UA English’s newest addition to the CRES Program is Alexis McGee. Dr. McGee received her PhD from The University of Texas at San Antonio in May of 2018 and joined UA in the fall. She recently sat down with Amanda Snyder to discuss her research interests and pedagogy.
What led you to study English and eventually to The University of Alabama?
By the time I was eight or nine years old, I learned how to work our turntable and play vinyl records instead of listening to the radio. There were too many commercials, and there still are. The albums I played on repeat mostly consisted of Frankie Smith’s “Double Butch Bus,” Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl, Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks,” Michael Jackson’s Thriller, The Big Chill soundtrack, and The Zapp Band’s Zapp album. These artists were my sanctuary and allowed me to escape the instability of my reality. I grew up below the poverty line and primarily within a single-parent household. My mother raised two children by herself in a state far away from her family. It was because of music and these records that I was able to explore and reimagine myself. I danced for hours, created stories about places and identities in which I could become a new person. Music guided my understanding of who I was and who I could become; it helped; it helped me understand how the world looked and continues to look at me: the color of my skin, where I live, and expectation of gender and sexuality. Music communicated possibility and connectedness for me.
Hip Hop, in particular, not only affected why and how I danced, but music, generally, influenced how I dressed and how I constructed my identity as a woman of color in the South split between two strong parental cultures—one deeply rooted in the rural, White North and the other explicitly tied to the epicenter of Jazz and Blues in the South. Music, specifically Hip Hop, has been my way of communicating, living, understanding, and teaching the multiplicities of being in the world at various exigencies, at thresholds, and from moment to moment.
My senior year, I took a class that combined my passion for music and my desire to learn about ethnic rhetorics. My final paper critiqued The Roots‘ performance rhetoric within a historical framework of resistance to oppression. That class completely shifted my trajectory. I was on track to graduate with a B.A. in Biology, originally. I had already received my Associate’s degree in Biology. I still love science, especially Biology, Botany, and Anatomy and Physiology, but I never felt accepted in the sciences; I knew if I wanted to fulfill my dream of teaching that I would have to change my path. So, I did. I switched my major and minor in my senior year.
That upper level, writing-intensive English course, Hip Hop Literacy, pushed me to think about graduate school and has stayed with me ever since. During my Master’s degree at Texas State University, I continued studying Ethnic rhetorics and Hip Hop focusing on how we can use Hip Hop as a pedagogy, that is, communicating ways in which Hip Hop can be brought into the classroom and used as a tool for teaching and learning. Researching and working with ethnic rhetorics, the ways in which various ethnicities communicate and use language to construct and to convey meaning continually reminded me of my own identity. Of course, Hip Hop has remained at the forefront of my development as a person, rhetorician, Black feminist, and scholar but so has the influence of both jazz and blues records from my childhood.
My Ph.D. research took up this line of thought. This research explores 20th and 21st century Black music and literature, specifically Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Beyoncé to flush out and put against each other the ideas and constructions of Black women’s selves. I situate my research as a response to Angela Y. Davis, Elaine Richardson, and Gwendolyn Pough’s work in Black women’s literacy and intersectionality to tease out agency within evolving composition, thought, and media.
After completing my Ph.D. at the University of Texas at San Antonio, I went on the job market. As luck would have it, the University of Alabama was hiring in the CRES program. I had been a fan of the University for a few years at that point. I was introduced to the program during my years as a M.A. student and saw the tremendous influence of the program at various conferences. Since then, I have serendipitously found myself connected to UA students and professors in some small way. When I found out about this job opening, I had to apply! I was interviewed for the position and offered the job. I couldn’t have been more excited and happier to accept the offer and move to Tuscaloosa.
What is your teaching style?
I love to play games! I’m an 80’s/90’s baby, so I love to bring in old and outdated games or artifacts from then into the classroom and repurpose them. You should have seen some of the looks on my students’ faces when I brought in my old pager; how times have changed.
