Opinion: Beyonce belongs in the classroom
February 7th, 2012
01:15 PM ET

Opinion: Beyonce belongs in the classroom

Editor's Note: James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and an associate professor of English at Lehigh University. He is also the founder of Hip Hop Scholars, LLC, an association of Hip Hop generational scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of Hip Hop, urban and youth cultures. You can follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson.

By James Braxton Peterson, Special to CNN

(CNN) - I don’t think that anyone would consider me a fan of Beyonce’s music. Any of my students will tell you that generally speaking, R&B is not my musical genre of choice.

That said, I feel compelled to speak to some of the unspoken issues regarding university courses revolving around prominent pop cultural figures. There has been a bevy of media coverage on this kind of course, most recently directed towards Kevin Allred’s “Politicizing Beyonce ...” course in Rutgers University’s Women and Gender Studies department. Coverage of Allred’s course seems to be garnering more overall positive support than some previously taught courses like Michael Eric Dyson’s Jay-Z class at Georgetown University, but I still think that many folk outside of the academy, particularly those who dismiss this kind of coursework, do not fully appreciate the war zone the academy has become.

We are at war. We are fighting for the right to reach students, especially students frustrated with the homogeneity of the educational curriculum, especially students whose lived experiences are not reflected in the curriculum as it is currently constructed. We are fighting for innovation in the Humanities but also in the social and so-called "hard" sciences.

Too many college classrooms are like mausoleums. For all of our smart technology and tentative embrace of the digital age, too many courses are not willing to integrate currency into the classroom space. And that is part of what this war is about. Allred’s course speaks to young people, especially young people of color, women, and the LGBT community, in ways that too many other courses simply will not and some others simply cannot.

I believe in the efficacy and the inherent value of the kinds of courses that Allred will surely continue to teach. Folks should note well that his “Politicizing Beyonce” course emerged from discussions that were already occurring about the pop star, and her impact on the lives of young people in his Intro course on women and gender studies. This is where Allred’s selection of Beyonce makes sense. She has not emerged in some pop cultural vacuum. A course such as this allows students to consider the ways in which her imagery, lyrics, and film performances challenge gender roles and engage emerging discourses on gender in American society.

Allred is situating Beyonce within a variety of socio-historical and socio-political contexts, including the wide range of Black feminist and Womanist writings that were applied to Beyonce’s historical forbearers, notably Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. The kinds of conversations that these innovative courses trigger help students to transform themselves from passive consumers into critically thinking, media literate agents who will be better prepared to master the inundation of imagery, consumption, and political spectacle with which they will be wrestling for the rest of their lives.

When I was in graduate school at University of Pennsylvania, I had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant in Michael Eric Dyson’s Tupac course which explored the spirituality and religious complexity of Tupac’s life and lyrics. It was a foray that invited students to consider broad themes in religion studies, including redemption, posthumous mythology and prophetic discourses.

More recently, I was a guest lecturer in the brilliant “Sampling Soul” course co-taught for the second consecutive year at Duke University by Mark Anthony Neal and super-producer, 9th Wonder. Together, Neal and 9th Wonder explore 20th century Black musical history through the songs and riffs that are most readily sampled by more current Black music. The result is an ethno-musicological journey through the vault of Black artistic production.

I was elated to hear that Salamishah Tillet and John Jackson were co-teaching a course on Spike Lee’s body of work, and I submitted my published articles on HBO’s "The Wire" for Professor Charles Ogletree’s course at Harvard Law that deployed "The Wire" as a subtext for critical inquiry into urban policy and politics. Last year, I consulted with Dyson as he developed the syllabus for his groundbreaking course on sociology, theodicy and the life and lyrics of Jay-Z.

I study, research, write about and teach various approaches to hip-hop culture (and graphic novels and comics) and I am professionally committed to these kinds of courses. But I have been engaged in countless battles about the value of what I do – despite the fact that my classes are well populated, often the most diverse classes on campus and students’ evaluations of my courses are very strong. This is why I believe that courses like Allred’s are an important innovation for the academy.

