Online By Design: Season 1.2

Episode 2: Topics in Hip-hop Course

This episode features the School of Music’s Thomas Taylor, who teaches a popular course that uses music as a window to the past. He tells Susie and Sid how he designed the course to help students look inward as they reflect and relate to the music.
Photo of Thomas Taylor

Guest Speaker: Thomas Taylor

“Hopefully, by the end of the semester, they’re not all about the grade. They’re all about the content. They’re all about getting the information, and really learning it, and owning it. So it’s a tough class, but it’s a good class.”




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Susie Boles: Dance, music, science labs. Today's question is, how do you teach that online? How do you teach online courses that involve the arts, and developing hands-on skills? Sid and I decided to investigate, and speak with a couple UNC Greensboro professors to find out. Today's episode features Thomas Taylor, speaking about his Topics in Hip-Hop course. Welcome to the show, Thomas. 

Thomas Taylor: Hello, Susie. How are you? What's going on, Sid? 

Sidney Fletcher: Not too much is going on, just enjoying this beautiful, somewhat dreary, Friday morning. 

Taylor: (LAUGHING) But we're all here, we're all safe, and that's all we need right now, right? 

Fletcher: Indeed. Couldn't ask for anything more. 

Taylor: Yeah. 

Fletcher: Thomas has taught at UNC Greensboro since 2004. As a jazz percussionist, he has performed with famous musicians in concerts and clinics, and toured in the US and internationally. He's also a UNC Greensboro alum, himself. He earned his Bachelor and Master of Music degrees here. In 2010, he created and taught Topics in Hip-Hop, a face-to-face course. In this course, students explore the historical development of hip-hop, from its origins through current times. In 2013, he created the online section of the same course. 

Fletcher: Students listen to numerous songs, research music artists, and watch multiple documentaries-- and mainstream films-- about related art forms of breakdancing, rapping, turntablism, and graffiti art. They also read. The hip-hop textbook, which Thomas authored, is called Yo, Check This. 

Boles: We are so glad to have you here, Thomas. And I would love to hear your thoughts on what motivated you to develop this online course. 

Taylor: Oh, wow. It was the money! No, I'm kidding. (LAUGHING)

Boles: I love it. 

Taylor: It wasn't the money, it was-- 

Boles: No. 

Taylor: (LAUGHING) It definitely was not the money. No, what it was-- what motivated me to create this course is it seemed like there was a strong interest in having the course be offered for students who were not on campus. Who couldn't readily come to campus to take part in this class. So actually, I think someone from the Division of Online Learning reached out and said, hey, we see that your course is doing pretty well face-to-face. Would you have any interest in creating an online version of it? And I said yes! 

Fletcher: So Thomas, if you could tell us, how does hip-hop help students with transferable skills after graduation? Even if they don't become hip-hop artists. 

Taylor: Well an overwhelming majority, Sid, of the class-- of the students in the class are not artists at all. They are not musicians. They know very little about hip-hop. And the great thing about this particular course is when I developed it, I wanted it to be a bridge-- so to speak-- for someone who either was a complete hip-hop head, a person who was an absolute musician, or someone who was a novice that didn't know anything about hip-hop. Or nothing about music, outside of them listening to the radio. And it's challenging because everyone has an opportunity to learn, including myself, when we're in this class. 

Taylor: So the funny thing is, some of the students who struggle the most are the ones who think they know the most, coming into the class. Right? So they think oh yeah, I know everything about hip-hop. Yes. And those are the ones who, maybe, don't do the work. They don't listen with the same intensity. And they struggle, because it is still a class. Although they think oh, this is all information that I'm familiar with. But they start to learn, pretty quickly, that-- OK, if I don't really take this seriously, and if I don't treat it more than a class-- because I don't just want it to be a class. It has to be life lessons. 

Taylor: So the thing that I would say, if they take anything after graduation, they take the, hopefully, the work ethic. The ability to listen, in a different way than most of them have learned to listen before taking the class. And to pay attention to the messages that come to us, every single day. Because some of those messages are good messages, and some are not good messages. And sometimes people don't realize that they're accepting a message, and letting it become part of them, when they shouldn't. 

Boles: Can you tell us more about what it means to listen intensely, and how your course helps students learn to do that? 

Taylor: I guess the first thing I would say is, as we-- or as I want people to learn to listen, I want them to zero in on using their aural sense. Just the ability to use your ears, or hear. And when we are listening-- quote unquote, "listening"-- we use our ears, but we also use our eyes. And we use our body. And we think we're listening when we're doing all those things, when in essence we're not truly listening to the same degree as if we eliminate most of those senses. So in the online section, I have a video that was created through the Distance Education and Online Learning team. Thank you all, yay team! You all are awesome. 

