Index Spotlight: James Peterson, Hip-Hop Scholar


Book indexing is a dream job for an avid reader. Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I think of all the topics and authors and titles that are now part of my consciousness that I may have never encountered had it not been for the fact that I am a book indexer.

I thought it might be interesting to focus occasionally on an author or a book that I have particularly enjoyed or that has otherwise stayed with me long after the index was finished. The first person I thought of to begin this informal series is Dr. James Braxton Peterson, Lehigh University professor, MSNBC contributor, hip-hop scholar, and author of The Hip-Hop Underground and African American Culture: Beneath the Surface (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

The Roots at the Kool Haus nightclub in Toronto, Canada. Photo by Aaron_M. CC BY 2.0

The Roots at the Kool Haus nightclub in Toronto, Canada. Photo by Aaron_M. CC BY 2.0

What is a hip-hop scholar?

Born in 1971, Dr. James Peterson is “a byproduct of the first hip-hop generation.” He says, “hip-hop culture shaped my development, shaped my sense of aesthetics and my sense of the world.” Eventually he decided to study hip-hop culture “in a literary sense,” “critically and scholastically”: to become a hip-hop scholar.

Peterson reminds us that hip-hop culture is more than just rap music and includes other elements such as clothing, spoken language, break dancing or B-boying, DJing, and MCing. Just how important is hip-hop? He compares the influence of hip-hop culture to jazz’s ability to shape artistic worldviews in the early part of the previous century.

In the classroom, James Peterson’s goal is to create “a hunger “and “an enthusiasm” for learning, as well as skills of media literacy (the following and previous quotations are from from Peterson’s APB Speakers video “Hip-Hop Scholar“):

“When [my students] see a news broadcast, when they listen to music, when they watch a film, when they engage the internet, I want them to have critical tools to be able to interpret, to be able to parse, think through, respond to and just engage all around in a more sophisticated way the various media that they’re going to be coming in contact with.”

Thelonius Monk (William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress, public domain photo)

Thelonious Monk (William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress, public domain photo)

The Hip-Hop Underground and African American Culture

I admit that I am new to hip-hop, but I definitely became more interested in it after reading The Hip-Hop Underground and African American Culture (and my son has since become my informal mentor, sharing playlists and even creating a guide to “what to listen for in hip-hop”!). The following is the publisher’s description of the book:

“The underground is a multi-faceted concept in African American culture. Peterson explores a variety of ‘underground’ concepts at the intersections of African American literature and hip-hop culture, using Richard Wright, KRS-One, Thelonious Monk, and the tradition of the Underground Railroad, among other examples. He explores the manifestations and the attributes of the underground within the context of a more panoramic picture of African American expressivity, situated at black cultural and conceptual crossroads.”

As someone interested in history and with a literature background, I greatly enjoyed the book’s integration of both historical and literary themes. One of my favorite chapters is on the opening song of HBO’s acclaimed (and my all-time favorite) series The Wire—Tom Waits’s “Way Down in the Hole”—which is performed by different artists for each of the show’s five seasons. You can download and read that chapter, titled “The Depth of the Hole: Intertextuality and Tom Waits’s ‘Way Down in the Hole,’” at the author’s website, and read the first chapter of the book here. Also, Spotify listeners can check out Peterson’s hip-hop underground playlist.

In the following short video, Dr. Peterson shares his enthusiasm for the book’s release:

Finally, in doing research for this post, I ran across a TEDxLehighRiver talk by James Peterson, “All Black Everything,” in which he discusses narratives of black success:

P.S. On a different note, my latest Psychology Today post, “Shame and Motivation to Change,” is featured as one of last week’s Top Posts. I hope you enjoy it!

Lessons on Play from a Betta Fish


Recently I made a small change in my work that has resulted in an unexpected giant step in everyday enjoyment: I began to listen to music for a good chunk of the day, most of the time through headphones attached to my phone that also allow me to take hands-free calls.

I’m not sure when or why music had become an occasional treat, saved for the car or when I had nothing else to do, rather than an integral part of my life, but it had. Not until I was watching our betta fish this morning did I realize why music makes such a big difference. Music is a form of play.

Why Play Matters for Creativity

Consider what these creativity experts have to say about the importance of play:

Dan Pink, bestselling author: “The best way to get in touch with your inner child is to take it outside for some play. So go back to school… or at least, back to the playground. Visit a schoolyard, take a seat on a bench, and watch how the real kids play. See if some of their sense of wonder and curiosity penetrates your adult immune system.” (from A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the World)

Tina Seelig, Stanford professor: “Simply put, when you play, you are having fun. When you have fun, you feel better about yourself and your work. And when you feel better, you are much more creative and deliver more.” (from InGenius: A Crash Course in Creativity)

Tim Brown, IDEO CEO and president: “Kids are more engaged with open possibilities…. when they come across something new, they’ll certainly ask, ‘What is it?’ Of course they will. But they’ll also ask, ‘What can I do with it?’ And you know, the more creative of them might get to a really interesting example. And this openness is the beginning of exploratory play.” (from his TED Talk “Tales of Creativity and Play“)

Lessons on Play from a Betta Fish

Fun doesn’t have to be complicated, and it can occur wherever we are. Here is a photo of our new betta fish’s heater. Notice the narrow space between the heater and the tank (and how Mr. Darcy, never missing a beat, is keen on figuring out what I am doing):

Aquarium Heater

Now watch how he uses that space to create his own playground. Round and round he goes, for several minutes at a time. I was lucky to be able to film a few seconds before he noticed my presence, which would have immediately broken the spell. (In case anyone is wondering, the Renoir card both gives him something to look at and hides his food jar so that he’s not constantly begging to be fed—bettas are smart fish!)

