This semester, I asked my Introduction to Literary Analysis students to work on a final project that was a radical departure from the 5-paragraph essay and the forced modes of literary analysis we had all become accustomed to (and bored with). I didn’t want to read any more essays that began with a brief gloss on the history of the world. I also wanted to break them of their weird JSTOR obsession.
So I asked them to make an annotated mixtape based on a work of literature closely related to the theme of the class. My students chose work related to African American culture, race and representation, visual culture and pop music. I developed the assignment after reading about Clark Barwick’s “Mixtape Maker” in The Pocket Instructor: Literature: 101 Exercises for the College Classroom (2015) and the “Annotated Mix Tape” writing prompt in How to Write About Music (2015). I also asked my students to create an online playlist using a free platform like Spotify or Youtube so that they could easily share the final product with their peers. During the last week of class, they gave semi-formal presentations about their research.
Unlike Barwick’s prompt, for my mixtape assignment I did not require students to limit themselves to a particular period or literary movement. Instead, I asked them to strike out on their own by choosing a theme which connected their primary texts to music. The governing logic of the mixtape was totally up to them. The music they chose did not have to come from the same period as their primary text. So, for example, one of my students has argued that Nnedi Okorafor’s Afrofuturistic novel Who Fears Death (2010) follows the structure of a classic bildungsroman and has divided her mixtape into four phases which follow that structure.
I worked closely with my students as they narrowed down their literary interests and settled on texts they found fascinating. We started the process relatively early in the semester. Some students analyzed texts we touched upon briefly in the first few weeks of the semester. One student delved more deeply into Gwendolyn Brooks “In the Mecca” and conducted impressive independent research about public housing and racial discrimination in Chicago. Some students chose texts from the syllabus that we hadn’t gotten to yet. Thus, one of my students read ahead and became a self-appointed class expert on Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) and its queer subtext. Some went completely off-the-map, as is the case with the student who was deeply concerned with the problem of cultural appropriation and developed a score for Eric Lott’s scholarly work.
The final mixtapes contained roughly ten tracks each. The liner notes began with a 1-2 page introduction, a narrowly focused thesis which explained their final take on the primary text, and an explanation of how the mixtape would reflect that thesis. The individual song entries contained in-text citations which revealed a deep engagement with both the primary texts and a range of secondary sources.
My students went all in on this project. A few weeks ago, I realized that I would have to do away with length requirements because most students were going to exceed them. They all had so much to say about the primary texts and the songs they had chosen to pair them with. During my office hours, students mentioned they were pleasantly surprised by the fact that their peers at the Writing Center had never seen this kind of final assignment before. During our in-class peer review sessions, they couldn’t stop talking to each other about their creative/critical process. Working on this project was a unique experience that helped to bond them as a group.
These students are just finishing their first year of college. They will go on to do even more amazing things, but I am so happy that their first experience in a college-level English class has gotten them pumped about interdisciplinary analysis. And I am super excited about reading their essays, listening to these projects, and sharing them with you.
So without further ado, here is a selection of their mixtapes, shared with their permission:
The Cycle of Intolerance: An Analysis of The Dutchman’s Themes by Tyler Grumhaus
Songs of Freedom: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by May Hanlon
Beautiful Are Your Eyes: The Queer Subtext of Nella Larsen’s Passing by Sophia Schott