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2018

This week's guest blogger is Pamela Arlov, Associate Professor of English at Middle Georgia State University.

 

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.

This week's featured guest blogger is Joseph Couch, Professor at Montgomery College.

 

“It’s only a movie.” I will never forget that response from a student during a class discussion. While watching a film can be the most passive engagement with a literary text, I realized during that class why helping students become more active in the process needed to be more of a priority in my teaching. Creating a single exercise that would change perhaps a lifetime’s habit of passive watching into the active viewing and close reading of films would of course be too impractical. What I instead developed was a classroom activity to introduce, or, perhaps more accurately, more closely examine the three basic elements of film form: shot, take, and editing.  In my classes, a felt pen or two and a whiteboard are the only materials I use to draw some basic storyboards.  The storyboards do not have to look like they are ready to pitch to a Hollywood mogul to teach the elements. They just need to get the basic content across and let the students fill in the rest with their own movie-watching imaginations. One thing that helps accomplish this goal is to keep the frames all roughly the same size to imitate viewing a screen. The steps in the activity are as follows:

 

  1. The exercise begins with a long shot to establish a setting, just as many films do, particularly if the setting is new in the film. I usually make it of a city because I find tall buildings fast and easy to draw, but any setting is fine if an instructor is comfortable drawing it. 
  2. To establish a scene, the next step is to draw a couple of quick medium shots to settle in on a single location within the larger setting. In my classes, this is usually a park depicted as an area with some trees and a few quick figures in a couple of frames.
  3. The next step is to focus on a figure or two to establish the characters in the scene also in a medium shot. Drawing balloons with a line or two in comic-book or comic-strip fashion can introduce dialogue, which often occurs after establishing setting, scene, and characters.
  4. The last frames I draw are close-ups to show the complete the sequence of long to medium to close-up shots and also to discuss how close-ups also represent building intensity in a scene. I also draw an extreme close-up just of a character’s bloodshot eye and a bead of sweat (this is the quickest to draw) to show extreme intensity.  Two regular close-ups can also work, and it can be useful to discuss how editing one close-up after another suggests the height of dramatic tension.
  5. On that note, discussing the length of takes while working through the shots can help explain their role in the narrative. Establishing shots, for example, tend to be much longer takes than close-ups, which reflect and underscore the building and rising of dramatic tension.

 

For those not inclined to draw the frames themselves is the option of using a page or two from a comic or graphic novel, both of which use storyboarding with balloons for dialogue, on an overhead. The frames vary in size, making the visual effect slightly different from film, but if Fellini thought enough of it to spend hours chatting with comic writers and artists, these examples should work fine. An option for the technologically adventurous instructor is the use of free Storyborder software for a dazzling presentation. Of course an instructor could of course use scenes from a film on DVD or streaming video. The key is to use whatever makes the instructor comfortable with illustrating the three elements.

 

After using this activity, I refer back to its frames/shots while discussing a later film in a course and/or prepping students for an exam.  It seems to be a good idea to provide a little extra reinforcement of the concepts of shot, take, and editing for a reminder to view films closely rather than watch them passively. One advantage of the software or comic approach is ready access to the exercise if instructors suspect their students are engaging in a little too much escapism and not enough analysis. Over the years, I have found students performing more of the latter and less of the former with the help of these steps and a couple of felt tip pens.        

In a previous edition of The Story and Its Writer, we included a page illustrated and written in 2009 by Michael Kupperman titled “Are Comics Serious Literature?”  In the first panel, a cowboy answers in the affirmative, but in the next panel another cowboy answers, “I SAY THEY AIN’T.”  A violent fistfight ensues — a series of pictures illustrating “SOK!” “POW!” “BAM!” “BIF!” and “CLOP!” – as the first cowboy beats up the second. In the last panel, the winner says “NOW WHO ELSE SAYS COMICS AREN’T SERIOUS LITERATURE?” Kupperman is spoofing the comic book style he’s using to make his point, but in the process he shows his reader that supposedly childish graphics can answer serious questions. 

 

Instructors and students who enjoyed the page-long story “Are Comics Serious Literature?” will be happy to learn that in May 2018 Kupperman published a new book, All the Answers, in which he again asks a serious question and answers it brilliantly.  It’s a graphic memoir, the same genre as the true-life stories told so well by Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi in the recent tenth edition of The Story and Its Writer.  In All the Answers, Kupperman tries to solve the mystery of his father Joel Kupperman’s lack of emotional support during his entire life.  Joel Kupperman, currently living in a nursing home in the last stages of dementia, was a college professor of philosophy when Michael and his younger brother were growing up in rural Connecticut in the 1970s and 1980s.  The family had a secret — the boys were never told that their father had been a world-wide celebrity.  In the decade of the 1940s he had been a child prodigy star on a popular weekly radio quiz show out of Chicago called “The Quiz Kids.” Joel Kupperman refused to talk about or reveal anything about his past life to his children.  This emotional withdrawal had crippling consequences for his family.    

 

In a recent conversation, Michael Kupperman told me that it was painful for him to return to his memories of childhood and create All the Answers, but it was even more difficult, as he said, “to sell my pain to a publisher” in order to come out with his story. “The Quiz Kid experience went, along with the rest of my father’s childhood, into a kind of locked box.  It was understood that talking about it would cause him pain, so we didn’t bring it up.  It wasn’t until I started really examining it that I started to see what it had done to him – and through him to me and the rest of the family.  His generation and the generations surrounding it were not about talking about stuff and dealing with trauma.”