Music transforms my usual workspace into a similar playground, making everything else more fun and opening me to possibilities I wouldn’t normally notice.

Where and how do you find or create fun spaces in your workday?

About Page Overhaul

About Page, Before

After focusing successfully last year on building my freelance indexing business to full-time, my focus for 2015 is blogging and writing. 

One of my favorite podcasts about writing and living a creative life is The Portfolio Life with Jeff Goins. When I first read his blog post last year about overhauling the “about page,” I bookmarked it immediately, waiting for the day when I was ready to give my own blog some much needed TLC.

Today was the day (what else does a Wisconsinite do on a Packer-less Sunday afternoon?).


Here is what my about page looked like this morning:

I was generally happy with the content, but the page definitely lacked both personality and purpose.

Here’s What I Changed

  • Following Goins’s advice, I rewrote the about page in first person.
  • I concentrated on telling my own story with authenticity and more detail. It might not yet be an epic tale, but it is mine!
  • I cropped the photo to make it less obvious that it was originally part of a group shot.
  • I rearranged paragraphs and used headings to provide what Goins calls the three keys to awesome about pages: a Welcome, a Promise, and an Invitation.
  • I featured my blog’s name—See Also—as way to call attention to the blog and to suggest its integrated themes.
  • The about page is now the landing page, the page that comes up when someone visits

While the changes may seem small, I think they make a big difference. Take a look and let me know what you think or share a link in the comments to your own blog’s about page.

Darcy’s Excellent Adventure (new betta in his new home)


And now for something completely different.

I tried to take a video of Darcy, our new betta fish (with whom I am already in love),  as soon as he was introduced into his tank, but not until the end did I realize that my phone was accidentally set to “time lapse.” The error was serendipitous as it  better illustrates his reaction: several minutes are collapsed to 35 seconds. This was immediately after I transferred him from a smaller bowl (and, before that, from a small pet store cubicle).

You will see that he explores every inch of his new home, both with excitement and, I think, as a form of patrolling for any predators or other lurking dangers (notice the frequent flaring). Because I wasn’t planning for a time-lapse video, I hand-held the phone, so it’s a bit shaky—hold on tight to whatever is close by! There is audio.

The Discipline of Passion

Jane Austen's Writing Table

Resources for writers and other creatives

“I don’t need discipline because I love to write.” ~ Jo Nesbø

The Discipline of Passion, Part I

A good friend sent me a link this week to Marion Dane Bauer’s “While I’m Talking about Aging,” a thoughtful piece about life, death, writing, and the choices we make every day:

“My discipline is the discipline of doing each day what I most love to do, whatever that may be. Sometimes it’s writing. Sometimes it’s a day spent with my daughter and my grandchildren. Sometimes it’s a Pilates session followed by lunch with a friend followed by grocery shopping and preparing another meal for myself and my partner. (I’m one of those who loves grocery shopping and food preparation. It’s only putting the groceries away that annoys.) Sometimes it’s doctor’s appointments, of course, or other unpleasant necessities, but whatever else I’m doing, each morning I rise knowing the writing waits. And I always turn to it with gratitude.” Read more

The Discipline of Passion, Part II

To keep myself motivated during NaNoWriMo, I have been listening to podcasts for and by writers, especially when driving to and from work, and one I particularly enjoyed this week was a Guardian interview with Norwegian author Jo Nesbø. This was his answer to the question of how he keeps himself from getting distracted:

“I’m not disciplined, really. I don’t have any routines, but it’s easy because I love writing. I never saw writing as a job. I saw it as a privilege, to actually spend time writing. I try to keep it that way, and I mean this seriously. Writing is something I do when I have nothing else to do. I never decide that I’m going to get up early in the morning and write from eight to four. If I wake up at eight, I may get up and go to a coffee shop and sit and write for two hours because I want to. Or when I’m traveling I write in trains and planes. It’s as simple as that, I think. I don’t need discipline because I love to write.” Listen to more

While I do need to impose discipline on myself, there is wisdom in his words. The question we can ask ourselves is this: When we have “nothing else to do,” what do we do? If the answer isn’t writing, maybe it should be.

The Discipline of Passion, Part III

Finally, I was struck this week by Magdalena Kay’s “Leave Me Alone,” in which she asks, “How much does a scholar lose in work time when called upon to pitch, advertise, and network herself into a frenzy?” Although she is addressing academics primarily, her ambivalence about the conflicting pull toward writing and push toward networking is familiar to writers from many disciplines and genres:

“The fact is, I’d rather spend time writing, in as much solitude as I can muster, than advertise it. Should I tweet about forthcoming publications? Should scholarly work be advertised on Facebook? I cherish my minuscule group of Facebook friends, and can only imagine them ‘liking’ a publication out of loyalty and pity. When my publishers sent me sheaves of order forms to distribute at conferences, I slunk around hallways like a thief in the night, plunking down a stack in what seemed a good location and then scurrying away. Publicly begging for book sales just felt wrong.” Read more

If we truly enjoy time alone spent writing, isn’t that, at least in part, its own reward? As Kay concludes, maybe “it is time to reaffirm the value of quiet, solitary, unglamorous work, and to recognize its necessity as well as its pleasure.”