Teacher, Writer, Scholar: The Hiphop Feminist Pedagogy of Dr. Ashley Newby
By Tessa Brown
As I interviewed my friend Dr. Ashley Newby for this feature that centers her scholarship and her writing, I remembered an interview I conducted with her last fall, about her summer teaching in Stanford’s Leland Scholars Program. I concluded that article with a comment she made about how LSP centers the knowledge LSP students bring to Stanford, hard-earned knowledge Stanford doesn’t always match. “The great thing about LSP,” Ashley told me, “is that it doesn’t operate from a deficit perspective. The programs are very intentional about not acting like these students are coming in with a deficit, but recognizing their knowledge and expertise and their abilities. We’re not trying to catch you up, but show you how brilliant you are. And any deficit that happens is on the institutional level, it’s not on you.”
As I spoke to Ashley again, this time about her scholarship, I was reminded about this comment because Ashley’s training and research into urban education mean that, even when she is outside the classroom writing, she is always thinking about the brilliance of her students and how we can honor them in a place like Stanford. In her research and her teaching, Dr. Newby is doing the work of teaching us all how to better connect with our students, especially students who are first-generation, low-income, a tight community at Stanford affectionately known as FLI. In one research project Ashley is working on with our colleagues Meg Formato, Jennifer Johnson, and Christine Alfano, the team is interviewing former LSP participants to understand “FLI identity—how do they see their identity coming into Stanford, and how they value things like mentorship, and what writing and research means to them.” With IRB approval received earlier this year and interviews underway, Ashley and our colleagues are “learning to conceptualize how [these students] see themselves as first-gen, instead of taking definitions” from elsewhere. The project, Ashley tells me, is generating “some interesting insights into how students see first-gen for themselves, how they see mentoring working in their lives, how they pick” their independent research projects in LSP, noting that students “often pick things that will be applicable to their lives,” sometimes even choosing the pragmatic over the passion-driven.
Ashley’s focus on putting students’ self-understanding first extends back to her dissertation research, when she pushed theories that center hiphop pedagogy teacher-practitioners aside in order to listen to her students’ voices. Her dissertation saw her embedded with an after-school hiphop arts program in Michigan where students studied beat-making, breakdancing, and more under the guidance of teacher-practitioners who were active in the culture. As with her research into FLI students at Stanford, in her dissertation Ashley was interested in “how students look at the relationship between hiphop and education for themselves.” Critiquing theories of hiphop education that start with instructors, Ashley centered her students’ voices and experiences, asking, “Is this really what’s happening?” Her dissertation research found students invested in the after-school hiphop classroom in ways they weren’t engaged at school. Extending her research findings “across grade levels,” Ashley is continuing to consider hiphop education in higher ed and especially our writing classrooms. In her article “Hiphop Is More Than a Metaphor,” forthcoming in Audrey Hudson, Awad Ibrahim, and and Karyn Recollet’s edited collection In This Together: Blackness, Indigeneity and Hip-Hop, Ashley discusses “how to take the amazing things [students] did in that classroom to our own classrooms” in higher ed.
As a hiphop feminist, Ashley’s work particularly centers Black and brown women and queer people in hiphop culture. In addition to her hiphop-focused PWR courses, her Spring ‘18 FemGen course “Queer Hiphop Pedagogy” queered hiphop culture writ large, looking at “what’s queer about hiphop as opposed to just the queer artists in hiphop.” With the help of a Cardinal Grant, Ashley shaped the class into a service-learning course that had a partnership with the LGBTQ Youth Space in San Jose. Ashley’s students “went through a couple special issues on hiphop in queer journals and then the students designed workshops for the youth space, and then we went there and taught workshops for them.” Her hiphop feminism comes into play in her recent article “The Rhetoric of the Womb,” coauthored with Raven Jones Stanborough and published in Celebrating Twenty Years of Black Girlhood: The Lauryn Hill Reader. In that important article, Ashley and her coauthor self-identify as “Black mothers of Black daughters who embody #BlackGirlsRock and#BlackGirlMagic”— which if you’ve met Liliana you know is true! The piece uses Lauryn Hill’s engagement with motherhood as a jumping off-point for investigating the conflicting expectations for Black mothers, especially in academia, and considering how to “better prepare our daughters, despite their ages, to face the issues that we are currently confronting
Dr. Newby’s teaching and scholarship are critical reminders not to pathologize FLI students but instead recognize how much they have to teach us, and that welcoming their righteous critique of educational institutions can only better these spaces for us all. “My classes are designed and focused for urban students,” she told me. “I center the voices of students of color and women – I mean its hiphop and so that’s what I’m trying to tap into—the knowledge base of students who have that background – and switch or problematize how we think about expertise and where we think knowledge comes from. We always start with who they are and their positionality and how that effects everything else.”