Extreme Makeover: First-Year Composition Edition

 Some rights reserved by Pimthida
Some rights reserved by Pimthida

I have decided to do an extreme makeover of my First-Year Composition course. Some things are working quite well for the students–especially blogging as the main writing forum and the portfolio system for assessment–and I’ll keep those, though I’ll be tweaking them. But there are several things that I’ve been doing that are either failing to engage or substantively help the students or that I think I could be doing better–and that may even (gasp) be doing more harm than good.

There are three texts that have recently gotten under my skin and have influenced some of the changes I am thinking of making: “Roland Barthes, Reading, and Roleplay: Composition’s Misguided Rejection of Fragmentary Texts” by James Seitz, “Against Formulaic Writing” by Gabriele Lusser Rico, and Toward a Composition Made Whole by Jody Shipka. I really recommend that you read each them yourself, so I’m not going to spend time summarizing them here. Suffice it to say that each has inspired various aspects of what I plan/hope to do next term in FYC.

Here is an overview of how I’m thinking of structuring the course. Though I’ve outlined my ideas for the course in some detail, my main vision is one akin to free jazz–both in terms of what I do as a teacher and what I invite students to do as writers.

Students Be(com)ing Writers

Rather than having all students blog about a course theme, next term I plan to give students almost complete autonomy when it comes to their blogs. They’ll still have to have a theme for their blog, but that theme will be up to them. I will encourage them to select a theme directly related to their major or, alternatively, to a hobby/passion. They will still need to blog in a purposeful way, but what that purpose is and how they go about achieving that purpose will be something they will need to learn how to decide. Because experience has taught me that getting started is often the most difficult aspect of writing for students, I will encourage them to use their peers and myself as sounding-boards and we will spend quite a bit of class time discussing and practicing various invention techniques, as well as using the silent dialogue activity.

Rather than focusing primarily on formal, academic-style, strictly text-based expository and/or argumentative writing, I also plan to allow/encourage students to experiment with various mediums and genres, including alternative genres, such as comics, fiction, remixes/mashups, images, and videos, and multimodal pieces. I have found that, even when given the option of such non-traditional compositions, students are often reticent to try something so far outside their comfort zones or, in the case of a genre/medium they are familiar with and may already practice outside of the classroom, are uncertain of the appropriateness of such texts within the context of FYC. So next term, I plan to require students to select at least one alternative genre to use and to produce at least one multimodal composition. I plan to work closely with students to make sure these alternative texts are as purposeful as their more traditional compositions, maintaining a focus on exposition and/or persuasion.

Rather than the five reflective questions that I normally ask students to complete for each formal blog post, next term I plan to ask them to keep a writing journal, which will be more open-ended. I am hoping that the open-ended journal format will allow students to be more organically probative about their compositional practices.

Students Be(com)ing Readers

“Blogging is best learned by blogging…and by reading other bloggers.” –George Siemens

As part of the blogging workshop that I’ve started integrating during the first two weeks of class in order to orient students to what blogs are and what can be done with them, I have students locate several blogs on a topic of choice, subscribe to them, and add them to their blog’s blogroll. While I encourage students to read these and as many other blogs as they can/wish, I’m not sure that they ever take me up on the offer. Since next term they will be challenged to build and maintain a blog on a topic that they are either already an expert on or wish to become an expert on, they will need to locate and curate a network of topic experts that they can draw inspiration from and use as resources for their blog posts. So, next term I’ll have students read the blogs related to their own topics listed on the Academic Blogs wiki, subscribe to those they like, and regularly read posts from these and other blogs on their topic that they locate throughout the term. But they’ll also need to do something after they’ve read the posts. What they do will mostly be up to the student–post a response on their blog, add a comment to the post, share it with their social networks with an explanation of why they’re sharing it, etc.–but the point is that they are both frequently reading texts related to their own area of academic or personal interest and using them in some way beyond checking them off of a to-read list.

I usually require students to read and comment on their peers’ blog posts. This has been problematic with some groups because their commenting tends toward the formulaic and superficial, even after I have them study comments on blogs and create a list of good commenting criteria. I am trying to seriously re-think how I integrate comments on peers’ posts, but this has honestly got me stymied, so I may ask the students themselves for guidance on this aspect of the course.

