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First-Year Seminar Classes Hit the Streets of Denver

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Madeline Phipps

Global Hip-Hop students take a graffiti tour of downtown Denver

Feature  •
Students touring the streets of Denver

Imagine studying the cultural significance of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” while touring a local cemetery. Or taking a class on the history of Buddhism, then visiting the Mayu Sanctuary to actually try meditating.

Imagine studying geography in the classroom, and then taking a trip to Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater to survey Denver from higher elevation, or learning about waste and sustainability by touring the Franklin Recycling Center.

For DU’s incoming freshmen, these experiences and others were one part of their introduction to college life.

Each first-year student registers for a first-year seminar (FSEM). The classes cover a variety of topics—from Beyoncé and millennial feminism to a journey through the fractal universe. The class first occurs during orientation week, and at the end of the week, students take a field trip related to their course topic.

Aaron Paige, visiting assistant professor at the Lamont School of Music, is teaching an FSEM called Global Hip-Hop. During the fall quarter, his students will learn about the sociocultural, economic and political significance of the musical style. “Students will engage in a series of collaborative projects with the local Denver hip-hop community throughout the fall quarter,” Paige says.

For their FSEM trip, the Global Hip-Hop students traveled to Denver’s RiNo district to view examples of the area’s graffiti. “The trip is also a way of introducing the students to hip-hop’s four elements—rap, Djing, breakdance, and graffiti—and to get them to start thinking about how these art forms are interconnected,” Paige explains.

Alex Gardner, a Denver DJ and break-dancer, led the tour and explained that studying the art helps contextualize hip-hop as a greater cultural movement. “It’s important to understand the context of the graffiti so we can understand why it depicts certain subjects,” Gardner said. “Graffiti can take on a variety of styles and forms—stickers, tags, burner pieces and lowbrow. It depends on the artist’s choice.”

One student, Liz DiLoreto, said she was interested in the class because she studied African-American culture and history during high school. “The coolest thing for me is to see the emergence of the culture — the people who started creating this kind of art and music,” she said.

Another student, Zane Taylor, said he was grateful for the opportunity to take a class about how culture and art affect society. “A lot of people disregard graffiti and pretend like it doesn’t exist,” he said, “but I think our generation is more understanding of this as an art form and thinks of it less as a destruction of property.”

After the graffiti tour, the students visited Youth on Record, a nonprofit—run by DU alumna Jami Duffy—that pairs local musicians and producers with at-risk youth to create their own music. The students participated in a breakdance workshop and were introduced to the recording studio by producer Babah Fly.