Mashing up the Canon (Part 2)

Digital storytelling is by definition a mashup – -a bricolage of images, music, words, memes, and other cultural flotsam to tell a story.  And, as I tried to point out in a previous post, digital storytelling can really change relationships between students and texts, learning and teaching, and even classroom and extra-mural student identities.  But a big issue posed to teachers by digital storytelling is the question of evaluation.

Most digital storytelling is descriptive – – either documenting personal or (sometimes) public experience.

When I started out using digital storytelling in my lit. classes, my purpose was similar: document your experience of a poem.  However, the more my classes explored multimedia textuality, the more I began to wonder if digital storytelling couldn’t also be used as an analytical medium.  That is, could students explicitly “present” an interpretation of literary texts through multimedia textuality?

To attempt this, a few basic shifts were in order.  I’d already tried “crowd-sourcing” rubrics for evaluating student-authored multimedia texts.  In this semester’s version of digital storytelling, I created a rubric that tried to nudge students away from the illustrative or descriptive.  While keeping them focused on crafting a good video, I emphasized the idea that the mashup was an interpretation, an interpretation that began with the way their voices interpreted the poem through oral performance.  I especially tried to wave students away from simple res et verba efforts: e.g. a Phil Levine poem uses the word “fire,” hence insert a visual image of fire.  I changed the name of the assignment, from “YouTubing Poetry” to “Digital Commentary,” to emphasize the shift from description to criticism.

Still, how was I to evaluate the critical and interpretive dimensions of the digital commentary?  And, how could I demonstrate to the students that a mashup doesn’t just illustrate a poem but also, like good criticism, shifts the ways we understand that poem?

And so, in my Literature of Labor class, my students picked their favorite poems from Philip Levine’s fantastic 1991 collection, What Work Is.  I set them loose with iMovie and some cheerleading.  And, they produced some outstanding mashups.

To think about the critical purpose and effect of digital media, I tried an experiment a few days into our mashing-up of Levine.  First, I chose a couple of the very first posted commentaries.  One of these was a mashup of Levine’s poem, “Gin.”  In class, I first read “Gin” and, after, asked the students to write down: the key words or images that struck them; and, second, to write a paragraph or two explaining the meaning of the poem — – e.g. their snap interpretation.  Then, I showed them their comrade’s digital commentary/mashup version of the poem and repeated my instructions: what key words or images did they recall; write a paragraph or two explaining the meaning of the poem.  Then, we had a discussion about the differences between these two paragraphs, e.g. how the digital commentary had altered their understanding of the poem.

Here’s the mashup we looked at:

Obviously, there’s a lot to talk about in this mashup, especially about how the students have interpreted some themes common to Levine’s collection – – nostalgia, working-class manhood, irony.  But, I want to focus on how the students understood the changes that the digital commentary made to their interpretation of the poem.

First, very few students – – maybe 3 or 4 out of a class of 45 – – said that the mashup hadn’t changed anything.

Many of the students noted how the digital commentary underscored Levine’s sense of humor.

The use of masks in the video elicited a lot of commentary: one student explained how the masks hooked up with Levine’s play on the word “spirits”; another student noted how the use of the masks emphasized Levine’s idea of drinking as a way of “diluting or hiding from oneself”; a student described how the masks seemed to make the digital commentators into “outlaws” and how this worked with Levine’s irony about the ways rebellion, e.g. underage drinking, can be just another way of conforming.

Many students in the class reported that the digital commentary revealed a new, collective dimension to the poem and Levine’s collection.  In other words, the digital commentary shifted the poem from a bittersweet paean to youthful innocence to an exploration of how adolescence is a “communal” experience.  The way the three masked gin-swillers chorused key lines underscored the poem’s real focus; as one student wrote, “Gin” is “not about the gin itself, but the collective experience” of growing up, about how the experiences that shape our individual identities are really “transformations shared among friends.”

Finally, the student responses to the mashup cautioned me to retreat a bit from a simple juxtaposition of the critical and the illustrative.  Quite a few students commented on the images of Eisenhower and Nixon spliced into the end of the mashup.  The overall gist of this commentary was that the “future” so abstractly signified in cliches about “coming-of-age” actually had a much more particular and fatal reference for Levine’s generation: Vietnam.  The invocation of that context – – via images of Eisenhower and Nixon – – cast the speaker’s experience into a much broader national and historical frame.

In comparing their “before and after digital commentary” understandings of the poem, students were evaluating the effectiveness of the digital commentary.  This evaluation helped to clarify the purpose of their own digital commentaries – – to change the way viewers understood the poem.  The process – – of before and after – – also helped me to clarify my expectations and to start forming a more concrete and helpful language for these expectations.

Ultimately, the digital commentary had multiple payoffs.  Students engaged with Levine’s poems, they applied their creativity to a literary text, they shared their efforts, they felt “ownership” of What Work Is, etc.  Something extra I learned: the digital commentaries don’t have to be  viewed as  final and complete “products,” ready to be evaluated and graded.   Reintroducing the digital commentaries into the class – – as texts themselves – – also nurtured more and better critical discussion about Levine’s poetry, allowing us to explore motifs like the “mask” and make connections across the collection and across contexts.  The digital commentaries didn’t close off reading and interpretation, they unleashed yet more, and more productive, reading and interpretation.

