “the bread and butter of the educational system.”

Such techniques can ignite students’ natural intellectual curiosity and “reawaken the wonder,” Bradley says. Further, it can demonstrate that “art is something that’s always in the making,” not just the province of the past and of faraway places.

“To be in the audience at a Shakespeare play in the 16th century and to be in the audience of a rap show today are not completely disparate experiences.”