Priya Parmar is an Assistant Professor of Adolescence Education at Brooklyn College’s School of Education in New York, where she teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses to aspiring teachers.
Of special interest to Parmar, whose doctoral dissertation is titled “KRS-One Going Against the Grain: A Critical Study of Rap Music as a Postmodern Text,” is rap music. No mere enthusiast of the genre, Parmar holds that it is an unappreciated tool for imparting English literacy to young children: A 2003 Brooklyn College faculty newsletter reports that Parmar’s scholarly writing “focuses on using hip-hop culture as a tool to increase literacy skills” in elementary and secondary schools.
Those critics who question whether rap music, with its on reliance grammar-averse Ebonics slang, is an effective medium for teaching literacy are dismissed by Parmar as craven apologists for bourgeois hegemony. “Rap music causes moral panic in many because of its ‘threat’ to existing values and ideologies held by the dominant middle class,” asserts Parmar. On the strength of no evidence whatsoever, Parmar also claims that “research has shown that Ebonics is a legitimate systematic language.” Nor does Parmar doubt that the explicit lyrics and violent subject matter of rap make perfectly appropriate learning aids for young children:
“From my experience in the classrooms—and that of my students who are practitioners in the field—we’ve learned that kids—even as young as third grade—are very sophisticated about the homophobic, violent and sexual messages from some mainstream rap artists. If you give students an opportunity to deconstruct the lyrics and then compare them with those of more political and social-consciousness raising artists, such as [rap groups] The Roots and Dead Perez . . . youth are capable of distinguishing between reality and false perceptions and stereotypes perpetuated in commercialized rap.”
Rap, Parmar teaches, is more than a means of teaching literacy. It is also a vehicle for social engineering. In addition to teaching children grammar and sentence structure, Parmar maintains, the “critical examination and deconstruction of rap lyrics becomes a method to get students to critically examine such issues as race, class, culture, and identity.” Parmar calls this mode of instruction an “an empowering, liberating pedagogy.” She notes with approval that one of her former students used rap to “explore economic social and political issues” in a middle school.
Parmar’s controversial course at Brooklyn College, “Language Literacy in Secondary Education,” typifies the professor’s preference for politicized pedagogy. Required of all students who intend to become secondary-school teachers, the course is designed to teach students to draft lesson plans that teach literacy. Parmar’s syllabus informs students that the principal focus of these lesson plans must be “social justice.”
Another theme animating Parmar’s course is her aversion to the proper usage of English. To insist on grammatical English, Parmar believes, is to exhibit an intolerable form of cultural chauvinism—a point reinforced by the a preface to the requirements for her course, which adduces the following quotation from the South African writer, Jamul Ndebele: “The need to maintain control over English by its native speakers has given birth to a policy of manipulative open-mindedness in which it is held that English belongs to all who use it provided that it is used correctly. This is the art of giving away the bride while insisting that she still belongs to you.” Students are expected to share Parmar’s antipathy toward grammatical rule-based English, as she does not countenance dissent: In December of 2005, for instance, several disaffected Brooklyn College students wrote letters to the dean of the School of Education taking issue with Parmar’s hostility toward students who dared voice their support for the correct usage of English.
Nor was this the only confrontation between Parmar and her students. Evan Goldwyn, a Brooklyn College student who took Parmar’s course, caused a campus storm when he wrote a lengthy critique of the course detailing his objections to Parmar’s teaching methods. Topping Goldwyn’s list of grievances were Parmar’s pronounced bias against English and her alleged bigotry against white students. “She repeatedly referred to English as a language of oppressors and in particular denounced white people as the oppressors,” Goldwyn wrote. “When offended students raised their hands to challenge Professor Parmar’s assertion, they were ignored. Those students that disagreed with her were altogether denied the opportunity to speak.”
Students also charged that Parmar’s insistence on bringing politics into the classroom went beyond issues relating to English literacy. For instance, one week before the 2004 presidential election, Parmar turned over her course to a classroom screening of Michael Moore’s polemical anti-President Bush documentary, Fahrenheit 911. Students were allegedly required to attend the screening, even if they had already seen the film. “Most troubling of all,” Goldwyn wrote, “she has insinuated that people who disagree with her views on issues such as Ebonics or Fahrenheit 911 should not become teachers.”
Parmar, according to Goldwyn, has also retaliated against students who disagreed with her political opinions by lowering their grades. After challenging Parmar about her teaching methods, Goldwyn and another student found themselves accused of plagiarism after the semester had ended. The accusations were reportedly based on the final assignment for Parmar’s course, which asked students to devise a special lesson plan for “linguistically and culturally diverse students.” Following an informal investigation, conducted, at Parmar’s instigation, by the dean of the education school, Goldwyn received a D-minus for the course.