Mashups in the Literature Classroom

19th_century_factory_townLet me say right away that this post will focus on an exercise I’ve used in my literature classes. I think (and hope) the idea could be useful to folks in other disciplines as well.

If you’ve spent much time on the internet (and if you’re here at ProfHacker, I’m guessing you have), then you’re likely familiar with the mashup. A mashup usually refers to a creative work that blends two distinct works into one composition. One of the most famous mashups is Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, which blends rapper Jay-Z’s The Black Album with The Beatles’ The White Album. The mashup isn’t only a musical genre, however. Internet culture thrives on mashups of all kinds: music, images, videos, and texts. Folks on twitter suggested some more examples from around the web (and beyond), including KanyeNewYorkerTweets, which blends New Yorker cartoons and tweets from Kayne West; Avada Kedavra, which blends Harry Potter villains and the music of Disney’s The Lion King; Buffy vs. Edward, which pits the teen vampire hunter against the teen vampire heartthrob; and the rash of recent classic-lit/horror blends such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (the last not strictly classic lit, I know, but it follows the trend).

The best mashups juxtapose materials deliberately; they make the implicit explicit. They expose or highlight underlying features of the source materials—formal, thematic, or stylistic—that casual listeners, viewers, or readers might miss.

In my classes, I’ve experimented with mashups in order to help students think about literary style. I started doing this when I noticed that my students often sensed stylistic differences between writers, but had difficulty articulating those differences. So, I opened a class on Virginia Woolf by asking students to rewrite a few paragraphs from To the Lighthouse in the style of Ernest Hemingway, who we’d read the week before. My students jumped into the project with vigor—they had fun breaking Woolf’s fluid, poetic prose into terse, Hemingwayan staccato. The version of “Hemingway” they produced was no doubt exaggerated, but that became part of our classroom discussion that day—the realities of authorial style versus the sterotypical versions of that style that filter into popular consciousness.

Since then, I’ve used versions of this exercise several times, each time to good effect. Most recently, I asked students in my US Literature to 1865 class to rewrite the introduction to Rebecca Harding Davis’ gritty, realist short story “Life in the Iron Mills”—in which Harding Davis describes a smoky “town of iron-works” in antebellum western Virginia—in the exuberant free verse of Walt Whitman. The results were wonderful: some groups kept many of Harding Davis’ words, but worked to blend her grim fatalism into a Whitmanian celebration of American industry. Others translated the introduction more fully into Whitmanian verse—with long, careening lines; lists; and chanted, repeating words; but carried into that verse Harding Davis’ somber tone. Other groups found a point of intersection in both authors’ reformist ideologies, and developed their poems from there. After the groups read their mashups, we discussed what choices each group had made and why. This discussion led to insights about both Harding Davis and Whitman, which we used as launching points for the day’s broader discussion of Leaves of Grass.

So far I’ve only played with mashups in class—as short exercises to introduce the topic of a particular day’s discussion—but they’ve been so successful that I’m pondering a more formal mashup assignment in my literature classes. These assignments are also decidedly low tech. While I suspect that my students’ familiarity with mashup culture helps them engage with these assignments, I’ve not yet asked them to employ audio, video, or the like to complete them—that’s another refinement I’m considering. If you’ve used mashups in your classes (especially in disciplines outside of English), let us hear about the assignment and its results in the comments. If you’ve used tech in your mashup assignments, let us hear about that, too.

For those who are curious, here’s one of my students’ Harding Davis/Whitman blends. Thanks to Megan Duff and her group, who generously agreed to share with the world:

“Life in the Iron Mills”
By: Walt Whitman (aka US Lit 1 students)

Life in the iron mills
I see yet another cloudy day
The air stifles me, thick, clammy, foul

All is smoke! I see it roll
Smoke on the wharves, smoke on the dingy boats,
Smoke on the yellow river
Smoke everywhere!—smoke clinging
Coating, greasy on the house front

I see the dull face of the passerby
Oh these men! With drunken faces,
Full of unawakened power
Asking nothing of this world
Yet their lives ask it, their deaths ask it
Long have I hoped! Long have I desired! that others
Will see this perfume tinted dawn
So fair with promise, Hope to come

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user IMLS DCC.]

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