Teaching the Beats Pt. 1: Typewriters, Jazz, and Collaborative Work, Oh My! An Interactive Activity

In my last post, I discussed the possibilities of integrating cultural memory into the history classroom and pedagogy filtered through my own research in Beat Studies. I left off only speculating on what could be done to incorporate memory into historical analysis, but this time, I wanted to present some possible ways in which to practically engage with what is known outside of the classroom in dealing with the Beats through a multimedia approach.

For a class assignment, I thought it might be interesting to bring in my very own 1940s Underwood typewriter, a particular item I purchased this past summer for personal use. I chose this device because of its significance in the life of Jack Kerouac, who used a similar typewriter in his early stages as a writer (his early work was collected posthumously in Atop an Underwood). The typewriter was a crucial instrument for the construction of many of the most famous Beat works—including On the Road, Howl, and Naked Lunch, among others—so it made sense to fit it somewhere in the classroom (the idea to use the typewriter as classroom artifact was inspired by Dominic’s work on material culture).

As a way to introduce the Beats, I devised a way in which to illustrate the typewriter as instrument with a specific musicality, linking the irregular rhythm of jazz and bebop to the erratic nature of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose poetics, a particular form of writing that followed the principle of “first thought, best thought.” The sound of a typewriter’s clicks and clacks on the keys is a cacophony of medleys, signifying the construction of a work of art through words and images. Integrating each of these sounds for students seemed an innovative way of capturing the Beat aesthetic in clear and broad strokes.

For the assignment, I begin by asking the question, “What is Beat?” without providing context or content. Having students pull out and prepare blank paper and pen, or word documents on their laptops, I would tell them to listen to a specific sound recording and attempt to answer this question of what is “beat” as they listened, free associating with images, ideas, etc (this activity was inspired by Karl Miller’s own work with music and learning). The sound recording I would play is Jack Kerouac reciting a segment of his poem, “San Francisco Blues,” as heard here:

After they listened to the recording, I would pull out a “mystery box” which contained my typewriter. Before revealing the artifact inside, I would tease the students with the line that, “though they might recognize this object, they might not have experienced it firsthand before.” So, I lift the lid of the box and ask someone to identify it for the class. “It’s a typewriter,” one student might say. “Yes,” I reply, “a typewriter. A 1940s Underwood to be exact, which will become an important part of one our discussions later on in the course,” alluding to future lessons on Kerouac and spontaneous writing.

My activity is to have each student take a crack at using the typewriter in order to readdress the question, “What is Beat?” Given thirty seconds each, I would have them form a line, one behind the other, ready and waiting to use the machine. As background and mood-setting music, I would play the following sound recording, which brings together a lot of the musicians and artists that revolutionized twentieth-century music, but also inspired and influenced many of the Beat writers and artists:

Each student would type one-by-one, fueled by the music, the sounds of the typewriter responding to their touch, as well as the encouragement from me and the rest of the class. The point is to emulate the atmosphere of a raucous music club or apartment where everything feels energized and sped-up. The intention is to drown the student writing in a pool of Beat-oriented and inspired artistry that is at once overpowering, but also empowering.

After each student had a chance to type, I would ask them how they felt about the experience, gauging their reactions immediately following such an engaging sprint. The next question is about relating the music, the experience of writing on the typewriter, and the sound recording to the question, “What is Beat?” It’s a bit of a leading question, but what I hope to hear is something akin to the musicality and noisiness of all three auditory experiences, as well as the tactile interaction with the machine itself. When I hear that response, I would emphasize the typewriter as a musical instrument and each of the students as a musician, awkwardly encountering a new device which I hope they will be able to master and appreciate as the course goes on. I imagine that I will have them use the typewriter periodically throughout and have a chance to engage with artifacts, recognizing their potential uses and affective powers for research and learning.

Following this brief talk, I will introduce their work on the typewriter—one sheet without names, breaks, or proper spelling and grammar—as their first collective “primary document” for the class, and certainly not their last. I phrase it in this way to emphasize interactive, collaborative work, a coming together of different individuals and personalities to work collectively to understand and address this elusive concept of “beat.” The original question, “What is beat?” is sort of a trick as there is no real, definitive answer, which the Beat artists and authors had to wrestle with themselves in the media and as a group. The point is that students are able to construct somewhat of an idea of beat-ness from unfamiliar sources in order to pinpoint some of the important areas of study for the course: jazz, music, clubs and atmosphere, literature, creativity, blackness, gender, sexuality, politics, etc. The activity at once brings them together to reaffirm the collaborative work of the Beats themselves, and also to emphasize that each student offers their own ideas and their own experiences to the work.

Thinking about the class further, I’d have them engage with their document and freely associate and discuss what “beat” means to them in the context of the media and material used. Creativity would be encouraged and fostered in the classroom, and this activity is an intriguing and fun way to set up some of the major components of the course in the long run.

I’ve introduced one activity that I thought might bring together some interesting points through multimedia uses and collaborative work. Next time, I will discuss the responses and critiques of the assignment after I’ve presented it to the rest of the class.


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1 Response to Teaching the Beats Pt. 1: Typewriters, Jazz, and Collaborative Work, Oh My! An Interactive Activity

  1. Pingback: Designing History's Future | Engagement: Part IV. Building a History

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