As a high school student, A.D. Carson dreamed of becoming a professional rapper. And he has done just that—albeit through an unusual route that he hopes will inspire others.
His career path took him from a K-12 English teacher to doctoral student at Clemson University, then to his current role as a professor of hip-hop at the University of Virginia. In August, his latest album, “i used to love to dream,” became the first rap album to be published by a university press, after going through a formal academic peer-review.
He’s no stranger to working in a mix of media. He created mixtapes to go along with an earlier novel he wrote, and his dissertation at Clemson was a 34-minute rap album called “Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes & Revolutions.”
This is not the first time an academic has been involved in a rap album. Back in 2001, Cornel West recorded a hip-hop album as a side project. It was called “Sketches of My Culture,” and it was an experiment in cultural commentary set to music—West at one point called it “danceable education.” At the time, West was a professor of African-American Studies at Harvard University, and soon after the album was released, the president of Harvard at that time, Lawrence Summers, criticized the album as an “embarrassment” to the university. That sparked push-back against Summers in many academic circles, and a feud between Summers and West that led West to quit Harvard and take a job as a professor at Princeton.
But Carson says he wasn’t thinking about any potential controversy as he did his work. “My energy is focused on people who are really interested in what this conversation looks like moving forward—and really interested in engaging with the music,” he says.
EdSurge talked with Carson recently about what he learned from the peer-review process, and how he hopes the work will spur people to rethink what counts as scholarship or academic work across all kinds of fields.