“The Mixtape Project” Assignment: learning through critical making

I teach courses on popular music. With analog nostalgia hip in our digitally enabled environment, the mixtape as an object and a metaphor now carries some fun resonance. In this blog post, I want to reflect on the Mixtape Project, an assignment that I designed with the intention for students to reflect on their own, immediate popular music worlds in critical ways, while utilizing course concepts learned from class readings and discussions. I adapted the practice of mixtape-making to achieve the pedagogical goal of learning through critical making.

Here is the assignment prompt:

The Mixtape Project provides an opportunity for you to curate your own music compilation. The content of this compilation is based on a theme of your choice.  In your “liner note” essay (7-8 pages), you will define a theme while responding to the existing playlists and narratives related to genre, canon, place, time period, and/or the social contexts (race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality) in which musical events take place. Example themes include: women rappers of the 1990s, Riot Grrrrl of color, Chicano rock, cross-over, from soul to neo-soul, taqwacore, Taiwanese hip hop, etc. This essay consists of your commentary and analysis of the musical materials that you have selected. You also need to prepare an oral presentation to introduce your compilation and your thesis ideas to the class at the end of the course. You are required to engage with the making of the playlist while reflecting upon the concerns regarding medium, audience, and distribution of the mixtape. This is a multi-stage project with a proposal, abstract, playlist, abstract, and multiple drafts due at various points throughout the semester. I will provide specific instructions for each stage of the assignment.

I’ve used this assignment in various courses that I’ve taught both at UVa and Occidental. Last semester, I taught a course in the freshman core Cultural Studies program at Oxy with a focus on race and gender in popular music. To fulfill the aim of fall semester CSP courses – of teaching students the craft of constructing arguments, I tweaked the assignment with the following goals in mind:

  • To understand and critique the construction of a musical canon
  • To make a multimediated argument
  • To engage with the music community beyond the classroom

I was really pleased with the learning outcome of the assignment last semester. The students came up with highly creative playlists based on their own musical interest and the critical concepts that we discussed in class. You can get a sense of the topics by reading the students’ mixtape project proposals.

To hone their skills on constructing thesis statements, I asked my students to present their thesis statement and a sample music analysis to their peers prior to submitting the mixtape essay. Most students made PowerPoint and KeyNote slides to display their arguments and media. A few students made a Prezi presentation. This Prezi on female-led alternative bands in the 1990s is particularly outstanding.

At the end of the course, students submitted a “liner note” essay (PDF of a traditional position paper) and a playlist of sorts to distribute the music that they curated. I prepped them by asking them to reflect on their mixtape’s intended audience and methods of distribution. (Since this part of the assignment was optional, the results were rather spotty.) To distribute the media portion of the mixtape, most students made a post embedding Youtube vids on the course blog. Here’s an instance of a blog post populated by Youtube vids of songs by KPOP girl groups. Other students created a Youtube playlist external to the course blog. Here’s an example of a list of Anglo-Arabic Hip-Hop songs on Youtube. Some of the students went out of their way to create (fancy!) blogs to aggregate their mixtape content. Check out a student’s blog on Latin love ballads; one on women in hip-hop; another one, white female rappers.

I regularly tweeted the progress of students’ Mixtape assignment (at #racegenderpop). Jade Davis, a PhD student in Communication Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, tweeted shoutouts to my students for their work:

I think that the next time I implement this assignment, I will make a blog to aggregate all the student-generated content and media in this project. Having a blog would help prescribe a format in which they can present both the critical commentary (traditionally done in the essay) and the media content of the mixtape in a systematic way. [This would streamline their and my workflow, but would remove the element of their selecting a medium to distribute media content, unfortunately.]

With a mixtape blog, I could call for instructor-collaborators with an interest on deploying the Mixtape Project assignment in their course, inviting their students to contribute the blog. Perhaps we could even create our own Youtube channel, extending this critical mix into vernacular music-browsing hubs on the Internet. Shanna Lorenz in Music at Oxy had adapted this assignment for her Global Hip Hop course this term.

If you’re an instructor interested in using this assignment, send me an email. We can chat about collaboration possibilities.

Oh, lastly, we made a collective mix for the world. Just for fun.

One comment

  • February 18, 2012 - 11:54 am | Permalink

    Thank you again for sharing all of this!

    We are in the process of beginning to flesh out topics for end of semester projects for the intro to Media Theory, History, and Criticism course I am teaching this semester. The work that you and your students have done is a great jumping off point.

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