Faculty Academy 2012

Lyrical Ballast: Teaching Metrics via Youtube, Jay-Z, and Eminem

Presenters: Tyler Babbie

Teaching an introductory course on poetry and poetics is often a question of teaching a different code than students are used to using.  Often the most jarring disconnects between student and expert (teacher) come when discussing the technical aspects of poetry–teaching meter and metrics seems to be most difficult for beginning students.  What I propose is that students often already have an intuitive sense of meter, and the challenge is not so much to teach them a new system as to teach them names for a system they already understand.  One fast way to shed the strangeness of poetry is to turn to pop music, or if not pop, whatever students listen to.  The internet allows access to an unlimited source of living metrical art, art that students already feel passionately about.  We listened to and discussed YouTube videos of country songs, indie rock, and hip hop.  For example, a student requested that we listen to a rap collaboration by Jay-Z and Eminem called “Renegade.”  By turning to the poetic form of the lyrics, the class was able to see how Eminem uses far more rigid forms than Jay-Z, who raps in a beat-driven but less patterned system reminiscent of free verse.  Students who were normally silent started to debate this idea—their familiarity with the subject matter lent them expertise that allowed them to take strong stances, which ultimately extended to questions of African American rights and freedoms and the appropriation of ethnic art forms by pop culture.  The students began to understand that there is a politics of meter—and it excited them.  The pedagogical payoff of this approach to teaching poetics, almost a crowdsourcing of content, is that it minimizes the mathematical stuffiness of meter by applying it to the familiar.  At the introductory level an instructor can often tease the most relevant details out of musical lyrics, establishing references that can then be applied to lessons about printed poetry.  There might also be a beneficial undertow in that this approach might encourage students to hear meter and consider metrics outside the classroom.


Author: Martha Burtis

Special Projects Coordinator

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