In Semester 1 of the academic year 2021/22, having solo-taught the Level 5 Undergraduate module ‘Composing Song Lyrics’ for the last decade, Glenn Fosbraey decided to bring in singer/ songwriter Daniel Ash to teach it with him. This article explores their process of co/ team-teaching and reflects on how another voice can bring a different quality to the classroom.
Written by Glenn Fosbraey and Daniel Ash | PUBLISHED ON 21st April 2022 | Photo by Benoit Gauzere on Unsplash
For a number of years now, I have written about song lyrics across various books, chapters, and articles, and have waxed lyrical (pun intended) about how influential they are to people’s lives. I won’t go into that again here as there are other things that need to be discussed in the 2,000 words we’ve been allotted, but search ‘lyric tattoos’ on Google Images and you’ll see what I mean. And yet lyrics are still the under-appreciated runt of the artistic litter when it comes to the world of academia, seen as ‘disposable – or worse, as spiritually bankrupt’ (Frisicks-Warren 2006: 2), and often overlooked as they are in favour of poetry, prose, film, theatre, and dance.
When I first started teaching on the Level 5 module ‘Composing Song Lyrics’ on the Creative Writing BA at The University of Winchester twelve years ago, I therefore decided that I would mix the necessary creative elements with a long-overdue exploration of the critical side of the form. Paul and Elder observe that criticality and creativity are mutually beneficial, and that ‘when engaged in high-quality thought, the mind must simultaneously produce and assess, both generate and judge the products it fabricates’ (Paul & Elder, 2019: 5), leading to deeper thinking, both creatively and analytically. We would create our own lyrics, yes, but first we would analyse the lyrics of other artists, poring over their words with an academic eye, pulling them apart in terms of rhetorical devices, narrative structures, perspective, psychoanalysis, and linguistics. Indeed, the first 6 weeks of the module would be dedicated to this, during which time we would explore songs ranging from Elvis Costello’s ‘Kinder Murder (analysing in terms of tenses, idioms, ambiguity and confusion, and character) to Destiny’s Child’s ‘Happy Face (pathetic words and phrases); from Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ (Deliberative, forensic, and epideictic divisions of oratory) to Vengaboys’s ‘Forever as One’ and Captain Beefheart’s ‘Neon Meate Dream of A Octafish’ (respectively embracing and rejecting formula and cliché).
All of this was working towards the students’ first assignment, a 1,500 word essay, due in week 7 where they were tasked with critically analysing an album of their choice. At this point in the module, we always have a shift in both tone and content, switching as we do from the critical to the creative. Gone are the Powerpoints and analyses, replaced by self-exploration, experimentation, and workshopping. And it was here that it seemed like a natural point to switch lecturers, too. For the past couple of years I’d brought Daniel in for guest sessions, where he worked with the students to come up lyrical ideas, and he’d always inspired them into creating really imaginative work. It seemed like a natural progression, therefore, to give him more time in the module to develop these ideas, and see the students through to the second assignment, which was to create their own collection of lyrics.
Thus, Daniel and I worked together in an authentic version of ‘team teaching’. The term ‘appears to have many other names as well, such as co-teaching, co-enrolment, collaborative teaching, or cooperative teaching…’ (Hanusch et al., 2009: 68), but for the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to our process as ‘team teaching’ as it most accurately reflects how we presented ourselves to the class (i.e. ‘the module team’), and how we worked together as a duo to create our teaching materials. Harris & Harvey say that team teaching ‘provides the opportunity to model different ways of teaching’ (Harris & Harvey, 2000: 20) and Muza states that ‘team teaching is different from single teacher teaching because it involves two or more teachers each with distinctive roles’ (Muza, 2020: 59) so it was important to inform the students of this (uncommon) teaching structure at the very start of the module so they knew that such a change was coming, and, indeed what our different roles were within the module (me: critical; Daniel: creative).
‘By its nature, team teaching assumes appropriate involvement of all colleagues in the team and good communication between them. It involves a group of instructors working purposely, regularly, cooperatively and complimentarily to teach a group of students’ (Muza, 2020: 58)
Daniel and I made sure we met weekly in the lead-up to him taking over, talking about what I’d covered in my classes, how students were coping (both inside and outside the classroom), and how his creative exercises could build on my critical ones. These discussions were beneficial to the students, but also to us as lecturers, tying in with Anwar et al.’s observations that such a method of teaching ‘is very useful and fruitful for teachers […giving] them chances to get involved in more philosophical discussions and to learn more about experiences and way of teaching one to another…’ (Anwar et al., 2021: 329) We also benefited ‘from the mutual support and backup’ (Riddell et al., 2021: 183) we gave each other, and being able to discuss the lesson content, class dynamics, and assignment details led to us both giving the very best accounts of ourselves during our respective classes.
Now, as I said at the start of Week 7 on the module, over to Daniel.
“Don’t start me talking, I could talk all night” sung Elvis Costello on his 1979 smash hit Oliver’s Army, a sentiment I can strongly identify with whenever the subject of songwriting is raised. As a songwriter for over twenty years and a musician with a wealth of experience when it comes to sitting in a van for eight hours waiting to get to the venue, I’ve shared my methods, influences and secrets with just about anyone who will listen. Songwriting and the creative process has always fascinated me. Even as a young child I would strum my dad’s guitar aimlessly improvising into a tape recorder, attempting to write my first hit. Imagine my surprise to see Paul McCartney doing exactly the same thing in 1969 whilst writing ‘Get Back’, in Peter Jackson’s recent Beatles documentary.
