Harvard University offer courses using Tupac Shakur’s lyrics

By Gus Bode

Tupac goes to Harvard?

It is not uncommon for names such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Maya Angelou to come up in academic discussions of noteworthy black American literary artists, but now Tupac Shakur has been thrown into the mix.

Professors at Harvard University developed the idea for “Modern Protest Literature:From Thomas Paine to Tupac.” In this class, students are provided with a wide range of print and oral forms of literature that express modes of protest throughout history. Examples of protest exist in varying forms from spirituals, folk songs, hip hop and good old-fashioned speeches.


The idea that the same class where students peruse the pages of the historical document “Common Sense” could also provide the work and informational aspects of the life of the controversial rapper seems unlikely, but it’s reality at Harvard. In one of the classrooms at the Ivy League university, professors decided to take the idea of using modern cultural icons a step further.

Timothy McCarthy and John Stauffer were both young, politically active professors at Harvard when they developed the idea for a course on protest literature.

They began thinking of a way they could come together to form a “politically engaged” class that would introduce students to this form of literature on several different levels. From their collaboration came English 176a.

“We wanted to show people how literature can be linked to social change,” said McCarthy, who lectured both history and literature and English at the university for two years. “And who better than younger people who still have hope for changing the world?”

According to McCarthy, using the broadest possible definition of the phrase “protest literature,” they developed a class that would introduce students to the evolution of protest literature from abolitionist movements to the hip-hop revolution and everything in between.

Students listen to speeches and spirituals and read documents protesting a situation in society. These documents range from Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” to the work of those involved in the “hip-hop revolution” including Tupac Shakur.

“Anyone born after 1970 was affected by the hip-hop revolution,” McCarthy said. “We wanted to introduce students to the marketing strategies used to present artists like Tupac to the public.”


While Kevin Dettmar, chair of the SIUC English department, agrees that many musicians have been instrumental in several protest movements, he doesn’t see Tupac as one of these individuals.

“I don’t think that most people listen to Tupac’s music for the political aspect,” Dettmar said. “I see him as more of a consumable media image.”

Keenon Wigley, a senior in business economics from Chicago, said Shakur’s work should be seen as a valid form of protest literature, and it would also help diversify classrooms.

“Using rap in class would get more blacks interested,” Wigley said. “It’s a major form of literature in our community.”

While there is some disagreement over whether the life, times and work of Tupac are appropriate in the classroom, most seem to agree that music is a valid form of literature.

Assistant English professor Donna Strickland says she has used musical lyrics in past classes on several occasions for analytical purposes. According to Strickland, when asked to bring lyrics to class for analysis, students have often brought in rap.

According to McCarthy, students particularly enjoy the part of the class pertaining to Tupac and hip hop, and she said the course’s pilot semester last spring went fairly well with 106 students taking the class.

“We want students to see how language can affect social change,” McCarthy said. “And at its best, hip hop is a model for rebellion.”

Reporter Jessica Yorama can be reached at [email protected].