The Pedagogical Value of Creating a Course Playlist
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
I have been in the process of designing a new version of World Literature II here at Valdosta State University—a course that weirdly straddles the periods we often refer to as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It took some time to figure out what I wanted for that course, and when I did I again faced the challenge that comes with teaching broad survey courses: How do I thematize the course and give students a foothold into such disparate readings? My solution this time around was to organize the course around a playlist. In this case, I chose Fiona Apple's recent Fetch the Bolt Cutters and then expanded it to include her entire discography. This decision seemed fitting, as an album dedicated to narratives of liberation makes for a powerful soundtrack to a course that is committed to liberating our assumptions about "medieval" or "renaissance" literature from the co-opted visions of misogynist and white supremacist groups. Having assembled a Spotify playlist that is shared with the students in the syllabus, I have organized each module of the course around lyrics from all over Fiona Apple's catalogue. By doing this, I hope to keep the idea that these older texts can still speak to contemporary concerns fresh in the minds of my students.
Now I will admit that this is not a particularly novel idea. I have long used course playlists in various courses. Most obviously, I created a Spotify playlist for my first-year seminar on "The Speculative Fictions of Janelle Monáe" this past semester. In a previous semester, I similarly assembled a lengthy Spotify playlist made up of Latinx artists for my course on "Latinx Literature and Popular Culture. In both courses, the playlists were actually built into the curriculum; students were listening to the playlist as they annotated Janelle Monáe lyrics, for example, and I assigned a number of music videos from the Latinx playlist in class. In fact, for that course we would open each class period with a 5-10 minute conversation about that day's assigned music video as a way to warm up conversation and practice visual analysis. At other institutions, I have frequently had students help me to assemble a class playlist in our first-year seminars on day one. I ask them to provide me with a song that will serve as their "theme song" for the semester—a song that they could imagine being played to represent them every time they walked in the door. I not only shared these playlists with those students, but would arrive to class early enough to play their chosen music for the 10-15 minutes prior to class starting. Again, this warmed up the students and eliminated the tension and awkwardness they sometimes feel if they show up to class a little early.
I share this because I have become increasingly convinced that my decision to use playlists in my classes is not just a "fun" or "cute" activity. In fact, I believe that course playlists can serve important pedagogical purposes when used well. For example, there has been considerable research done on the importance of the first five minutes of class, a concept most popularized, perhaps, by James M. Lang's book, Small Teaching. Yet whereas Lang and others focus primarily on how to transition students into the course content during that time, I am more invested in the ability to do two things: facilitate community-building, and help students to see learning (and education more broadly) as deeply relevant to their lives outside of the classroom. Course playlists can assist in those efforts, and not just in the first five minutes of class. They have been invaluable tools for me while teaching asynchronously online as well. And, as we know, creating community online can present serious challenges.
When built into the course, obviously, the students see a direct curricular value in the playlist. But even when that is not that case, as in the World Literature II course I am teaching next semester, playlists can help to give students reference points throughout the semester. In years past, for example, students have noted that the use of lyrics to organize modules and weeks has helped them to locate past material through association. In our annotations or informal GroupMe conversations, I often find students using the playlist as a "shared language" that helps them to feel like part of a community—and that sense of belonging can lead to increased engagement with the course material. More often than not, I also find that students will make unexpected connections between the music and the course material, which can help them to see why older texts (in particular) should matter to them now.
At not point has that last point been more true than in my early American literature courses, where I often assign the Hamilton soundtrack (and some songs from the associated mixtape) in connection with the final project. While the musical's lyrics are often historically specific to a small period that we are studying (i.e. the writings of the American Revolution), students will often find connections between the feminist message of a song like "The Schuyler Sisters" and the proto-feminist poetry of Anne Bradstreet—helping them to care about poems that might otherwise seem old, difficult, or irrelevant. Similarly, students will listen to a remix like "Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)" and find connections between contemporary narratives about dangerous "others" and the rhetoric of white Philadelphians in response to French migrants and their enslaved Black servants during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. If we subscribe to the philosophy that critical thinking is often about noticing or constructing relationship that are implicit, rather than explicit, using a course playlist can often serve as a catalyst for those unexpected connections to form.
All this is to say that I am eager to continue reflecting on my use of course playlists and to integrate those playlists into the objectives for my courses. There is certainly much more to say and to learn about the pedagogical value of course playlists, and I am excited to experiment and learn with each passing semester. Have you ever used a course playlist in your classes? If so, feel free to drop some thoughts in the comment section below!