Our universities are struggling to diversify faculty, staff, administrators, and students, but what is often left out of this discussion is our struggle to diversify the curriculum – to bring the subject matter through which we educate this next generation into the 20th and 21st centuries.

Finally, we have to consider the sheer marketing aspect of courses such as these. I am a director of the Africana studies program at Lehigh University and part of the “game” is as simple as butts-in-the-seats of your classroom, your program, and/or your department. When an English department creates a film studies/media program the number of students choosing English as a major increases. When Africana studies programs or sociology departments embrace pop culture, new media and technology, the number of majors and minors increases. I do not think of this as pandering to students’ interests – I think of this as the academy understanding the value of innovation in what we do and what we will be able to do going forward in the information age.

Although many, many scholars have said this before – it’s worth repeating ad infinitum. A text is no longer simply a textbook. The life and works of Beyonce – like her music or not – are a series of texts. The brilliant new film, "Pariah," is a text. Jay-Z’s lyrics are texts! In the academy we use texts to teach, and for those folks who can’t get their heads around the fact that textualilty is no longer trapped in the 18th century, I sadly consider them to be casualties of these ongoing academic wars.

The opinions expressed are solely those of James Braxton Peterson.

Posted by
Filed under: Black in America • Education • Pop culture • What we think • Women
soundoff (76 Responses)
  1. Me

    Yes Beyonce does belong in the classroom LEARNING but not as a subject of study. Give me a damn break. No wonder this country is so far behind.

    February 29, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
  2. sharky

    No wonder students carry the highest debt rate in the nation.

    February 20, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  3. cho

    Anything to dumb-down schools so the idiots can get an easy grade How lazy.

    February 16, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Tim

    Sounds like great doctoral studies topic(s) in a sociology department and a great sociology single course for undergraduates. After the doctoral studies programs with their research establish it as a ligit area to study it would fit well as a subset in an undergraduate sociology degree.

    February 15, 2012 at 9:13 am | Report abuse |
  5. Alex

    Beyonce epitomizes just how superficial our society has become. Yes, she is a beautiful woman. And yes, she obviously knows how to appeal to the masses with her music. But get her to open her mouth and she sounds like an uneducated 10th grader who learned early that if you say something and look polished, people may not notice WHAT you are saying. The same goes for her husband. It's a shame that two people so poorly-spoken are role models for a generation. It is also a shame that such wealth has been bestowed on two people who obviously didn't value education.

    February 14, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
  6. JOSE0311USMC


    February 14, 2012 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
  7. peekandseek

    An excellent idea. Whatever it takes to keep the children interested and in school is worth giving a try. The schools in the U.S. have been teaching the same as they did fifty years ago. IMHO, the children are bored to high heaven. It is time for a change.

    February 14, 2012 at 6:55 am | Report abuse |
    • jrlawrence

      bored?! did you say children are bored? I can't help but laugh. Education is not about only being taught subjects of interest. I'm sure plenty of college educated people with successful careers had to endure long "boring" courses and they are doing just fine. I am tired of people wanting to change education just to keep students interest. Our country needs to improve our education system (lower and higher levels) and that starts with teaching children the importance of hard work. Teach children to appreciate the power of an education. It took me two tours in Iraq to appreciate mine.

      February 15, 2012 at 6:53 am | Report abuse |
  8. Dr. H. - In Canada

    The negative comments on this article demonstrates the dearth of an intellectual core among Americans. It helps explain why China is giving America a ride for its money and why America is stagnating. The study of contemporary cultural phenomenon has every right in academia. Stop hating on Beyonce's good looks, charm, money, great body and great talent in her genre. Focus on the essence of the article. You are throwing the baby out with the bath water. I guess a course on Bach would be totally acceptable... I could invoke the R word here, but I instead I am reminded that "familiarity breeds contempt". Beyonce is present... we have some "living connection" to her. Perhaps if she was dead some 50 + years ago, no one would complain.

