If you can’t beat ’em, annotate ’em

The lyrics say it all // Creative Commons
The lyrics say it all // Creative Commons

Sometimes higher education feels like a zombie-movie cliché. You know that scene where the hordes of the undead are about to break into the protected zone? The arrival of the MOOCs (massive open online courses) in 2012, coupled with proliferation of social media in the classroom, seemed like the beginning of the zombie apocalypse.

Two years later and the zombies have circled the premises, knocking down the ivory tower and “flipping” some of the classrooms, so that lectures are delivered to the masses via YouTube.

Our students are all infected, constantly texting and tweeting under their desks.

Many of the survivors, though, are still calling for the same futile techniques of resistance: quarantine the MOOCs, isolate Facebook and Twitter from the classroom, and put a bullet in the head of Wikipedia. For years, I ranted to students about not trusting the Internet. Every assignment came with the all-caps statement: NO WIKIPEDIA ALLOWED. I didn’t want the virus to spread to my classroom.

But then, after a chance meeting with the education czar of the website last summer, I started rethinking my position. Jeremy Dean—his real title is Chief of Education at Rap Genius—is an old friend from my graduate-school days and an evangelist for the power of crowd-sourced knowledge in higher education.

Rap Genius is a user-driven website that annotates and interprets song lyrics and other primary source documents. It was begun in 2009 by a trio of Yale graduates and hip-hop aficionados as a fun—albeit nerdy fun—way to deconstruct rap lyrics. It uses a wiki platform to build on the knowledge of the crowd.

But unlike, say, Wikipedia, Rap Genius allows for a polyphony of voices, some scholarly, some profane. It gets rowdy on the site: one annotation of Kanye West’s song “New Slaves” makes a compelling case for viewing the entire Yeezus album as a modern-day Nietzschean parable of the Anti-Christ, while another describes a Kanye-inspired video “really just some bullshit.”

Since changing its name from Rap Exegesis to Rap Genius and landing $15 million in venture capital a year ago, the website’s traffic now exceeds that of The Economist, with around half a million unique views per day. Dean told me that much of the venture capital investment was going towards initiatives in education, and he wanted me to try out the site at the University of Alberta.

I was skeptical at first, but Dean won me over. Instead of thinking of Rap Genius as yet another Internet timesuck, why not think of it as a new way of doing old-school hermeneutics? He had a case: scholars have been writing marginalia in books for millennia. In a way, Rap Genius wasn’t that different from Talmudic scholarship; it was an exercise based on close reading and historical contextualization.

My class on Popular Music in Latin America began compiling lyrics from classic songs in Spanish and Portuguese, translating and annotating them on Rap Genius or its sister site, Rock Genius. It got messy: was the Mexican folk song “La Cucaracha” really about a marijuana-smoking dictator? Did an Enrique Iglesias song have a coded fascist message? How could you “prove” it?

Other Rap Genius users from across the globe started poking holes in the hermetically sealed classroom. One of my students found a niche annotating the work of the Brazilian samba-funk pioneer Jorge Ben. Her work was brilliant, making connections between the lyrics and music that I had never considered. Another user from Brazil started getting interested in my students’ work and started suggesting alternative interpretations of his songs.

At first, I worried about users who I didn’t know influencing my students’ work, but then I saw that collaborative work made the annotations more concise and more factually correct.

The students learned to use their university-level information literacy skills to go back and verify facts with references from primary sources. It was the ultimate teaching moment for the importance of scholarly research.

By the end of the term, we had built an archive of popular Latin American songs that were annotated from reliable sources. Editors from the site promoted some of my students to become editors in their own right, with the power to verify or flag other users’ annotations.

There were problems, of course. The question of whose intellectual property this work was loomed large. The tone of the site (an approved annotation is greeted with the word “Ballin’!”) is not exactly standard academic English. Some hip-hop artists, meanwhile, think the whole enterprise of educated, mostly white people “explaining” a mostly black art form is condescending at best, racist at worst. (The rapper Victor Vasquez from Das Racist called Rap Genius “white devil sophistry” in 2011). The accusation that Rap Genius is white-washing hip hop has led the site to create “verified” accounts where rappers themselves have the ultimate authority to explain their lyrics (the rapper Nas is a frequent contributor).

But in the end, we discovered a vaccine of sorts for the zombie invasion of the Internet in academia. Let a little bit of the anarchy in the classroom and students suddenly see the value of scholarly investigation. In my little corner of Latin American cultural studies, the wisdom of the crowd beat back the zombie invasion.

MOOCs, meanwhile, haven’t lived up to the initial high expectations. San Jose State University signed a deal with MOOC pioneer Udacity to overhaul the university’s entire curriculum last January by offering for-credit, low-cost online courses. Now the CEO of Udacity, Sebastian Thrun, says Udacity’s courses were a “lousy product.”

After discovering evidence of high drop-out rates and sub-par performance with MOOCs, San Jose State has put the partnership on ice. Evidence suggests that free or low-cost MOOCs have higher failure rates than more expensive ones. Closer to home, the U of A’s MOOC course Dino 101 has been more successful in luring and keeping students enrolled over the long haul. Learning about dinosaurs or popular music online, however, might be a different ballgame than deep research on astrophysics or appreciating the nuances of Shakespeare.

Declining enrollments and tight budgets in the humanities have made the invasion of online learning platforms a vexed question among the professoriate. All too often, MOOCs, Twitter, Wikipedia, etc are seen as harbingers of the end of higher education as we know it. But, as any literary scholar will tell you, there’s a difference between form and content. Online platforms are, as the name implies, “form.” Content—whether it be Latin American rap, dinosaurs or Milton—will always be there.


Russell Cobb is an assistant professor in the department of Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of Alberta.

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