Anwar Uhuru is an educator. An example of seamlessly blending the zeitgeist with the academic. He’s motivating his students by using popular culture references. The full extent of his interests in pop culture ranges from subverting antiquated notions of educators and going to panels at New York Comic Con. This attention to nerdom resulted in him being a panelist for “Beyond Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters” at Comic Con. His big heart always remains with his students though. From graphic novels to movie trailers, he uses all sorts of cultural resources to reach out to students.
- Welcome Anwar! As a first time interviewer at TV Series Hub, would you please describe in essence who you are and your occupation?
Hi, I am a college professor and I teach Literature and Culture.
- What pop culture attracted you growing up that has stuck with you to this day? Why do you think those examples had such an impact on you? I grew up in Detroit, Michigan and I listened to Motown and popular music and watched television growing up during the time of syndication therefore, “The Facts of Life,” “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times,” “The Cosby Show,” and “A different World.” As an African American despite representations I could see myself even it wasn’t me there were people who look like me on screen and on the radio.
- What modern-day popular media do you use during lectures?
I use a variety of media sources for example still shots from music videos and film. As well as, episodes from series be it “Master of None,” “Black-Mirror,” “Electric Dreams,” “Tiny Toons,” “Adam Ruins everything,” “Drunk History,” or “Thug Notes”
- How do you join those cultural works into teaching?
They critique philosophical, political or social dilemmas. I teach my students that literature was not written in a vacuum it is an artifact of the time. For example, I tell my students that Shakespeare, Dickens, Hughes, or Morrison are the Drake, Cardi B., or Kendrick Lamar of their era.
- Which skills do you think help you blend works of fiction into a learning setting?
I don’t segregate literature in the year it was published. I think the biggest disservice you can do to students is place literature on a pedestal and place their culture in a dumpster. Instead, argue that this literature was considered “trash” and it wasn’t until financial patronage that these writers became relevant and now “high-art.” I also ask what did you read and what is it about it that sticks or annoys you? Then draw parallels to their literature, music and film and show why people critique because they haven’t give it a chance. Just like they have to give this text a chance.
- When did you decide that you can start connecting lessons with examples found on television, film, comics, etc? Or did you start your career with those connections in mind?
I think that inductive and deductive reasoning is a socialization as a Black American. Minority cultures have to create connections to a culture that isn’t our own because it is the dominant culture. However, it is as the playwright Terence the African argues: “I am human and nothing human is alien to me.” So, I am tasked with the ability to see the connectivity in things. I do find that as a person who grew up in hip hop and American culture the tropes that they rap about or film are the same as what you find in literature. Also, you find that rappers read the classics and actors have to read it in their training as actors.
- What challenges have you faced with using pop culture and comics in the classroom?
I find that pop-culture and references to literature and film that was once comics is that the hierarchy of literature is personal and not realistic. That bias appears during peer observations which are observations conducted by senior faculty in your department. They state their bias on your chosen text film, television or whatever and they assume that if literature is not in a canon than it isn’t literature. They challenge it because they use words like rigor to say that those forms of texts don’t make the students rigorous or think critically. However, any book or text that makes people read it and own it as words to think and live by is literature.
- How would you address people who may believe that comics and genre television have no place in the classroom? I think that those who find comics, film and television as having no place are ignorant to academia and the world. There are people who have Ph.D.s from prestigious universities with lovely jobs who research that very field. Secondly, despite our technology and innovations children and adults aren’t reading lengthy novels like they used to. Instead, they are reading shorter texts that require more interpretation if we are talking about comics or rely on film and television to fill the space that long form does. Therefore, we have to think about the ways in which form informs the populous. That isn’t to say that a long form isn’t read it isn’t consumed the same way as we have historically seen it. For example, graphic novels are long form comics, video games require a lot of reading in long form from players. The amount of texting and direct messaging the average person does daily also reimagines the long form. So, as a result, we see film and television making the moves to address these changes in form.
- On social media, you’ve discussed two recently passed and important voices in literature, Toni Morrison and Paule Marshall. How would you describe their impact on literature? Why are they important to you?
Toni Morrison is the only African American to win the noble prize in literature. She writes works that center black people and their presence in American history and culture. As a writer her prose is phenomenal and in her writing you know she has read practically everything. Arguably she is considered America’s greatest writers. Paule Marshall, was a Caribbean American novelist who wrote about the intersections of African American and Caribbean American identity. By doing so, she shows that blackness isn’t monolithic but complex and multi-cultural. She isn’t given the credit that she deserved as a stellar author of Caribbean heritage. Sadly, I think people will read her work now that she has passed away. Yet, Morrison and Marshall prove that their authority as authors will exist well past their life-span.
- What in popular media do you think needs improvement, both behind the scenes and in the work itself? I think that popular media has a constant betwixt/between dichotomy of being fueled by money. Therefore, what is popular is based on the “populous” but it is on who will actually spend money or increase views or ratings which again is based on money because television be it as we know it or digitally is endorsed by ads. So, popular consumption and social media is ad driven. So, I think that what people think of as original and innovative is something that is heavily curated. I think because of the pop/social media is so influential people have a hard time deciphering from illusion of that from the reality of actual curated media that you find in art and literature. Yet, those mediums can influence art and literature too.
- Having first seen you at New York Comic Con 2018 panel “Beyond Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters: Teaching Pop Culture in the Pre-College and College Classroom“, I was wondering what do you believe makes New York Comic Con and other conventions important? How was it being a panelist during that discussion?
Growing up in a working class environment being able to go to any convention is a sign of financial privilege. Those conventions have a historical marker of being for “nerds,” or “geeks” but they have become a part of popular culture. The fact that we have the cool kids and adults who watch marvel, dc and etc films and on dates proves that action genre and love stories are still significant. As an academic by profession, it does my heart good to know that I am received by attendees of the convention as an intellectual authority and that my institution respects my attendance as a panelist proves we are growing in what we consider “smart-rigorous -scholarship.”
- What do you believe needs doing to bridge the gap between the academic and fan culture?
I don’t know how long it will take but I see the turn happening. Institutions are not gushing over traditional fields of expertise. For example, in my discipline knowing the classics was a big deal but it isn’t the only thing people care about. Meaning, what does that time period teach us about race, gender, class, sexuality, ableism, ageism, and empire? There are people who are resistant to those conversations but students don’t want to be lied to and then spend more time “unlearning” things they should have learned while in school. Second, you can not deny the cultural, political, and social impact that fan culture has on the mainstream. For example, Barack Obama shouted out “The Wire” as one of his favorite television shows and he knows about super heroes and rap artists.
- What advice would you give to other educators wishing to use nerd culture in their lesson plans?
Give it a try. As educators we don’t stop learning and being open to what our students are learning and interested in thinking about. That doesn’t mean change everything but you have to give it a try. Once upon a time teaching “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “1984,” or “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was a huge deal. Now, we take that for granted and just go “meh whatever.” So, using these mediums can bridge the gap in getting your students to care and take ownership. It will also influence projects that your students do too. For example, they can make comics, movie trailers, and or a graphic novel, just to name a few things.
- Thank you for doing this interview, do you have any last words for the website?
Thank you for taking the time out to interview a cultural theorist like myself and see you at Comic Con!