Department of English

Alumnus Jeremy Dean, the Education Czar of Rap Genius, discusses his career path with us, will give campus talk next week

Fri, February 21, 2014

If you’re not already familiar with Rap Genius, the website that just over a year ago received a $15 million dollar investment from the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (founded by Marc Andreessen, the inventor of the web browser), it’s a website founded in 2009 by three Yale grads with a love of rap music. Rap Genius enables people to decipher the meanings of popular rap lyrics in a public and collaborative online annotating forum. Jeremy Dean, a 2012 graduate of the UT English Literature Ph.D. program, was brought on by the company to helm their expansion of the site’s content into literary realms. Dean became Rap Genius’s “Education Czar,” heading the section of the site called Education Genius. According to the site itself, Education Genius “works closely with teachers at all levels and across disciplines to design and implement classroom projects using the “Genius” collaborative annotation platform. Whether the assignment is a classic work of literature, primary source historical document, or scientific article, Education Genius lets students analyze and discuss their coursework line by line, online.” The website aims to get students excited about close reading texts by making annotation a social activity. Jeremy Dean, who will be delivering an on-campus talk the week of SXSW, joins us here virtually to answer a few questions about his career path, Education Genius, and the future of close reading.


Can you tell us the story of how you went from getting your PhD in English here at UT to becoming the Chief of Education at Rap Genius?

I was working on the final chapter of my dissertation over the summer of 2012, investigating the concept of the hip-hop novel through analysis of Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle. I remembered a rap website that students had told me about and started playing around on it. I was always bringing popular culture, including lots of hip hop, into my teaching to help students more readily engage and develop their critical thinking skills and the students thought I would like the Rap Genius.

Rap Genius turned out to be more than just another lyric website, though. It was a platform for line-by-line analysis of hip hop poetry. And one that was completely open to contributions, allowing users to collaborate wiki-style on explaining the meaning behind the lyrics. Needless to say, I spent some time productively procrastinating from my dissertation by annotating my favorite hip hop from the 90s--I thought I would find an epigraph or possible a critical framework from my reading around--and I quickly became the "top scholar," as they call their mega-users, on some of my favorite artists like Mos Def. The work I was doing on the site, of course, was not too different from my everyday work as a grad student analyzing texts. The stated goal of Rap Genius on their about page is to "critique rap as poetry."

At some point, though, it occurred to me that this platform was an ideal teaching tool. Through my work in the Digital Writing and Research Lab at UT, I had experimented with a variety of instructional technologies, working to develop lesson plans for myself and other teachers around particular platforms. I had long been intrigued by the idea of collaborative, online annotation and had played around with a few rather clunky platforms in my classes. I realized Rap Genius was the best social annotation platform I had ever seen. The interface was incredibly intuitive and the product of a user's contributions was quite clean--novice users can easily create sharp multimedia commentary in line with text on the site. 

I actually reached out to the website via their feedback email and told them I was a big fan of the platform and wanted to add poems, stories, and essays for an English class that I was teaching--at the time, I was actually teaching junior English at St. Stephen's. They were very supportive and encouraging about the project.

Since, any user can add texts to Rap Genius and since many of the texts I was teaching were readily available online, I ended up integrating the platform completely into my syllabus, asking students to go on the site multiple times a week to annotate course reading. The founders of the website were very excited about what they saw and eventually flew me up to New York to meet with the Dean of Columbia University to share my experience in hopes that he would encourage instructors of the Core Curriculum to use the site in their courses--imagine 500 students collaboratively annotating the Iliad online with their classmates! (For that matter, imagine hundreds of students in 316K collaboratively annotating Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice for that matter!!) I walked out of that meeting with a job offer from the company to be their "Education Czar." 

How do your past studies at UT relate to and inform what you do now at Education Genius?

In many ways, it is my failures as a grad student that enabled me to succeed in this new position. My interest in literature was always more broad and social than the solitary life of a specialized research scholar allowed, and my work as an "Education Czar," evangelizing for the platform and working with educators to integrate its use into their curriculum, allows me to use the skills and fulfill the passions that brought me to grad school in ways more suited to my personality. 

