But twice a week at NJIT, on the third floor of the Central King Building, adjunct professor Patti O’Brien-Richardson teaches “HAIR: Culture, Politics and Technology,” a senior seminar offered by the humanities department in the College of Science & Liberal Arts.
“What we have at NJIT is a true America,” says O’Brien-Richardson, who is a third-year doctoral candidate in the Joint Ph.D. Program in Urban Systems, and developed the course with NJIT architecture professor Karen A. Franck. “A melting pot of diverse religions and cultures exists here. Offering a topic that permits the students to share their perspectives enriches us all.”
On a sunny Tuesday morning in March, three male students stand before their classmates to deliver some breaking news: man buns are out!
“The trend is on the decline,” assures one of the presenters about the love-it-or-hate-it hairdo popularized by Brooklyn hipsters. He stands beside a projection screen littered with Google data to support his claim. “Once celebrities start to jump ship, you know it’s dying.”
Longhaired ballers in the NFL are also on the agenda.
“Do you think football players start new trends when they change their hairstyles?” asks another presenter. “No,” one student responds. “I think street culture makes its way onto the field as opposed to the reverse; players want to look the part.”
Next, talk turns to a 2003 ruling made by the NFL that allows players to rock long tresses, on one condition: hair that falls outside of the helmet becomes part of the uniform, making it legal to grab and tackle a player by his locks.
“Tuck the hair under your helmet or cut it off if you don’t want it pulled out,” suggests one male student. “That doesn’t seem fair,” says another student. “Hair is a form of self-expression.” A young man in the back row thinks the NFL’s got a hidden agenda. “That rule is the league’s way of making the players cut their hair,” he says. Another student opines, “It’s a job. People are expected to show up dressed for work appropriately. This includes athletes.”
These spirited discussions serve a central component of the course.
“My role is to facilitate the learning,” says O’Brien-Richardson, who camps out in the back of the classroom, where she takes notes and chimes in as a voice of reason (and sometimes the devil’s advocate) to promote discussion.
After teaching the first several weeks of the course, O’Brien-Richardson, who holds an M.S. in adolescent education from City University of New York, Brooklyn College, “flipped the classroom,” dividing the students into groups of three to select and research a hair topic and present their findings to their peers.
“Typically, the teacher speaks 90 percent of the time, and the students are quiet and take notes,” she says. “But there are many ways to learn and educate. The person in front doesn’t always have all the answers. The students have actually become the teachers in a sense.”
The syllabus is packed with required readings. Literature about the history of Chinese hairstyles, Muslim women’s identity, wig history in France, and Dominican hair salon culture in America underscore the global influence of hair and positions it as complex, culturally constructed phenomenon.
“Studying the cultural, political and technological forces that have shaped hairstyles, both historically and currently, is another means of analyzing an aspect of material culture that everyone experiences,” says Franck.
“Through our conversations,” says O’Brien-Richardson, “Karen and I have seen that the attraction to hair is actually the same attraction we have to architecture: It displays a certain era that really speaks to the experience of the people of that time.”
Franck was “surprised” to discover the array of research about hair. “It gives the course substance and a good degree of seriousness,” she assures. “In addition, which is excellent for class discussion, issues related to hair come up in the media all the time.”
Nearly a century after Madam C.J. Walker became the nation’s first female self-made millionaire by manufacturing and selling hair care products to black women, hair continues to thrive as an object of unique fascination…and sometimes a gratuitous distraction.
In 1995, Marcia Clark, the intrepid lead prosecutor on the O.J. Simpson murder trial, was ripped to shreds by the press for her short, permed haircut. When Clark showed up to court sporting a makeover—a hip, straight-haired shag, trimmed and dyed auburn—applause broke out among reporters and bystanders. “Get a life,” she laughed. The hubbub surrounding her storied tresses was examined in an episode of the hit FX anthology, “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.”
Gymnast Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas’s historic win in the individual all-around competition during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games was nearly upended by the Internet’s disdain for her ‘do: a gelled-down, pulled-back bun, kept in place with a few hair clips.
When folks wigged out, Douglas fired back. “I just made history and people are focused on my hair? It can be bald or short, it doesn’t matter,” she told The Associated Press. “Nothing is going to change. You might as well stop talking about it.”
“We’re in the midst of a hair revolution. All you’ve got to do is Google,” declares O’Brien-Richardson, who lopped off her 8-year-old dreadlocks last winter. “I went running one day and just came home and felt it would be easier to wash my hair if I had less of it—and then I just cut it.” She dramatized the chop job in a hilarious YouTube video.
Her dissertation, “Cultural Hair Practices and Physical Inactivity Among Urban African-American Adolescent Girls,” has been fashioned into an afterschool program called GLAMM (Girls Leading and Moving More), piloted at Central High School in Newark. And her research has been accepted for an upcoming conference in South Africa, where she lived for 10 years.
“The GLAMM curriculum teaches girls to be physically active regardless of their hair type and helps build their self esteem so they do not have to rely so heavily on their outward appearances,” she says. “A few female students from my NJIT course will be joining as mentors to the girls.”
Some might argue that all this hair talk is much ado about nothing; that gibes about, say, Donald Trump’s oft-lampooned signature swoop are innocuous and in good fun. But sometimes the generalizations made about a person’s grooming habits can unearth uncomfortable observations about race and religion.
When House Speaker Paul Ryan decided to grow a little stubble last year, some conservatives called it a “Muslim beard.” He’s “considered one of the handsomest gentlemen in public affairs today,” wrote the National Review. “So, why wreck all that with a beard?”
Earlier in the semester, three male Muslim students discussed the religious meanings behind their facial hair and shared their experiences with xenophobia.
“This is why I love the dynamic of the class,” says O’Brien-Richardson, still reeling from the insightful commentary. “Could I have stood up and talked about the Muslim experience of beards? Sure. Can I provide literature, share research and data from articles? Of course. But it’s so much more enriching when a student, who is Muslim and has a beard, talks about his experience going on vacation with his white friends, who also have beards, yet he’s the only one detained at the airport. There’s no way I could’ve expressed that.”
O'Brien-Richardson was recently quoted in an article on Elle.com about the appropriation of cornrows, now so-called “boxer braids,” a trend television personality star Kylie Jenner is said to have “single-handedly” helped bring back to life.
For blogger Danielle Gray, that’s a problem.
“It makes me roll my eyes,” admits the founder of Thestyleandbeautydoctor.com, a fashion and beauty guide for women. Gray blames the misattribution on a lack of diversity in newsrooms. “You end up with a staff where nobody goes, ‘Hey, guys, actually those aren't boxer braids Kylie's wearing, they're cornrows, and black people have been rocking them for ages.’”
It’s clear that O’Brien-Richardson and Franck are on to something. The idea to use the omnipresence of hair as a means to prompt a discourse about culture, politics and technology is not only innovative—it’s earning raves.
“I love the class,” says business information systems major Helen Llewellyn '16. “I’ve developed a deeper understanding of the NJIT community and how hair and culture coincide.”
O’Brien-Richardson says she’d love to see the course taught in other schools that have a large population as a way to promote diversity, appreciation and unity on campus.
“One of the things I love most about NJIT is that it’s not a monolithic setting,” she says. “And having the ability to use hair to discuss, share and learn about different cultures creates even more tolerance here. It’s important that we’re able to have an open dialogue in a safe, academic environment. I think—if nothing else—this course has created a space for that.”