Tierra Whack / Sophie: Socratic Seminar College Girls Gone Critically Wild (October 11th, 2018, Stephens College, Columbia, MO)

The assignment:

Assignment

The on-site guidelines (with some context for the reader):

I’ve been leading these discussions and choosing the records, but a student asked if they could pick, and–why the hell not? The moderators in this case are the ones who chose the respective albums. A gender-bending anti-capitalist charter school advocate from St. Louis chose the Sophie album (which, in preparing myself for the activity, I’ve come to really like!) and a rural SW Missouri kid with a hearing disability who’s also the first college student in her family chose Ms. Whack. I will not participate verbally; I’m documenting the discussion, and their scores will be based on participation (they can gain some points simply by being attentive) and preparation (I’ve required annotated notes on their listening, reading, and viewing experience). This is a stepping stone to their writing reviews of their own, which Austin is also going to assist with.

Here’s the assignment:

Tips for Today’s Discussion of Tierra Whack’s Whack World

…and Sophie’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides:

Moderators (Emmalee and Emil):
Initiate, guide, and enhance the discussion—in other words, make your participation about inspiring conversation, involving as many folks as possible, and keeping it on track. You should mostly ask questions, not make statements.

General Participants:
• Have your notes out and mentally prepare for how you would like to enter the conversation, and use your notes to support your comments.
• Self-monitor: realize everyone needs to participate, so be specific and concise. Think twice about entering more than once.
• No hand-raising: wait for space and enter it with politeness.
• Do not interrupt speakers—but, again, speakers? Self-monitor.
• You are welcome to ask other speakers to clarify their opinions; moderators are expected to do this, but it is not exclusively their job. By the same token, you may invite students who seem to be struggling to get involved to enter.
This conversation is about exploring how best to review these albums, since that is your next task. Keep your commentary confined to what you’d write about these albums if you were required to.

My notes on the proceedings:

Re: Tierra Whack:

“…she’s pretty brave because she avoids rap stereotypes for women–she’s odd and that’s GOOD…”

“…if were white, this’d be more popular…”

“…the silliness provides a neat contrast, or subtlety, or something for her serious thoughts…”

“…how does the short format impact her hopes for sales…?

“I found the abruptness, or lack of transitions, to be hard to deal with first listen, but the videos smoothed those out…”

“there is a sadness undercurrent she doesn’t need a piano to communicate…”

“She’s so inventive musically and visually–you really need to watch the videos too–but she’s so fast it’s hard to process!”

“She’s a female Chance the Rapper…”

“Do you think she defies genre…?”

Re: Sophie:

The moderator surprised me and went around the room asking each fellow student to offer an adjective to describe Sophie, which she listed on the board as a menu for her Socratic. At first, I was annoyed with her asserting that much authority over the rest of the group (she is a strong personality, and I’d asked her to temper that a bit for this activity), but she then receded back to her seat and the menu worked great!

“Is discomfort in reacting to an art a band thing…?”

“I didn’t know she was trans…! (?)”

“I love this album but it disturbs me… the music doesn’t fit into a genre, but she doesn’t, either…!”

“How do you…or CAN you…evaluate the album separate from the times…”

“I was listening to this in the car by myself, and just had to turn it off and ask myself, ‘Is everything ok?’…”

“I was shook!”

“Now that I know she’s trans I LOVE THIS ALBUM!”

“She’s basically saying ‘Fuck you, I can change myself anyway I want to….”

“…it sounds like, with her music, she’s making the audience feel what it feels like to BE trans in public in this country…shook, yeah, but also beautiful and multi-dimensional.”

 

My last comment was, “Well, from now on I am just going to assign you material and have you teach each other–I do not appear all that necessary, and Socrates would agree!” Kind of joking—but kind of not.

Classroom Clatter, Part 2 (March 22nd, 2018, Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri)

Today was the second and final day of my pop music / comp students’ informal research presentations. From what I already knew about the subjects of the research, I was uncertain if my personal enjoyment level would match Tuesday’s class, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Kathleen Hanna

I assigned Ms. Hanna to one of my very best writers, who’d asked for one rather than chosen her own. Kathleen “does a lot of yelling and uses vulgar language,” she told us, “but after you let it sink in, it’s very interesting.” The kid’s a Joan Jett fan, and she chose a perfect song for us to think upon:

Guiding Question: Where do you think feminism has gone since this song was released in the early Nineties?

