About Me

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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

How Biggie Smalls Changed the Way I Lecture

I'm teaching two undergraduate courses in the Spring at the University of Toronto.  In addition to teaching an undergraduate qualitative methods course, I'm also teaching my favorite course: The Sociology of Crime and Deviance.  There are two reasons why I love teaching this course: 1) It's a topic that closely resonates with my fieldwork on gun violence, gangs, and drugs, and 2) If taught well, it's a topic that seems to pique the unpredictable interests/attention of 18-21 year old undergraduate students.

I first taught the Sociology of Crime and Deviance while finishing my Ph.D. at UCLA.  Since this was my first real teaching experience at the university level, I spent several weeks designing my syllabus.  This involved carefully picking readings that I thought would engage students.  After a few weeks of tinkering, I finally finished my syllabus, which included readings from   Clifford Shaw's Jackroller, Laud Humphrey's Tearoom Trade, and Howard Becker's Outsiders.  In my mind, readings about the career of a thief/pickpocket, clandestine sexual relations in public bathrooms, and the stages in becoming a weed smoker, would surely pique the curiosity and interests of my students, right?  

I was only about half right.  On good days, I would have the full and undivided attention of my lecture hall; on bad days, I could tell students were checking their Myspace (which was still hot back then), or worse they were asleep and snoring.  My first experience in lecturing taught me a valuable lesson:  No matter how "interesting" or salacious, the subject matter of my course would always have to compete against the many other distractions and interests occupying the lives of my students.  I had to rethink my strategy.

A couple weeks into the course, I made a discovery that has since changed my approach to teaching.  That day, I was lecturing on the structural and cultural allures of drug dealing to young men and women growing up in urban poverty.  Although some students seemed engaged, I could feel that my lecture was falling flat.  It was hard to really pinpoint how I got this feeling, but anyone who has done extensive public speaking knows that there are some situations in which your audience is totally with you, and there are situations in which the audience is noticeably not with you.  When everything is working, you feel in perfect flow and harmony with your audience.  Unfortunately, this wasn't one of those times.  My students weren't asleep or visibly distracted, but there just seemed to be a real lack of enthusiasm and attention in the lecture hall.   

"Time to flip the script," I thought to myself.  Unexpectedly, I paused and asked if students had any questions.  Not surprisingly, there was silence.  No hands were raised.  

I then announced, "We're now going to have a multimedia interlude."  Students looked surprised, but didn't really seem fazed by my announcement.  

Pretending that I had planned this all along, I quickly opened a music folder on my Macbook.  Trying to maintain the facade that this was all part of the plan, I quickly scanned the various albums in my folder and fortunately stumbled upon Notorious B.I.G.'s "Ready to Die."

Before opening the folder, I asked my students, "How many of you know who Notorious B.I.G. was?"  Only a few hands were raised.  As a die-hard Hip Hop fan, this was not only appalling, it seemed tragic that so few of my students knew about Biggie, who I considered to be one of the greatest rappers of all-time (on post-reflection, I realized that many were too young to really grow up listening to Biggie--another sign of the unavoidable popular cultural gap between a professor and his students ;)

Anyways, after my brief survey, I opened the music folder and clicked on "Juicy," a song that is great on many levels.  Immediately, I began to notice a sea change in my lecture hall.  Much to my delight, my students started to listen closely.  Some students who were checking their Myspace closed their laptops and began to puzzle over the lyrics in Juicy.  

After the song was finished, a couple brave souls raised their hands to talk about what they had just heard in relation to the readings for the week. One student found Notorious B.I.G.'s depiction of hustling to resemble the careers of many of his childhood friends from Inglewood who had entered the drug game; another student had problems with Biggie's depiction of drug dealing as a viable career option, suggesting that Hip Hop was responsible for celebrating a career path with few positive outcomes.  

Then, something miraculous started happening.  A wave of hands went into the air and various students began critically reflecting on the readings, the discussion, and the themes from "Juicy" and other Hip Hop songs about hustling.  The rest of the lecture was fun, exciting, and engaging for my students.  I knew that my impromptu multimedia use had worked because I wasn't able to finish all of the slides that I had planned for that day; students were too eager to critically discuss Juicy, the readings, and their own ideas about drug dealing and hustling.  

