The Professor’s Ten Commandments, or, All I Ever Needed To Know I Learned From Hiphop

Phil Ford

Man, no-one is reading right now. I suspect that much of this blog's readership is beginning to gear up for the new year, getting syllabi written, materials on reserve, and whatnot, and otherwise mourning the end of another summer. You all have better things to do than read an academic blog.

So we're staring down the barrel of another academic year. Time for a refresher course in professional deportment — by which I mean "The Ten Crack Commandments," by The Notorious B.I.G. All you professors starting out at new institutions (like me) will be getting orientation sessions to show you the academic ropes — procedures on academic misconduct, FERPA guidelines, sexual harassment policies, etc., but you can save some time and just listen to hiphop. "The Ten Crack Commandments" only looks like it's about drug dealing. All hustles obey the same logic, so heed Biggie's words.

Rule nombre uno: never let no one know how much dough you hold/Cause you know the cheddar breed jealousy

Especially worth remembering at academic meetings. People want to know what you've been up to, but not if you're doing better than they are. If you're a hotshot junior professor with one monograph coming out from Harvard and another under contract at Cambridge, along with nine major articles and fourteen essay-reviews and a teacher-of-the-year award, be cool about it. And don't go around bragging about how you've got the ten best people locked down for your edited anthology of new scholarship on Aquitanian verse, because the eleventh guy, the guy you didn't ask, will be waiting out by the dumpsters with a chair leg. Don't let it get drastic.

Number two: never let 'em know your next move/Don't you know bad boys move in silence or violence

Or, as MF Doom says, never let your so-called mans know your plans. This applies especially to bloggers. Seriously, bloggers, always assume that everyone you know, and everyone you might want to know, will read your blog. It's easy to get suckered into the illusion that you're confiding your innermost thoughts with an anonymous Them you'll never actually meet. Nope, and when you confide stuff about yourself that you wouldn't announce from the lectern of a plenary session of the AMS, you could end up like Youngblood Priest from Superfly, who accidentally kills his best friend when he drops the name of his connection in a nightclub. As Curtis Mayfield comments in the title song,

But a weakness was shown, 'cause his hustle was wrong/His mind was his own, but the man lived alone

Or, to put it in less poetically, if you want your mind to be you own, or if you want to be master of your own destiny, you need to live alone, metaphorically speaking; don't confide, or a weakness will be shown, and your hustle will be wrong. A hard school, I know, but then . . .

Number three: never trust nobody/Your Moms'll set that ass up, properly gassed up/Hoodie to mask up, shit, for that fast buck/she be layin' in the bushes to light that ass up

Well, not your Mom, necessarily.* But then, you never know, do you? You never see it coming. Those of you who have been working in academia for a while, you know what I'm talking about. Those of you who are freshly-minted Ph.D.s polishing the nameplate on your new office door (you took a picture of it with your cell phone, didn't you? admit it) are going to find out.

Number four: know you heard this before, never get high on your own supply.

Admittedly, a harder one to square with academic life. But think of it this way: when you are up in front of your students, you are not necessarily "being yourself." You have a persona, or several personae, that you adopt as a way to frame the meaning of the material you're teaching, and to impart a sense of your own relationship to that material. And this is also true of the larger academic community: chant scholars don't come across like hiphop scholars. But don't believe your own bullshit. Keep clear, if only in your own head, the distinction between who you are for professional purposes and who you are at home. Don't let academic faction get in the way of friendship, fun, or human values generally. Be a hustler, but don't hustle yourself. William S. Burroughs puts it another way. "Hustlers of the world, there is one mark you cannot beat: the mark inside."

For me, Biggie's commandments five and seven are really two sides of the same coin: never sell no crack where you rest at and keep your family and business completely separated. I like to keep professional and personal stuff separate. Sure, we all work at home sometimes, but when you're off the clock, you're off the clock. Don't go ruining your daughter's fourth birthday party by sneaking out to answer department emails. Don't screw up a good dinner party by getting in a shouting match with the orthodox Schenkerian over the ontology of background structure. And you can be friendly with your students, sure, but don't forget the sexual harassment lecture they gave you on orientation day.

Number six: that goddamn credit, dead it/You think a crackhead payin' you back, shit, forget it

For "crackhead," think "student with a late paper." For "credit," think "extension."

Number eight: never keep no weight on you/Them cats that squeeze your guns can hold jobs too

Let your TA do the grading. Actually, no, I kind of disagree. Don't turn your TAs into a firewall between the students and yourself. When something goes wrong in a class, it is always your problem. If you're a leader, everything is your fault. You have to be cool with that. Still, when things get heavy — like, when you have a serious case of plagiarism — know when to call in the specialists. Don't try to fix everything in-house. The Office of the Dean of Students carries more weight than you do, and they know how to use it.

Number nine shoulda been number one to me/If you ain't gettin' bags stay the fuck from police

Don't snitch. Academic bloggers especially, don't talk about the inner workings of your department, and don't talk shit about your colleagues. This is why a lot of academic bloggers are anonymous, of course, but sooner or later you'll make a mistake and drop an incriminating detail, and your cover will be blown. See number 2, above.

Number ten: a strong word called consignment/Strictly for live men, not for freshmen/If you ain't got the clientele say hell no/Cause they gon' want they money rain sleet hail snow

Protect your time; don't bite off more than you can chew; learn to say no. The academic equivalent of the guys who want their money rain sleet hail snow is your tenure committee, and what they'll demand, with the same inflexible rigor as a Columbian drug cartel, is a good publication record.

There's probably a few other commandments that could profitably be drawn from hiphop lyrics. I invite fellow academic bloggers to suggest them.

*Actually, I would amend this one to Black Thought's line, trust your fam, or trust nobody at all.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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3 Responses to The Professor’s Ten Commandments, or, All I Ever Needed To Know I Learned From Hiphop

  1. Lisa Hirsch says:

    I’m still reading, but I am so not an academic.

  2. Brilliant! As one who has only taught private performance before (a Kafka or Heller like relationship with the department) thirty years ago, I am gearing up to teach my first class room this fall. I could use all the 411 I can get (this seems to be turning into another Kafka like experience, maybe it is me).

  3. Byron says:

    I especially enjoy number four.
    This was wonderful–thanks, Phil! It even pushed me to write something similar at my own site that I’ve been thinking about lately.
    And about summer non-reading: I imagine there are many of us who read “Dial M” from RSS readers. I don’t think such activity would show up in your count.

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