Straight Outta NCTE

You know, I was sort of hoping that the title to this post would invoke N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, but looking at it, I realize it does no such thing. Sigh.

I’m unsure how I ever got on the mailing list for the NCTE inbox, but I’ve never been sad that I did. In addition to its usual mix of educationally relevant news and alerts to recent studies and such, today’s inbox featured this assignment by Lisa Storm Fink, which asks students to design a soundtrack for a novel or short story. Reading it, I was immediately struck by the desire to thump myself in the skull. Of course!! Why didn’t I ever think of that! This is not to denigrate the work that Fink does here, or that of the book that the assignment is based on (Reading in the Dark: Using Film as a Tool in the English Classroom). Rather, it’s to mark the ways that you can have a bunch of information at your disposal and not know how to harness it.

I’ve taught two courses in the last year that are solely devoted to media (both in American Studies. Hurrah for interdisciplinary frameworks!). In both, I used novels, films, television, and online media like blogs and wikis. In the first course, we began with a “media fast,” where students were required to go the 3 days between class meetings without media of any kind. Let the panic commence! Their very first question was: “does music count?” At the end of the fast, those who survived identified music as the medium that was the hardest to go without. They couldn’t sleep, do homework, drive the car (!). It was clear from the jump that when we talk about the deep interpenetration of media into everyday life, we have to think about music. Of course, I had designed a syllabus that was entirely music free. Sigh.

I learned my lesson in the second class, but also made a crucial mistake here. As a class on the cultural history of American individualism, I chose Seattle grunge as a particular manifestation of this phenomenon. The unit was slated to occur right after some intensive work investigating the 60’s; what could be better than to assess Kurt Cobain’s rejection of all of the tenets of that period? [Famously, Kobain said that he would only wear tie dye if it were created with Jerry Garcia’s blood.] In the end, we had to cut the entire unit to allow room for student projects, but the class was far more excited to move on to Fight Club than it was to work through 90’s music.

The point of this (and again, the “duh” moment for me), is that students have a powerful connection and active expertise in the music that appeals to them. The beauty of this assignment is to use that connection/expertise as a way to think critically about literature and, as importantly, weave it into students’ own body of knowledge and meaning.

As powerful as this tool is, I have to admit that it’s a bit scary. As I get older, I’m finding that the first element of contemporary culture that is slipping out of my grasp is popular music. Really. And it’s happening in two equally embarrassing ways. The first: my taste is going retrograde. Not only do I keep downloading songs from the 80’s (like whatever iTunes will offer up of The Smiths), but I’m finding the golden hits of the 70’s pretty delightful too. Neil Diamond, anyone? The second: I’ll download super-popular current radio tracks…about 2 months after they hit it big. So, this fall, when everyone wanted to kill Rihanna, I was happily bopping along to S.O.S. (which is not only indicative of this second category, but also of the first, since the hook of the song is based on “Tainted Love”). What all of this means, of course, is that to enter into a conversation with students about music is to know practically nothing—and to endure a good deal of mockery for that. In the end, however, how do you pass up a beautiful pedagogical tool because of your own insecurity that you’re taste in music is pathetic?

I used to ask students how they would cast a movie version of particular novels. Now I’m going to ask about theme songs…

2 thoughts on “Straight Outta NCTE

  1. Hi Kim-

    I was thrilled to see that you found my lesson plan useful and interesting! I recently recreated this lesson plan in a 6th grade class using a book about Martin Luther King Jr. That provided lots of options for choosing songs. Best of luck to you – lisa

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