    February 14, 2012 at 6:07 am | Report abuse |

    WHETHER WE LIKE IT OR NOT, if the students choose to have a course on her and what she emobodies or her BRAND, then that is going to take place. There is no need for disputes and or confrontations to arise as a result of it. She will be their assignments and they will be studying her. Its just the way study patterns and beliefs have reduced themselves too. its the state of education in this day and age. Deal with it

    February 14, 2012 at 4:00 am | Report abuse |
  10. V Butler

    If you look at black music today, you find that the creativity in the music is gone !!! Everyone is sampling other original music and calling it new and improved but lets face it it is remade music because there is no creativity involved. If you look at most singers and groups today and compare them to yesterday's groups and singers you find that yesterday's singers and groups had a "signature" sound today, most groups and singers try to imitate other singer's styles. If you listen to music from the 50s, 60s and 70s you find all the music played was original or had a signature sound but today you can't distinguish the signature sound anymore. Beyonce' has no signature sound, all she has is looks and that's it !!!!! Nothing else. If you listen to her music you find it has no substance or meaning to it, like most music today it has no meaning or substance. Music from the old days like classical and music from when rock and roll and soul came on the scene all had meanings but you do not see any classes on that music do you !!!! Our culture has come to just visualizing things and not really listening to the music for it's meaning or sound value. Any one who consider's Jay-Z or Beyonce' a interest of a university class of study should have their credentials pulled and be thrown out of the academic world.

    February 14, 2012 at 3:09 am | Report abuse |
    • Rankin

      I think you miss the point. The sampling of yesterday's music and creating and repackaging it in new ways is a "new creativity" in contemporary times. People work with new technology, new media, to create new things their generation will enjoy. We don't have to like it, but we do need to acknowledge that reality. The journey that got us here is replete with opportunity for debate, how the intersection of capitalism, art, technology and materialism has produced what we see today. Understand that culture, music, everything around us is not static and we must engage in intellectual discourse to understand the underlying phenomenon. I bet you you that your mother thought the music you listened to was lacked class and creativity – my mother did, I grew up in the funk era. And I am sure her mother before her felt the same about her music. So the study of contemporary cultural phenomenon has every right to be studied in the academy.

      February 14, 2012 at 5:51 am | Report abuse |
  11. Tanya

    yeah we defintiely need to study and figure out why someone with no talent and no charisma is such a huge star. What a tradition black music has had and its come to this. We were headed here for quite some time now , its official we have arrived. Black music has stooped to an all time low with this woman as our biggest star !

    February 13, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • just me

      I wouldn't say that she has not talent. I am not a big fan of her music, but it is definitely wrong to say she is untalented. I've grown up listening to her music since her Destiny's Child days, and she can not only dance, but she does have a voice as well. Her musical choices are often questionable to me, because her talent surpasses most of the songs she sings, but the entire music industry has been making crappy music the past decade or so now.

      February 21, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Tanya

    yeah we defintiely need to study and figure out why someone with no talent and no charisma is such a huge star. What a tradition black music has had and its come to this. We were headed here for quite some time now , its official we have arrived. Black music has stooped to an all time low with this woman as our biggest star.

    February 13, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Dr. B

    Jesus wept. And I'm referring to the comments, not the article. It's clear that most of the commenters here either a) did not really read much except the headline; b) didn't understand the article if they did read it; and/or c) don't seem to understand the difference between K-12 and university educational goals.

    February 10, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Tammy

    The Girl makes money shaking her ASS... last thing I want to learn about!

    February 10, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Report abuse |
  15. CPC

    How about we don't let Beyonce teach in a classroom and I won't have to regret spending so much money on my education. Kids don't go to school to have fun, they go to learn. It's perfectly normal for someone to think that way, we do live in a country where people like Kim Kardashian are role models and teachers are treated like dirt. CUT IT OUT.

