Digital Pedagogy and the Blues

This semester I’m excited to be teaching in an American Studies program. My research interests and teaching practices resonate with interdisciplinary conceptions of American culture, especially at the intersection of music and writing.

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Lately I have been reflecting on the fact that I began teaching in higher education at a time when there were already computers in nearly every classroom, and I am thankful for the privilege to continue using mulit-media texts in my courses. Already this semester, I have shown films in class, and required viewing and listening (alongside reading) as homework. For instance, I’m offering extra credit for attending the world premier of a long-lost Mary Pickford film from 1911, Their First Misunderstanding. The film was discovered at Keene State College and restored by the Library of Congress.

But for as often as I have brought music into my classrooms over the years, I have struggled with effectively incorporating listening into writing assignments. I have often used the vast archive of Youtube clips and my own music library to set up a discussion, to provide reference points during lectures, or to highlight a particular strain of expressive tradition. But overall coverage is limited by time.

It’s also difficult to anticipate students’ tastes. In my experience, asking every student to respond to the same song produces mixed results. And one selection–even an important one–can hardly bear the burden of representing a broader genre, movement, or style. Some songs are just too overdetermined. Asking students to find relevant musical texts on their own is similarly fraught; there must be some cohesion for a collaborative analysis of a musical tradition to be effective.

Ideally, interdisciplinary courses that emphasize music enable students to draw on a wide variety of relevant sounds in order to survey and highlighting trends, patterns, motifs, and genealogies. This sort of evidence helps students percieve how music makes meaning through context. To enact this “literary” approach to the blues, I decided to experiment with the pedagogical uses of Spotify, a free, on-demand, streaming music service. With Spotify, students have instant access to somewhere near 20 million songs.

So far this semester, I have developed a series of playlists that correspond to our readings and discussion topics. Playlists have included traditional West African drumming, chants, and seremonial music; New World African music from Guyana, Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, the US, and elsewhere; and early field recordings made for ethnographic and documentary purposes, especially those by John and Alan Lomax and by Moses Asch. In fact, the entire Smithsonian Folkways catalog is available through Spotify, and the Folkways website hosts all the original liner notes in .pdf form for free. This alone is a profound archive, one that proves relevant to wildly diverse intellectual projects.

This week, as we study Albert Murray’s novel, Train Whistle Guitar, and his critical work, The Hero and the Blues, students will also listen to different versions and revisions of folk ballads from the blues tradition: the Signifying Monkey, John Henry, Stagolee, and Frankie and Johnny. These are contextualized by vernacular music and folktales from Alabama and collections of ballads and railroad songs.

Free Spotify accounts are supported by in-content advertising, which is obtrusive, but ultimately a meager price to pay for unequalled access to so many music and poetry recordings. When I asked the students to write about their experience with the program, I specifically mentioned the ads. Their grumbling was mild. Most agreed that it was less bothersome than with Pandora, a similar personalized online radio station.

Ideally, there also might be a way to annotate playlists or even songs themselves with background information and perhaps links that might contextualize the music. Soundcloud has an innovative way for users to tag specific moments of a track with text and multimedia. Such a tool might increase students’ engagement by introducing a social dimension to the listening experience. As we move into later units, I plan to ask students to make and share their own playlists with the class in order to develop a more interactive musical conversation.

But with so much music on offer, there is definitely a danger in overwhelming students. I may be guilty of that. Yet, in defense of offering a wide range of sounds, I anticipate that students will find a greater sense of agency in their encounters with these forms of expression. Every good DJ is attuned to audience dynamics. Imposing one’s own taste too narrowly alienates people. The playlists are a springboard for musical exploration; the inclusion of compilation albums on each playlist, for example, ensures a diversity of voices, whose further work becomes accessible simply by clicking on the artist’s name.

The other crucial point of Spotify for use in the classroom is that playlists are easy to access and share. I can post an active link to the playlist on our course management site (or embed it on a webpage). Once students have an account, the playlist either opens inside the browser or initiates software mounted on the desktop. This means students can listen on campus computers without downloading the program, helping them access the music anywhere, anytime.

