“The Times They Are A Changin”: Teaching Bob Dylan, the Nobel Laureate Winner

PALS Note: We are pleased to welcome back Darcy Mullen for her second guest post. Please check out her first post here. This time Mullen is writing about teaching Bob Dylan after his win of the Nobel Prize in Literature. How do you teach Dylan as literature? And how do you and your students react? 

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Nobel Prize in Literature

I don’t know why, but one of the most effective first-year writing classes I’ve ever taught is one that is structured around readings from recent Nobel Laureates in Literature. I have a hunch as to why it works, but I’ll table that for another time. Anyway, in the class we read some research on the politics of the prize, acceptance speeches from the authors, and some of the authors’ works.

I’ve had students do a variety of writing around these materials. We’ve done regular close-reading essays, and research papers, but we’ve also done some pretty awesome stuff. Think alternate endings, building sets of cards for apples to apples, remixes (or “covers”), found poems, short films, maps, graphic novels, a mural, scavenger hunts, video games, and even a computer application (!)… the list goes on. But that’s the basics of the class.

Teaching the class in the fall semester is particularly exciting because I choose to deliberately build in a “To Be Announced” section for the unknown winner of that year. We wait together, and were rewarded this year with the exciting Kazuo Ishiguro! The tagline from the Nobel committee awarded it to him for “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”. This was a thrill for me because most of my students had heard of him, or even read a book or two of his.

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image via Rolling Stone

But 2016 was a very different year. That was the year Bob Dylan won. To quote the Nobel Prize website, “The Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 was awarded to Bob Dylan ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’.

My feelings were and still are complicated. I know many of us have strong opinions on Bob Dylan’s win, from the strongly positive to the, well, opposite. First and foremost, my worries went to money. Funding for the humanities is already bleeding. I had visions of boardrooms where major donors say things like:

Well, even the Nobel Prize in Literature went to a hippy rock star. The Humanities are clearly crumbling. Tell University X that we’ll give them enough for a department that includes music, literature, art and all the other stuff. The world is clearly moving in that direction.

End scene with chomp chomp chomping on imaginary cigar. In 2016, when my students and I starting learning, together, about Bob Dylan I tried to bite my tongue about my fears of conserving the humanities. But I didn’t do a very good job of it. It didn’t matter.

Dylan in the Classroom

Many hadn’t ever really listened to Bob Dylan. The ones that did, generally, had happy childhood memories of driving around with a parent with a Bob Dylan tape playing. This tale of nostalgia seems quite widespread. They were surprised by how much his music permeated American film and tv culture.

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In one reflective essay, a student wrote that learning about Bob Dylan taught them a lot about love. I couldn’t really hate that something in my course taught them about love.

When I taught this course this past fall, I spent a lot of prep time really thinking about the phrase “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” I needed to figure out how Bob Dylan fit into American poetry, and what I would say to the imaginary boardroom about why Bob Dylan would justify funding for literature in the humanities (my own personal problem to imagine).

In addition to teaching the poetic expressions in his music, I had us focus at least half our Bob Dylan-time on his poetry, specifically from Tarantula. Most of the students seemed into the music part (as the assignment was to make me a digital “mix-tape” with a curator’s statement). Poetry—not so much.

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Internet Archive Book Images

Most of the students chose not to do the required reading on the first day of the poetry part of the unit. So, I picked one of the poems (“Unresponsible Black Nite Crash” p. 75) and voluntold a student to read it out loud to us. Then I asked for a volunteer to purposefully read it, out loud, as badly as they could imagine. Then another with the same instructions. Again, and again.

This was not an exercise to shame students into doing the reading for next time. This was because many had noted in their curators’ statements that they couldn’t stand his vocals—some of the worst sounds they ever heard! This was an exercise in the connection between meaning and aesthetics in what we hear.

After half a dozen or so deliberately “bad” readings, they got into it, and started with oral performances that were over the top, screechy, Shatner-esq, mocking the beat stereotype, robotic imitations, poor timing, mispronunciation, and other, well, terrible readings!

Here we hit ten or fifteen readings, and the emotional temperature of the room changed. This same poem, about how the majority of Americans will never have the American Dream, about censorship of the press, about fear fear fear, about operating as a young person under a government that doesn’t fit… Hearing it over and over, in so many voices that were trying to be deliberately funny, or off in some way, became terrifying.

A reader put down the photocopy and said, I think we get it. Someone else said, no, we can go further. Students continued reading, changing the rule. It was like watching a murder of crows take shape. One after another they fell in. They went on to read it louder, sounding choked, sad, alienated or outside of language.

They were coming together and reading angry. THE UNITED STATES IS NOT SOUNDPROOF. They were chewing on the parts that spoke to their lives. BRING IN THE TRUTH. The poem wasn’t a piece of paper, it was an artifact. THE BULLY COMES IN-KICKS THE NEWSBOY. The author wasn’t a poet or musician, he was a fly on the wall.

In discussion afterwards, they made the connection to how this was how they felt about the American Dream. BEND OVER BACKWARDS OR SHUT YOUR MOUTHS FOREVER. That this is why #BlackLivesMatter has to exist. EVERYONE HAS BALLOONS IN THEIR EYES. Why marches and protests were happening all around the country and even on their campus.

THE UNITED STATES IS NOT SOUNDPROOF. They explained that this is why Bob Dylan is relevant today. TRIPPING OVER THE SKULLS. I watched what it fired up in them. I had to agree with what they were feeling.

He is a part of the American Protest tradition. He’s not my favorite or, in my opinion, the most significant. But his music is big. And his poetry activated A Thing that day. I have to imagine that the imaginary board room plaguing my nightmares would have felt The Thing, too.

Protest Literature or Poetic Expressions or …

Many, like Kirby Ferguson in his Ted Talk, “Embrace The Remix,” have pointed out quite clearly that Bob Dylan didn’t do anything new. I don’t think I can embrace the awarding of the prize to Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” (emphasis added).

Half of the internets’ literature department were positively tickled that he won, that the prize was pushing our idea of genre boundaries, that this meant doors were opening in how we read, teach, and approach writing. Dylan is rhetorical! This is another way into the oral tradition and Beowulf! The other half saw everything listed before, but as a negative. That the boundaries didn’t deserve to be transgressed. Song lyrics are not literature! And that the prize was going to a white male musician—as if we had run out of white male authors to acknowledge, so now we were onto music!

I fall into the reasoning into at least half of each camp. But neither of them really matter to me, because I am still fixated on what this award will mean to funding for the humanities. I don’t think the prize is going to result in higher donations or endowments for the humanities (Time, prove me wrong!). I don’t think it’s going to change the prize, or change the landscape of contemporary literature. There are amazing people that have been teaching lit/rock for longer than I’ve been driving. It’s not undiscovered country.

Bob Dylan has, like it or not, been canonized by arguably the most prestigious global, literary prize. I can see how now might be a time to include his poetry amongst some of the other American protest-poets. That should happen, only, after we cover Langston Hughes, Sojourner Truth, Maya Angelou, Jericho Brown, Nathaniel Mackey, and about a hundred other poets.

I’ll inevitably teach this class again, but not this Fall (and for reasons I hope to blog about at a later date!). I am still not convinced of the importance, and ultimate efficacy of teaching Dylan as part of the American canon. I’m still not really sure about the role of these “poetic expressions” within the aesthetics and ethics of American traditions, either.

This poem did give students a learning opportunity that hadn’t come from the three previous Nobel Laureates we read. It gave them a different rhetoric for their frustrations. That counts for a lot.

I don’t think I’ll ever really enjoy Dylan’s work, and I’ll probably never think it was a smart (financial) choice for the prize. But it teaches well. I can appreciate that about it, and also rather be teaching Amiri Bakara. In other words, Dylan can totally get the job done for a lot of learning outcomes. But he isn’t the only (or best) way to get there.

Contributor Bio

nullDarcy Mullen is a Postdoctoral Marion L. Brittain Fellow, teaching about food and media literacy at Georgia Institute of Technology. Publications include articles exploring the use of “local” as a tool for mapping food movements, the politics of place in tourism, the Anthropocene, and pedagogy studies. She is currently teaching community engaged courses linking poetics and food systems in urban agriculture. She is currently working on a book project, The Food and Drink of Atlanta. For more about her, visit her website, www.storiesofsoil.com, where she blogs about dirt and its role in everyday life.

