If you’re served lemons, take a class about “Lemonade.”
First-year students at Chatham University had that chance this fall with instructor Alexandra Reznik, who picked Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” as the topic for her first-year writing course.
At first glance, a writing class about a visual album may not make sense, but to Reznik, it was an opportunity to examine the serious topics addressed by the 2016 album. Students get to examine how they fit into the power systems around them while writing multiple papers from personal narratives to research papers, said Reznik, an honoree in The Incline’s Who’s Next: Education class.
“First Year Writing Special Topic: Lemonade” is the second college course The Incline is featuring in a series about local classes that make you say, “Why wasn’t that a class when I was in school?” like this one about texting. Learn about the courses from the instructor themselves, sans the homework and exams. But! You do get extra credit if you sign up here to have the stories sent straight to your inbox or send us class ideas.
Here’s what Reznik had to say about her class:
Lemons to lemonade
One of the first things students do — along with watching “Lemonade” — is write a personal narrative about a challenge in their lives.
It’s a chance to have students, mostly freshmen, reflect on how they’ve turned lemons into lemonade and work on personal growth. Students write about being injured playing sports, their mom being sick or their parents’ divorce, Reznik said. But what she wants them to learn is how their identity within a system of power impacted their experience. So Reznik will ask them:
- What systems were you navigating as part of that challenge?
- How did your identity impact access to healthcare?
- How did race and gender impact challenges at school?
Students often don’t realize how that all ties together, she said, but it can be seen in the personal narrative of “Lemonade” — though she stressed that it’s about so much more. “I don’t want to belittle the message about slavery, incarceration and the destruction of the black family.”
Students are usually so excited to watch a film in class, but when it comes to writing about it, Reznik said, that’s harder. Text is easy to just quote, but writing about sounds and images requires being more descriptive and choosing adjectives, she said. “That’s challenging for students.”
So spending an entire semester on a visual album can difficult, but there’s also the benefit of a sustained focus. “We get easily distracted,” but this time, students have to look at something in multiple ways instead of moving onto the next thing.
So why an entire course on one artist’s work?
Well, it isn’t the first time Reznik has included “Lemonade” or Beyoncé in her teaching. Both have come up in world literature courses she’s taught, and she said she’s not the first to teach it either.
“Whether you like her or not, she’s a prominent cultural figure,” Rezink said of Beyoncé, adding that because she’s “in our faces,” people usually have strong opinions.
But Beyoncé’s popularity also makes her accessible, Reznik said, adding that she’ll push students to understand more about why they like or don’t like Beyoncé, why what Beyoncé does is popular and who her audience is. And “Lemonade” itself is accessible because of the wide range of topics and themes it addresses including infidelity, inequality, religion and physiological issues, Reznik said.
But Reznik said she is aware of the power dynamic of being a white woman teaching this class, so she brings in other voices through added readings. She warns that students shouldn’t have “Lemonade” as their only reference point for the experience of marginalized people.
“It’s not all the same thing,” she said.
If you want more about the academic side — and all sides — of “Lemonade,” The Incline asked Reznik for her suggestions.
- “‘What’s Worst?’: A Beyoncé Grammar Adventure”
- “What Beyoncé teaches us about the African diaspora in ‘Lemonade’”
- This “Lemonade Syllabus” by Candice Marie Benbow that’s “A Collection of Works Celebrating Black Womanhood”
- “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth” (Poetry by Warsan Shire, woven throughout “Lemonade.”)
- “Purple Hibiscus”
- This TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists” (which, of course, is also featured in Bey’s “Flawless”)
- This TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”
Want more? Here’s the semester schedule for Reznik’s, class per the syllabus: