Held my first ever class at Ashesi yesterday. The course I teach is called ‘Text & Meaning‘ and – long story short – it teaches you not what to think (like most courses I went through in Ghana) but rather how to think, analyze and process information. Like teaching you how to fish, instead of just giving you fish. It is one of the foundations to all courses taught at Ashesi and is compulsory for every first year student.
For my first lesson, I took Ashesi’s 2015 class through practical criticism. My choice of text was the song ‘No Church in the Wild’ by The Throne (aka. Jay-Z and Kanye West), a song I picked in consultation with DUST’s resident music expert (and Ashesi alumnus), Eli Tetteh. I know some people think I’m some kind of music guru. But even music gurus need music gurus.
After giving everyone the lyrics, I played the song to the class. Then I encouraged them to look first for literary patterns and devices in Jay’s verse, then to use those patterns and devices to inform their impressions of what the verse means; asking them to justify their impressions exclusively through the words in front of them. They had to leave all their preconceived notions at the door.
[Hook: Frank Ocean]
Human beings in a mob
What’s a mob to a king? What’s a king to a God?
What’s a God to a non-believer who don’t believe in anything?
Will he make it out alive? Alright, alright, no church in the wild
Tears on the mausoleum floor / Blood stains the Colosseum doors
Lies on the lips of priests / Thanksgiving disguised as a feast
Rolling in a Rolls Royce Corniche
Only the doctors got this / I’m hiding from police
Cocaine seats / All white like I got the whole thing bleached
Drug dealer chic / I’m wondering if a thug’s prayers reach
Is Pious pious cause God loves pious?
Socrates asked / Whose bias do y’all seek?
All for Plato… screech / I’m out here balling, I know y’all hear my sneaks
Jesus was a carpenter / Yeezy he laid beats
Hova flow the Holy Ghost / Get the hell up out your seats… Preach
I took two sets of students through the exercise. Some thought it was simply anti-Christian and did not really move beyond that. Others delved a little deeper and were able to see (class) struggle, inequality and even anarchy in between the lines. In case you’re interested, Rap Genius does a pretty good job of explaining the verse.
The first group found more ideas; ideas expressed by a broader range of students than in the second group. However, their justifications for those ideas were influenced by things outside of the text, like the popular idea that Jay-Z worships the Devil. So – overall – I’d say the second group won this round. Besides seeing more patterns and devices, they also pulled out more ideas and were (mostly) able to do so without drawing on sources, ideas or notions outside the text, which is the whole point of close reading. That said, some students from Group B told me they were worried about how they would fare on the course.
Luckily for them, Ashesi offers its students lots of support (if only they choose take it). At the Learning Lab (in which I play a role), for example, they can take their essays and assignments and receive help, all the way from conceptualization right through to reviewing their work for grammatical errors. The Lab is only there to guide students though. We cannot do the work for them.
In a country whose education system awards following instructions and ‘chew and pour’, Ashesi is wired to teach you to think, criticize, argue and innovate. How else are we going to move forward?
It’s a two-way challenge: one faced by students unused to critical thinking, as well as by their lecturers, who have to figure out how to undo years of ‘chew and pour’ and teach students not what to think but how to think. It’s my duty as a teacher to try and connect with all my students, especially those who find my course difficult.
It’s a challenge I look forward to.
Thanks to Courage Ahiati for suggesting I write this post.