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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Darcy 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.