Monday, June 30, 2008

Professor spurs academic examination of Bob Dylan

By Courtney Westlake

College English classes typically focus on works by Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and other well-known artists and writers. But Bob Dylan?

Dr. Bill Carpenter, assistant professor of English at UIS, created a summer English course focused on the works and lyrics of Bob Dylan, called “Bob Dylan’s America,” that was first offered in the summer 2007 and is being offered again this summer as part of the ECCE requirements.

The class came about because, Carpenter said, he had an idea about putting Bob Dylan in the center of a study about American communities and looking in depth at the way in which Dylan interacted with different communities. He wanted to give students insight to a cultural icon they may not have “immediate access” to.

"This is a class I always wanted to teach," he said. "I always thought it'd be really fascinating to get people talking about Bob Dylan the same way we talk about T.S. Eliot or Dante or Shakespeare. Plus I'm a big Dylan fan and really curious about the effects he's had on American culture and the way in which American culture perceives him."

Carpenter, who created the first-year writing curriculum when he first came to UIS a couple of years ago, said he truly enjoys this unique course and the students it brings into his class.

“The students come from all over and have different levels of experience,” he said. “Some have never listened to him, but some are big fans, so it's nice to bring them all together and have those different ranges of knowledge work together.”

The course’s main focus is to study the connection between Dylan and groups such as civil rights activists, the folk revival, Evangelical Christians and the Millennial Generation. There are a couple of goals for the course as well, Carpenter said.

“I want to have the students work together to create kind of a community-based knowledge about Bob Dylan and American culture,” he said. “They have to work at finding resources and creating interpretations and sharing them with each other so they can talk about what they see happening in the works and in the history and the context.”

“And,” he added, “I'm also really trying to get them to see, and then ultimately go out and show other people, that you can take artists and works that aren't necessarily thought of as ‘classic’ or ‘high art’ but you can look at them as if you are intellectuals. You can deal with that work in very intellectual, critical, academic ways. So I'm trying to reinvent the literary canon in addition to just teaching them about someone I like to listen to.”

And not only is Carpenter encouraging the critical analysis of Dylan and his works, he is doing it in unique ways, namely through social media tools.

“I blew my students away the other day because I used the SmartBoard in the classroom,” he laughed.

One of his most recent classroom activities involved the use of laptops and the World Wide Web. His students found works of poetry on the Web and created their own versions with certain words or phrases hyperlinked to connect to other resources or Web pages. The final products were then posted to Blackboard.

“It’s all a way of demonstrating that web of knowledge we already exist in,” Carpenter said. “It’s also to show that none of these authors exist in a historical vacuum. They’re all part of a larger system of interactions and connections. So hyperlinks and social media really help materialize those kinds of relationships for them.”

Knowledge has everything to do with connection – how facts and ideas link up with other facts and ideas, Carpenter said. Teaching about Dylan in this way allows students to connect Dylan to other events, people and cultures in a critical way.

“We’re now dealing with a group of students for whom the world has never not been connected and linked,” Carpenter said. “Using social media is a way for knowledge to be created and disseminated. The Internet gives us a very interesting means to talk about community.”