Taylor: But they helped me create a video that shows how I listen when I'm very serious about learning a piece. Which is I sit down, I don't move, I don't sing along, I don't dance along, I close my eyes, and I just listen using my ears. And that's it. And most people think oh yeah, that's pretty easy. But if you try to do it, it's really challenging. Especially if it's a piece of music that you know. You know? You see it and you think oh, that's my jam! And you immediately start dancing. Well, you're not listening as well. 

Boles: I mean, it sounds in some ways very similar to the discipline of meditation. Learning to focus on one thing, and eliminate all other distractions. And that's definitely a learned skill. 

Taylor: Yes. And many people say oh yeah, I can do that. And you know, I'll put on a song and have them play it. Or have them discuss it after doing that. And I always say, go and take some of the music that you already know. Don't just use a hip-hop song, but go find a piece of music that you think well. And then have them write discussions, and comment on it. And people always say oh my gosh, I can't believe I was singing the words wrong the whole time. Or I heard this new part in the music that-- I've listened to this song for 10 years-- and I never heard that part. And it's like exactly. You're not always listening in the way that you think you are. 

Taylor: So early on, I try to dispel some of the myths and preconceived ideas of what they think they're going to get from this class. So that hopefully helps them be more malleable, and lets them accept some of the weird, crazy stuff that I throw at them over the course of the semester. 

Boles: That sounds like some really powerful skills, that students can carry with them even after the class. 

Taylor: Yes. And the great thing is when someone will reach out and say-- or later in the semester, and they go-- yes, I learned something. Or I heard something. And it'll be totally unrelated to hip-hop, but it's still related to something that they got from the class. So that's always a fun thing to hear and see. 

Boles: Are there students who share connections from the class, in their daily life, after taking the class?

Taylor: I do get people, probably once a semester, who will send me an email with a link to a video, or a link to a movie, or a link to a song and say hey, I heard this song-- or I saw this video-- and I thought about you. And it made me really think about all the things that I learned in that class. And it's pretty interesting that before this class, I wouldn't have paid attention to that type of thing. And now I do. So I thought of you. So here, check this out. So it's pretty nice. 

Fletcher: How is the course structured online, versus face-to-face? 

Taylor: It's pretty challenging, although the goal-- or my attempt-- is to make the online class feel like you're sitting in a classroom, face-to-face. I don't know if I hit the mark, but that's what I'm shooting for. And most of the content-- or, really, all of the content-- is the same. But the delivery of it makes it come across a little different. And some people say that the online section may have, what they feel like is, more work. But because the only way that it gets delivered is online, that they have to have a conversation in a way that we would just have a conversation in the face-to-face class. 

Taylor: So the conversation gets delivered in the format of discussions. So there are a lot of discussions, but that's one of the things I love. Because I'm reading people's thoughts. And if they're truly honest, I really get to read what they're thinking. So that part is really nice. But in many ways, I just want that class-- the online section-- to feel just like you are sitting in a classroom and I'm talking. Even though the class is asynchronous. So you don't see me talking, I'm not meeting with them every week. And I only have a handful of videos, and hopefully those videos that you see me looking stupid are really effective. 

Fletcher: It is interesting that you said you are able to literally read the thoughts of your students, if they're being honest. 

Taylor: Yeah. 

Fletcher: Once you've taken those thoughts, how do you use that information? How do you apply it in a productive way, for the students? 

Taylor: In most cases, I'm not necessarily trying to-- well, you know. I'm going to-- let me finish my thought, and then I'll contradict my thought. OK? Which is I'm not really trying to manipulate them, or take what they said and direct them in a certain way. But yes, I am. That's exactly what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to manipulate them, and move them down a certain path. Which is to think differently. To notice, and pay attention. Because the things that we notice, and pay attention to, when we're 19, 20 are really different from the things that we pay attention to when we're 30, or 40. 

Taylor: And you guys are too young, so y'all don't even know all of that stuff yet. But you will, as you get older. And the thing, I guess, I'm trying to do is speed up that process. So that they think like a more mature adult, even though they're still in their formative years of adult life. 

Boles: Well, Thomas, we know so much of a student's success can be determined by how the course starts. Whether they feel a sense of community, and a sense of understanding of what the course is going to entail. And the chance to connect with you, and each other. How do you help students succeed in the beginning of a course? 

Taylor: I think we do a pretty good job of creating an instructional video-- that is an introduction to the course-- that tells you specifically how to navigate everything. 

Boles: I think you do so many other things as well. The syllabus quiz. Students introducing themselves to each other. Testing out their audio equipment, to make sure they can participate in the listening quizzes. You go a long way, in your course, to make sure students have all the tools they need to be successful. And that they know who you are, and how available you are to them. And they know each other, so that they can learn together. 

