English students study Bob Dylan
November 1, 2007 11:24 AM
English professor Geoffrey Green’s new class bridges generation gaps through music, as college students sit in maroon chairs juxtaposed with old-timers in straw hats and fringed leather jackets to learn about one subject: Bob Dylan.
“I had a musical background and worked through school playing guitar,” Green said, wearing a blue shirt with a checkered tie and coat. “I had direct contact with the folk tradition that Dylan came from.”
Arguably one of the most influential and scrutinized American artists of the last 50 years, Bob Dylan is almost as difficult to define as the nation that produced him. Connecting Dylan’s work to contemporary theories, Green looks through the course at the ways in which Dylan, both in his music and his diverse public personae, explores the prevailing attitudes of class, race, gender, and place in American culture.
Green, who has written for folk publications such as “Sing Out” and interviewed musical icons like Pete Seger in 1968, said he was always interested in Dylan. Green chose to teach a class on the celebrity after he recently began incorporating music and cultural literature into some of his creative writing classes.
“I became increasingly interested in literature that is produced by culture,” he said. “After a while it seemed logical to teach a course that would focus on just that.”
The class, English 525, compares the works and melodies of Dylan to writers like Franz Kafka and Vladimir Nabokov and contemporaries like American-based writer Thomas Pynchon, exploring themes of war, poverty, race, and social change.
“An idea we use a lot [in class] is a sense of Dylan creating narrators; as in someone wearing different masks,” Green said. “[He] is just like a literary artist.”
The class was so popular in its initial semester this summer that some people had trouble getting in.
“I tried to crash the class,” said 23-year-old literature major Nick Haughton, a senior. “But when I got there the place was packed and I just decided to forget it.”
Emily Burkdoll, another senior majoring in literature, had a more fortunate experience.
“I had to fight my way in,” said Burkdoll, 22, who said she listens Dylan’s melodies relentlessly. “It really seemed unjust for me to not be in the class.”
Green said he tried to help people get into the fledgling class when he saw the classroom could not hold the number of students who had enrolled.
Burkdoll, who plans to graduate next semester, benefited from Green’s move to accommodate about 50 students.
“It’s flattering and always nice to see,” Green said of his large class. “We weren’t able to get a big enough room, but we did move once.”
Music History Professor Dean Suzuki said he’s supportive of the class as long as it provides an opportunity for people to study the music as a reflection of culture and not purely as literature.
“A class on Dylan is certainly a good thing,” Suzuki said. “But only if his work is looked at in a largely cultural way.”
Burkdoll said she enjoys the class but has some reservations as to whether Bob Dylan should be taught.
“I think he deserves his own class,” she said. “But I think I’m opposed to it because I know what I think about Bob Dylan, but someone who knows nothing about music might feel differently.”
Whether the works of Bob Dylan, or those of any other contemporary pop artist, should be taught in college may remain a topic of debate. Only one thing seems certain, especially when it comes to art: “The times, they are a-changing.”
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