Michael Eric Dyson Event © by KBCS Bellevue/Seattle 91.3fm

Michael Eric Dyson’s received a great deal of press lately for his course on JayZ. Previously a course on the sociology of hip-hop, Dyson instead sought to teach the course primarily about JayZ. Of course there are a number of folk who are up in arms because they don’t think JayZ or hip-hop in general is worthy of a class at Georgetown.

I attack this course from a different angle.

Universities are increasingly expected to act like for-profit corporations. They increasingly expect their workers to produce more, and increasingly expect the knowledge production of their scholars to have an economic impact. And they increasingly judge departments on their class enrollments (higher class enrollments translates into more income generated for the university). Public intellectuals like Michael Eric Dyson increasingly act as entrepreneurs, using their own human capital to increase their profile and their income. Dyson himself has his own radio show, is often on the national news, and stays on the lecture circuit.

A class on JayZ, given Dyson’s knowledge of hip-hop, and his personal friendship with JayZ and many figures in the rap game, wouldn’t be hard to prep, particularly given Dyson’s schedule. Indeed the lectures pretty much write themselves. And even though there’s an anti-intellectual narrative that people attach to rap, the reality is that most MCs and people associated with the industry would jump at the chance to give a lecture at one of the nation’s top universities. So it isn’t hard for Dyson to find fill in lecturers (that, incidentally, he doesn’t have to pay).

Furthermore, prepping the lectures, and using the information gleaned through assignments and class discussions, can easily translate into a book or series of books authored by Dyson. Which in turn generates more income, more speaking engagements, more cache, and then higher class enrollments.

Now it’s important to note that this dynamic does generate anxiety, particularly in the minds and hearts of conservatives who believe in a certain vision of the university. But not only is this anxiety NOT usually coupled with a critique of the university’s growing economic mission, the anxiety itself feeds into the class dynamics. The anxiety increases interest in the course, increases interest in Dyson, and increases hip-hop’s cache as a subversive form of popular culture, whether that is or is not the case.

Along these lines the question isn’t whether hip-hop should be taught in the classroom, or even whether JayZ should be taught in the classroom (and to be honest here while I think JayZ is a fascinating figure and the biography he wrote with Detroit native Dream Hampton is brilliant I wouldn’t teach a class solely on him anymore than I’d teach a class solely on Obama). The question is, what are the conditions that make teaching a course on JayZ probable given the neoliberal turn in the American university.


In the Limelight: Professing Jay-Z – The Hoya.