When students are first asked to write about literature, they often feel like strangers in a strange land. They are expected to analyze a work, incorporate quotations with in-text citations, and finish with a Works Cited list. It’s a tough task and a minefield of new rules.
In a recent post, I speculated that song might be a good starting point for teaching students to integrate quotations into their writing.
I put that theory to the test by asking first-year composition students to explore a theme in song, comparing and contrasting two or three songs with similar themes. When I gave the assignment, I introduced the idea of quoting lyrics. Using Usher’s “Confessions, Part II,” suggested by a class member, I demonstrated and they practiced.
Before the next class, students chose a theme, picked songs, and wrote a thesis statement and outline. Together, we looked at a couple of thesis statements, familiar territory for the students by this point in the semester. Then we began Works Cited pages. Because complete information is not always provided on lyrics sites and YouTube videos, students often had to search for the songwriter, producer, release date, and the name of the album. In an era when databases offer perfectly formatted article citations at the click of a mouse, citing a song is hard work. I walked around the classroom helping students search for information and format citations.
Students left class with a Works Cited page and returned with completed papers. This particular class has struggled with the transition to academic writing, and results were mixed. However, every student succeeded to some degree. Certainly, all are much better prepared to tackle the research paper that is their next assignment. All students identified a unifying theme in the songs they wrote about, and many developed their topics in creative and interesting ways. One student argued that while rap music is often singled out for objectifying women, other genres do the same thing. She used examples from pop and country music to illustrate the point. Another student compared songs that depict or refer to actual incidents of police violence against African Americans. Still another compared Tupac’s “Me and my Girlfriend,” in which the girlfriend is a gun, to a song about a flesh-and-bone girlfriend.
Because popular music often contains profanity, we had discussed how to handle the issue within the papers. I told the class to go ahead and quote the profanity if they thought it was necessary, but I also urged restraint since they were writing an academic analysis. Restraint is exactly what I got. From music rife with ear-scorching profanity, my students culled the poetic and the profound, using profanity sparingly, if at all.
My students also amazed me with letter-perfect rendering of artists’ names. Every semester, I read at least one paper referencing “Hemmingway” or “Steinback,” but in writing about the artists they listen to every day, students had no spelling problems. I was the one who had to double-check to make sure that there was really no third e in The Weeknd, no apostrophe in Lil Jon, and no er at the end of Uncle Murda. My students were right every time.
What I was really looking for in these papers, however, was the successful integration of quotations, and students did well with this task. Only two papers contained “floating quotations” that were completely unattached to any sentence. In all other papers, lyrics were introduced with a signal phrase, or better yet, embedded in the writer’s sentence. I had also shown students how to quote lyrics in the same way that they will, in future classes, quote poetry, with virgules marking the space between lines, and verb tense or pronoun form changed within brackets, if necessary, to make the lyric flow smoothly into the sentence. Only a couple of students did these higher-level tasks with complete success, but these tasks are also difficult for students in the next-level class, Literature and Composition.
Letting students write about popular music only sounds fluffy and easy. In fact, this assignment requires high-level skills and a bit of grit, but students are willing to put in extra effort because it’s a topic they value. Just last week, I pre-checked the Works Cited pages that students had prepared for their research papers. Those pages exceeded my expectations. For my students, music proved to be an accessible entry point to quoting and citing, and I will make this assignment a permanent part of my first-year composition class.