Writing Work/Shop

I’ve never really integrated the workshop method, but this is something I plan to do next term. In addition to peer reviews for each formal blog post, every student will have at least one draft workshopped by the whole class. I want to shift the course’s focus away from outside texts (the reader and two nonfiction books my department requires me to assign) and towards the students’ own texts. Almost every interaction will be focused on what the students are composing and how they are composing/have composed it. We’ll tackle the risks, challenges, and exigencies of both traditionally academic and alternative texts head-on in both a supportive and critical mode.

I’ll also use the workshop to introduce various compositional techniques and tools, but only those that feel relevant and significant at the moment. Since they are the focus and facilitators of the workshops, the students will be encouraged to introduce issues, questions, and techniques to be addressed during the workshops, rather than passively relying on me to decide on what needs to be addressed. My hopes for the workshop method is that it will both aid students in developing and embracing a writing identity (situated within a community of other writers, both within and without their classroom) and help them to experience first-hand the multi-stranded, multi-directional, recursive nature of writing.

Collaborative Assessment

The assessment aspect of the course has been the most difficult to re-consider. While I think that the portfolio system is the best one available at the moment, I have been unhappy with the various methods that I have tried in terms of outlining my expectations and how the final grade will be determined.

I have been very happy with the results of the anonymous peer assessment that I piloted this term and plan to make that an integral part of the assessment process in FYC next term. Taking a cue from Alex Halavais, I’ve also decided to set some very abstract standards for an A in the course: the student must inspire, surprise, teach, or wow us. This reinforces the open-ended, organic nature of the course. And notice the language here: us. Since students will be responsible for assessing each others’ compositions, they will also be responsible for helping me identify those writers who meet this standard. Students can “nominate” a composition for this honor in several ways: sharing the post, commenting on the post, or liking the post via Facebook or Google+ (since the class will be using Google+ as our LMS, a +1 will be required in order to indicate a nomination). A composition will need to receive multiple nominations in order to “make the grade” and a writer will need to have at least two compositions that meet the standard in order to earn an A in the course.

This kind of abstract, open-ended assessment necessitates a new way of having students complete their writing portfolio reflections at the end of the term. Rather than self-selecting pieces for inclusion in the final portfolio, they will need to look to their peers’ responses to their pieces (their assessment form feedback, comments, shares, and likes) in order to select those compositions that made the most impact on their readers and reflect on what aspects of each piece elicited and merited their readers’ attention.

 

I’m not sure how close this comes to capturing the essence of my vision of the course–one that involves an organicity and improvisational openness that pushes against the expectations of FYC. My hope is that I can encourage my students to embrace this openness and use it as a steppingstone (for the reticent) or springboard (for the more adventurous) into a new identity as a writer and thinker.

These things rarely turn out exactly as you see/plan them, but that is part of the beauty of teaching.

I welcome your thoughts on my ideas and I’ll keep you posted . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remediating Remedial Composition

Osmar Schindler (1869-1927): David und Goliath, 1888 via Wikimedia Commons

I’m a big fan of Mike Rose because I think that what he says makes a lot of sense. I just don’t understand why more university administrators and those in charge of remedial writing courses aren’t listening to him.

If you don’t know who Mike Rose is, you should get to know him by reading his blog or a few of his books, especially Lives on the Boundary, which is the first book of his I ever read. I read it after discovering his seminal article “Remedial Writing Courses: A Critique and a Proposal.” As the title of the article suggests, Rose first critiques the praxis of remedial composition and its theoretical underpinnings and then offers an alternative method for teaching students who require remediation in writing in a way that better eases their transition into the first-year composition course. Rose’s critique, then and now, questions the idea that students who arrive at university with substandard writing preparation need to be taught the very basics of writing, i.e., grammar and mechanics and sentence construction, as though they were primary school students, rather than the adults that they are, and the assumption that the mastery of these basics will somehow allow them to go on to succeed in the typical FYC course and their other college classes. As Rose points out, the entire construction of remedial composition courses dooms them, and by association the students who must take them, to failure:

Many of our attempts to help college remedial writers, attempts that are often well- intentioned and seemingly commonsensical, may, in fact, be ineffective, even counterproductive, for these attempts reduce, fragment, and possibly misrepresent the composing process. I believe we may be limiting growth in writing in five not unrelated ways. (1) Our remedial courses are self-contained; that is, they have little conceptual or practical connection to the larger academic writing environment in which our students find themselves. (2) The writing topics assigned in these courses—while meant to be personally relevant and motivating and, in their simplicity, to assist in the removal of error—in fact might not motivate and might not contribute to the production of a correct academic prose. (3) The writing teacher’s vigilance for error most likely conveys to students a very restricted model of the composing process. (4) Our notion of “basic skills” has become so narrow that we attempt to separate the intimately related processes of reading and thinking from writing. (5) In some of our attempts to reform staid curricula we have inadvertently undercut the expressive and exploratory possibilities of academic writing and have perceived fundamental discourse strategies and structures as restricting rather than enhancing the production and comprehension of prose.

Rose goes on to propose that remedial writing courses do just the opposite of what they (typically) do now. He envisions, and in fact has helped to design and administer, remedial writing courses that don’t assume students can’t meet the challenges of academic reading, thinking, and writing, but actually ask them to dive headlong into the proverbial intellectual deep-end, with the instructor guiding and coaching them as they struggle to navigate  academic discourse and add their voice to the academic conversation. This is not much different from how many of us approach traditional FYC courses. The main difference in remedial courses, at least in my experience, is the crucial need to not allow remediation to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In remedial writing courses the challenge is not so much overcoming students’ unfamiliarity with the praxis of academic discourse as it is overcoming the label that students who are placed in remedial classes are given and the expectations (or lack thereof) that are associated with that label. In general, I have found that three types of students end up in remedial writing classes. The first group are those students who know that they have been placed in a remedial class and either resent it (because it does not count towards their degree hours and forms a barrier between them and the “real” classes that their peers are taking) or see it as a judgement on their writing ability and perhaps even on their merits and prospects as a student (I suspect that many of these students hypothesize that remedial is synonymous with “not meant to be here”). The second group of students do not even realize that they are in a remedial class or what that means. These students are often shocked to learn that the class signifies a deficiency on their part and will only count as institutional credit. The third group of students overlap with the other two, but I identify them as unique from their peers because they don’t actually belong in a remedial class but, because of poor testing skills or some other fluke, have been placed there. These students could do very well in my traditional FYC classes and therefore excel in my remedial classes, providing models for their peers to emulate. (On the reverse side of this is the fact that I always end up with a handful of students in my FYC classes who would greatly benefit from a remedial writing class and rarely are able to pass the traditional class).

Because of the precarious emotional and intellectual states of many of these students, the main function of a remedial writing class often becomes one of constant and intense encouragement as you arm your students to go out and meet the forces that they believe have been arrayed against them. If they feel like David going out to meet Goliath, then writing is the rock you must convince them they can sling. They have to believe that becoming a better writer is achievable or you have lost the battle before it has even begun (and it is an ongoing battle that you must fight all semester long). But forcing them to write self-contained paragraphs for a semester is not going to prepare them for FYC. Mollycoddling them with simplistic writing prompts is not going to help them face their next college writing assignment. And knowing a verb from a gerund is not going to help them compare and contrast two psychological theories or analyze a political cartoon or classify and analyze the medical symptoms of a hypothetical patient.

So, I’m doing things a little differently in my remedial writing class this term (the first that I’ve taught in a while) and following Rose’s four-tiered plan, which is founded on real writing challenges (the kind that students will be faced with as college students, not primary school students) that are situated within highly relevant contexts.

The Context

I have designed the class much like a journalism course in that the students will work together to design and publish a blog. The theme of the blog will be completely up to the class. At the moment, students are writing their first blog post, which is their proposal for the blog’s theme. Once students have identified potential themes, I’ll allow the class to vote on which theme they think will be the most interesting to write about this term. Once the theme is selected, the blog will function much like an digital newspaper, with students working together in groups to identify relevant stories, compose the stories, design the post layouts, and publish the stories by a deadline.

