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UMass teaching history through the prism of the Grateful Dead

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A 'Mindbender' class

UMass teaching history through the prism of the Grateful Dead

By Peter Schworm, Globe Staff | October 19, 2007

AMHERST - Students shuffle into the morning history class to a dreamlike drone, a fog of fuzzy guitars, and sleepy harmonies. It's a wistful, faraway sound, a lingering echo from a distant time.

In this University of Massachusetts-Amherst course, the '60s never died, burned out, or faded away, and the Grateful Dead is alive and trucking. The students were born two decades after the legendary band sprung from the San Francisco rock scene, but many know every riff and every word to the group's classic tune "Dark Star," which kicked off a recent lecture.

Welcome to History 297D, otherwise known as "How Does the Song Go? The Grateful Dead as a Window into American Culture," which was launched this fall. Believed to be the only college course in the country dedicated to the Dead, the class analyzes the popular band, the avatar of hippie counterculture, and its famously loyal fans as a springboard to a deeper look at American society and politics during the group's 30-year run.

The class, a similarly themed graduate seminar, and a first-of-its kind symposium on the band next month at UMass have vaulted the school to the forefront of Grateful Dead study, placing Amherst, not Haight-Ashbury, at the center of the group's hazy, happy universe. Heading up the effort: a former professor who was the group's longtime publicist, and a historian, Robert Weir, who serendipitously shares his name with the Dead's former rhythm guitarist.

A renegade group known for romanticizing drug use might seem an unwelcome guest in the ivory tower. But university officials and symposium organizers say Dead Studies is a vibrant, multifaceted field worthy of scholarly treatment.

"We're trying to explain the cultural style and mindset around a rock 'n' roll jam band that lingers 45 years after they played at Ken Kesey's acid tests, and 12 years after they ceased to exist," said Wesley Blixt, a symposium organizer. "These are not wild-eyed academic revolutionaries; these are serious, traditional scholars."

Each undergraduate class opens with a Dead classic, and snippets of other songs are played throughout the hourlong lectures. The course, which has 110 students, treats the music as a cultural touchstone connecting the Beat poets, the Civil Rights Movement, the antiwar movement, the war on drugs, and the legacy of the '60s.

"The band ties it all together," Lia Momtsios, a sophomore from Framingham, said after a recent class on the topic "Bearing Up: Drugs and Minds Expanded and Blown."

The class syllabus warns that the course is neither a tribute to the band nor "pop culture apologia," and weekly readings include excerpts from a history of the United States since World War II and speeches and magazine articles from the times. As part of a lecture on "Baby Boomers and Questioning the American Dream," for example, supplemental reading includes President Kennedy's inaugural address and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. During study of the 1980s, students read President Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech.

The course consists of two lectures per week and a weekly discussion seminar. Students are required to write three papers as well as a reportorial essay on the symposium, reviews of online chats with Dead scholars, and short reflections on the weekly seminars. The three papers make up most of their grade.

The class was the brainchild of a group of faculty and administrators, including John Mullin, the dean of the UMass-Amherst Graduate School. Realizing that the band's former publicist, Dennis McNally, was a UMass-Amherst graduate, Mullin was struck by a bolt of inspiration that, as the Dead once sang, would "light the song with sense and color."

"I thought, this is something we can build on," he said. Worried that critics would deride the course as a subject unfit for college-level work, Mullin set out to prove them wrong.

"Part of our job is packaging knowledge in a new and vibrant way, but this has roots in the academy," he said.

Still, the Dead is an outsider to the academic canon, and some say the class is contributing to the pervasive dumbing down of higher education. Other colleges have held classes on Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and hip-hop artists.

"Courses like this are symptomatic of the consumerist pandering in 21st-century high education," said Stephen Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars.

Students say critics fail to grasp the band's importance and legacy.

"They don't understand," said Kate O'Connor, a junior from Worcester who, with a nose ring and hair falling in her eyes, had a '60s air about her. "A lot of students say, 'How can that be a class?' But the Grateful Dead influenced an entire generation."

Like many students in the class, O'Connor, who first heard the band's landmark album "American Beauty" while baby-sitting as an 11-year-old, loves not only the Dead's music but also what she believes it stands for: a peaceful, utopian spirit that unites and elevates.

If that sentiment sounds like a '60s throwback, it is because many of the students have embraced the era's freewheeling idealism through its music, fashion, and political activism. Many are nostalgic for a decade they never experienced and wish they hadn't been born too late to see the band play live. (The Grateful Dead stopped performing after the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995).