Fletcher: What does a typical week in the course look like? 

Taylor: (LAUGHING) Well, I tell them that there are five things that I want them to do each week. And on the surface it seems pretty simple. They have to read something, which is usually from the textbook. You've got to read the chapter. You've got to watch something, which is usually a video or a movie. You've got to listen to some music. You've got to write something. Usually, what you're writing is based on what you've watched. And it's just opinion-based, 98% of the time. Not all the time, but most of the time. And then you've got to take a quiz of some type. 

Taylor: So the quiz is referencing what you read. So even though it seems like what? Five things? But in some ways it's really just-- yeah, they're all circular. And there's two or three things, really. If you think about it. So that's kind of how we put things together. Five things in one week. 

Boles: What I love about the approach that I'm hearing from you, Thomas, is how you engage students' multiple senses. Following what we call Universal Design for Learning, engaging them through their ears, and through their eyes. And actually creating something while they process what they're learning in your class. 

Taylor: Yes. We're trying, and again I want them to feel like they're thinking in a different way. And it's not teaching to the test. And it's not "OK, you have to give me the right answer." I mean sometimes, yeah, you got to give me the right answer. But for many of the things that I want, it's like I want your opinion. I want how you felt. And sometimes, in some of the instructions, I literally have to say "do not give me a recap of this movie you just watched." I don't want you to tell me who was in it, I already know that stuff. I want to get inside your brain, and tell me something about you. And how this movie, or how this song, affected or impacted you. Not just the facts. We don't want the facts. Well, we do want the facts, but not every single assignment. 

Fletcher: We'll take a quick break, and then return to our conversation on "how do you teach that online?" 

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Boles: Can anyone-- at any age, race, musical preference, or religious affiliation-- enroll in this class? 

Taylor: Absolutely. You know, it's always fun. I really appreciate the older people, because-- who take the class. Because I'm an older dude who-- I grew up with the beginnings of hip-hop. So how I see hip-hop is very skewed. And as young kids say now, I'm just an old head. You know, and I say I'm a played-out old head, too. Because I'm a jazz musician, but at one point I was a hip-hop musician. Or a hip-hop fan. You know, I wouldn't say I was ever really a hip-hop musician, even though I did attempt to dabble in the culture of several elements of hip-hop. But I appreciate the older generation participating in the class, because for many of them it's a walk down memory lane. 

Taylor: And it's really important for the young students to hear something coming from-- they don't know that the person is older, until that person reveals yes, I was in high school when I heard this song from 1983. And I'm like oh yeah. I know about you, you little tenderoni. Come on with it. All right? But when they hear when the students hear comments, or perspectives, that are different from theirs, but the same as mine. But not coming from the teacher, it carries more weight to those students. So it's always great to have a good conversation from the students who are different ages, or different backgrounds, or different races. From different countries. It's been really, really great. 

Taylor: And it's really cool to even have people, who are taking the class, on the other side of the world. And I've had that several times. So we've had, literally, students taking this class around the world. I've had people in China, and other countries too. And it's really great to see that people are engaged, and can find this class, and find UNCG Online. And learn, and get their degree, even though they're not in Greensboro, North Carolina. 

Fletcher: If you could put yourself into the shoes of the students, what do you say they enjoy most about taking your course? 

Taylor: I think, maybe, that they have a voice. That they can say what they want. It's completely an unfiltered class. From the concept of-- actually, in the syllabus, I have a disclaimer that says you're going to get some music that is not a clean version. You're going to get some movies that may not be something that you feel comfortable viewing, or hearing. But you're going to get the original version, that the artist intended. So if that offends you, I apologize. But that's what you're going to have to deal with, here. 

Taylor: And I also tell them you can say what you want to say, just don't be offensive. Try to be respectful of people. But if you really feel strongly, and you want to use 17 expletives, you're welcome to do that in this class. So I think the first thing students would appreciate, and be happy, is that they can be themselves. They can talk, and say what they want to say. And voice their opinion without any filters. And a great thing, early, that I do in the classes is ask them about slang. And what is their slang. So their slang helps facilitate that whole removal of barriers, or the wall, or pretentiousness, or those kind of things. I just want to get to the raw, real deal. 

Boles: It sounds like in this course, students really learn from you how to develop their authentic voice in this unfiltered setting. And knowing that a lot of the origins of hip-hop were political, and we're in such changing times, to what degree does this course offer students the ability to grapple with some of those political issues through the lens of music? 

