Dimitriadis finds popular culture valuable in reaching students
By NICOLE SCHUMAN
Modern educational philosophies are embracing the themes of youth and popular culture to grasp the attention of fertile minds. While historic icons such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Theresa still shine as influential heroes, educators now find students are relating to the personal struggles of such present-day cultural figures as rappers, actors and athletes.
Gregory Dimitriadis, associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy in the Graduate School of Education, acknowledges popular urban culture in his teaching and research methods. Dimitriadis has found that non-traditional educational curricula and institutions can be valuable in reaching often-disenfranchised young people.
"Where does education happen?" Dimitriadis asks. "Not only in formal school settings, but also in informal settings like community centers. People are realizing that kids are also looking to informal school settings and informal curriculum to make sense of their lives, and those are becoming big factors in education."
Dimitriadis' interests in the sociology of education come from his upbringing in the North Bronx. He had been interested in popular culture while growing up, but realizedwhile attending college during the late 1980s when society became conscious of rap as an art formthat he could look at this topic more critically as a scholar.
"People began to call themselves poets and artists," Dimitriadis says. He followed the careers and music of such musicians as KRSOne, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim and Grandmaster Flash, and began to decode their lyrics to study how kids make sense out of these poetic lifestyle translations.
After receiving master's degrees in English and American studies from UB, Dimitriadis headed to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign for his doctorate. He studied speech communication and conducted many focus groups on how audiences react to cultural stimuli. During this time, he worked at a community center and befriended many of the kids who gathered theretwo of whom were best friends, each from a different side of the tracks. He became very close to them and became a part of their unraveling lives. He recorded his experiences in a narrative, titled "Friendship, Cliques and Gangs." This deeper understanding of youth has served him well in his career as a university faculty member.
"I think we really need to keep critically reflecting on what education means for youth today," he says. "It means expanding our own imagination on what counts as an educating text, what counts as curriculum and what counts as a school site and authentic education for youth. I think a real reflection on that is important in education when we throw up parameters around what is education. We need more authentic dialogue with what education means for young people, and for me, that meant expanding the range of texts and places studied."
Dimitriadis gained much of this perspective while working at the community center and with the death of rapper Tupac Shakur. He found that the kids at the center had an incredible investment in Tupac as an icon, a person who Dimitriadis describes as someone who "embodied vulnerability and invulnerability simultaneouslysomeone who could portray himself as intensely invulnerable to enemies, and then who was intensely vulnerable when talking about his personal life."
The impression Tupac left on the inner-city kids left an impression on Dimitriadis as well. The evolution of the icon was so penetrating that Dimitriadis attended a seminar on the topic at Harvard University with some of the most influential cultural studies professors in the world, including Henry Louis Gates and Michael Eric Dyson.
"Tupac embodied a sense that this music needs to be understood," Dimitriadis says. "There's no question that huge, white audiences buy these things (this music), but for these kids, it was a way of dealing with the fact that they were intensely vulnerable to everything coming their way. These kids live with everyday vulnerability, so someone like Tupac provides a kind of hyper invulnerability."
Dimitriadis still follows modern hip-hop music, although it is not his primary research focus as it was at one point. But he still believes in the genre's historical and social effects, with its constant creative renaissances. He finds many critics dismissing the music as a fad, but acknowledges its recurrence over the past 25 years.
"It's not an unproblematic medium," he says. "But I think the best of these folks (rappers) could stand next to any major poet on an incredible, revolutionary level, continually reinventing their (art)."
In the classroom, Dimitriadis treats his students to a variety of alternative education methods. He holds a post as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of American Studies and looks to cross-list many of his courses to appeal to more students than just those in GSE. Some of the courses Dimitriadis teaches include "Pop Culture," "Media and School," "Reading Urban Ethnography," "Sociology of School Knowledge," "Ethnographic Research Methods" and "Critical Pedagogy."
He is happy with his academic life, although he exhibited early romantic notions of becoming a popular writer.
"I realize that (being a popular writer) has many, if not more, restrictions (than academia)," he says. "I thought the number of people you reached was how you influenced people, but now I realize my academic stuff is in some ways more influential. It's read more intensely. (In popular writing) you don't have the time to reflect on everything. There's deadline pressure.
"Everyday, I'm doing a different thingconferencing, editing, writing, researching and talking to students," he says. "You don't have to worry about next week. You can relax and focus in the long term."