When approached by Glenn Fosbraey to guest lecture a lyric writing module at The University of Winchester, I of course was taken aback. What… you can do this kind of thing… for a living? There was however, always a fear. Songwriting was something I did each and every day, but explaining methods and techniques to a room of students was a daunting and unfamiliar prospect. Glenn’s kind support in sharing his knowledge and experience really helped me to overcome this fear of stepping into the unknown. I also had the advantage of entering the module at its midpoint, where students had already learnt the rules behind writing a song and had studied the theory of the craft in great depth. This felt like a huge weight off my shoulders as I knew the students were all in a position where we could start to explore the practical and creative avenues of songwriting.
One of the real magical things about lecturing this subject is that I’m able to cram nearly thirty years of discovery and inspiration into a whistle-stop tour, with no fat or filler tracks. What a joy to create lesson plans showcasing all of the songs that sparked something in me. Some of these songs I went for years without knowing and then when I did discover them, wondered where they had been all my life. I can’t help but watch the student’s faces as I play them these songs and hope they’ll feel that same urge to reach for the nearest notebook.
Writing methods are also explored in these lectures. As a creative, changing your process plays an integral part in keeping your writing fresh and exciting, something else I have learnt on my journey. We look at how prolific writers like Paul Weller and Rivers Cuomo continue to create outstanding work by writing in unique and challenging ways. These can range from something as simple as changing the four walls around you to using one of Brian Eno’s famous ‘Oblique Strategy Cards’ to prompt vocabulary, situations and subjects you may not otherwise arrive at. As David Bowie once remarked ” always go a further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. When you don’t feel your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right position to do something interesting.”
I had learnt from my meetings with Glenn, the valuable advice that in this particular module writing exercises were key and so spent a lot of time planning unique and interesting writing tasks for each session. The weekly exercises I set were again based on personal experiences and writing breakthroughs. It was a no brainier to set the classes some of the challenges that really worked well for me. One of my more successful songs was written whilst trying to write an imaginary lost Prince hit. I made sure to give the students this opportunity to imitate somebody they admire. The wonderful thing about this being that of course, by the time it’s gone through your own filter it’s no longer a Prince ‘fan fiction’ song but something totally unique.
Another exercise focused on photograph prompts to write a set of POV lyrics. When chancing upon a box of old family photographs in a charity shop in Brighton, I regretfully did what no good writer should do and left them there for another curious soul to pick out and take home to their writing desk. I wanted to give the students this lost opportunity of writing from behind somebody else’s eyes. The results were extraordinary.
But of course, these lectures are not just about what I’ve got to say… I aim to make every session an open discussion, not ‘one-way communication’ (Fawbert, 2003: 162). After all, ‘positioning students as peers who have valuable perspectives in learning is key to supporting equitable partnerships between educators and students with the goal of improving practice’ (Elkington, 2014: 178). All of the students in the class have a different record collection (or, as I suppose I must say in 2021 – Spotify Playlists!), unique tastes and all have their own personal experiences with those ‘’goosebump’’ songs, and I want to hear about them all! It’s important that every student is given an opportunity to share and discuss the songs that inspired them, I know I have learnt so much from their input. As a frustrated musician, wanting to make some kind of mark on the world I can’t begin to explain how fulfilling and rewarding lecturing has been. I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to share my own experiences, discuss writing and music (my two favourite subjects!), and to of course read the fascinating lyrics from the hit makers of tomorrow.
Glenn and Daniel
Before lecturers look to change the content or structure of a module, they should always ask themselves why they want to make such changes. If we are looking toward non-traditional types of teaching (and I include team-teaching in this), there must be a valid reason, for ‘whilst pedagogic innovation is to be applauded, it must never come at the expense of the student experience [… otherwise it’s] experimenting for the sake of experimenting, and that should never be what education is about’ (Fosbraey, 2018: 15). Our main reason for change this academic year was to better reflect the two distinct sections of the module by having two different tutors, so we are certainly able to say that such a move was made to enhance the student experience.
The assignments are now in, graded, and returned to the students, and, as with the teaching, we collaborated on the marking process, with Glenn as first marker, and Daniel as moderator. We have already met a few times to discuss how we feel things went (gauging by the quality of the work and the mood in the classroom they went well), how we can improve the classes for future iterations (feedback was very complimentary, so only minor tweaks are needed, such as the possibility of small breakout rooms for workshopping), and anything we should avoid next time around (always too much Morrissey from Glenn, but he’s getting better at this year on year).
As we say goodbye to another year of the module, then, we’re put in mind of a Foo Fighters lyric as we plan for next year: ‘Done, done, and on to the next one’. Collaborating all the way.
Glenn Fosbraey is the Head of English, Creative Writing, and American Studies at The University of Winchester. He has published various books, chapters, and journal articles about the academic study of song lyrics.
Daniel Ash is a singer / songwriter from Southampton. His most recent solo release ‘Teenage Waitress – Love & Chemicals’ sold out of its original press and was described as CLASH as a ‘’ musical highlight of 2020”. Daniel’s songs have enjoyed frequent airplay on 6Music, Radio X and BBC London. Recently one of Daniel’s tracks was featured on a MOJO magazine CD, handpicked by Paul Weller. Daniel’s music has also featured in CLASH and Tim’s Twitter Listening Party.
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Frisicks-Warren, B. (2006) I’ll Take You There: Pop Music and the Urge for Transcendence. London: Continuum
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