As the course unfolded, I began incorporating additional multimedia into my lectures.  My multimedia use varied each week, but in general, I tried to incorporate a 20-30 minute part of class strictly devoted to tying course readings to multimedia of some sort.  On some weeks, I used short clips from movies, TV shows, documentaries, and other visual media.  On other weeks, I relied heavily on music to make these connections.  

Anyways, this is a long way of saying that I'm planning to use multimedia while teaching undergraduate courses at the University of Toronto.   Since I'm teaching a Crime and Deviance course, drugs will inevitably become a key theme that I cover.  In addition to the social construction of drugs as a deviant activity, I'm also particularly interested in teaching students about the social experience of using drugs, the careers of drug dealers, and themes and topics that begin and end with drugs. 

Currently, there are two documentaries that I'm interested in using in this part of my course. One is called "Cocaine Cowboys 2: Hustlin' with the Godmother"  I was bored a couple weeks ago and started thumbing through my Netflix instant cue and saw this title under the "You might like" option.  Cocaine Cowboys 2 is a riveting documentary about Charles Crosby, a small-time cocaine dealer in Oakland, CA, who develops a friendship/business partnership/romantic relationship with Griselda Blanco, a Columbian cocaine trafficking grandmother who is alleged to be Pablo Escobar's mentor.  The documentary follows the unlikely relationship between Crosby and Blanco, but also delves deeply into the allure of drug dealing to Crosby and many of his friends growing up in a poor neighborhood in Oakland, CA.  Here is a short trailer from the documentary:

The next documentary is "Crackheads Gone Wild," a controversial documentary produced by Xtreeme Entertainment--a low-budget operation out of Atlanta, GA.  Upon release, the film received a lot of negative public criticism for exploiting drug addicts and sensationalizing their suffering.   I haven't seen this documentary, but gather that a guy basically took a handheld video camera and began interviewing various crack addicts across Atlanta.  There are some video snippets on Youtube.  One snippet that is particularly haunting is a tour of a notorious crackhouse known as "The Zoo."  Here's a short clip, if anyone is interested.  

Does anyone else have good suggestions for documentaries or other multimedia about the social worlds of drug users, dealers, or law enforcement responding to drug problems?  If so, I'd be interested in hearing your recommendations!


  1. The first cocaine cowboys documentary is good too. Frontline has some good documentaries too - e.g. the meth epidemic. There's also 'the trials of darryl hunt' about a wrongfully convicted man if you do that aspect. I'm going to try this for my contemporary theory class next semester...

  2. I haven't seen it, but I know VH1 did some documentary about hip hop and crack. Might be worth checking out


    They also did some 4 part series called "Drug Wars" too several years ago. I vaguely remember watching parts of it thinking that it was interesting and well done for a Vh1 production.


    These may only gloss over some of the bigger issues you might address in class, but it could be a good starting point for discussion and more detailed documentaries. Sounds like a great class and good luck!

  3. @ Schmaal: I definitely want to check out the first Cocaine Cowboys. I think I started watching it once and then for some reason never finished it. I also like your ideas about including stuff about the criminal justice system. I the wake of the Troy Davis case, I think there's a real chance to talk about lots of interesting issues that come up in trials, processing, profiling, etc...Where do you teach? Sounds like you will have a great theory course!

    @ Chris: thanks for the Hip Hop and Crack documentary. I'm definitely going to check it out! I also agree about VH1. I've seen good stuff on VH1, MTV, and other popular media outlets. Anyways, thank you both for responding!

  4. There's an interesting documentary about Philly done by a bbc reporter with a surreal moment. Here's where I found that clip: http://www.philebrity.com/2011/06/30/killadelphia-doc-features-jailed-kensington-kingpin/

    The whole thing is on youtube. It's not great or particularly insightful, but it's got some really fascinating moments, a couple really bizarre english-dude-out-of-water moments when he's talking to some cornerboys about stop snitchin' and Reds is a really interesting character.

  5. Rory: Thanks for suggesting this. It's a great interview. I will definitely look more into this and other stuff on Philly. I wonder if Philippe Bourgois knows that guy? His ongoing work is in Kensington...