Compared with a traditional college class, "It's so much more real," said Jen Astrella, a junior from Auburn. "You tell people you're a history major, they ask if you're going to law school. But when people hear about this class, they can't believe it."

Weir said there is little doubt the students walk into class with their eyes, and their minds, wide open.

"Lord, yes," he said. "You can say what you want about the appropriateness of teaching the Grateful Dead at the college level, but it has drawn a lot of interest. You have to remember, they are 18, 19 years old. You have to take them where they are, then take them somewhere else."

Larry Owens, a history professor and the previous director of the graduate program in history, said the class has generated minimal skepticism within the department, although some professors are withholding judgment until the symposium.

"It is really hard to get academics on board with anything," Owens said. "But the Dead has the marvelous virtue of generating widespread enthusiasm."

During the recent class, Weir traced the roots of psychedelia and discussed the pervasive influence of drugs while playing Jimi Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower." He noted how many '60s rock stars had died, and warned the students not to romanticize drug use.

"There was a destructive aspect to it, and we do history a disservice if we turn a blind eye to that," Weir said. "There was some wreckage from the '60s."

Weir and the symposium organizers said bringing the band to academia has confirmed one of the band's most famous axioms.

"Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places," Blixt said, quoting lyrics from the band's "Scarlet Begonias." "If you look at it right."

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. For information on the Grateful Dead symposium at UMass-Amherst, go to www.umassconnections.com/


© Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company[/quote

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Those students are losing out on a real education as far as I am concerned. I am sure some kids from North Carolina (dont quote me on that) took a really cool course where they actually went to shows in the early nineties. In fact, didnt they do a mini-tour one year?

I believe the prof was a woman. Bless her soul. That's some learning.

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Here's what you're thinking of, I think -


There are some good pieces in there. I do like the idea, though, of being able to make an open-ended forum in a classroom around all the things that the Dead bring into play; Rebecca Adams' thing could only go so far, as she was the first to admit (but you're right - going on tour as part of your graduate studies?!).

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the woman prof. would be Rebecca Adams who i believe is one of the main speakers at this conference. she's VERY intelligent, i've heard her speak a few times on radio programs. i think she is the firt person to bring grateful dead culture into mainstream academia with a sociology course at uNC.

EDIT:oooops very slow on the response there. and his had visuals as well........

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My copy doesn't have the nifty dustcover, though :P .

Booche, I've got it, and would be happy to lend it to you, next time we cross paths. It's a good read, though there's not too much there that any curious and methodical deadhead wouldn't have put together for him/herself.

I'm still trying to find an article I once ran across in the journal for the Canadian Society for the Study of Religion on those guys in the red bus - the Messianic Jewish communalists who's pick up all those ultra-tripping folks out in the parking lots. It was a good piece, and I keep hoping against hope that I didn't lose my copy of it.

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I'm still trying to find an article I once ran across in the journal for the Canadian Society for the Study of Religion on those guys in the red bus - the Messianic Jewish communalists who's pick up all those ultra-tripping folks out in the parking lots. It was a good piece, and I keep hoping against hope that I didn't lose my copy of it.

the yoshuah (sp?) family i believe?

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Yes, those are the folks - I can't find a consistent spelling, since it's taken from the Hebrew, but "yeshua" seems to turn up the most google hits (none of which say very much). The full title is Y'shua HaMashiach, Yeshua (there's some inderminacy whether this means Jesus or Joshua) the Messiah.

But there's so much just in terms of religion to have seen at Dead shows - that Judeo-Christian tint (in the crowd, and in the songs themselves), the Islamic colouring in the spinners (picking up after the Sufi whirling dervishes), the expressions of Buddhism/Vendantic Hinduism.... It was a real religious melting pot. I've read that in general terms, the largest proportion of converts to Buddhism come from Judaism; I don't know if I would have quite understood that had it not been for the Dead experience (and all that came with it).

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sloppy punctuation
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[qoute=killatokes]the yoshuah (sp?) family i believe?

Those fuckers were seriously fucked out of their minds.

oh TOTALLY!!! I remember freezing to death on the streets of NYC on the NYE run '98 and they took me on their bus to warm up and drink some red tea (the blood of Yoshiyodashoe guy I presume). They talked my ear off about whatever personal Jesus they worship and that's when I made the decision to go hang out at K-Mart instead.

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