The Challenge

Students will write in small groups of three to four, rotating the role of lead editor each week. The week’s lead editor will be in charge of identifying sources for a story and sharing those sources with the other members of the writing team. The team will work together in class to brainstorm and outline the story and the lead editor will draft the story before the next class meeting. At the next meeting, the team will use Google Docs to collaboratively revise, edit, proofread, and design the blog post before the editor publishes the story to the class blog. The writing team will then have to create a VoiceThread that contains both the Google Doc in which they collaborated on the post and the final post itself. I will use the VoiceThread to provide feedback both on how effectively they collaborated as writers/designers and on the strengths and weaknesses of the final post, and the team will respond to my feedback and establish goals for their next post.

Rationale

My hope is that by having students publish their writing on a blog and select the topic of the blog, they will be more invested in the  act of writing and what they are writing about. Also, by asking students to work in writing teams, I hope to take the onus off of the individual student and provide them with a support group of peers. Because we will be using Google Docs, I will be able to monitor each team’s writing process and function as a member of each team myself. Since the class meets in a computer lab, I can be present both physically and virtually (a veritable hybrid teacher!), depending on where I am needed most by any given group.

The Technology Sticking-Point

I hesitated about using technology so heavily in a remedial course. My first instinct was to teach the course naked (figuratively speaking), going bare bones in an effort to achieve a type of Zen simplicity that I hoped would funnel over into the students’ thinking about writing. I did not want anything to complicate the already complicated relationship that many of these students are likely to have with writing. But in the end I could not get past the power that asking students to “publish it” rather than “hand it in” holds for my traditional FYC classes. I am sure that there will be some students who struggle with the technical aspects of the class and this may stifle their writing progress or even lead them to resent me and/or give up on the class. But I am hopeful that the risk of losing a few students will be trumped by the empowerment that the rest of the students will feel as they make a tangible footprint on the digital landscape.

I may be completely off my head in how I’ve planned the course. It may be that too many of my students will allow the remedial label to narrow their vision and foreshorten their potential. Too many may go into technology panic mode or feel that their writing skills are too inferior to be publicly evaluated and commented on. I may lose my nerve and ask them to abandon the field in mid-battle if I begin to see too much fear or hesitation on their part.

But, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I’ll let you know how we fare.

In the meantime, if you’d like to read about another instructor who is taking a radical approach to remedial composition, read “A Model for Teaching College Writing,” which describes how Barbara Vance helped a group of struggling writers become a team of documentary filmmakers.

On the Virtues of Not Being an Expert

“[H]e who makes the programme is the god.” –Peter Carey, The Chemistry of Tears

“Expert, text-pert, / . . . Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?” –Lennon-McCartney, “I Am the Walrus”

In Peter Carey’s novel The Chemistry of Tears, he fictionalizes the building of Charles Babbage’s Difference Machine, including the dramatic moment when the machine produces it’s first calculations. The moment is a disappointment to the workers who had spent months meticulously hand-crafting the parts for the machine because they think it miscalculates 102 + 2, not realizing that Cruikshank (Babbage’s fictional namesake) had written a new law regarding the product of 102 and 2:

[A]s a result of a decision beyond your knowledge . . . [y]ou saw two plus 102 equals 171. In nature this is what we call a miracle and I, who predicted it, would be called a prophet.

Cruikshank, as engineer of the programme, possesses a god-like power: he can determine facts and rewrite Truth. He can subvert others’ knowledge and expectations.

In many ways, teachers share this god-like position. We are the writers of programmes, i.e., curriculum, courses, and lessons. We determine what needs to be known and how it is known. Our knowledge and expectations take precedence over the knowledge and expectations of our students. In our role as expert, we determine the Truth as our students come to know it.

The all-knowing, all-seeing power of a god is also a monstrous weakness, for it renders him incapable of seeing things from others’ points of view. He cannot empathize with mortals’ short-sightedness, their fear and confusion when confronted with the unfamiliar or the uncertain, their lack of knowledge about things the god finds wholly knowable and intimately familiar.

Similarly, teachers often forget what it is like to be a student–to be unfamiliar with and intimidated by a subject; methods for reading, writing, and thinking about that subject; or even by the expert teaching the subject. Maryellen Weimer articulates this insufficiency in her blog post “A Failure to Communicate”:

Faculty, intimately familiar with the content, see how all the details fit, relate and become the big beautiful picture they know, study and love. What some have lost is the ability to see how the picture looks to others who are looking at it for the first time. How could those perfectly obvious concepts be missed?

