Take My Exam . . . Trust Me, It’s “Cool”

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, April 28, 2010

It’s the end of term and I’ve been overwhelmed with the hectic activities of marking and . . . well, marking. I’ve barely watched the news. There was a volcano or something that erupted, right? For the past few days my whole life has been consumed by marking final exams. With this in mind, I thought that instead of writing something new I would hit two birds with one stone and blog about my final exam.

My students think I’m cooler than I am. Or at least I like to think they do. This is because I try to bring the study of religion into conversation with phenomena that is socially relevant to what I imagine are the daily musings of an undergraduate student. Usually, I fail miserably: like the times I told them that Jonathan Z. Smith is the Tom Cruise of religious studies, referred to Gilgamesh and Enkidu as BFFs, and passed around Kool-Aid Jammers while screening a documentary on Jonestown.

But I think I got things right this time.

In my third year ‘Religion and the City’ course we looked at theories surrounding the ways that civic sites and identities become invested with ‘sacred’ meaning. Primarily we discussed the narratives that individuals and communities create in order to represent their relationships to, what one might term, non-conventional sacred spaces. All semester, we built theories involving North American religious identity; the ways, à la J. Z. Smith, that religions endorse locative or utopian worldviews; and the manner through which those on the margins subvert urban structures in order to articulate new or different ontologies.

I tried to draw connections between our material and the so-called “real world.” I showed them clips of Sarah Palin and Disney cartoons and attempted to argue that the hit movie Avatar is really a re-creation of Paul’s project in Rome.

Twenty-minutes into their three hour exam, I turned down the lights and announced that it was time for the audio-visual component of the exam. They smiled (or maybe smirked?) as the image of the Grammy-winning rapper Jay-Z (who I like to call “the other J-Z”) appeared in on the screen.

The exam question was as follows:

You have just been shown the music video for “Empire State of Mind” by hip hop artist Jay-Z, featuring guest contribution by R&B and soul singer-songwriter Alicia Keys. The lyrics have also been distributed to you. Making reference to both the lyrics and the images in the video, please answer the following questions.

  1. Identify the “speaker(s)” and the intended audience. Of what does the “speaker(s)” wish to persuade the audience?
  2. Is this a locative or utopian worldview? What leads you to your conclusion and why?
  3. What does the song suggest about human identity, civic/urban spaces and (potential) transcendence?
  4. How does the narrative of the song represent the city of New York? What does it suggest about American identity? Is it necessary that New York serve as the protagonist in this song (for example, could the same song feature Toronto or Istanbul or another major urban center?). Do you think that the lyrics would have been different if the song had been released prior to September 11th, 2001?
  5. Imagine that Jay-Z has asked you to adapt this song to Toronto. What themes and images would you include in your version of the song? Provide some sample lyrics of your song.

The students’ answers were brilliant! Absolutely brilliant!!!

They drew comparisons between Jay-Z’s text and the texts that we examined this term (The Epic of Gilgamesh, Augustine’s City of God, Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City, John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” and Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion), our case studies (which examined the early Jesus Movement, Mormonism, Jonestown and the Salvation Army’s Gateway Shelter in Toronto’s downtown core) and our major theoretical interlocutors (Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm, Harold Bloom, Belden C. Lane, Michel Foucault, David Sibley and Mark Kingwell).

Their own attempts at rapping were innovative and definitely, in my opinion, give Jay-Z a run for his money (of which he has a lot). They mostly looked towards the identity of Toronto as a city of neighbourhoods, a multicultural haven for new immigrants to Canada and a place where diverse lifestyles are embraced. My students spoke to elements of Toronto that both evoke pride and inspire change—in some instances they even found time to suggest ways that they would like to change some of the negative aspects of our city.

I learned a lot from them, lessons which can only make me cooler for future pedagogical efforts.

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