    February 10, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Nikki

    Wow a lot of people on this board need to take their meds...how can something this tame enrage you so lol

    February 10, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  17. jeremyrmro

    Reblogged this on jeremyrmro.

    February 10, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  18. R Kahendi

    I think it is perfectly reasonable to teach this kind of class because it makes for culturally literate students. Popular music of whatever form tells a story about us, the people. I am as interested in hearing that story as I am in hearing about the French Revolution or some other momentous historical event. People used to look down on indigenous folk songs in the exact same way, and yet there was much to be learned from them. (http://fromthoughtsintowords.blogspot.com/2012/02/lwimbu-lwo-kusyoma-lamentation.html)

    February 8, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
  19. sabina barnes

    What awaste of words.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:40 am | Report abuse |
  20. the truth

    Beyonce 101

    Ladies, there's no reason for you to get an education or a college degree. Just show off your goodies and wave it around to the closest rich person. make them put a ring on it and voila, set for life

    February 8, 2012 at 2:36 am | Report abuse |
    • MiGrant

      Beautifully stated!

      February 8, 2012 at 6:33 am | Report abuse |
  21. tamara reina

    Black studies is a very broad subject it calls for so much understanding and research

    February 8, 2012 at 2:34 am | Report abuse |
  22. Ashley

    I feel like people are missing the point of this article. I do not think he is defending Beyonce, but rather the right of the professor to teach this type of class. He is not pro Beyonce, he is pro curriculum based programs that actually speak to those outside of the hegemonic majority. It seems like everyone read Beyonce's name and stopped reading the actual article.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:29 am | Report abuse |
  23. Ed Hurtado

    James Braxton Peterson, you need your PhD removed and should be fired from making stupid comments! This is the most ridiculous thing I heard on CNN. The intelligence is dissolving!

    CNN: What are you thinking? We are not all zombies! Please think!

    Ed Hurtado

    February 8, 2012 at 2:10 am | Report abuse |
    • RZ70

      Stick around. It'll get much, much worse.

      February 8, 2012 at 9:04 am | Report abuse |
  24. ill

    uh huh? "R&B is not my musical genre of choice."
    nothing is this articles mentions r&b or "hip hop"
    all fake pop crap he talking about

    February 8, 2012 at 1:05 am | Report abuse |
  25. SERIOUSLY???

    Isn't there enough Beyonce over-kill shoved down our throats by the media as it is, let alone teach a class about her?? I would rather continue being tortured by this damn algebra they keep forcing me to take before I would sit through a class about Beyonce and her ridiculous husband!! And their music SUCKS!!

    February 8, 2012 at 12:44 am | Report abuse |
    • aj

      I agree. I too would rather stick with the math. LOL

      February 8, 2012 at 2:00 am | Report abuse |
    • MiGrant

      Agreed! There is nothing I can learn from Beyonce. She too trashy, too obvious, and too overrated...!

      February 8, 2012 at 6:35 am | Report abuse |
      • JOSE0311USMC


        February 14, 2012 at 11:55 am | Report abuse |
  26. Bill

    ethno-musicological ? Are you totally disconnected?

    February 7, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
  27. momma

    ya know..i read the article....and it talked about referring to "texts".....said (im assuming here) by beyonce.....and to me seems as though it may refer to her as a plotical..histoical...intelligent......strong woman......well....i have time....lets review some of those texts.....they may refer to or..compare in this "class"............"im calling all the girls..gonna turn this party out..i know you want my body"........how about: "uh oh uh oh uh oh oh no no".......or......maybe......"its my name that's on the jag...so pull out your bags lets me call you a cab".............i mean do I need to go on.....look...i like songs by her....and she is appeling to the eye.....BUT......does her or her "texts" belong in the classroom.......UMMMMMM NO!!!!!!!

