Invitation to Collaboration: Literature Instruction in the 21st Century Webinar

Paul Cadmus, Pocahontas saving Captain John Smith from death in 1607 while watched by her father, 1939

Invitation to Collaboration: Literature Instruction in the 21st Century 
Webinar 
August 14, 2012 
1:00 cst 

When several members of Jacksonville State University’s English department began to challenge traditionally held beliefs about undergraduate education, the anthology of Early American Literature, along with many other “norms,” came under close scrutiny for many reasons.

With the GLO Bible as an early model, a team of approximately 30 collaborators began to construct an electronic, media rich anthology combining primary texts of pre-Civil War American Literature from the traditional canon with art, criticism, scholarly commentary, and contemporary audio and video to enhance student centered and challenge based learning.

This ongoing project involves faculty from English and other humanities departments at JSU and other colleges and universities, computer science faculty and other IT experts, broad- based student involvement, and a K-20 consortium.

During this free webinar, the JSU team (Jennifer Foster, Rodney Bailey, and Gena Christopher) will share its vision for the E-thology, a glimpse into this work in progress, and an invitation to become an active participant in what has evolved into much more than an ebook. We will also welcome your questions and comments.

To register for this event, contact Gena Christopher at genac@jsu.edu.

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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.

Remixing College English

Damian Marley & Nas collaborating & sampling African music

I’ve been putting this off for a while. But when you start composing blog posts in your head you know it’s time to start blogging. I’ve been doing that for some time now, but every time I would think to myself, “I make my students blog, I should be blogging, too,” the other voice in my head (the sane one) would respond, “But when do you have the time?” I’m already remixing my classroom, which takes up a lot of my free time (what little I have of it). Do I really want to take precious time away from doing something that I’m so passionate about and that requires so much research, self-training (in technical stuff), planning, and revising? But I just can’t stop writing blog posts in my head and I keep thinking that maybe, just maybe, the stuff I’m doing in my classes is really making a difference and maybe, just maybe, others can learn from my successes and my mistakes. So here goes. My first blog post (other than the dozen or so I’ve written in my head).

So, where to begin? Maybe with what I mean by remixing. I think of remixing as meaning various things. There’s the association with rap and hip-hop artists’ sampling and remixing of other music. I certainly do that. But all teachers do. We steal and plagiarize each other’s lessons and syllabi all the time and put our own little spin on them. The first lesson that you learn as a teacher is to never spend time re-inventing the wheel. There’s also the idea of mixing things up, remaking them anew. This kind of remixing is similar to quilting–taking the usable pieces of discarded clothing and fabric and piecing them together in a way that makes them both newly serviceable and newly beautiful, in fact, often more beautiful than they were before. That’s what I’d like to think I’m doing as a college instructor–not only am I finding new utilities for old methods, but I’m putting them together in a totally new and innovative way. That’s the word one of my students from my Spring Hybrid First-Year Composition course used when he was having his mid-term conference with me: innovative. He actually called my class innovative. I’ve been riding on that high for months now.

But it’s not good enough to be innovative. I also have to be effective. That’s the most important thing. And the hardest. But this blog will be a record of my attempts to be both innovative and effective.

This is a video that came across my radar last semester. It struck a nerve with me and I haven’t been able to shake the implications that it has for me, my students, and my teaching.

I think that everything Dr. Tae says is true about learning. And it’s kind of scary because it means that there’s even less that I can do about my students’ learning than I thought. They all learn at their own pace, learning is not always fun for them (and if we think that we can make it fun all the time, then we’re deluding ourselves and setting ourselves up for failure), and failure is guaranteed (at least at first).I have, during a traditional term, 14 weeks to try to teach them how to write well. Or how to analyze a piece of literature and articulate that analysis, with effective supporting details, in writing. Many of them are very poorly prepared for the type of writing I’m asking them to do. Many of them don’t even know how to write a clear and complete sentence. Those who do know how to put together a mechanical five paragraph essay (with 5-7 sentences in each paragraph), pride themselves on making it through twelve years of school without reading a book. And my job is to teach them how to read critically and to analyze what they read. But if they can’t understand the words that are being used in the texts they have to read, it’s hard for them to do that. And when you factor in these realities with the realities of learning that Dr. Tae so brilliantly articulates, the task before us becomes overwhelming. But not impossible.

I’ve been remixing my classes for about a year now, staring last Fall with my first hybrid classes. And in that year, I have witnessed the possibilities that open up when you open yourself and your teaching up to the students’ points of view and the potential that they have. They are living in what many are calling the greatest age of information revolution since the invention of the printing press. They are a generation with the world at their fingertips. And many of them want to do something with their potential and their possibilities. As Dylan said, “The order is rapidly fading.” The old ways of reading, thinking, writing, and learning are being transformed, remixed, and, in some cases, abandoned. And we’re going to have to “get out of the new [road]” if we can’t adapt to and adopt it as our own. Our students are already on it and they are not able or willing to turn around and change their direction. That’s a challenge that we’re going to have to meet. And I’m trying. It’s hard and time-consuming but I have never felt more like a teacher.