Answer: It didn’t really get answered, but some of the other students were able to connect it to personal styles that “are more accepted today.” Yeah–I think so. Plus the presenter enlightened us a bit on fourth-wave feminism!

Whitney Houston

I will admit freely I have never been a fan of the late Ms. Houston, but the student who’d chosen to research her (who earlier in the semester had turned me on to a great metal band) did an amazingly thorough and passionate job of arguing for her. She chose to have us consider two performances, and damned if I didn’t actively enjoy both:

The sweat, soul, grit, and green outfit caused me to yell “Uncle!”

Guiding Question: Actually, the presenter, who will be a great teacher one day if she chooses to try it, asked us a pretty full stylistic analysis that I can’t express as a simple question.

Answer: Well, she answered for us, quite accurately–in general, arguing that her vocal power and dynamics, as well as her facial expressions and gestures, sold the songs. Yep!

Aaliyah

Guiding Question: How would you describe her vocal style?

Answer: “Mellow.” Alluding to a comment made by a student during Tuesday’s class, I added, “That song isn’t about a boat, is it?” I hadn’t heard it since it was forced on me by my middle school students back at the time of its release, and I’d not ever paid attention to the lyrics. The more you know. Please tell me R. Kelly didn’t produce and direct the video…

Pat Benatar

Here is one research subject I was hesitant to approve, because I wasn’t sure how far the student could get, but she was sure she could make a feminist / personal fulfillment argument so I surrendered. The following was difficult to watch stoically after the passage of three decades:

Guiding Question (not my favorite): So how is love a battlefield?

Answer: It’s hard. Well, yes. I wanted to offer that it’s hard to tell if the love referred to is parental or romantic or both, but I chose to remain mute.

Stevie Nicks

The student who’s researching La Nicks can take her study several different interesting directions, and I can’t wait to see which way she decides to go. The young lady presented sans PowerPoint, which won her some minor brownie points with me as she delivered the goods. Her song choice?

Guiding Question: How does “landslide” function as a metaphor?

Answer: like an avalanche, love can overwhelm you. As can research…

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?

 

Bon Pierres Roulez! (Mardi Gras Day, February 13, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

Mardi Gras Day is always going to be alive in our house–wherever we happen to be, and whatever we happen to be doing.

For me, in the morning, I was teaching: expository modes in composition, to be exact. How did you jimmy Mardi Gras into that, I feel you asking? Easy. I had planned way ahead. Les Blank’s classic 1978 documentary Always for Pleasure is communicates a joy that expands exponentially with each viewing, and I make sure I view it plenty. I find it can fit into most any lesson an English teacher might teach, and I test that finding every February. This year, I prepped my students by explaining that, in order to continuing to practice thinking in expository modes, which we’d already done by reading some model essays, we’d be watching the work of a filmmaker who, in his best work, employed many. Their jobs were to spot precisely what Blank was trying to “expose,” or illuminate, for the viewer, what modes he was working in, and which of his examples were most effective. Then, after taking notes as they watched, students would post their observations on-line and respond to peers’ posts. Wow–so did I kill the film with all that? I don’t think so (sharing a King Cake helped). On the surface, Always for Pleasure seems like a ton of parade footage strung together, broken up on occasion by interviews (Irma Thomas on red beans and rice, Allen Toussaint on jazz funerals) and performances (Professor Longhair, The Wild Tchoupitoulas), but watched and heard leaning forward, the film renders up much enlightenment. The latter performance within that last set of parentheses is a film-capper that also glows brighter each time the viewer beholds it. Behold it now:

(Is that entire performance in someone’s vault? Two live songs are present in the film. Ye gods of the vault, issue forth the goods!)

Yes, but did the children learn in a manner that can be measured, Phil? Hell, I didn’t fall off the peach truck yesterday! I’ll let you know when their posts are up Tuesday morning. By the way, I did the unpardonable and offered extra credit to college students! “Listen to this Mardi Gras playlist I made, choose your five favorite songs, and use an expository mode in justifying your love (in making a case) for each.” I’m incorrigible.