 

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Teaching Handsome Lake’s “How America Was Discovered” as Protest Literature

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Copyright Kim Smith

I am currently teaching a 200-level topics course entitled “Rise Up! Protest and Dissent in American Literature.” The class starts with excerpts from Alexander Hamilton’s 1775 pamphlet Farmer Refuted and ends Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In this class, we take our definition of “protest literature” from John Stauffer’s foreword to American Protest Literature: Protest literature “critiques some aspect of society, but also suggests, either implicitly or explicitly, a solution to society’s ills” (xii). In class discussion and assignments, students analyze how protest literature from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “functions as a catalyst, guide, or mirror of social change” (xii). My syllabus includes literature of the American Revolution, the early anti-slavery and abolitionist movements, the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement as well as working class and American Indian literature from the antebellum era.

In the unit on “American Indian Rights,” the class considers the role of transcribed oral texts in the protest literature tradition of the United States. One of my favorite texts to teach in this unit is Handsome Lake’s “How America Was Discovered.” Handsome Lake (1735-1815) was a Seneca prophet whose teachings were passed down and later recorded by Seneca anthropologist Arthur Parker in the early twentieth century. An excerpt of “How America Was Discovered” is found in the Heath Anthology of American Literature and can be incorporated into survey courses on early American and nineteenth-century American literature. I’ve also taught it in a topics course on “American Origin Stories.” The narrative is about one-page long and re-tells the well-known Columbus story from a Native perspective. Because it is short and seems to tell a familiar story, it is very accessible to students. However, the reading is incredibly rich and needs to be taught in the context of Handsome Lake’s revivalist religious movement.

Handsome Lake: Background and Context

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Some instructors may be hesitant to teach “How America Was Discovered” if they are not specialists in American Indian literature—which I am not. Indeed, teaching the cultural and tribal context of the literature is vital, as Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchac reminds: “When talking about an American Indian story you need to be specific about what particular Native nation owns that story. Always acknowledge the nation and the individuals who have shared that story. Remember, too, that stories are embedded in a cultural matrix” (39-40). I always have students read scholar Andrew O. Wiget’s introduction to Handsome Lake in the Health Anthology, and in class lecture, I provide additional information on Handsome Lake and the Longhouse Religion inspired by his visions and prophecies. Sometimes, depending on the goals of the course, I also have students read chapters from Bruchac’s Our Stories Remember to provide my students with a context for reading and approaching Native literature.

Handsome Lake (1735-1815) was a leader in the League of Iroquois, a confederation of several tribes located in what is now upstate and central New York. After the American Revolution, the Iroquois lost most of their land and were forced to live on reservations as retribution for siding with the British. Removal from their homeland, disease, war, and  encroaching settlement by white colonists resulted in loss of cultural cohesion and autonomy. Due to so much change and loss in such a short period of time, some Iroquois turned to the alcohol introduced by whites, further eroding the traditional way of life.

Handsome Lake also succumbed to alcohol and illness, but had a powerful religious vision in 1799. Three messengers of the Creator—possibly representing three Quaker missionaries who were admired by the Iroquois—appeared to him in Iroquoian dress. From this vision, Handsome Lake developed the “Gaii’wiyo,” or the “Good Word” which centered on two teachings: Cede no more land to the whites and revitalize the old traditions. If not, destruction would soon follow. These visions were called the Code of Handsome Lake and developed into the Longhouse Religion, a combination of Quaker teachings and Iroquoian traditions. “How America Was Discovered” is just one prophecy from this code, published in 1923 in Parker’s Seneca Myths and Folk Tales. As Wiget explains in his introduction in the Heath Anthology, the narrative exposes the “Columbian consequences” of European exploration and colonization of the Americas.

“How America Was Discovered”: Summary and Analysis

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The story opens with a “great queen” who “had among her servants a young minister.” Students can always ascertain that the “great queen” refers to Isabella of Spain, yet as the narrative progresses, students find that the young minister is not Columbus. He does not enter the story until almost the end, thereby downplaying the centrality of Columbus to the European “discovery” of America. This counters the traditional American discovery story that most of my students learned in elementary school, of Columbus heroically “sailing the ocean blue” with the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María.