I’ll be using the program a lot more in semesters to come. As I gain fluency with its more sophisticated features, I hope to offer more specific ideas about teaching with this online tool. Of course, I’m all ears if anyone out there has thoughts or experiences to share about the pedagogical uses of Spotify. After all, music and teaching are both collaborative experiences.

Sandra Cisneros

This year, Sandra Cisneros was the Penn State English Department’s Steven Fisher Writer-in-Residence. Her recent novel, Caramelo, was also selected as the Center for American Literary Studies and Centre County’s community read event.

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I assigned the novel in my own freshman composition course as the basis for a literary and rhetorical analysis project. When I mentioned this to Cisneros after a workshop she gave for graduate students and faculty, she called it “ambitious.” The novel is indeed a heavyweight: intricate, expansive, and utterly rewarding. Despite some initial trepidation, by the end the class coalesced around insights about family, heritage, identity, and destiny. The questions we confronted reflected deeply human concerns.

Professors Toni Jensen, Elizabeth Kadetsky, and Tina Chen provided invaluable support for Cisneros’ visit. They organized a panel discussion featuring Professor Lorraine Lopez of Vanderbilt, held a campus-wide writing contest, and gave introductions that illuminated the power and importance of Cisneros’ work.

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I can’t resist sharing a few excerpts from the many sincere and frankly lucid responses that my students had to Cisneros’ reading:

“With ease, she changed her high-pitched tone in accordance to the character speaking. Even when they said very little, her voice alone brought life and a story to each character.

“My brief time with Sandra Cisneros proved to be quite memorable. The author I once viewed as “unique” had completely transformed into a passionate, dedicated woman that I admired. She exemplified hard work and doing what you love; wearing her heart on her sleeve and pouring her soul onto paper. She taught me to embrace one’s weirdness, as it is actually pure passion misunderstood by others. I can easily say Ms. Cisneros had a positive effect on me and it was privilege to hear speak.”–ZK

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“As an avid collector of textiles, Ms. Cisneros has a tendency to liken many aspects of writing to clothing. “Make buttons,” she said; little anecdotes that relate to whatever is on your mind at the time. If you’re lucky, one day you might find the story—or article of clothing—to adorn it. Similarly, Cisneros also says her stories are like rebozos. She collects strands of fabric from herself and other people in order to intertwine them into a story.

“But most importantly, Ms. Cisneros encouraged students to write from their pajamas. What she means by this metaphor is that writers should strip themselves of all insecurities or airs in order to find their true voice. However, writing from your pajamas does not imply that you should be comfortable. “Good writing must cost something,” Cisneros explains.  She alludes to the fact that while writing Caramelo, there were many things happening in her life that made writing harder. From breakups to the death of her father, Cisneros had to force herself to write a few pages each day. Furthermore, Cisneros refers to writing as medicine or therapy. She encourages students to write for the sake of writing. “The process is more important than the product,” she says. It does not matter if you publish your work for thousands to read, or tear it into a thousand pieces.”–MS

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“The way that she dealt with her family secrets intrigued me. By exposing them to the world brought her peace and clarity, yet she was still able to maintain a sense of privacy for those she was writing about by changing minute details. She had her own little secret and found her peace without hurting anyone in the process.

“Her family’s privacy and communication skills actually helped her with her writing. They forced her to look at secrets as stories, and since she could not talk to her family about them, instead she told the world. I could not imagine the courage needed to spill intimate details about my own life to the world. Authors are the most transparent workers. They have to be.”–KF

Remix//Revision

This semester, as a final project I am teaching revision in some of my courses. To get started thinking about the concept, we looked at Talib Kweli’s take on two Nina Simone tunes: “Sinnerman” and “Four Women.”


The Kanye West-produced “Get By” uses a sample built around the piano bridge following the hand-clap breakdown from Simone’s source text. The intro samples her forceful vocal improvisation on the word “power” during the cesura, just before the song’s culmination. One student cast Kweli’s revision as an answer to Simone.

The second example is oriented around content. Kweli’s elaboration on Simone’s four character sketches pays profound tribute to the original. Even though it is a hidden track, Kweli is explicit about his reference.

During the verses, lyrics that correlate strongly to Simone’s are doubled—or split. A female voice raps in unison with Kweli. Fragmenting the perspective, Kweli strengthens the allusion with this multi-layered delivery.