One of the things I have always struggled with in introductory classes is extra credit assignments. Over time, I came to learn that students expect their instructors to assign some type of extra credit, but I have often found my assignments consisting largely of busy work that seldom engaged students in any real way. Seeking to remedy this, last fall I introduced a new extra credit assignment in my Introduction to Legal Studies course:
The extra credit assignment is based on the way law is portrayed in popular culture, specifically music. For the extra credit assignment, students will write a two page (double spaced) paper that discusses the lyrics to a song and explains how those lyrics connect to the law. More specifically, the paper calls for students to discuss the lyrics to a song that has a law-related theme and explain how the law is portrayed in those lyrics. In addition to the two page paper, students need to attach a copy of the lyrics to the song and a link to where the song can be streamed or viewed (such as YouTube). I strongly encourage you to submit your extra credit assignments earlier than the due date as we will be listening to law-related songs prior to class throughout the semester. By submitting your extra credit assignment early, your song may be played prior to class.
I will continue to use this assignment as I believe it offers students a number of benefits. By compelling them to think about how law is portrayed in a song, they are able to better understand many of the theories discussed in class. Who knew that natural law theory was reflected in so many Johnny Cash songs! In addition, this assignment helps students appreciate law and society as a scholarly enterprise by showing them how ubiquitous law is in our everyday lives, including in popular music.
The assignment also had some unanticipated effects. Once students realized that I would play a song before every class, many began to arrive early to listen, promoting punctuality. Unintentionally, I started asking students to say a few words about the song they chose in class. Although this wasn’t a condition of the assignment, none declined, and I suspect that, for many students, this was the first time they spoke before 100+ individuals. I think the nature of the assignment – describing how law is portrayed in a song of their choosing – made it easier for students to engage in this type of public speaking.
In terms of the costs associated with the assignment from an instructor’s perspective, they were negligible. The most time consuming part of the assignment was grading the papers, something I would have done anyway with other types of assignments. Since I asked students to provide me with a link to where I could stream the song, preparation was minimal and consisted largely of keeping a list of the order of songs to be played. As I was accustomed to arriving to class early, I didn’t have any problems on that front, although I did learn to sync the songs to end when class was scheduled to start. This meant some class-to-class variation since Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” is far longer than Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’ Dirty.”
Ultimately, I found this to be a very successful extra credit assignment. The one area that I may improve on next time is to insist (or strongly encourage) students to find versions of the song that include lyrics, many of which are available on YouTube. I found that the class became more engaged in thinking about the portrayal of the law in the song when they could read the lyrics.
If you’re anything like me, the big question on your mind is how quickly a student submitted a paper featuring N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police.” It was the very first assignment handed in, on the second day of class.
What types of extra credit assignments have you found effective?