The queen asks the young minister, to “dust some books that she had hidden in an old chest” where he finds a “wonderful book,” a reference to the Bible. Like Columbus himself, the importance of the Bible is also diminished in the discovery of America, discarded and apparently forgotten by even the Queen and her ministers. In this “wonderful book,” the young minister reads that it was the “white man” who “killed the son of the creator,” a direct reference to Christ. The Seneca probably would have known the story of Jesus’s crucifixion from their contact with Quaker missionaries. Nonetheless, in Handsome Lake’s version of the crucifixion, it is emphasized that white men kill Christ. The implied question remains: If the whites killed Jesus, then why should Indians be implicated in and beholden to the story of sin and repentance told through Jesus’s crucifixion?

The young minister reads that Jesus didn’t return “after three days and again after forty,” and that his followers despaired.  Instead of having faith, the young minister “was worried because he had discovered that he had been deceived” and asks for advice from the “chief ministers.” They counsel him to “seek the Lord himself and find if he were not on the earth now.”

In his quest to find the Lord, the young minister eventually come to a gold palace with a “handsome man” who tells of “a great county of which you have never heard.” It is “across the ocean” and the young minister will receive fame and wealth if he will bring five things to the “honest and single-minded” people there: cards, money, the fiddle, whiskey, and blood corruption. In other teachings, Handsome Lake warns against alcohol and gambling. The handsome man in this story hopes that the fiddle will speak to the base and lower natures of the innocent people across the ocean. Students may not understand that “blood corruption” is a reference to sexually transmitted disease, which could affect fertility and reproduction. Indeed, the handsome man explains that the blood corruption will “eat their strength and rot their bones,” a possible reference to the degenerative nature of syphilis.

Although the young minister is promised “wealth,” “position,” and “power” if he introduces these corrupting influences to the virtuous people, he is worried and begins to “wonder if he had seen the Lord.” But when the young minister warns Columbus to not seek this land, Columbus still decides to “fi[t] out some boats and sai[l] out into the ocean.” Although the other ministers have seen through the “handsome man’s guise,” Columbus does not. In Handsome Lake’s account of how America was discovered, Columbus is not a hero but rather a misguided, foolish young man who does not listen to those with more wisdom and experience. It turns out that “that land was America.” Soon, more ships with white men flood the new land, bringing “cards, money, fiddles, whiskey, and blood corruption.”

The handsome man who told the young minister about the innocent people of America was the devil, and “when afterward he saw what his words had done he said he had made a great mistake.” In short, the discovery of Americas by Europeans was not part of God’s providential design, but rather the work of devil. And even the devil regrets the evil that he caused by convincing the Europeans to go to the Americas.

With this narrative, Handsome Lake offers a “re-evaluation of Christian elements” and a “negative evaluation of the motive and influence of Europeans,” thereby exposing the contradictions at the heart of the Columbus story, one of the organizing myths of the United States.

Legacy and Present Day Connections

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Photo by Indian Country Today Media Network

Although Handsome Lake’s prophecies were never realized in his own time, they were an inspiration for other Native revitalization movements such as the Sun Dance of the Great Basin later in the nineteenth century.  Handsome Lake’s Longhouse Religion is still practiced today.

I try as much as I possibly can to responsibly teach what Bruchac calls the “cultural matrix” of tribal specificity, although I know I sometimes fall short due to my own lack of knowledge and cultural blind spots. I am always learning and trying to do better. However, I think that it is important for my non-Native students in rural north Texas to learn about Native resistance and protest as an on-going historical process, not a short-lived moment in the past or an isolated present day phenomena.

In the protest literature class, my students link Handsome Lake’s narrative to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, particularly Handsome Lake’s insistence that his people cede no more land to whites and the Dakota people’s protest of the environmental degradation that would be caused to their homelands as a result of the pipeline. In fact, some students note that in terms of pointing out the hypocrisy of a Christian nation and the greed at the heart of America’s origins, Handsome Lake’s protest is needed now more than ever.

Questions for class discussion and assignments:

  1. What is the significance of downplaying the role of Columbus in “How America Was Discovered”?
  2. How does altering the American origin story help Handsome Lake achieve his religious and political purposes?
  3. What makes Handsome Lake’s story a form of “protest literature”?
  4. How can this narrative sharpen our thinking about present day protest movements and protest literature?