I think play helps students think outside the book/box and pushes them to think about approaching theories, topics, and discussions in unconventional ways. They learn different ways of connecting to various materials initially thought to be something dead, out of reach, or uninteresting to them. For example, the other day in my technical writing class, we made “fortune tellers.” You know, the paper toys you folded up and had your best friend pick colors or numbers, then you counted and moved the folds according to the different corresponding numbers. You’d open the flap to reveal the answer to their question. We did this activity in class; there were so many smiles and bursts of laughter that I could not stop smiling myself. It was contagious. I was so excited for them to just play and engage with one another and connect the game to their next assignment. We were talking about instructions. I was emphasizing various ways to think about what one should be reflecting upon as a technical writer: audience. In that sense, students realized that not all directions or instructions can be effectively communicated by simply writing them down. Sometimes one’s directions need to be accompanied by a demonstration, image, or translation for multiple languages, etc. The students not only had some nostalgic fun, but they also thought critically about how to create specific documents that would effectively communicate something to diverse audiences.
In this way, my teaching style emphasizes experiential learning and collaboration. I think it is really helpful and important for us to learn about and learn with each other. The world is not an isolated place; we do not live in a vacuum. The classroom is the same way. Learning can (and should be) fun. It should be engaging, raising questions, and reflecting upon ourselves and society. A teacher helps facilitate that kind of community. At least, in my opinion, they should do this. My teaching style (and my teaching philosophy) emphasizes such thinking and collaboration.
What is your favorite assignment to give students?
My favorite assignment to give to students is the end of the semester multimodal presentation. Aside from all the activities we do in class, I always get most excited when students share their work with their peers and me. The last assignment my students complete for each semester is an oral presentation in which they present their project or completed portfolio. Some students draw detailed and insightful pictures to address the solution to a particular problem that has been posed earlier in the semester (e.g. What is the future of women’s studies? How do you use a one-million-dollar budget most effectively for the campus?). Some students build their own website; other students perform interpretive dances or compose original music scores to emphasize the evolution of a particular history or in/justice—like the silencing of women’s contributions in music.
My students never cease to amaze me with their creativity, even if their final project is a traditional essay that becomes converted into a digital presentation. Imagination and critical reflection can work together in the classroom, which (at times) surprises and frustrates students. But, in the end, students rise to the challenge and become excited about learning again. And, often, students feel more invested in their education because of the sense of ownership and accountability that are implicit when creating and presenting one’s own reflection of content and understanding of materials.
How do you feel students respond to the “pop culture” aspect of your focus? Is it well received or do you feel some push back from students who think Beyonce, hip-hop, board games have no place in an academic setting?
Of course, I have some push back from students; we are all different in the ways we learn. We all come from different places, different backgrounds, and have different ways of viewing and understanding information. When some students come to a university where other students don’t look or think like them, culture shock can take place. Classrooms are no different than the university in that way. When I incorporate alternative activities in my class, a similar type of shock has the potential to manifest. But, that is the beauty of education, in my opinion. People can come to class and have new experiences or meet new people every day. We learn from each other.
These alternative teaching methods are only one aspect of the entire classroom experience. If (and when) students push back against the implementation of “pop culture” in the classroom, because that particular reference does not resonate, I find another way to connect. I have to be versatile and flexible to help students maximize their experience.
What I can do to quell resistance is listen to them. Even though some of my teaching methods are not traditional, I do always consider my audience. I am always asking my students for feedback. As often as I give feedback to my students about assignments and presentations, I also ask them to contribute to the way class is shaped. This give-and-take encourages students to not only think critically about what is going on in class—since they have to be able to recall the classes they are critiquing—but they are also engaging with their sense of agency; they realize that their class, and their education are impacted to some degree by their commitment and attendance. I ask questions like “what about ‘X’ makes sense to you? How are you interpreting the information we just discussed? What can I do to help you succeed in class, understand the material, be better prepared for your future?” My job (and my passion) is to teach and that means to teach in anyway possible. Successful classes are often conceived through collaboration.
What would you like for your colleagues to know about your interests?
I love to organize. I color code and alphabetize almost any- and every-thing. I love to dance, listen to music, go for long walks, and collect vinyl records. Who doesn’t want to jam to Beyoncé AND say it’s for work?
I also love to collaborate. I think you do yourself a dis-service, especially in academia, if you don’t allow yourself to learn from others. There are so many ideas and conversations happening all over the place and in so many discursive circles that it is hard for me to imagine that one thing said in one field is not also being discussed (in some way) in another field. It is our responsibility as scholars to be informed; that does not mean we can only look at one topic through one kind of lens. You limit yourself if you do that. Being informed inherently means learning from whatever, whomever, and whenever you can.