Mashing up the Canon (Part 1)

Over at Profhacker, Ryan Cordell recently described how he uses literary  mashups in his classroom: he asks his students to re-write texts using another author’s style – – e.g. rewriting a few paragraphs of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse using Hemingway’s voice.  (I remember a similar exercise in parody from my high school English class  – – where I rewrote a Bellarmine football game as if Edgar Allan Poe were doing the play-by-play.) The mashup is a version of parody, in its broadest definition, and, as Ryan points out, asking students to crossdress an author’s text can help to make the concept of “style” much more visible.

At its best, this parody exercise takes us deep into a Bakhtinian understanding of voice, identity, and literary style; at its worst, it can repeat 100 years of failed literacy education, based mainly the osmotic principle of language and learning, e.g. imitate the masters and you too will become more masterful!

Still, the mashup has come a long way from its literary roots (a genealogy I tried to point to in a recent post on zombies). And, the profane explosion of cultural creativity associated with “Web 2.0,” encourages us to play with new ways of mashing up even the most canonical of literary texts.  In fact, the mashup may be a seriously powerful tool for deepening our students’ engagement with genres, like poetry, that have become increasingly distant from popular experience.

This is a proposition I’ve been trying to explore for the past couple of semesters.  First, in a general education, American literature course and this semester in my Literature of Labor class.  Most of the students in the general ed course are not English majors, and one of my major goals in the class is to simply draw the students into the pleasures and powers of literature.

Since I’m a Whitman freak, it only makes sense that I want my students to share my undying connection to Whitman’s poetry.  To do that, however, I can’t just describe the beauties of Whitman, nor can I rely on the propagative effects of my enthusiasm, I have to help them to experience the power of Whitman’s poems.

So, naturally, I turned to YouTube.  For the past two semesters, I’ve asked students to choose 15 or so lines from a Whitman poem and read the poem on camera.  Then, based on that performance, I ask students to further “interpret” the poem by integrating their reading into a multimedia performance.  In its first form, the exercise was pretty loose.  My basic instruction was: Get Emersonian with the poem – – do a “creative reading” of Whitman – -by mashing up whatever feels good.

My students produced some amazing mashups.  I include two here:

In the first video, Ryan autotunes Whitman – – and his performance was a reply to  a semester-long debate (conducted largely before and after class) about the contemporary fate of rock and roll.  In the second video, Tony mashes up “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” with a machinima from Halo 3, the popular video game.  Both students obviously had a lot of fun with the assignment.

However, the mashups also taught me a couple of things.  First, mashing up Whitman forced students to slow down and really pay attention to the poem.  Slowing down made the poem more “visible” in more different ways to the students.  Second, as poetry became performance, it developed and extended our sense of the classroom as community.  Thanks to social media, students shared their “texts” and shared their experience of the poems.    Third, the poetry became a medium of creativity.  Instead of parroting my interpretation or imitating my way of reading, students were able to use their voices, performance, and media to remake the poetry and steal it away from me, the teacher.  I think this helped them to “own the poem” (one of my new and favorite pedagogical slogans) – – Whitman moved from being a text on the syllabus to a part of their experience.

Finally, in mashing up the poem, the students were also mashing up their own identities.  This is an aspect of the mashup that few commentators seem to have noted.  Maybe because we’re still so fixated on texts as artifacts, we miss this process: in “re-creating” Whitman’s poetry, my students were also “re-creating” themselves.  Based on their videos, you’d never be able to pick Ryan or Tony out of my class of 50 plus students.  When a literary text becomes the vehicle for exploring new identities – – at a time when many students are already experimenting with who they are, something powerful is going to happen in the classroom.  To put it lightly, our discussions of Whitman, post-YouTube, were richer, livelier, and deeper.

Technology is often pitched to teachers, especially in its LMS/CMS version, as something that saves time and makes things more efficient.  In other words, technology makes things invisible.  Technology helps us to think less about what we’re doing.  But, the YouTube assignment actually forced me to think a lot more – – about Whitman, about how students read, about my goals as a teacher.  The assignment also posed a very practical challenge: how to evaluate my students’ mashups of Whitman and, more generally, how to evaluate new forms of multimedia “writing” in the classroom.

That question needs a new post . . . .

The Monstrous Logic of the Mashup (including Zombies!)

I stumbled onto Alden Bell’s The Reapers Are the Angels by accident while browsing my local bookstore. The cover promised apocalypse, zombies, and a 16 year-old girl, but the copies of Bell’s book were stacked suspiciously close to a truckload of Twilight novels.  I can happily report that, in this case, folksonomy is coincidental: The Reapers Are the Angels is a great read and definitely not a zombie version of Bella’s dramas.