Far too often, especially in the humanities, when we position ourselves as experts, we do so in terms of our ability to critically analyze a text–whether it be a piece of literature, an historical event, a sociological phenomenon, an archeological artifact, or a film/painting/photograph/musical composition. We attempt to guide our students towards an understanding and analysis as profound and articulate as our own, ignoring, dismissing, or, at best, humoring their initial, inexpert responses to the text. We push them to look beyond the obvious and the aesthetic, to recognize the symbolic, the implicit, the transcendent; in other words, we want them to value and recognize those aspects of the text that we and other experts think are the most important.

And in teaching students to read and interpret a text or understand a mathematical or scientific concept, we often use language that is as bewildering to them as the semantic bantering that takes place in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or the incomprehensible nonsense of The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus.” In the latter, John Lennon ingeniously uses “linguistic chaos” to voice an ironic critique of the practice of textual analysis:

“Expert, textpert…” (the latter another probabl[e] portmanteau) deflects the attempts of folks (like me!) to explain what’s happening in the song. However, within the song’s context, these experts are more of those sneering, snide establishment folks, caught in the same trap as the desperate singer (“like pigs in a sty”) but unwilling to admit that there’s something real and fearsome to bewail. “…the joker laughs at you”, the lyrics tell us, but in “IATW” pronouns usually refer to us *all*, not just the second person singular.

In fact, legend has it that much of the song was guided by Lennon’s knowledge that a teacher at his former primary school was having his students analyze The Beatles’ lyrics. Lennon’s semantic hacking is both a commentary on the pedantic nature of school(ing) and an attempt to resist such pedantry. It’s his (unsuccessful) attempt to have his music accepted and enjoyed at face value, in much the same way that our students wish to accept our course content.

But such ideas rarely guide teachers as we create our courses. We are much more concerned with establishing ourselves as the text-perts. Being anything less is an uncomfortable and discomfiting proposition; it hints at lack of control. But what is the worst that can happen if we enter the classroom as something less than omniscient?

This is a question that currently preoccupies me as I plan a course on graphic novels, something that I have never taught before nor am I an expert in. In fact, I am currently very much in the role of student of the graphic novel. I only just “discovered” them about a year ago, and, while I was immediately and inexorably enthralled with the genre, I quickly discovered that my training and expertise in reading traditional texts had not provided me with the skills needed to fully understand and appreciate graphic novels. And so I have embarked upon a self-education in graphic novels, first by reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and now by reading every graphic novel and comic that I can afford to get my hands on. Initially, I had planned to incorporate a third phase in which I read as many scholarly articles, books, and blog posts on the genre as I could before the class starts next summer. But I have begun to reconsider this part of my education. I hesitate to read the numerous scholarly sources that I have discovered because I wonder just how much they may cloud my initial unadulterated awe at the understated aesthetic power of Alison Bechdal’s Fun Home or the pristinely bittersweet humor of Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. I could very well become an expert, at least from my students’ perspective, on the graphic novel and teach the course as such, exerting, in the process, control, power, and influence. Or I could enter the classroom at the same novice-level position as my students, affording me a better ability to read the course’s texts through their eyes and to learn to interpret and analyze those texts alongside them, not with the language of the academy, but with honest unsophistication.

There’s equal power in not knowing and discovering for the very first time as there is in knowing from a distance. It’s this distance that I think needs to be re-evaluated. In graduate school, my professors had an easy answer to the anxieties that plague novice teachers: just stay one step ahead of your students and you’ll be okay (read: in control). But what if we were right in step with our students? Or even one step behind? Many educators have advocated for the students to become the teachers (although I suspect that some do so with the expectation that, ultimately, they’ll still have their finger on the automaton’s trigger). But far fewer are advocating for teachers to become the students. In traditional schooling, the teacher stays behind the curtain–remotely extolling facts as gifts and manipulating Truth. It’s the students’ role to discover the right path and overcome the obstacles along the way. But as our role as experts comes under pressure from the Internet and canned digital content and massive open online courses, there is a need to re-discover what it is that makes a classroom so special. It’s not the wizard behind the curtain. It’s the collective journey towards knowledge, the obstacles that problematize our progress, and the discoveries about Truth, as humans have defined it, made along the way.

It’s time we dispensed with the curtain and admitted that we’re really just students, too.