Taylor: I guess my goal is to show people on the-- I guess the analogy I'll use is, I'll show them a window that looks to the past. And hopefully, they will realize that window is actually a mirror. Showing them what's happening today, you know? And a lot of times, the kids don't realize. Because they didn't know, they didn't grow up in the 70's or the 80's. So they don't know that police brutality has been something for more than 30 years, or 40 years. If we're just talking about the music in hip-hop, and the subject matter in hip-hop, that has talked about that particular-- just that one part of issues with police. And how police are affecting minorities, and the African-American community, in a disproportionate way is something that a lot of kids may not have realized that. 

Taylor: But now they get it, just because we're looking at this window in time when, in-- I don't know, what was-- Oh, I showed a video. They watched one the other day, from KRS-One, called That's the Sound of the Police. And that's the name of the song, and someone made a comment, oh my gosh, KRS-One was talking about this in 1988. And here we are in 2020, and the same thing. And I responded back to them and said well, it actually happened way before 1988. But KRS-One made a song about it because of how things were, then. 

Taylor: So although it's a window for people to see things, it hopefully helps them understand how things are really similar. And I want them to see what things are different-- and how things are different now-- but what things are the same. 

Fletcher: Thomas, what advice do you have for students new to online courses?

Taylor: Don't be afraid of it. That's the first thing, you know? Technology is always a great thing. And having an online course gives you a different feel. So if you're coming to campus, and you want time where you don't feel like oh man, I got to go and do this all the time. An online class is really great for that, because it allows you-- especially if it's an asynchronous class-- it allows you the time to do it when you work best. So if you are a night owl, and you don't want to get up and go to a 9 o'clock class every day of the week, having an online class or two can take some of that load off. 

Taylor: Now, you've got to do the work. And that's the challenge. But I find that a greater percentage of students who take my online class do better than the kids who take the face-to-face class. Which is really surprising. I never would have thought it would have been that way. And maybe part of it is because there's a greater percentage of adults. But literally the classes have a much higher passing rate. And not even passing rate, I mean like A-minus, B-plus, A. It's a lot higher, and a lot less people fail that class. And I think it's because they know they've got to do the work. 

Boles: Well, tell me more about that. How challenging is this course? And do its assignments intentionally move students toward those learning objectives? 

Taylor: Yes. It is a challenging class. Because there's so much information that I want you to get from the class. And it's impossible-- well, it's not impossible, but it's very difficult to water it down and still get those learning objectives really checked off. But if you go through the course, and do all of the work, there's no way you won't get those learning objectives. You have to meet them, because the rigors of the class force you to deal with that. 

Taylor: And I guess if you just do the work, but not really look inward, then fine. You'll get through the class, and you'll learn nothing. And for some people, that's what they want. But I try to design the course in a way that if you do the work, at some point you will start looking inward. You will start reflecting about yourself, and how you relate to this music that you're getting. And how you take that music to your life, and what you're dealing with right now. And getting that to the point that you go OK, I'm starting to become a different person. I'm starting to become a better person, for everything that this dude is making me do. I don't want to do it, but I got to do it. Because I'm all about the grade. 

Taylor: And hopefully, by the end of the semester, they're not all about the grade. They're all about the content. They're all about getting the information, and really learning it, and owning it. So it's a tough class, but it's a good class. 

Fletcher: How important are the connections between you, and the students, and each other? 

Taylor: Well I think it's important. One, I tell the students that you should do your best to make connections with each other. And there's a lot of really well-known people, who have come out of UNCG to go and do great things. One is Rhiannon Giddens. She is a graduate. And for the hip-hoppers out there DaBaby, if y'all know who DaBaby is, went to UNCG. I think he only went for one year, but he was there for one year. 

Taylor: So if you were hanging out with DaBaby-- I don't even know his real name, but we can figure that out-- but if you get to know one another, and you make these bonds and connections, then you never know where you may end up. And the other thing I tell the students is try to be excellent, in everything that you do. Because that's going to be the thing that gets you to that next level. So that somebody like DaBaby, that's who you can become. So the connections that I want to have with them is to give them the opportunity to meet other people, who are connected as well. 

Boles: Well thank you so much, Thomas. It's been so thrilling to hear about Topics in Hip-Hop Online, and the many ways that you're connecting with students. And bringing the unique aspects of hip-hop into their lives, and helping them to connect with one another. 

Taylor: Thank you. Glad to be here. Thank you, so much. 

Fletcher: It has been absolutely amazing having you here. Hearing all your wonderful experience, expertise, and passion for the students. And also for hip-hop. Wow. Thank you so much, Thomas. 

Taylor: Absolutely. Thank you very much. For more information about Topics in Hip-Hop, and about UNC Greensboro's online courses, visit our website at 

Fletcher: See you next time, for another episode of Online by Design. I'm Sid Fletcher. 

Boles: And I'm Susie Boles. 

Fletcher: Online by Design is a production of UNCG Online.

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