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 . . . .

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