Teaching Dylan at Tennyson's Expense?

A recent conference on the songwriter has spurred debate over pop culture's place in academia.

Bob Dylan has made a career out of irritating the establishment, and he's done it again.

While the man himself wasn't here on Jan. 17, a conference at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., honoring and examining the his work exposed a fault line in academia - just as his biting lyrics have laid bare personal and social conflict since he began recording music in the 1960s.

The first-of-its-kind gathering at an American university ran the works of the legendary songwriter through the kind of intellectual rigors long reserved for Shakespeare and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. And it's precisely the act of putting Mr. Dylan in such company that drives many in academia crazy.

From the 300 college courses on Elvis's role in society to the establishment of a pop-culture department at Bowling Green University in Ohio, many academics see mounting evidence that today's fads are spreading as a subject of study on the university campus. While proponents argue that popularity and timeliness should not exclude a work from closer study, critics say that the established, more traditional curriculum is losing out. And it's a battle that's intensifying as a new generation of professors and administrators take the reins of the nation's academic institutions.

"As much as I enjoy Bob Dylan, he doesn't warrant serious academic study," says Ron Rebholz, a professor of English at Stanford. "I think he's part of a general trend toward more pop culture at this university."

Others go even further. "This trend toward Elvis and Dylan classes and conferences has to be seen as part of a context of disparagement of higher culture," says John Ellis, secretary of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics and author of the 1997 book "Literature Lost."

What is pop culture?

Defining pop culture is clearly part of the problem. According to Charles M. Brown, who teaches a course on pop culture in society at Southern Illinois University, "It's typically those objects produced for mass consumption - music, art, clothing. I see it as a way to understand ourselves," he says. "And don't forget that anything we consider high culture was once pop culture."

Indeed, many here saw the Saturday conference, which brought more than 400 mostly 40-somethings of graying ponytails and jeans people to Stanford, as a way to give Dylan's insights the recognition and thought they deserve.

"I hope he becomes part of the academic canon," says Tino Markworth, a Stanford doctoral student who worked with Rehm on the class and conference. "Pop culture? That's the Spice Girls and rap music. That's not what this is about. We've focused on him [Dylan] as an artist and he's worthy of serious investigation."

Even critics concede pop culture can be worthy of sociological study, as a phenomenon in and of itself. But the notion of elevating its pieces as worthy of study alongside the classics of literature or music or drama is another matter. "It's very difficult to decide when you're right on top of these trends how they will stand the test of time," says Mr. Rebholz.

The debate over why this is now coming to the fore is also deeply divided. To many critics, this is just a ripple from a deeper generational disturbance. "The cultural revolution was serious, starting in the 1960s. In the old days, there was a kind of assumed order and hierarchy and at least lip service to quality. These folks, who grew up in the 1960s, have taken charge now and anything goes. How else can you explain Shakespeare not being required for a degree in English Lit?" says Stanford emeritus professor Robert Cohn.

To supporters, however, it's more of a political issue. "This battle is going on nationally and it's part of the culture wars. It's a backlash by right-wing conservatives against diversity and nontraditional subject matter," counters Douglas Noverr, president of the Pop Culture Association and a professor at Michigan State

Regardless of the reasons, many regard Dylan as an artist whose work deserves legitimate study. In fact, the conference's lead speaker came to admire Dylan rather late in his career, instead concentrating his time at Oxford, UC Berkeley, and Boston University on the traditional heavyweights of English literature. "I was snobbish and foolish and learned to like him later than I should have," says Mr. Ricks.

He paid homage to Dylan's lyrics as extraordinarily well-crafted poetry that often uses rhyming changes to signal audibly the stage of a song and when it's about to end, something much easier to do with poetry that is read and seen.

Dylan's work

Dylan has spent much of his career distancing himself from his popular persona. His songs often depict a lonesome hero outside the law and at odds with the establishment. But the hero is honest and noble, frequently answering to a higher law. And though there was a time when politically charged college campuses echoed with Dylan lyrics, the artist himself has shown a certain anti-academic strain and on several occasions vigorously denied being a political activist.

Though the speakers and panelists spent most of the day offering learned observations about Dylan's politics, religion, and recording styles, many interspersed their comments with sound and video clips.

Heads bobbed, eyes closed, and smiles spread. The pop-culture debate aside, it seemed many found the study of Dylan an intellectual cover for a primarily emotional attachment.

As one follower in green flannel and shoulder-length hair noted to some of the loudest applause of the day: "It's impossible to study this man without rock and roll in your soul."

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