Later, I had to clean house, but two loads of the CD changer made that deeply enjoyable!

Round One:

Professor Longhair, Crawfish Fiesta (maybe the greatest NOLA piano record of all-time, and I have two copies)

Huey Piano Smith and the Clowns, Havin’ a Good Time (glorious, devilish rhythmic lunacy by a band that should have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the atrocity’s first year)

The Wild Tchoupitoulas (if you clicked above, I need say nothing)

Round Two

On a Facebook music forum I happily participate in, I recently deliberately tried to stir the turd (I guess it’s called…trolling?) by claiming that, among the Rolling Stones’ late ’60s/early ’70s run of classic recordings (defined as the studio albums from Beggars Banquet to Exile on Main Street), my favorite was the UK version of Between the Buttons–a bit outside that definition. I was just playing, but I do love that album for many reasons: killer drumming by Charlie, Wyman playing road-grader bass, Keith’s first vocal plus some nasty guitar as per usual, Brian’s last album as a serious contributor, Mick scornful as usual but also light-hearted (booga-booga-ness not yet a factor, and many wonderful songs seldom (if ever) to see the light of day again (“Miss Amanda Jones”). Since drawing a little return fire for my posting, I haven’t been able to get the lads out of my memory’s ear, so I went the whole hog:

Between the Buttons (UK version)

(This playlist is the US release.)

Aftermath (UK version)

(Again, the US version here:)

Beggars Banquet

I still love love love Between the Buttons!

(Don’t you know this one by heart?)

(Note: if you don’t already know, those UK versions include great songs held back from the domestic version in order for the ol’ corporation to squeeze out Flowers.)

I closed out the day with a very appropriate inappropriate indulgence, though I do not observe Lent. If I ever get a tattoo, it will be based on this album’s title song.

Expository Listening, Expository Thinking: A Lesson that Really Worked!

Today at Stephens College, where I teach freshman comp with a pop music focus, I executed one of those rare lessons that works on every level you hope it will. Feel free to steal and/or adapt it!

My students’ next essay assignment is to focus in on a music-related topic they’re interested in, then choose the appropriate expository mode for exploring it. On Tuesday, we reviewed some of the expository modes I’m encouraging them to try (comparison/contrast, problem-solution, description, definition, cause-effect, classification), but I sensed some anxiety and disconnect. As of last night, partially due to being hella busy this week, I still didn’t have a solution for that condition, so I just slept on it, then woke up with this (funny how that happens to teachers):

In class, we are going to listen to (and watch) four excellent singers–Billie Holiday, Anita O’ Day, Jamilia Woods, and Dolly Parton–in action.

As you listen and watch, you are going to think about the following expository modes of analysis and writing, and jot down corresponding observations you make in your notebook or on your device:

Description (external) – What does the singer sound like and how does she present herself?

Definition (internal) – Who or what does the singer seem to be?

Classification – How would you classify the singer, according to official and unofficial terms of classification?

Cause –> Effect – In listening closely to the singer, what effects do you feel as a result of her performance? What specific aspects of the performance cause those effects?

Comparison/Contrast – How are these singers similar? How do they differ?

By Sunday night, transfer your findings in coherent, expanded, and more specific form to the associated discussion board, and be prepared to respond meaningfully to one fellow students’ post.

We began with the above clip from “The Sound of Jazz”–the famous last hot flame from the doomed Billie Holiday. I prompted them by reviewing the above modes, then played the track for them. Afterwards, just for modelling’s sake, I asked students to share some of their observations:

Description: “soulful,” “relaxed,” “rhythmic.”

Definition: “A woman who knows pain.” “She has experienced a lot.” “She is a singer who connects with her band and the audience.”

Classification: “Blues singer.” “No! Jazz singer!”

Cause–>Effect: “She was glowing!” –> It mesmerized me.” “She was getting in tune, effortlessly…”–> “It left me in awe.”

I could not have responded more accurately myself. From the evidence, my idea seemed to be working. I’ll know for sure when I see the discussion board posts and the essay rough drafts.

The other tracks I played them (I need little reason to show the first to every class I teach, regardless of subject).

Jamila Woods’ scintillating and brand-new Tiny Desk concert, which I can’t figure out how to embed.