As I mentioned above, however, it is probably my work with the DWRL that most prepared me for entering into the world of educational technology and digital pedagogy. I do believe that it was in part the variety of alternative opportunities for grad students that UT offers, like working in the DWRL, that the helped prepare me, both skill-wise and imaginatively, for the opportunity to work at Rap Genius.

Of course, teaching both composition and English at the college level (in addition to my secondary school teaching experience), has given me a background and a vocabulary that is incredibly useful in persuading the professors of the power of our social annotation platform. 

How do you think Education Genius is particularly effective at getting young students excited about active reading?

Probably the single most important achievement of the site in terms of education, and one that precedes my tenure, is that it has managed to make "annotation"--an incredibly nerdy activity--into something cool. Millions of people go to Rap Genius to read and write annotations of rap lyrics and what they are doing so eagerly is something they were probably asked to do by teachers in school to less effect: close read texts. 

The active reading enabled by the "Genius" platform is in some ways not different from traditional forms of annotation possible in books. It asks students and other readers to slow down and focus on the meaning of small pieces of text.

But Genius is also active in the sense that it activates a number of different ways to respond to a text. Students can use text themselves, or they can use images and videos to respond to what they are reading and studying. As a teacher who has used the site in the classroom, I found many students who had been inactive in my class suddenly become active because they were able to engage in ways more suited to their learning styles or personalities.

But the Genius platform makes the experience of reading a text not only active but interactive and social. I like to say that what we are building is a social network for close reading. The process of annotating a text on Rap Genius is social in that you can create an annotation and receive suggestions from other users or add suggestions to the annotations of other users. The messaging of the site is always bringing people into contact with each other, but always through, the text itself.

What goals do you have moving forward with the site? Are there any forthcoming projects that you’re especially excited about?

My number one goal has always been to get more teachers using the site. And we've built Genius into a name that teachers have heard of so that we already have daily organic interest coming our way, whereas this began with my own cold outreach to educators and administrators.

From the start, I knew that MOOCs would be the biggest classroom I could have working on the site, and we've already had two MOOCs use the platform for annotation, Laura Nasrallah's "The Letters of Paul" course through HarvardX and Cathy Davidson's "The History and Future of Higher Education" course through Coursera.

I hope to see more projects like this in the future, as I think Rap Genius not only offers MOOC providers with a valuable annotation service, but also with a clear solution to the social problem of online learning: we provide a very engaging peer to peer experience through annotation, one that brings people together in direct ways through textual analysis. 

We've done quite a bit already to build out Rap Genius as a more intuitive platform for classroom use. We launched a literary channel called Poetry Genius. And we added a private page functionality so that classrooms can work on a text more exclusively if, for whatever reason, they are less interested in working on our public pages. While I recognize this need and was the major advocate to add this functionality, I still maintain that the most profound use of the site comes when students are required to share their ideas publicly. Having to do so, I think, completely transforms their understanding of their reading, thinking, and writing. 

We are working, though, to further build out what we call our "class page" functionality that allows teachers to create private versions of texts on the site that are blank of previous annotation. We want to develop the dynamic toolset that teachers have for interacting with their students, maybe adding a dashboard that gives teachers some metrics on their classes' work on the site, for example.

Do you have any current personal favorite annotated texts on Education Genius? Are there any that you find particularly interesting or amusing?

The first text that my students worked on was The Great Gatsby, which remains a personal favorite of mine. This is a text that I added to the site and that my students annotated. Because it is so perennially taught, and because of the recent film version, this is the most popular non-music text on Rap Genius with over 250K views. I've never had a classroom project that impacted the world of knowledge production in this way. Because of the way the site works to continually engage users with close reading texts, I get messages anytime someone adds an annotation or a suggestion on the chapter of Fitzgerald's novel--and my former students must as well. It's this wonderfully living, breathing text, and I've basically been reading and rereading Gatsby for the past year and a half as a result.

It was another personal highlight when a professor at Duke annotated Jameson with a grad class--the same professor is now using the site in an undergraduate French class as well:

Here's a passage from a Lit Hum course--I'm a Columbia alum, so that project is quite meaningful to me:

Your readers might be interested to see a couple of other UT alums using the site, Jasmine Mulliken at Oklahoma State and Caroline Wigginton at Ole Miss:

You can see a full list of all our classroom projects here:

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