Classroom Clatter, Part 1 (March 20th, 2018, Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri)

The students of my freshman comp / pop music class formally opened up their final unit with informal presentations on their research subjects. Not that this will thrill any readers, but here’s the research project they’re undertaking:

English 107 Pop Music Research Project: Specification

Objectives:

  1. Form a clear and specific argument about a performer’s or group’s musical work after sampling it broadly and deeply.
  2. Support the argument with both specific evidence (lyrics, descriptions of musical passages, etc.) and expert commentary gathered through research.
  3. Reflect on the connections you made with the performer’s or group’s work, referring specifically to your past thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
  4. Execute a cleanly-formatted MLA research paper that elaborates your argument, presents your evidence in organized fashion, and shares your reflections.
  5. For your final exam, present (through audio only) two of your performer’s songs that demonstrate your research and reflections, setting up each song with guided questions for the class, commenting knowledgeably after each song, and taking two questions (15 minutes minimum).

Restrictions

  1. The performer must identify / have identified as a woman; if a group is chosen, it must be led (or artistically dominated) by a performer who identifies (or performers who identify) as a woman. The performer needs not be currently living, nor does the group need to be active.
  2. The bulk of the performer’s or group’s work must have been produced prior to January 2001.
  3. All genres of work are allowed, as well as any nationality from which the performer or group might have sprung. It is suggested that you select a performer or group from a genre of which you have some working knowledge.
  4. Your argument must be about the work, not about the performer or group as human beings.
  5. You are required to use your preferred streaming/listening methods to listen to at least three non-compilation albums, and at least one compilation. Each album must contribute a work that is MLA-cited in the text of your paper; each album should be listed among your paper’s Works Cited.
  6. Sources must qualify as expert commentary. You will have to research the writers who provide it to determine that. Also, this project requires that you look into at least one book—and you may need to look into more than one.

Suggestions for Arguments

  1. Arguments may focus on themes or preoccupations that are explored by the artist or group in their songs.
  2. Arguments may focus on the artist’s or performer’s style, as it is represented through writing, singing, playing, or arranging. Be conscious of the fact that writing about singing, playing, or arranging may well require specific musical vocabulary and a heightened attempt at description.
  3. Arguments may focus on artists’ or performers’ achievements in the context of their field. Be conscious of the fact that, to make such an argument, one must know the context.
  4. Arguments may focus on constructed personae that artists or groups create through their work.
  5. Arguments may focus on the artistic growth of an artist or group over time.
  6. Arguments may focus on a combination of any of the above, though it is essential that there be a common thread that runs through the entirety of the combination.
  7. No argument may focus on anything not represented by Numbers 1-6.

Additional Specifications for Essays and Final Exam Presentations

  1. Minimum 1,700 words / maximum 2,500 words.
  2. Suggested structure: intro + argument –> background (only essentials) –> presentation of evidence (multiple paragraphs) –> personal reflection –> conclusion (reiteration of argument + statement of performer’s / group’s importance) –> works cited.
  3. Sources: four articles (via databases, trustworthy Internet sources, and periodicals), one book, three regular-issue albums, one compilation album (MINIMUM). Each source should be cited in the text and listed appropriately among the works cited.
  4. Point distribution for essays (detailed scoring guide to follow): grammar and mechanics (10 points); structure (10); argument and evidence (25); personal reflection (20); formatting (10) = 75 total points.
  5. Point distribution for final exam presentation (must be accompanied by a PowerPoint or visual aide): clarity (argument, pre-song guided questions, post-song debrief, evidence) (25 points); speaking attributes (volume, modulation, diction) (12 points); Q & A (3 points).

Scored Components for Entire Project:

  1. Proposal (subject + working thesis)                                                   10
  2. Introductory presentation                                                                    25
  3. Sentence-form outline                                                                            15
  4. Essay rough draft (must be submitted through Canvas)             20
  5. Essay final draft (must be submitted through Canvas)                75
  6. Presentation (final exam)                                                                      40

Total                                                                                                                      185

NOTE: The instructor reserves the right to refuse any request to explore certain performers or groups, but will provide a reason for such refusals. The instructor will also happily provide suggestions regarding performers or groups, or simply assign one to a student upon request (the advantage of the latter option is that you will be assigned a subject that provides a bounty of writing and thinking opportunities).

Now even you hate me, right? Seriously, though, I have been striving to find the right research project to both fit my course design and more easefully transition them into higher-level research demands they’re sure to encounter during their remaining years at Stephens. If I can admit to being excited about a research project, I have high hopes for the reflective aspect of the essay. My aim is that the integration of a section composed of personal insights and a slightly less formal voice with cause the construction and grading of the projects to be less grueling. We shall see. I need to, but don’t want to, write a model.

So: to the presentations. The purposes of these were to introduce the class to the range of subjects under review and give me an idea of not only how much preliminary research students had already done but also how committed and enthusiastic they were about the work. In ten minutes or less, students were required to introduce us to their artists through three important facts and their own initial responses to the artists’ work, focus us with a guiding question about, then play an official video (if available) of, one of the artist’s best works, then lead us in a quick discussion of possible answers to the guiding questions. As usual, I started with a model presentation on Yugen Blackrok (big surprise if you’ve been keeping score) that fell a bit flat (“She doesn’t have beats!”), but at least I snuck in some learning on apartheid and Afro-Futurism. Half the class then presented, as follows:

Guiding Question: “Can you figure out the metaphors used in this song?”

Answer: “That verse isn’t really about deep-sea diving, is it?”

Guiding Question (not a good one): “So, what’s good about the song and what’s not?”

Answer: “Ewwwwwwwwwww. I can’t stand the way she sings. I had to plug my ears.” Another student rushing to the rescue: “I LOVE HER SINGING! She’s so exciting and rebellious!” (Yay.)

Guiding Question (a stellar one): Does Ms. Blige sing with a chest voice or a head voice?

Answer: A little of both–mostly chest, but her head’s in there, too.

Guiding Question (again, good!): Pay close attention to the childhood images in the video, contrasted with Dolly’s adult self, and be ready to talk about that.

Answer: None given to that question, but several new questions posed (“Is she dead?”)

Guiding Question: How would you describe her singing style?

Answer: “Her voice sounds messed up!” Teacher counters with: I hear a core of yearning and loneliness to her singing that fits nicely with the video content.”

We’ll see how Thursday goes, but I must admit, their choice of research topics should make for interesting research and enjoyable reading. Should

Anyone know when Yugen Blakrok was born?

 

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