    February 7, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse |
  28. david burns

    Although she does need an education, she actually belongs in jail for performing for the son of Gadaffi and taking an obscene amount of money that should have gone for food for Libyan people. She should be ashamed of herself, along with Usher and Mariah Carey.

    February 7, 2012 at 10:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • DQ

      No kidding. What will be on the syllabus..."How to take money from ruthless dictators while millions starve...but as long as you have good butt..." She is attractive but she was "no poor ghetto trash like the Jacksons". She was UPPER MIDDLE CLASS remember? Who needs to study that?

      February 7, 2012 at 11:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bill

      Bravo! When I saw this article her performances for the Gadaffi's was the first thing that came to mind. Nobody is perfect but geeze what was she thinking?

      February 7, 2012 at 11:42 pm | Report abuse |
  29. AJN

    This is a new educational low. All this reinforces is how our culture has become more worried about 'equality' and making everybody feel good than actual academic excellence. This is insulting.

    February 7, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • ImpishLisa

      Why do we sink to the lowest common denominator instead of expecting people to rise up? If it weren't for her daddy pushing them, and her mommy sewing their gear, they'd be nobodies. I am so sick of Beyonce and Little Wayne and all this electro pop rap crap I could puke. Beyonce isn't going to pay your bills or tuition, I'd kick my kids' rears if they had me paying for some lame BS like this.

      February 8, 2012 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
  30. ytuque

    This professor's classes are diverse because minority and LGBT students find it interesting and asian and white students want an easy grade. And let's get over this Tupac Shakur hang up. His lyrics weren't that good.

    February 7, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Classy Warrior

      Seriously? Tupac was probably the most intellectual musical artist of the last 30 years. You're ignorance to appreciate what he was saying doesn't make it any less culturally valuable.

      February 7, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Report abuse |
      • AJN

        Who honestly cares if it is culturally valuable when many of our students cannot do basic math and are lacking in other rudimentary skills? All we are saying, before you call us racist is that these other subjects should take precedence in education and that these 'fluff courses' do nothing to enhance the marketable skills of students. You may like Tupac's music, but an employer will not care if you got an 'A' in a modern rap course. They will wonder what you were doing in college in the first place taking classes like that.

        February 7, 2012 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • MiGrant


      February 8, 2012 at 6:37 am | Report abuse |
  31. Ninoos

    I love reading garbage.

    February 7, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Report abuse |
  32. Ninoos

    Low IQ

    February 7, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Report abuse |
  33. Tiffany

    Such a waste of time and energy you put into this. The girl sing and dance and literally needs to attend some speaking classes herself. For you to think those two should be taught in OUR kids classroom is a slap in the face to all Black people.....Pathetic....Next!

    February 7, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • MiGrant

      Well stated! I agree!

      February 8, 2012 at 6:37 am | Report abuse |
  34. Gilbert Nadeau

    Give me a break! Then we wonder why as a nation that we are falling behind in education. beyonce sells her bouncing boobs in music videos. Hardly something that anyone should consider academic. We need engineers and scientists, not music video critics.

    February 7, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ett40146

      Ditto. Considering their stunt at at Lenox Hill hospital, they should be given lessons in respect and class and NOT how to act around their fellow human beings.

      February 7, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • aj

      I agree

      February 8, 2012 at 1:57 am | Report abuse |
  35. Anonymous

    Maybe we should just scrap education altogether. I'll be darned if I pay for my kids to go to school so they can learn about Beyonce's bootyliciousness. I don't give a crapucinno. How's Beyonce going to help my kid live in the real world? She's not. The crap CNN allows their writer's to write about.

    February 7, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • MiGrant

      100% agreed!

