Instructor Reflection – To a Rapper’s Delight

by Sue Ann Cairns

As an English professor who has taught literature and composition for over three decades, I have an abiding interest in multiple literacies, including performance literacy, but my enthusiasm about technological literacy is not supported by a comfortable knowledge base. I am eager to learn, however, and I was fortunate enough to have two dynamic rappers in my third year Children’s Literature course at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia who helped me and members of our class get inside the texts we were studying in fresh, creative ways: through original rap interpretations of the classic and contemporary texts we were studying. After I returned from a 4 Cs conference with new ideas about multimodal composition in March 2013, I decided to encourage Calvin Tiu and Hanrick Kumar to draw on their passion for rap music in their final paper/project. As I teach in a relatively traditional department, this customized multimodal project that would blend music, video, and, of course, writing, was a new learning venture for me.

Calvin Tiu and Hanrick Kumar (a.k.a. Kalvonix and Big Love) wrote and performed original rap songs that re-interpreted the children’s classics we were studying: Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Giving Tree and Charlotte’s Web, as well as well contemporary Young Adult novels What I Saw and How I Lied, and the Canadian YA novels Skim and Tweaked , a novel about drug addiction set in our city of Vancouver. Calvin and Rick still needed to write an essay reflecting on their creative, collaborative process, but they went even further in their project, adding a song that advertises the joys of multimodal creativity at the beginning of their CD, and co-creating a short video based on their rap re-telling of the novel Tweaked by Katherine Holubitsky. Cal and Rick used a multidisciplinary approach that was both playful and serious, even poignant in places, weaving in intertextuality and academic research as well as personal reader response. The multidisciplinary approach that Cal and Rick used , drawing on technological tools that I appreciate but do not teach, allowed them to accomplish a major aim of the course, connecting cognitive insights into our texts with personal, affective reader response.

I might mention, in passing, that I was especially pleased by the quality of Cal and Rick’s creative collaboration for personal reasons. On our multi-campus, multicultural university, the majority of students are the first generation of their families to attend university, and most work many hours a week, so they often do not have the time to undertake ambitious creative endeavors that stretch their capabilities. Calvin is from a Filipino-Canadian family, and Hanrick is from a Fijian background. You may notice also that while Cal (a.k.a Kalvonix) has the swaggering persona of a stereotypical rapper, he does not swagger literally. As a boy growing up with cerebral palsy, he was often the target of bullies—but, encouraged by a high school teacher, he found his voice, and his ability—or one of his abilities–in a seemingly unlikely identification with rappers from U.S. ghettoes.

The Instructor’s Metacognitive Postscript

The tools of the new media may be exciting and potentially daunting for professors who have taught, and been trained in traditional forms of academic discourse. However, pretending that our students will be asked in their future work to produce twelve pages of sober documented text without sound or visuals, does not, in my view, serve them well. In traditional Humanities departments, many of us may shrink from encouraging the use of these multimedia tools, because we may not be comfortable exposing so much of what we not know, and especially because we are unsure how to assess these projects.

However, intergenerational, inter-collegial, and interdepartmental collaborations may open us all to new potentialities of creative collaboration.