Using mixtapes to express individuality

By Alex Doble, Humanities Faculty

Every college-bound high school student ultimately faces the challenge of writing a personal narrative. However, in a rapidly-evolving world of carefully curated social media personas, technology is constantly redefining the ways we share who we are, what we believe in, and how we are unique. Institutions seeking mission-aligned candidates use new ways to draw out information about their applicants. USC, for example, asks prospective students to describe themselves as a hashtag.

My point is, personal narratives are becoming more creative and are offering students new ways to express their individuality and share their experiences. The details of our personal experience differentiate us from one another. This is what colleges want to see. Personal narratives are not just essays anymore.

In designing the syllabus for my Personal Narratives class, I imagined a wide range of different experiences through which we might express parts of ourselves and our stories. An essay-writing class this is not, though we constantly generate different texts. We’re keeping a handwritten journal; we work on heavily artistic pieces inspired by Denis Wood’s ‘narrative atlas’ project; we constructed performative pieces of ‘temporary text’, we’re recording short ‘travel’-inspired podcasts, and currently, we’re crafting mixtapes. Actual cassette mixtapes.

Why put together mixtapes in an English class?

As I said, telling our stories and sharing who we are can take many forms. Little in my life is more narrative than the music I listen to. I believe different parts of life have unique soundtracks. Times and places not only dictated the kind of music that I would listen to, but now that music has come to represent, in my mind, those times and places; my story.

There is a nostalgic element to this project. Using music as a storytelling device is a challenging way to express our unique experiences. Going through the rigamarole of procuring obsolete technology, technology many students have never seen before, adds a delightful complexity to the task.

Mixtapes are exciting. Mixtapes are an experience. Mixtapes are a journey.

These things have been curated, and are defined by their limitations. ‘Mr Doble, can I have more than 60 minutes?’ Physically, no. ‘Mr Doble, can one side be 20 minutes and the other side 40?’ Physically, no. Choices have to be made, and that will shape your track list—and that will shape the feeling of your piece. Sometimes sacrifices need to be made—and sometimes, that’s for the best.

There’s also a component to analogue music media that I think is subconsciously important: the living, breathing nature of it. It is ‘organic,’ just like us. Tape, like our minds, is an analogue medium. We commit things to tape and to memory, and over time it wears. It warps, it stretches. Things fade. Harsher frequencies, over time, are made softer and fuzzier. Things sound warmer the more we replay them. Sometimes we get dropout – and sometimes a machine eats them and we have to spend too much time with a pencil winding them back up. (Okay, maybe that last thing doesn’t work with the metaphor, but you catch my drift.)

It has been… an experience, to translate a process that feels so instinctive to me into a form that children of the 21st century can comprehend. It’s astonishing, really, how these skills have become so alien: the single most recurring problem we’re facing is that students cannot work out how to open a cassette case. You don’t need to open cases with digital media. I’ve had a hard time explaining how to navigate a tape. You don’t need to rewind digital media. Several students have sat down and tried to plug cables into the tapes themselves. You don’t ‘download’ things outside of digital media.

Perhaps my students will never revisit these newfound technical skills. Many will never see a cassette again. Regardless, I have no doubt that through this experience they have found joy in a more hands-on and meaningful relationship with music—and have had another non-traditional experience in drawing out their personal stories. Tape is by no means a perfect format – and that is precisely the point. We are not perfect beings—our autobiographies are littered with inconsistencies and inaccuracies—and yet these are our truths. How better, then, to reflect these, and tell our personal stories, than with an imperfect format?