      February 8, 2012 at 6:39 am | Report abuse |
    • Nate

      It's a culture class, an elective; it's not a freakin required course...this is still america reeeelax. All the problems we have in this world and you choose to get your panties in a bunch about this lol

      February 10, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
      • Niayesh

        Posted on You'd think they'd learn not to mock the tech Oscars after the Mike Myers Sound Editing fiasco.Seeing stuff like this never fails to annoy me, thguoh. One day a year, being a nerd is good!

        November 17, 2012 at 2:12 am | Report abuse |
  36. mary

    No this is not very educatiomal amd mpte like a soap. You might want to study het curves. However as blacl female engimeer I am overwelmed

    February 7, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lulcats

      "No this is not very educatiomal amd mpte like a soap. You might want to study het curves. However as blacl female engimeer I am overwelmed" ... Ok so your a black female which is ok. But if your an 'engimeer' you need to go back to school and learn to spell. FFS this is why our countries infrastructure is failing. I want to say more but know someone will throw out 'racist' even though Im not white ... so please before posting something use spell check ... or at the very least learn how to spell.

      February 7, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
      • mary

        In the field without my glasses bit spelling vs. Math. Rump shackinh is a art that is a vocation. Now math is what Amricams need to study.

        February 7, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
  37. jj

    Pish posh

    February 7, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
  38. Kyle

    I just got my duel doctorate degree in Rumpshaking and Bootyliciousness
    All thanks to me studying these wonderful academic programs....

    February 7, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
  39. JrzWrld

    Classes like the one focused on Beyonce make sense. As an English major in college, there was a certain difficulty in seeing how the themes and issues we were studying related to the real world. Courses like the ones described here that relate to pop culture tend to be very interdisciplinary and allow students to see how their other classes that may be more focused on the past in their content are nevertheless highly relevant in the world we live in.

    February 7, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
  40. gimie a break

    just another article trying to make an excuse for the continued ideology that ignorance should be acceptable!

    February 7, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • I'm Below Stupid

      Huh? Did you even read a complete sentence in this article?

      February 7, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
      • Juan

        I want in on this Emily! I consider myelsf a Top Shot because not only am I successful in the field, but you should see me shoot on my son's "Big Game Hunter" game on the Wii!

        November 15, 2012 at 6:21 am | Report abuse |
    • Nate

      ignorance should be accepted? Huh? What in this article led you to this brilliant conclusion? I hope your breed of stupid is extinct soon.

      February 10, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
      • Yasemin

        this is seriously geittng to the point where it's beyond rediculous, i'm actually considering moving to another country, course even that is probably considered a crime nowadays, i'm sure some nob would find a way to class it as sedition or treason.

        November 15, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
  41. DQ

    It seems ridiculous that people would even pay for these courses, or that the federal government gives loans or grants for these classes.

    February 7, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • T

      If you even bothered to read this article it talks about using the platform of pop culture to discuss historical, philosophical, political, and social issues. Considering how many boring and dry college lectures I had to sit through in my life, I find this to be a refreshing alternative. If the same lessons of a boring woman's history or African-American history class can be taught using the premise of Beyonce, what's the harm?

      February 7, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
      • DQ

        If you wanna pay for $400-1000.00 for a course on some "bootylicious" dame to understand the dynamics in a Women and Gender Studies have at it. I'd put my money somewhere else. Furthermore, there are certainly more interesting women to choose from.

        February 7, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
      • M


        February 10, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nate

      It's a choice and it sounds like you could benefit and certainly those who can't seem to get along with people who don't look like you/talk like you/believe what you believe. It's unconventional so it must be wrong and a waste of time, that's the American way.

      February 10, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
  42. ruth

    Leave me out of her classroom,I mean really she really is not that intelligent!

    February 7, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • momma

      I agree......hair flipping everywhere....and just one unintelligent woman. Her lyrics say it all.....!!! Terrible!!!!

      February 7, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • MiGrant

      Beautiful? Yes!
      A good voice? Yes!
      But worthy of study? He!!, no!

      February 8, 2012 at 6:41 am | Report abuse |