When her History of Hip-Hop students struggled with pre-writing, Professor Cain created a guided ideation lesson to help them craft an album review in record time.
“I never thought my career would involve reading a student’s critical assessment of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle,” Dr. Courtney Cain of Lake Forest University reflects. “It’s kind of fun, in that sense.”
Lil Wayne rather than Leo Tolstoy. Gil Scott-Heron instead of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Cain’s History of Hip-Hop course flips the script on what we mean by “text.”
But Cain isn’t just engaging her students with the analysis of unconventional literature; she is using the content of her course to help students understand the writing process. In just one class meeting, Cain’s students begin with a song title and end with a thesis. How does she help them do it?
In her first semester teaching this course, Cain knew she wanted her students to analyze hip-hop albums as primary sources.
“I wanted them to listen to the music and lyrics more carefully to understand how hip-hop serves as a voice for typically marginalized groups,” she explains. “As of 2017, hip-hop has taken the crown as the number-one most popular music genre. Most of my students don’t know a world where there isn’t a bit of hip-hop everywhere, whether it’s politicians dabbing to show their cultural competency or the McDonald’s jingle that clearly has a hip-hop flair. So I wanted them to understand the context of how we ended up at this moment.”
The album review assignment was born out of a conversation between Cain and a friend. It felt like the perfect marriage of music and critical analysis. But soon after Cain tasked her students with the assignment, she realized that they didn’t know where to begin. They especially struggled with developing a thesis statement. She reflects, “For the first album review, I just kind of let them do it. I wanted to see what I was working with in terms of their comfort level with writing. Once I had a gauge, I realized that this could be a bit of a struggle for the majority of students.”
While working to address the confusion around this unfamiliar task, Cain found an opportunity not only to teach students how to write about music but also how to see writing in all forms as a process rather than a product.
She crafted a guided ideation lesson to help students understand what successful writers do before they actually begin to write. By encouraging students to take a few steps back before composing their pieces, or even before writing a thesis statement, she helped them understand the pre-writing process and put it to use in a unique way: reviewing hip-hop albums.
“I tell my students that I’m not looking for perfection,” Cain explains. “There is always something that you’re working on. I tell them my own stories about getting dissertation chapters slashed over and over again. So this assignment and this process are ways for them to practice writing, to make an argument about something, to support it with evidence. But the big lesson for students is the practice of actually writing something and starting to find their voices as authors and scholars.”
Course title: AfAM 228: History of Hip-Hop
Frequency: Two 80-minute class meetings per week
Class size: About 25
In her words: “This is a 200-level class, which is an introductory course for us. I think a lot of students signed up thinking it was going to be a little bit more fun than a typical class. And so I wanted to provide space for that, while making it a serious course that had some rigor as well.”
AfAM 228: History of Hip-HopSee materials
Cain’s lesson extends beyond an activity within a single class. Her process begins the moment students see the syllabus and continues throughout the semester, and it is designed to help students build the cache of knowledge necessary to write a cohesive thesis statement and, from it, a substantive analysis.
Introduce the assignment early
Over the course of the semester, Cain’s students complete five album reviews, each analyzing an album from a different era of hip-hop. Because the assignment is recurring, Cain includes the prompt and rubric in her syllabus, so her students are exposed to it from day one. This ensures easy access to and deep familiarity with the task.
Set the stage with historical context
During the first class each week, Cain delivers a lecture on a particular era of hip-hop, unpacking what was happening in that moment in history and how the era’s seminal albums responded to these events. “I am always pushing them to add historical context to their reviews,” Cain explains.
Start small to inspire big thinking
During the second class of the week, Cain selects a single song from that era as a microcosm for the album review each student will ultimately write. The song is digestible enough to analyze within a single class period, and it helps students recognize the value of the ideation phase of the writing process. Cain explains, “The activity takes them from initial thoughts to brainstorming to even outlining a little bit. But I always push them to answer, ‘What is your main argument? What is your thesis?’ You can build a paper around that. But if you don’t have a thesis, the paper is not going to be solid.”
Here’s how the activity unfolds:
- Reflect on the title. Cain provides the song title and gives students a few minutes to reflect on it in writing. What might it be about? What words stand out to you? Why?
- Focus on first impressions. Next, she plays the song and asks students to reflect in writing again. She specifies that they do not need to listen carefully at this stage. Instead, she wants only their immediate observations, such as thoughts about the sound and lines that resonate with them.
- Research other opinions. After recording their initial reactions, students visit Genius, a crowdsourced lyrics site where users (and sometimes the artists themselves) can add annotations. Here, students can look more closely at the text and compare their thoughts to those of other listeners.
- Identify the argument. Finally, students are challenged with crafting a thesis about the song using everything they now have in their toolbox: the historical context, their observations and theories from the guided ideation, and others’ annotations. Cain assists the students as they work on their argumentation so that they receive feedback before spending too much time pursuing a thread that might not work.
Rinse and repeat
About every two weeks, Cain repeats this lesson with a different song from a different era of hip-hop. For students who have never been taught to ideate prior to writing an essay, repeating the process every two weeks helps them become more accustomed to engaging with a text at the ground level, leveraging observations to create a thesis (rather than creating a thesis and seeking evidence after the fact).
Students have reacted positively to the guided ideation, excited about being equipped with a methodology to start their next assignment. Cain recalls, “The first time we did this, I had a student come up to me after class and high-five me. He said, ‘That was excellent. Thank you for doing that. That helps a lot.’”
That first semester, after grading the students’ final set of album reviews, Cain noticed a vast improvement in the quality of the argumentation. She recalls, for example, a student who offered an innovative take on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, analyzing the way it followed the classic arc of a Greek tragedy.
But beyond experiencing measurable improvements in their college writing skills, Cain’s students are learning to be critical readers of the world—not just consuming entertainment but understanding its meaning, significance, and, yes, history.
“I think the class has definitely changed how they listen,” says Cain. “One student said that she wasn’t allowed to listen to Eminem when she was young; her mom said she didn’t like the sound of his voice. But now this student is listening to it and she’s realizing there were probably bigger reasons for this.”
After learning to apply the forces of critical analysis and historical context to create a more discerning album review, Cain’s students can extrapolate these skills to evaluate other forms of media, as well as more classical texts, and support the opinions they form with facts, not just feelings.