A study in contrasts

Professor takes literature off the page and into the real world.

Adam Bradley is a study in contrasts. He’s a hip-hop expert who grew up in Salt Lake City. He can dissect the literary devices of Shakespeare in one breath and Slick Rick in the next. He teaches in the Department of English, but his Race and Popular Culture—or RAP Lab—is in the Cristol Chemistry Building, bustling with chemists wearing lab coats and eye protection.

The RAP Lab is a “humanities hothouse” for cutting-edge research, teaching and outreach. Here, Bradley and a cadre of student and postdoctoral researchers are taking on a number of projects, including looking at the differences and similarities between American hip hop and Polish hip hop.

“We want to understand what’s going on with the language and the flow of lyrics, but also what’s going on culturally when something like hip hop, which is born in an African American context, gets taken over to a country like Poland, which is 98 percent white,” Bradley said.

Bradley and a colleague in Poland are compiling a global catalog of artists and scholars. So far, they’ve found potential collaborators in 26 countries who could help explain how hip hop is expressed in other cultures and countries.

Closer to home, he’s striving to help Colorado prison inmates break the cycle of destructive behavior without severing their social ties.

Lisi Owen, executive director of the Colorado Prison Law Project, heard Bradley on Colorado Public Radio discussing his Hip Hop in the Classroom initiative, which helps students understand how hip hop and literature employ many of the same devices, thereby helping students relate to and possibly even study literature.

Owen suggested that Bradley make a hip-hop-related presentation to two inmates who had been developing the Gang Awareness Program (GAP).

After extensive discussions with the inmates, Bradley decided what they needed was not “for me to go in and run my own little show, but rather to support what they’d already done.”

The inmates themselves have developed GAP, “the idea being, quite radically, to conceive of something driven by the inmates themselves rather than imposed from the outside,” said Bradley. The core principle is to “occupy but not abandon” the gangs in the prisons. 

This differs from most gang-related programs, which insist that inmates renounce their gang affiliations, resulting in very low rates of success.

The inmates have created a program that allows for self-transformation, “sometimes revolutionary change, without renunciation,” he said.

Bradley and his students support the inmates’ work by sending them books, making connections with outside experts or simply lending an ear. His students are also researching other prison programs’ efficacy so as to better support GAP’s development.

Bradley emphasizes that the work with inmates reflects a common theme in literature, “that people are complex, far more capacious than we allow—they can contain contradictions and can transform themselves.”

“We see it in literature. We allow it in literature, but sometimes we don’t allow it in life.” 


Pulitzer Prize-winning author

Winning the Pulitzer Prize for Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People caught Elizabeth Fenn off guard. First she received an email from a New York Times reporter. Soon her phone started ringing and colleagues showed up at her office door. During the excitement, she received official notification from her editor. Fenn, chair of the Department of History, worked for 10 years on the book the Pulitzer Board called “an engrossing, original narrative showing the Mandans, a Native American tribe in the Dakotas, as a people with a history.” Remembered as the people Lewis and Clark stayed with in the winter of 1804–05, the Mandans “had to deal with a whole series of environmental challenges—drought, infectious disease from Europe including whooping cough, smallpox and measles, and they also had to deal with Norway rats, a new species from China arriving via Europe,” she said.

Stories in the beads

For hundreds of years, Eastern Woodlands tribes have used delicate purple and white shells called “wampum” to form intricately woven belts. In Reading the Wampum, Penelope Kelsey, director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies, explores the aesthetic appeal of the belts and provides insightful analysis of how readings of wampum belts can change our understanding of specific treaty rights and land exchanges. Wampum belts can be used as a form of currency, but they are primarily used as a means to record significant oral narratives for future generations. “Today, Hodinöhsö:ni’ painters, filmmakers, craftspeople, authors and storytellers use these wampum beads to tell new stories, engaging a centuries-long tradition of wampum teachings and expressing how wampum connects meaningfully with native peoples of the present and future,” Kelsey said.