RTFS: Remix the F****ing Syllabus

photo credit: Barbara.K via photo pin cc

Now that my summer classes are over, I’m transitioning into what is, for me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching–planning my next set of classes. There’s something to be said for the clean slate. I love the opportunity that a new semester offers in terms of trying out new methodologies and introducing students to new texts and ideas to work through. Of course, not all aspects of planning courses are equally enjoyable.

Take, for example, the syllabus. I often put it off until the last minute because I dread the tediousness of copying and pasting departmental policies and procedures (“must be worded exactly as indicated,” warns the departmental email) and attempting to infuse at least some of the excitement that I feel–and want the students to feel–about the course (a difficult task considering the punitive, fear-inspiring language in which our policies and procedures are worded). And then there’s the reality that few of the students will actually read the syllabus and, since I refuse to spend time during the first class meeting reading it to them, may happily survive an entire semester without ever being aware of anything it contains–neither the Kafkaesque departmental code of conduct nor my inspired introduction to the grand ideals of collaborative learning networks, active learning, and authentic assessment. How many times have you politely answered a question that would not need to be asked if the student had simply read the syllabus (while silently thinking, “Why don’t you just RTFS?”)? Which has led me to wonder if the syllabus is yet another aspect of traditional schooling that needs to be hacked.

Some instructors are doing just that. There’s now syllabi that are comics and syllabi that look more like brochures for an adventure through ideas. One of my favorites is a syllabus for a biological anthropology class that incorporates some rather friendly-looking skeletons (study buddies?). As pointed out by Jason B. Jones, new software and web tools have given us the ability to make our syllabi more visually engaging. But these are just superficial changes to a vestige of factory-style education whose entire purpose and content may need to be completely re-imagined.

For me, what brings the traditional syllabus’ irrelevancy to the fore is, ironically, two current trends that are centered upon the syllabus itself. One is the practice of creating repositories of syllabi for open use by other educators via tools such as Git Hub (see “Forking Your Syllabus”). The second is the sharing of syllabi among members of social media forums, such as Twitter chats. It’s not that I think that either of these practices is bad; in fact, I think they are extremely important because they encourage the kinds of open exchange of ideas and exposure to diverse teaching methods that are vital to promoting lasting and meaningful change within our educational institutions. But I’m not sure how well the syllabus really contains the kinds of ideas and disruptive methods that we really need to be promoting. Maybe some of them contain a hint of the teacher’s pedagogical philosophies or some kernel that allows us to imagine the kinds of thinking and writing they encourage in their classrooms. But I don’t think that a syllabus really tells us much about what actually happens on the ground; it is, after all, a static (dead) thing, created before we have even met our students, much less attempted to enact and give meaning to its rhetoric.

My own syllabus doesn’t say much about me or what happens in my classroom at all. I used to keep a working copy of my syllabus for each class in a folder. After each class meeting, I would annotate it, making note of what worked and what didn’t and what I should have done/asked students to do that I didn’t. This working syllabus, marked up to the point of illegibility for anyone but me, said more about the class than the version posted on the class website. As I have moved farther and farther away from canned lessons and have allowed my students to help define our objectives and shape how we reach those objectives, I have had to take more and more out of my syllabi. For example, I no longer include a tentative schedule in my syllabus because a class’s schedule is often so fluid that it’s far easier to create a Google Doc that can be easily updated. Even the section in which I outline the assignments that students will complete is purposely vague, allowing for a kind of flexibility that I have found is necessary when your focus is student- and learning-centered. How can I even begin to put into words what I imagine will take place as students read, discuss, and write about the texts I assign them? And what if what actually happens is nothing like what I imagined? What if it’s better? What if it’s a total inspiration-sucking disaster? How can the syllabus reflect or communicate any of this?

Maybe it’s not supposed to, but, if not, then what can/should it do?

The syllabus, in it’s current form, has never worked for our students, despite our constant refrains to RTFS. And it is increasingly incapable of creating a snapshot of what goes on in the right kinds of classes (Ann Lemott’s analogy of writing as a slowly-developing polaroid comes to mind: “You can’t–and, in fact, you’re not supposed to–know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing”).

It’s time that we begin to remix the f***ing the syllabus. The question is how?

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.