Beyoncé in the classroom: How a Newhouse professor changes the way we talk about culture

Rawiya Kameir standing in front of Newhouse 1
Rawiya Kameir

Assistant professor of magazine, news and digital journalism (MND) Rawiya Kameir has interviewed some of the biggest names in popular culture, from Cardi B to Tiffany Haddish. She was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in the Essays and Criticism category, one of the most prestigious awards in the magazine industry. She was even profiled by Nylon magazine as a writer who is changing the way we talk about culture. But Kameir says the most special moment of her career came only a few months into her time at The Fader, when she convinced the editor in chief and the rest of her peers to put the Nigerian artist Davido on the cover. 

“It felt like one of the first moments in my career where I was bringing my whole self into the room,” Kameir says. “That really meant a lot to me, to be able to bring this cultural knowledge that I had from growing up and being a part of the African diaspora to my job at a media company in Chelsea, New York.”

Kameir was born in Sudan and also lived in Côte d’Ivoire, Tunisia and Cairo before she moved to Canada for college. She grew up reading magazines and following the music industry religiously, but it wasn’t an industry that she thought she could access. However, as she began reporting on the music scene in Ontario, she launched what has become a successful and impactful career in journalism and criticism.

Now, Kameir says her background and experience navigating the industry drives her to help students develop their passions and center their whole self in their work. In her Magazine Editing and Art Criticism courses, Kameir has taught hard skills like fact-checking and story structure but has also made an effort to teach students the realities of the industry, from unions to freelancing. This spring, she will teach a course she created—COM400/600: Beyoncé and the Evolving Politics of Identity, Fandom, and Commerce in Pop Culture—which explores the ways ideas about race, gender and artist-audience relationships have changed through Beyonce’s work and the media’s coverage of it.

“Beyoncé will be a text in the class, but there will also be challenging approaches to cultural studies,” Kameir says.

The class came out of a teaching demonstration Kameir did as part of her interview process at Newhouse. After the presentation, MND chair Melissa Chessher told Kameir she should teach a whole class focused on Beyoncé. With three semesters of teaching experience, Kameir now feels ready to teach the course. 

“I’m hoping that students come away with a deeper understanding of the seriousness with which pop culture deserves to be treated,” Kameir says. “I want students to walk away with an understanding that they can apply analysis to pretty much anything that they’re interested in.”

Associate professor and interim MND chair Aileen Gallagher was the chair of the search committee that hired Kameir. She says one of the reasons the committee was interested in Kameir was the nuance she brought to her reporting on popular culture. 

“She has a very sophisticated way of writing and thinking about media that people tend to not think too much about. She’s also the rare person who was both a writer and editor,” Gallagher says. 

Beyond bringing those skills to the department, Kameir has brought a devotion to and an advocacy for her students, according to Gallagher.

“I think Professor Kameir wants to empower students to know their worth and to be able to recognize positive and negative working environments,” Gallagher says. “It’s not enough to understand how to use analytics to make editorial decisions. That’s helpful, but it’s important to know how to navigate this system. That’s what gives students confidence when they go out in the world that they can make good decisions in their career.”

Kameir sees part of her role as helping students understand a complicated industry in a complicated time. She tries to be as transparent with students as possible, both about the realities of the industry and about herself. 

When she took the job at Newhouse, she says people told her she should be strict and authoritative, so students would take her and themselves seriously. However, she thought that would be disingenuous; while she wants students to work hard, it’s more important to her that they are prepared for the real world.

“You have to know how to push back when it’s necessary. You have to know how to be a kind and present colleague or freelancer or whatever the case is,” Kameir says. “If we don’t start practicing that in school, then we get out into the field and we think that we have to be a certain way, and we don’t.”

Gallagher says students have responded well to Kameir’s teaching style and have strived to meet her high standards. Gallagher attributes Kameir’s success to the power of her ideas and her self-possession. She has been impressed by how well Kameir has adapted to the stress of the pandemic.

“I remember going up to her at the end of last year and saying, ‘OK, so do you like teaching?’ I was afraid she was going to be like, ‘Get me out of here’ because it was just such a hard year, but she said ‘I love it’ and I was just so relieved,” Gallagher says. “We are so happy that she came here. She is a great colleague, a great journalist and a great teacher, and we could not ask for anything more.”

Kameir says she’s excited to create meaning through her work as a writer and to shape the future media creators in her work as an educator.

“I just want to be able to do more of what I’ve really been lucky enough to already do and to hopefully plant seeds in students and see those grow out in the professional world,” she says.

Registration for the spring semester runs from Nov. 4-Jan. 25.

Elizabeth Kauma is a senior in the magazine, news and digital journalism program at the Newhouse School.