Dr. Kushal Bhardwaj uses hip-hop to change educational climate
The last thing many students want to do on their weeknights is attend a three-hour class. Few students would consider staying an extra two hours after that class ends.
But some students are so captivated by what they learned in one UB class that they stay even later just to reflect on it. Enter Dr. Kushal Bhardwaj’s AMS 111 class: Hip-Hop and Social Issues.
“Hip-hop is a tool for informing and educating,” said Bhardwaj, who is better known as Dr. B. “I hope to share this tool through intellectual and spiritual discovery.”
On Thursday nights, the circle-shaped Baldy 101 classroom is transformed from a lecture space to a forum with guided instruction.
Don’t be fooled, students are there to learn, and Bhardwaj expects to be respected.
The circular classroom has the desks oriented in a circle facing inwards. Dr. B is the nucleus of the classroom.
As the clock hits 7 p.m., cellphones are stowed away, and chatter is cut short. A booming phrase comes from a singular source: Bhardwaj. “AGO!” he bellows. “AME!” is shouted back in unison by the class. The phrase is Swahili. AGO (ah-go), meaning “may I have your attention?” AME (ah-may), meaning “You may have my attention.”
Attention is all Dr. B needs. He is in command.
The students are locked in, and Bhardwaj begins to work. “Are there any newcomers,” Bhardwaj asks the class, much like a pastor may ask his congregation. A few hands are raised. “What’s your name, and who are you here with,” he probes.
Bhardwaj allows students who aren’t enrolled in the class to attend his lectures, as long as they have an enrolled classmate vouch for them. Although they don’t have to submit papers and won’t receive a grade, Dr. B still treats them like regular students, and they must still observe classroom rules and procedures as well as participate.
Bhardwaj believes that people in higher education, whether they are instructors or not, are a product of their teachers. His colleagues and former instructors emphasized concepts of making classrooms a “learning community,” that lectures should generate thought and that peaceful discussion between students should be facilitated in class. And finally, students should find their voice and participate in a supportive environment.
“How these professors have taught and informed me has influenced how I teach my students,” Bhardwaj said. “The aim of my class is to not only get the material, but a broader understanding.”
This goal is completed in a few ways. One for example, is to encourage every student to participate as much as possible. There’s more to truly attending a class than just being present, according to Bhardwaj.
“The thing with a lot of students today, is that they’re comfortable paying tuition but not attention,” he said. “My class is unsettling for people who come to class for the transaction. It’s not about the transaction, it’s about the interaction.”
As the name would suggest, hip-hop is the central theme of the course. Dr. B plays songs for the group and has students annotate a sheet with lyrics, then read some of the more gripping and thought-provoking passages.
The class’ TAs rush around the room, making sure everyone in class is listening to the song and annotating their papers. One of Dr. B’s TAs takes her position as a teaching assistant more serious than most. Problem students would be smart not to cross her.
Deidree Golbourne, a sophomore African and African-American Studies and History major, is the TA in question.
“I took his class last year, and I knew that he was looking for a TA, so I sort of hounded him about it,” Golbourne said.
Golbourne attributed her dedication to the class to her love and fascination for hip-hop and social activism. She also credited Dr. B and his class for turning her into the woman she is today.
“He watched me grow from being the loud, angry black woman in his class, to the progressive ‘want to change people in this country’ type of person,” Golbourne said. “I definitely feel that he helped tunnel my anger into something positive.”
The songs played to the class were all commentaries on the violent social structures of the ghetto. When one in particular, “Dance with the Devil,” by Immortal Technique, leaves the class silent, the professor utters a phrase rarely heard in his classroom. “If no one raises their hand soon, I’ll have to call on someone myself.”
Finally a few hands sprout upwards. Bhardwaj assigns people numbers in the order in which they raise their hands.
“What do you got,” Bhardwaj asks again with excitement. “Hold on, I have it written down,” a student said. The response has Bhardwaj literally dancing with joy.
“Now, do you guys see the point of writing things down,” Bhardwaj asked. “You guys are so afraid of your pens. You might have an amazing idea; you could have the topic of your master’s thesis, but you lost it because you didn’t write it down.”
Bhardwaj makes it his personal goal to make sure that his students become better learners.
After the class is scheduled to end, a few students stick around for “afterhours.” The environment is much more informal than the class. The desks are pushed closer inwards to form an even smaller circle. Dr. B isn’t on the inside in these sessions. He sits at one of the desks with his students. There is an even greater sense of community present throughout the room.
Afterhours give students the opportunity to discuss what was covered in class in more depth and introduces other social, political and even musical issues the students may have. It doesn’t have an end time per say, the group usually disbands when the custodial staff arrives to clean around midnight.
One attendee isn’t enrolled in the class, but has only missed two classes and attends afterhours every time he’s present.
Like many who take Dr. B’s class, Tevaine Whyte, an undecided freshman, found that taking Bhardwaj’s class has changed his views on a lot of things, especially with his African-American roots.
“This class has honestly given me a new perspective on myself as a person, and has given me a sense of history I didn’t really have when I was growing up,” Whyte said. “As soon as I came to Dr. B’s class he gave me a much stronger connection [with my history]. He started off the class by saying ‘Sankofa,’ which means ‘go to the source and fetch,’ which basically means to go back to your roots.”
Whyte said that when he started going back to his roots and researching these movies and films and different activist movements, they helped pave his way as a student. He said he “really felt a sense of connection.”
As a freshman, Whyte feels this is the first class that has helped define himself as an individual.
Another after-hours regular has grown up around hip-hop his whole life, and is fascinated that such a rich and engaging course can be given on something he’s so in love with.
“When [Dr. B] drops some hip-hop knowledge about something that might be so elementary to me, it’s so cool to see how it sticks with the kids who may not be as ‘hip-hop-centric,’” said Robbin Murray, a senior mathematics major. “It just reminds me that there’s so much we each have to learn about each other, and it happens so often in the course. It’s crazy how something so simple to one person may be so complex to another.”
Students who take his class rave about the instruction, as well as the engaging educational atmosphere, but Bhardwaj and his beloved class isn’t without criticism.
“Some people think that my class will be easy, per say,” Bhardwaj said. “That they can just memorize facts and not participate and be OK. Learning is so much more than memorization.”
He has also had students accuse him of being mean. But he argues, “Just because I’m engaging doesn’t mean I’m mean.”
Using hip-hop as a focal point allows Bhardwaj’s class to not only be informative but relatable, which may be why so many students use the class discussions to participate on a personal level.
It is because of the personal discussions in class that often times, Dr. B tries to stray away from facilitating arguments.
“I don’t really like the term ‘argue’,” Bhardwaj said. “This is because people are more concerned with winning an argument than to come to an understanding.”
It’s difficult enough for teachers to get their students to show up for class. But for Dr. B, it’s sometimes more difficult to get them to leave.