Dreamin’ of Bob Dylan

While riding on a train goin’ west
I fell asleep for to take my rest
I dreamed a dream that made me sad
Concerning myself and the first few things I had

All right. 

It was actually a bus. 

To Choate.

With the Andover swimming and diving team.

January 2011.

I was, though, in the hypnagogic moment.

And I was listening to Bob Dylan.  


In that space between wakefulness and slumber, I realized time was approaching the 50th anniversary of Dylan’s recording his first album, and I knew immediately a course on Dylan needed to be offered. 

The disembodiment of the passive voice captures my attitude:  a course on Dylan needed to be offered.  By whom?  Who other than Christopher Ricks or Richard Thomas could teach a class on Dylan?  Perhaps I could come up with a week or two of stuff but an entire term?  Somewhere between the exits for Connecticut Routes 15 and 68—and in the midst of listening to “Desolation Row” from Bootleg, volume 7— though, I discovered the idea:  collaboration.  After affirming my instincts with Chris Jones, Instructor in History, I wrote the faculty soliciting their support, and by September, we were running the course. 

In the months between idea and implementation emerged a course structure in which individual teachers would each claim one of the weekly two-hour course sessions and in which they would be responsible for their session alone and the onus of placing different sessions together would fall on the students.  To me, the structure cut to the heart of progressive pedagogy:  giving students great, complicated material in which to immerse themselves as well as the time and space to discover their own interests and ideas.  Because each teacher needed to be available to offer a session of the same course, we would meet in the evenings, which would give students much greater flexibility during the traditional academic day—and would have the students in the classroom when they would be most alert.

On 14 September 2011, I began the Dylan course with a session, “You Who Philosophize:  Masks, Pawns, and the Artist.”  Prior to the session, students had read Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home, screened Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, and listened to Dylan’s first studio album, a few live shows, and a few songs.  I framed this first session as an introduction to the philosophy of art.  We used “Girl from the North Country” to talk about Expressionism, the expression and reception of emotion.  We used “Song to Woody” and “My Back Pages” to talk about the biographical approach to understanding art—as well as the complicated nature of the Dylan persona.  We used “Only A Pawn In Their Game” and “Who Killed Davey Moore?” to talk about the historical approach.  We also talked about Formalism, and we used Ed Bradley’s 60 Minutes interview of Dylan to talk about Kant’s notions of genius.  This two-hour session soon became an entire course, “When I Paint My Masterpiece:  the Philosophy of Art,” that I offered for several years and has since morphed into a survey of Critical Theory.

The next week, Vuywelwa Maqubela, who was actively engaged in the struggle for freedom in South Africa, helped the students explore connections between African protest music and Dylan’s early folk work.  Next up, Chris Jones used his own academic studies and family experience to talk about the night Dylan went electric at the Newport Music Festival in 1965.  In  the following two sessions, four members of the English Department—Kevin O’Connor, Lewis Robinson, Nina Scott, Paul Tortorella—walked through Blood on the Tracks

On 19 October, Christoper Ricks, perhaps the most important critic of poetry during the last 50 years and author of Dylan’s Visions of Sin, came to Andover and taught the course.  Professor Ricks led an extraordinary session, “The Color of His Skin, or Don’t Forget that You are White,” which connected the varied versions of “Black Cross” and “No More Auction Block” with Laurence Olivier’s dreadful black-faced depiction in Othello in order to think about Dylan’s voice and his adoption of different racialized personas. 


Two weeks later, Richard Thomas, a professor of Classics at Harvard and author of Why Dylan Matters, offered “Dylan and His Masks” and screened the extraordinary music video, “Must Be Santa.”  In other sessions, John Bird brought in The Minute Men; Tom Kane used Jay-Z and Andy Warhol to “decode” Dylan; and Jerry Hagler examined the role of biology in the creation of charisma and sexual attraction to rock stars. 

Although the students and the topic–Dylan would win the Nobel Prize five years later–made for an extraordinary teaching and learning experience, it was clear from the Dylan course that we had stumbled on a great course structure.

For students:  ownership over their learning with little hand-holding; intense, lengthy class sessions; adapting to different teachers, pedagogies, and methodologies each week; and freedom during the academic day to read, to listen, and to ponder.

For teachers:  observing other teachers teach and to collaborate around a shared, robust topic and purpose; engaging intellectually in something, usually, outside one’s comfort zone; and doing the hardest teaching on campus, one lengthy session with kids you do not know who likely know more about the overall course than you do.

For Andover:  creating the opportunity to spark substantive, collaborative, interdisciplinary teaching and learning within a sustainable workload model.

For everyone, because it is such a collaborative model, there is benefit in our being able to adapt to changing events and develop substantive courses quickly.  On September 11, 2017, I had the idea of offering a course on hurricanes; we began teaching the course at the end of November.  On January 16, 2018, Tom Kane confirmed the need for a course on Martin Luther King, Jr., and we offered it starting at the end of March.

To better ensure the long-term viability of this type of course, we named it in honor of William Sloane Coffin ’42, and since 2011, we have offered an additional eight colloquia

If you have any interest in learning more about this course model, or if you would like to lead a colloquia yourself, please be in touch.


David Fox


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