Hacking Literary Analysis: Mashup as the New Canon

Two Gentlemen of Lebowski image via The L Magazine

Debate about the place of literature within the First Year Composition course has been raging for years (Jill DeGraw provides an effective and concise overview of both sides of the debate in “Literature in the Freshman Composition Class”). For me, there are valid points made by both sides. But whether or not I agree that the literary analysis essay is an effective method for teaching students the kind of critical and analytical reading and writing skills that they will need throughout their studies is a moot point; I teach in a department that believes that it is, and I must adhere to the course objectives that those in charge of the FYC program have established. But that’s not to say that I can’t question and test their definition of literature.

In our program, FYC consists of a two-semester sequence: the first semester supplies an introduction to the basics of expository and persuasive writing, while the second semester is a combination introduction to literature and analytical writing course. The objectives for the second semester course are daunting: students are expected to come away with a knowledge of the formal qualities of poetry, drama, and short fiction; have read several examples from each genre; be able to apply their knowledge of the formal qualities of each genre to a critical reading of those examples; be able to articulate their findings in an analytical essay; and be able to conduct research to locate relevant and reliable sources, synthesize those sources, and use them to support a thesis-driven literary analysis of one of the texts studied during the term. Aside from the Herculean nature of accomplishing all of these objectives in fourteen weeks (or in my case eight, since I teach the summer short-term version), there’s the added difficulty of selecting texts that will be both understandable and challenging to students and that they will find relevant or interesting enough to not only read but spend considerable time re-reading, analyzing, perhaps even researching, and eventually writing about at length.

As Andrea Lunsford says of the old practice of having FYC students read and write about literature:

[C]ollege writing courses that asked all students—no matter their own interests or prospective majors—to write about “classic literature” for an entire term or two were almost guaranteed not to connect with the majority of the students in them.

In considering ways to remix my summer short-term second semester FYC class, I was most concerned with the issue of relevancy. I often incorporate pop culture into the course, asking students to apply what they learn about analyzing plays, poems, and short fiction to movies, songs, and music videos, but I wanted to make the literature itself more relevant to the kinds of media that students are exposed to outside of the classroom. The previous term, I had been surprised at how engaged my first semester students had been with creating their own memes as part of their work with DS 106. Personally, I had recently discovered mashups after reading Ryan Cordell’s “Mashups in the Literature Classroom” and had avidly been building a playlist of mashups on my YouTube channel, as well as researching mashup blogs and websites. This research had led me to discover Kirby Ferguson’s Everything Is a Remix film series. In a wonderful overlap with my discovery and exploration of the mashup genre and remix theory, I was also reading every graphic novel I could get my hands on in preparation for a course I will be teaching next summer, including Peter Kuper’s Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Neil Gaiman’s Dream Country from The Sandman series, which includes his take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What began to coalesce in my mind was a course that taught literature as remix/mashup and remix/mashup as literature.

In asking students to explore how works of literature are referenced by, sampled in, and combined with new texts, I hoped to teach them to discern how a knowledge of the literary canon can help them to better understand, appreciate, and critically analyze their own cultural milieu. For the final research project, students would either select a remix or mashup not studied in class to analyze or create their own remix or mashup, using a particular literary theory to inform their work. I knew the course would be very challenging for the students, but, in my opinion, it turned out to be just the right kind of challenge. In this post, I’ll briefly outline how I sequenced the course and share some examples of the students’ final projects.

Course Sequence

I began the term by introducing students to remixes and mashups by providing various examples and having them watch the Everything Is a Remix series. While most students were familiar with music sampling, the majority had never heard of mashups. In order to help ground their understanding of what remixes and mashups “do”, I asked them to use Ryan Cordell’s theory of mashup as a lens:

The best mashups juxtapose materials deliberately; they make the implicit explicit. They expose or highlight underlying features of the source materials-formal, thematic, or stylistic-that casual viewers, listeners, or readers might miss.

I also had students complete a diagnostic piece in which they were asked to apply a specific literary theory to a particular mashup (see the Diagnostic Essay guidelines). I used the results of this diagnostic to design the assignment sequence for the rest of the term. What became apparent from the diagnostic assignment was that students needed a scaffolded sequence that required them to analyze each text separately before tackling a comparative analysis within the context of a remix/mashup.

For the first unit, I asked students to select a poem and its companion illustration from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience to analyze. I thought it best to begin with texts that had been remixed purposely by the author and were meant to be read contemporaneously. For each subsequent unit, I first asked them to read, discuss, research, and analyze an original text from our literature reader (Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream respectively). Each student was free to select and apply a literary theory of their choosing to the text, but we worked as a community to understand the text and the conversations taking place around it amongst other readers. Students were then introduced to two current texts that either remix or mash the original in some way. Students selected which remix/mashup they wished to focus on and used their analysis of the original as a lens for analyzing the remix/mashup (for Kafka, they could choose between Carlos Atanes short film The Metamorphosis of Franz Kafka or Kuper’s graphic novel; for Shakespeare, they could choose between Gaiman’s comic version or the BBC’s ShakespeaRe-Told version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

What I’d do differently the next time

It’s not so much what I’d do differently as what I’d do if I had fourteen weeks as opposed to eight. For one, the students needed more time to become grounded in the theoretical underpinnings of remix and mashups. They needed more time to practice analyzing each genre together in class before they worked at doing so on their own. We also needed more time for students to develop, receive feedback on, and revise their analyses to help ensure that they were addressing both texts fully and effectively. Specifically, students would have benefited from more direct instruction in analyzing films and graphic novels. While I provided them with resources to help them do so, they still had difficulty with addressing the unique characteristics of these mediums, especially the visual components and how they highlighted or subsumed aspects of the original texts.

Secondly, I wish that we had had more time to discuss the original texts as remixes themselves (Blake of Barbauld’s Lessons for Children and Hymns in Prose for Children, Shakespeare and Kafka of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Shakespeare of English folk and fairy tales). And I wish that we could have discussed the implications of copyright, creative license, and fair use for remix and mashup practices (and how Blake, Shakespeare, and Kafka did not have to contend with these issues).

Final projects

For me, and I would hazard a guess that for the students as well, the most successful aspect of the course was the final project. Not only were the students’ choices of remixes and mashups both varied and interesting, but their analyses were insightful and engaging. Here’s a list of what the students chose to do with their final projects:

  • a feminist critique of Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” (which samples but deftly revises Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman”)
  • a cultural studies critique of Baz Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet
  • a postcolonial critique of the “So You Think You Can Be President” mashup
  • a postcolonial critique of “I Have a Dream” by Common and Will.i.am
  • a cultural studies critique of Weird Al’s “Eat It”
  • a feminist critique of the “Disney Mean Girls” mashup

Only one student chose to create their own mashup. She chose to use a Marxist lens to mash Kuper’s graphic novel version of The Metamorphosis with Modest Mouse’s “Doing the Cockroach.” This is the amazing result:

Resources

If you’re interesting in exploring and incorporating remixes and mashups into your course, here are a few sources that I found helpful in getting started:

The Meta Mashup

Mashup: A Fair Use Defense

DS 106: Ranting about Remix

10 Things Every Creator Should Remember but We Often Forget 

Remix Theory

Political Remix Video

For resources that students can use to create their own remixes and/or mashups, see my post on the course’s blog.

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