Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Wilson

Joycelyn Wilson, Ph.D., visiting professor and DILAC fellow in the School of Literature, Media and Communication, has taken an alternative route towards teaching social justice in her classroom. Using lyrics of world-famous musical group Outkast, Wilson tells the story of the social justice movement in Atlanta through her course titled “Exploring the Lyrics of Outkast and Trap Music to Explore Politics of Social Justice.”

Raised in Atlanta, Wilson has a close connection with the city.  A product of Atlanta Public Schools, and a doctoral graduate herself, Wilson understands that “we [university students] get this educational privilege which comes with a level of responsibility to the communities which gave us these degrees.”

After completing post-doctoral research at Morehouse College’s Leadership Center, Wilson went on to become a math teacher in the Los Angeles area. Having a classroom full of students who were racially and economically diverse, Wilson noticed that one common underlying factor of her students was they all had what she called hip-hop sensibility.

“Hip-hop, somehow, some way, was influencing their own personal culture, whether that be directly or indirectly,” Wilson said.

Once realizing that her students enjoyed using music and poetry as a way of exploring math concepts, Wilson realized that she had tapped a new level of engagement from her students. Her unique teaching style allowed students to integrate their artistic background into the classroom.

“Where are my poets? Where are my writers? Can you take the distributive property and put it into a rhyme?” Wilson said.

When looking at hip-hop as a facilitator of teaching, Wilson has, over the course of her career, taken it to the next level to effectively engage her students and enhance their learning experience. 

“Hip-hop culture then becomes a vehicle of cultural metaphor for enhancing those capacities within students in a very creative way,” Wilson said.

As a visiting professor from Virginia Tech, Wilson knew that she wanted to integrate this teaching style into the Tech classroom.

“I wanted to find ways to leverage narrative artifacts to have complex conversations surrounding issues of nonviolence, civil disobedience and other areas of understanding our beloved community in contemporary ways,” Wilson said.

When she came to Tech, Wilson knew that she would be able to take advantage of not only Tech’s growing diversity numbers but also its knack for innovation. She hopes to help undergraduates in exploring hip-hop as a vehicle for spreading a message and utilizing technology to better understand it.

“I have been strategic about the way in which hip-hop and trap music can be used as a technological learning design to teach social justice and civic engagement,” Wilson said.

Beyond this, Wilson knew that the undergraduate students here at Tech would be the perfect fit for her latest course.

“The undergraduate audience is the most ripe audience for teaching and enhancing civic engagement capacities,” Wilson said. “[Undergraduates] are influential and really at a place where they’re trying to figure out their place in the world and are engaged in pop culture.

“We are listening to the narratives and lyrical colorfulness that comes out of hip-hop culture. It’s so real, and it’s so raw. We are using that material and putting it in conversation with literature in order to understand similarities with slave work songs, blues music, jazz, soul and all the way up to hip-hop and trap music.”

However, what most do not know is that this course is only a small facet of Wilson’s ultimate teaching initiative. Apart from teaching classes that encourage controversial conversations through expressive media, Wilson is also working towards making these learning tools available to students who may not otherwise have access to these resources.

Through work alongside graduate student Brendan Cecere, Wilson hopes to complete this project by the end of her semester at Tech.

“I have a digital archive that includes over 5,000 cultural artifacts that are used for social justice engagement,” Wilson said, “and my goal is to make that accessible to students all over the world.”

While only here for this semester, Wilson’s significant efforts to merge diversity and innovation are those worth noting.

“This has been years in the making,” Wilson said.