 

Kupperman feels that his earlier work, such as “Are Comics Serious Literature?” involved what he describes as “the absence of meaning.” His readers could decide if his drawings were funny or not, but as an artist he was “committed to the painstaking parody and reproduction of pop culture.”  It was only when Joel Kupperman began to suffer from dementia that Michael realized he had a very limited time left to ask his father about his earlier career as a Quiz Kid.  Joel continued to be evasive, but Michael’s questions were answered when he discovered five scrap books created by his paternal grandmother documenting Joel’s ten years as a radio celebrity, from the ages of six to sixteen. His father had hidden the scrap books behind a shelf at home in his library.  The photographs and mementos taped onto their yellowing pages became the source of the richly detailed visual world of the 1940s that Kupperman meticulously creates in All the Answers.

 

As a precocious child, Joel had the ability to perform complex — if trivial — math problems in his head, and in the process remain unflustered while on the air in a coast-to-coast live radio show.  As an adult he was very modest; he never considered himself a genius because he possessed this talent. His mother had been his tireless publicist, continuously pushing him to meet prominent people who admired his plucky performances on the radio.  His fans were as diverse as the movie comedians Abbott & Costello and the industrialist Henry Ford.  Michael Kupperman believes that his father was promoted as a celebrity by the national radio networks and used as a non-threatening American symbol of the Jewish race to fight anti-Semitism during World War II.  His memoir is more than a personal story about his difficult relationship with his father; it is also about the country’s fascination with celebrities and our long history of religious intolerance.  I entirely agree with what Jake Tapper said about All the Answers on CNN: “Poignant and funny and sad.”

 

Ann Charters is the author of The Story and its Writer

Today's featured guest blogger is Shane Bradley, Administrative Dean, Writing Program Director, and Assistant Professor of English at Erskine College.

 

Anyone reading this old enough to remember the song “Where the Party At” by Jagged Edge? The year was 2001, and I’d just finished what I call my “Middle School Odyssey” – teaching ELA to seventh and eighth graders – and had joyfully made it home to high school English.

           

I began my high school stint teaching ninth graders, and everybody knows there’s little difference between eighth and ninth graders. So, the odyssey continued. My students urged me to include music in my lessons, and eager to get them involved, I complied. Fridays found us listening to their favorite songs and talking about what we heard.

           

When one of them played “Where the Party At” that fall, we listened happily, tapped our fingers, and bobbed our heads. Several students sang along with the lyrics, and two were so moved that they broke into dance.

           

Music is an inescapable component of our lives. We listen to it in the car, from our phones, around the store, at the gym. Our students wear their Beats headphones like old people wear shirts: part of their wardrobe. What I realized early on was that while music takes us places our ordinary, soundless existences can’t, those words, those structural patterns attached to the music also stick in our heads, becoming part of us. With that in mind, I decided to keep “Where the Party At?” as a teaching tool for my high school students.

           

I try to play the song in my American Literature classes during the first weeks of a new semester. We enjoy the music, but most students don’t sing along because they’re too young or too cool or both. Because I also begin most semesters with a review of what a sentence is, how it functions, and the ground rules for clear academic writing, the refrain in the song – “Where the (da) party at?” – serves as an appropriate example.

           

“Grammatically,” I ask, “what’s wrong with the song?”

           

Silence.

           

“There are three key issues in the chorus that we want to avoid in our writing. Can anyone identify them?”

           

“They end the sentence with the word at,” someone shouts.

           

“Yes, and why is that wrong?”
           

“No object of the preposition,” another student says. “Sounds bad.”

           

“Good. What else?”

           

“They don’t say the word the; they say da.”

           

“Yes, and while saying da may not be that big a deal, do we want to write da in the place of the word the?”

           

“No,” they laugh.

           

“There’s one more,” I say.

           

This one always takes a moment, but someone finally realizes and blurts out, “Hey, there’s no verb in ‘Where da party at.’ It needs an is.”

           

Music may brighten our students’ days, help them study, and keep their workouts and practices on pace, but it also tattoos on their impressionable brains habits that drive English teachers nuts! Whether we’ll admit it or not, the music our students like doesn’t cultivate the most effective written academic communication.

           

Instead of beating them over the head with all the bad habits popular music creates, I try to help them recognize the influence music has on our culture. I play another hit from my past, “Run Around” by Blues Traveler from all the way back in 1994. Remember the first lines? “Oh, once upon a midnight dearie, I woke with something in my head.” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” – “Once upon a midnight dreary.” Honestly, they don’t get that reference any more than they know Poe is responsible for the raven on Baltimore’s helmets.

           

By the end of the semester, we’ve listened to and discussed a variety of songs inspired by the literature we read. Here are a few:

 

  • “Ahab,” MC Lars (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
  • “Tom Sawyer,” Rush (Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer)
  • “Anabel Lee,” Stevie Nicks (Edgar Allan Poe, “Anabel Lee”)
  • “Richard Cory,” Simon and Garfunkel (E.A. Robinson, “Richard Cory”)
  • “Thieves in the Night,” Blackstar (Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye)
  • “Firework,” Katy Perry (Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”)

 

           

And while some of the songs might be a bit of a stretch, like Katy’s Perry’s “Firework,” and listening to the songs does require us to read all or part of the works referenced, students do appreciate our efforts.

           

To my surprise, some of my students are familiar with the band Iron Maiden, and any Internet search of their songs (“Flight of Icarus” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” for example) will reveal a strong literary influence. Like the band’s music or not, there’s no mistaking that the members either paid attention in high school or spent a lot of time with their noses in books.

           

When my students want to know where “da party at,” they know it probably won’t be in my classroom, but what they do know is that we’ll listen to Jagged Edge, laugh, bob our heads, and talk about literary influences on the culture. The odyssey continues.