April 2010 – Perhaps “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” because there is definitely an interesting tune “Blowin’ in the Wind” at Trinity University. Is it a “Simple Twist of Fate?” Or should it come as no surprise that “Mr. Tambourine Man” has entered the classroom?
Iconic singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, whose five-decade popularity is a rarity, is the central focus of GNED 1300-15 “Forever Young: The Life and Times of Bob Dylan.” The course is one of Trinity University’s First-Year Seminars, a series of classes that helps prepare first-year students in areas such as critical thinking, oral and written communication, and bibliographic formats.
The course was designed by professors Diane Graves, University librarian and chair of the Faculty Senate, and Michael Fischer, vice president for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty. Their goal is not only to teach students about Dylan and his music, but also to give them a well-rounded look at what has been happening throughout the world during the songwriter’s provocative career.
“We went out there and researched and found some other syllabi that other people had used. But generally they were based either in his music or in his text – in the poetry,” said Professor Graves, who co-teaches the course with Professor Fischer. “We wanted to do something that would allow students who are 18 or 19 years old to go back and understand the times by doing basic research and sharing what they learned with the rest of the class.”
One of the prominent features of the course is the use of Xtimeline.com, a Web site that has allowed the class to collectively build a timeline that represents Dylan’s life and career. Each student is required to examine one of Dylan’s albums and its parallel historic events by uploading text, photos, and video into the timeline. Students then use the timeline to give a presentation to the rest of the class as a way to stimulate conversation.
Graves said some of the presentations show points in Dylan’s career where there is an obvious relationship between world events and what he was doing musically, while other times there was no correlation at all.
Additionally, students watch Martin Scorsese’s Dylan documentary No Direction Home, and Todd Haynes’ feature film I’m Not There, among other works. Required readings include Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews by Jonathan Cott, Chronicles, Vol. 1, Dylan’s autobiography, and The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, edited by Kevin J. H. Dettmar, who is scheduled to visit Trinity and speak to the class this month.
And obviously, there is lots of listening to music, too.
Many of the students, Professor Graves said, are not initially prepared for the simplicity of Dylan’s early work – the single voice and single guitar – since a lot of today’s music is produced with complex techniques. Despite this, students become fans, many later stating that The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, one of Dylan’s earliest and most minimalist albums, was their favorite.
“I wasn’t sure exactly what I would be learning. I thought maybe it would be about Bob Dylan and all of his music,” said student Laura Fraser, a guitar player whose dad was a Dylan fan. “But what surprised me was learning about the actual times that he was living in and everything that was going on. It gives you more of a perspective on where he was coming from and why he did what he did,” said Ms. Fraser.