Last semester, Miles Erdman, an English major at the University of Minnesota, studied the British romantic poets, explicating the classic poetry of Wordsworth and Keats.
This summer, the native of Albert Lea, Minn., will do his analysis through his earbuds.
He’s enrolled in “The Literary Bob Dylan,” an upper-level English class that the university is offering for the first time.
Although Erdman, 22, considers himself “a huge music nerd,” he only knows Dylan as the songwriter of hits covered by Adele (“Make You Feel My Love”) and Guns N’ Roses (“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”).
“I can’t say I’m familiar with him,” he admitted. “When he won the Nobel Prize [for literature], I thought, ‘I need to learn about him’ and I figure this is a good way to do it.”
Apparently. Dylan’s name can now be added to the towering group of philosophers, scientists, writers and theologians that millennial college students don’t know much about.
On the first day of class, instructor Katelin Krieg asked her 27 students to introduce themselves by sharing a memory or moving encounter with the music of the former Robert Zimmerman.
While half the students had tales of Dylan-loving dads, tuneful road trips and front-row concert seats, Krieg was startled to discover that fully half of the class drew a blank.
“What genre would you say Bob Dylan is?” one student asked. “Is it exclusively folk?”
For Krieg, who grew up singing along with Dylan’s distinctive whine-and-growl ramblings, it was “hard to imagine that a giant of American culture like Dylan is someone you’ve never even heard of in passing.”
She obviously had her work cut out for her.
To make the man known as Voice of a Generation relatable to a new generation, Krieg took her students on an eight-stop walking tour of Dinkytown, pointing out the sites of long-gone bookstores and coffeehouses where legend has it that Dylan sang, hung out or hung his hat.
Dylan was 19 when he came to the campus in 1959 from his hometown of Hibbing, Minn. Although he was enrolled at the university, he ditched most of his classes and hitchhiked to the East Coast a year and a half after arriving in Minneapolis.
“The U can’t quite claim him, but Dinkytown legitimately can,” Krieg told the class outside the Loring Pasta Bar. Dylan rented a second-story room overlooking an alley when the building was a drugstore.
Now entering her seventh year as a graduate student at the U, Krieg has taught a variety of English classes, from Beowulf to modern poetry. She’s close to completing her dissertation, which explores the intersection of Victorian literature and science, using the works of art critic John Ruskin, poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Charles Darwin.
“But I’ve been a fan of Dylan for a lot longer than I’ve been a fan of Victorian literature,” she said.
Born in 1988, the year Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Krieg remembers the singer-songwriter as the background soundtrack to her Michigan childhood, thanks to her parents’ record collection. Dylan’s music moved into the foreground when Krieg was in high school and picked up her own CD of “Highway 61 Revisited.”
“That’s when I got it,” she said. “I could hear what he was doing.”
During this summer’s class, Krieg’s students will contextualize Dylan’s political and historical influences and read from writers who shaped him, including Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac. They’ll also study his 2004 memoir, “Chronicles,” and pore over his liner notes. Assignments include writing papers that explore the literary devices embedded in his lyrics and debating the divide between lyrics and poetry.
“Dylan is worth analyzing, playful with his language and with a depth that you can get your critical claws in,” Krieg said.
Worth scholarly scrutiny
Two years ago, Krieg pitched a Dylan course for the U’s May session, the shortened term wedged between spring semester and summer classes. Her idea gained traction when Dylan earned his Nobel Prize earlier last year.
The process of getting a new course in the U’s catalog is both lengthy and arduous, requiring various reviews and syllabus approval by curriculum committees, by the department, college and the university at large.
“The title of this course, ‘The Literary Bob Dylan,’ shows where the focus is. It tells the students upfront that this is not just listening to music, it’s about careful and close reading,” said Nanette Hanks, the university’s assistant dean for curriculum, who convenes the course review committees for the College of Liberal Arts.
But Hanks concedes that the Dylan course was also designed to get students fired up.
“Pop culture is a legitimate area of academic inquiry, but we never forget that we are marketing to an audience of young adults,” she said. “We have to make courses catch their attention so they will become engaged with the material and exposed to the academic research.”
This is not the first time the U has given its students a chance to study Dylan, but previous courses devoted to his work were offered through the School of Music or as a freshman seminar.
Dylan may be new to the U’s syllabus, but his work has long been the subject of scholarly scrutiny.
For decades, courses studying aspects of his work have regularly been offered through the American Studies department at Princeton, the English department at Dartmouth College and Penn State, the classics department at Harvard and the music department at the University of Indiana and at Carleton College. This past May, the International Conference on Bob Dylan, an academic gathering, convened in Lisbon, Portugal.
At 76, Dylan is old enough to be a grandparent to the millennials taking the class about him.
A notable exception is student Doug Chapel. Since retiring a year and a half ago from his job as a tax collector for the state, Chapel, 66, has audited five classes at the U. He’s mostly taken English classes to revive his love of literature, and he leaped at the chance to dig deep into Dylan.
“When I was a teenager, ‘The Times, They Are A-Changin’ album changed my life. It turned me into a hippie,” he said. “I’m hoping this class will open the music up in a new way.”
Krieg thinks her Dylan course could have a similar impact on some students in her class, turning them into fans of Dylan’s work.
“The more I listen, the more I appreciate him. It’s beyond fandom, it’s his artistry,” she said. “I want to see that happen in class.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.