Sunday, September 2, 2018

Why spoken word poetry appears infrequently in literature courses

This past week in class, my students and I were talking about why it's been unlikely for them to have covered spoken word artists in high school classrooms and why even students in American and African American literature college courses cover few or any spoken word artists.

Some years back, I tracked the most frequently offered kinds of African American literature courses at colleges and universities. Not surprisingly, survey classes held the lead. Many schools offer a general survey, and some offer a Part I, from "beginnings" to World War II, and Part II, from World War II to the present.

Based on my reviews of online syllabi and from conversations with dozens of faculty members over the last decade, I've sensed that a major-author chronological approach is most common for the courses. Folks will move from Phillis Wheatley and Frederick Douglass to Paul Laurence Dunbar to Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes to Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison to Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, for instance.

When and if spoken word artists make the cut, they appear toward the end of the semester, along with various contemporary authors. (Rap is treated in a similar way in the classes). For many American and African American literature professors, contemporary spoken word artists are simply not a priority, as the syllabus is already overly crowded. Furthermore, books, and in particular, anthologies are a favored mode of presenting literature for survey courses. These collections necessarily privilege words on the page, not from the stage.

Hey, but poetry of any kind struggles these days. In the recent "A Changing Major: The Report of the 2016–17 ADE Ad Hoc Committee on the English Major," a group of professors noted that "emphasis on narrative and story as intellectual anchors of literary studies may diminish the curricular presence of certain kinds of poetry." They go on to write that "students typically find poetry more difficult to understand than prose fiction and thus may gravitate toward prose fiction when they have choices." The lack of training on poetry, including spoken word compositions, accounts for an additional reason why high school and college professors choose not to cover work in the area in their courses.

Despite these factors, the art of spoken word poetry remains popular among my students. In fact, their interests prompted me to rethink some of the ways to present materials. Most notably, I've been inclined to consider alternatives to conventional chronologies.  

A notebook on the sound of black women poets

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