From Dog Food to Drug Dealers to Poetry (or a typical internet search)

cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by quiiver

WARNING: Many of the rap lyrics in the linked site are explicit. Expect frequent NSFW references and other lines that, while necessarily profane, will offend people. I will also move from something fairly tangible and real into a semi-philosophical discussion which is likely to be less pleasant than any explicit lyrics.

While searching for a picture of Alpo dog food to use in a presentation, I noticed that there appears to be a (relatively) well known Harlem drug dealer named Alpo who was referenced in this rap lyric– that happens to be annotated through Rap Genius.

Rap Genius is your guide to the meaning of rap lyrics (basically the internet version of the nerd-*** “rap dictionary” dorm-mate you had in college).

You can listen to songs, read their lyrics, and click the lines that interest you for pop-up explanations – we have thousands of canonical rap songs explained (2Pac, Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z – even the beginning of the Torah..)

Our aim is not to translate rap into “nerdspeak”,1 but rather to critique rap as poetry.

The quality of the critiques vary considerably- some are just restatements in less oblique terms, others actually reference factual elements2, but there are plenty of examples of analysis and research in there that are exactly what we try to force out of students but here people are doing it willingly. Large chunks are done by the staff of the site but there are clearly unfettered people participating and the digital structure that helps this happen would be easy to duplicate if necessary.3

On a semi-philosophical level there is a pretty prevalent belief that people (adults and students) don’t do “academic” things without being coerced4 There are just so many examples like this on the Internet that show that people pursue the same skills/knowledge we’re trying to teach but in different contexts and they are clearly willing to spend huge amounts of time and energy pursuing these things. Just about everything structurally we do in education prevents that pursuit from occurring.

Shawn Cornally of Think Thank Thunk has been doing some really impressive work around fixing the world’s problems for some time.5 I do not watch videos6 but I have watched the video above three times now and forced my wife to sit through it as well.

The structural problems Shawn lays out are the same issues I see with adults in our system. We set up the same systems of metrics for performance and coercion for adults that we do for kids and get the same results in many cases. That is why you get the conjoined twins of low staff development attendance and complaints of not enough staff development.7 It is often about learning the system and putting in whatever effort gets the boxes checked. I don’t say that as indictment of teachers but as a recognition of reality and the way people respond to these systems. It will be interesting to see how this plays out as the way we evaluate teachers more closely mirrors the ways in which we are evaluating students.

1 The weaker “nerdspeak” option was covered here back in 2007. The comments from Dan and Jose are worth reading.

2 For instance I did not get the “50 grand” fine allusion in the intro to N***** In Paris (that’s a link to the clean version). Now I know.

3 You could get pretty close with and WordPress without any real effort.

4 That’s carrot or stick coercion and includes the carrot-stick where we punish people with rewards.

5 You should read everything he has written.

6 I need to find/install a browser plugin that lets me watch videos at 2x or 3x normal speed. I’ll put up with the squeaky voices if I can move through things more quickly.

7 My comments on staff development quality are way beyond footnote length.