How Is a Course Like a Song?

Note: This post is part of a series on “Teaching First Year Composition.”

How is a course like a song?

A typical American pop song is usually structured as follows: intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, outro. It also has a title, a theme, and often a story, as well as a catchy melody that sticks in your head. It is a structure of repetition and difference that unfolds in time. Each verse advances the theme, while the repetition of the chorus ensures memorability and connection.

I want to argue that a good course has exactly these elements.

It is easy to design a course, especially a composition course, that is a series of issues and texts with no connection between them other than “and now for something completely different.” When students look back on that course they will remember that they discussed a lot of issues and wrote a lot of essays, but they won’t remember concepts and strategies that they can deploy in other contexts. For concepts to be remembered and used later, they need repeated application and foregrounding.

Teaching MLA Style

Several years ago I was teaching a First Year Writing course in which I decided, as a sort of experiment, to focus heavily on using MLA-style documentation. I used both in-text and “Works Cited” documentation in my syllabus and I made MLA documentation a separate row in my grading rubric. I went over MLA on the first day and on several subsequent days. In my assignment sheets, I specifically asked for MLA documentation of sources, including essays in the textbook. For the first two papers, most students ignored the request for citation and got zeros on the rubric in that category. Finally, a student asked, “What is this documentation thing and why do I keep getting a zero?” I explained again. On the more researched papers, the students starting giving me URLs. I noted that this was better than nothing, but still not correct. By the end of ten weeks, most students, most of the time, were giving me something that looked pretty much like MLA documentation. For them to acquire the concept and the habit of doing it, they needed repetition, reinforcement, and consequences. There is no way that you can teach something once and have students retain or practice it.

(Note: A colleague commented that my example here makes it sound like I am recommending that FYC instructors teach Modern Language Association or MLA style. Students in FYC will go on to work in many different disciplines which use many different citation systems. They should know that MLA is only one such style. Others include APA, Chicago, CSE, AIP, and many others. Now there are also Digital Object Identifiers or DOIs. The issue of what citation style or styles to teach is too complex for this post, but whatever style you teach, make sure that students know that their discipline may use a different one.)

The Basic Elements

So, how is a course like a song? A course is about something. It has a title and a theme. In a previous post, I discussed designing learning modules. A learning module is like the verse of a song. Each module is related to the theme of the course, but has a different perspective or approach. The repetition of the theme is the chorus. In a composition course, the theme is probably “audience, purpose, and occasion” because the effectiveness of every rhetorical act is determined by how well it is adapted to these factors. It is good to keep returning to them.

Bob Dylan Songs

My favorite Bob Dylan songs are the ones that tell stories verse by verse with choruses that repeat the same lines, but mean something slightly different with each repetition. In “Like a Rolling Stone,” the verses describe the tragic fall of someone from riches to poverty, each verse describing another aspect of the fall, with the chorus repeatedly asking, “How does it feel to be on your own, no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?” In “Memphis Blues Again” verse after verse describes decisions made that land the speaker in the wrong place at the wrong time in different ways, with the chorus repeating, “Oh mama, can this really be the end, to be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again?”

Your course can be a series of experiences that all look back to a set of foundational concepts that form the theme of the course.

The Bridge

What about the bridge? The bridge of a song is a deviation from the pattern established by the verses and choruses. It has a different chord progression. It may even change keys. It takes on the issue from a different perspective. In “No Reply,” a song recorded by the Beatles in 1964 for the album Beatles for Sale, the verses are about a young man complaining that when he knocks on his girlfriend’s door, she doesn’t answer, and when he calls on the telephone, her family says she isn’t home. In the bridge, the speaker says,

If I were you, I’d realize that I
Love you more than any other guy
And I’ll forgive the lies that I
Heard before, when you gave me no reply

Here the speaker tries to imagine the situation from the girl’s point of view, though he ends up projecting his own desires anyway and creating some very tangled up pronoun references. It’s a failed attempt at changing perspective. In effect, it demonstrates how hard it is to truly see from another person’s point of view.

Designing a module in your course that radically changes the perspective can serve to reinforce the design of the more conventional modules that surround it. For example, asking students to write in a different genre for a very different audience and purpose can actually help them see the decisions they are making in the other modules. Or you might turn your normal process around backwards and have them write first and then read. Or you might have them do a rhetorical analysis of another student’s paper. Anything you do to change things up can actually reinforce the pattern you have been establishing.

Intros and Outros

Finally, we all naturally provide an intro to the course, but what about the outro? And the end of a course, students should reflect on what they have read, written and learned. It is the time to consolidate the learning and connect it all together. It is good to design an activity for that.

A course is actually more complicated than most pop songs, with Bob Dylan as a possible exception. However, thinking about your course in this way may help you remember the power of repetition and difference and help your students come away from the course with concepts they can remember and transfer to other contexts.

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