Bell’s (a.k.a. Joshua Gaylord) book is an absorbing read for many reasons.  But, for me, the most compelling is the manic mashup energy that Bell unleashes to construct his narrative of young Temple’s journey through a zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic Dixie.  As Temple, who was born P.Z. (post-zombie) and hence knows nothing but a world defined by creepers and diminishing humanity, travels through the Southland – – first in search of company and then on a mission to reunite another orphan with his family – – Bell’s narrative draws on a whole library of journey narratives.  In the background, obviously, are The Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, Heart of Darkness, The Wizard of Oz, etc.  In the foreground, are more particular versions of the narrative – – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the recent Zombieland, for instance.  And, given Bell’s geography some even more local, chicken-fried versions of the Journey: Faulkner’s Light in August,  the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou, and of course Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

The bustling roundabout for these inter-texts is Temple’s distinctive, yet familiar narrative voice. “God is a slick god,” Temple tells the reader in the novel’s opening lines.  “She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe.”  And, almost immediately, we’re dunked, zombies and all, into that rich vein of Southern speech that writers south of the Mason Dixon line have been mining since Augustus Baldwin Longstreet published his Georgia Scenes in 1835.  As Temple narrates, we hear a voice of twangy, adolescent innocence and experience soaked, steeped, and filtered through Twain’s Huck, Faulkner’s Sarty Snopes,  Harper Lee’s Scout Finch, Capote’s Joel Harrison Knox, Padgett Powell’s Simons Manigault, Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro, and countless other avatars of gritty, low-down, “free bird” authenticity.

It’s Bell’s powerful ability to dwell within this matrix of voices that makes The Reapers Are the Angels (to understand the title: check out Matthew 13:36-42) more than  just Huckleberry Finn with Zombies.  Bell brings a cherished, culturally canonized voice and narrative into contact with one of the ugliest, dirtiest, bloodiest, goriest, drive-in movie denizens of our time: the zombie flick.  This is the real mashup: a Ree Dolly who wades through the pop cultural detritus (literally and figuratively) of Romero, Lucio Fulci, Dead Snow, Planet Terror, 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, and The Walking Dead. And, amazingly, The Reapers Are the Angels works – – as both a zombie narrative and a significant contribution to contemporary fiction.

No surprise here, perhaps.  As the Russian Yoda of culture, Mikhail Bakhtin reminded us in Rabelais and His World, what we know now as “literature” started in the bawdy parodies, drinking songs, and scatological  jokes of the Medieval carnival, a place where popular and canonical voices collided, mingled, and inter-married.  The laughter of the carnival reflected a world in historical transition, and the forms and figures generated by carnival embodied and cultivated an emerging secular consciousness.  A continent away, the American Yoda of culture, Kenneth Burke, described the Great Depression as the age of “gargoyles,” an era where social confusion and conflict generate “planned incongruity” and birth grotesque forms like Super-Realism and proletarian literature.

The mashup is the preferred cultural genre of historical shift and transformation.  The mashup, like the carnival, the gargoyle, and the monster, is “the harbinger of category crisis.”  The mashup violates cultural  norms and boundaries, producing monstrous texts that swarm with semiotic excess and so evade and trouble our sense of cultural propriety.  The mashup underscores – – with laughter, groans, and gasps – the insufficiency of old ways of doing cultural business and offers glimpses of new cultural orders and commerce.  And, as Bakhtin reminds us, the mashup is as old as modernity itself.

Thanks to YouTube, GarageBand, Facebook, WordPress, and others,  the mashup – – musical, visual, textual, syndicated – – is the chief, if not supreme genre of our contemporary “convergence culture.”  I’d also venture that the mashup is one of our most important literary genres today.  Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Richard Kadrey, and a host of others, are reinventing serious fictional narrative by jamming together discordant literary and non-literary genres.  Hard-boiled Chandler narrative meets steampunk alternative history meets contemporary geo-politics – – shazam! – – you’ve got  a membership card for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union!

And so, to return to the zombie.  Some might say that the zombie narrative simply reflects a kind of popular resignation where “it is easier to think of the total annihilation of humanity than to imagine a change in the organization of a manifestly unjust and destructive society.”  There’s some truth (and pleasure) in that.  But, the power and popularity of the zombie today might also reside in the zombie’s inherent mashup: neither living nor dead, the zombie inhabits a world between worlds, a place of terrifying ambivalence and confusion.  The zombie landscape – – deserted buildings, empty highways, dark cubicles that shelter flesh-eating mouths and blank eyes – – is our hometown, but mashed up now with danger, despair, and paranoia.  The zombie defamiliarizes everything and everyone, including our familiar cultural genres.  And, in mashing up Huck and George (Romero), writers like Alden Bell are following through on that original, literary zombie manifesto of the mashup – – T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land.  They’re coming to terms with the quicksand of our contemporary reality by fashioning “unreal cities” of prose and narrative out of “heaps of broken images.”   Eliot’s zombie poem grimly eulogized the past even as it “modernized” contemporary poetry; today’s mashup gleefully mocks the present even as it invites us to play with the future.