Thursday, August 24, 2006

Life Lessons

Through the magic of TiVo on Monday night I watched the second part of Martin Scorcese’s documentary, No Direction Home, about the early years of Bob Dylan as a songwriter and performer. I had caught the tail end of the first part the week before on one of the PBS stations we get on the Dish Network. There the American Masters series airs on Sunday night, but I saw something else last night on American Masters about Elia Kazan (less compelling to me) so since I don’t regularly watch this am a bit confused about their scheduling.

Dylan had not been a hero figure for me till I watched this film. As an undergrad I had a few of his albums on audio cassette – Highway 61 Revisited, Blond on Blond, maybe a couple of more that I copied from a housemate, and I know I bought Blood on the Tracks on vinyl, because I still have the record. A few years later while in graduate school I got to see him perform at Chicago Stadium and my vague recollection of the experience was that it was extremely loud and kind of grating on the nerves. As an undergrad I had seen Jerry Garcia perform with Merle Saunders somewhere in Rochester and I remember feeling that we had experienced “total volume” so that the loud part was not new per se, but the grating on the nerves part was new. And it was not really welcome. I suppose the reaction of some of the fans at the Newport Festival in 1965 captured in the film was similar, but this was more than 10 years later so I don’t believe there was any sense of betrayal, just a feeling that it wasn’t very good --- around that time I had also seen the Rolling Stones at Soldier Field and that was awesome. It was Dylan’s performance that was at issue, not Rock and Roll.

There were other occasional reminders of Dylan and his music after I came to Illinois; he was in the film of the Concert for Bangladesh and has a segment in The Last Waltz. I would occasionally find refuge in listening to my old tapes when alone in my apartment, something of an antidote to Devo, Blondie, The Talking Heads, etc. And then once in a while Dylan would come up in other contexts. When I first started to date my wife, she regularly did her impression of Dylan --- not bad.

This Scorcese movie kindled something in me. I know I had a rather intense dream Monday night about being with Dylan and talking to him. The last couple of days I’ve been scratching my head about writing a short story with that theme. I don’t write short stories; I write blog posts, so this would be a stretch and it probably wouldn’t be very good. But maybe I’ll try it anyway and in the meantime try to bring out some of those things that make Dylan such a compelling character to me.

He wrote his songs and he performed them, separate activities to be sure but each fed off the other. At the beginning he performed the works of others and every time you see or read about Dylan you’ll get a tie to Woody Guthrie. Indeed as the film makes clear he was influenced by much of the American folk music tradition and it had a big impact on his Art. His discussion about Pete Seeger and Seeger’s reaction to the performance at the Montrose festival is telling on this point. In browsing the Columbia Records Web site on Dylan, they have an alphabetical listing of his songs with links to lyrics and audio clips, I was surprised to discover that he had recorded Blue Moon, a standard written in the 1930’s by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart. I believe Dylan feels a genuine connection to a great array of different types of music and much of that has had a profound influence on him.

Of course, Dylan grew in his own style of delivering the music and then his writing of songs that helped accentuate his style – raspy and rhythmic yet with seemingly odd phrasing that helped to convey his meaning in a way quite differently from how others had expressed such ideas. The footage of interviews with Allen Ginsberg make it clear just how new Dylan’s writing was and how he had leapfrogged ahead of the poets and songwriters that were his own inspiration, but then as he succeeded more and more of what he wrote came from inside himself.

In letting his inner voice speak he ended up speaking for millions of others. The talent of great artists, as I’m increasingly learning to appreciate, is that giving air to the inner voice and the idiosyncrasies within creates such broad appeal because the message is universal and the idiosyncrasies show the message is being delivered with a genuine passion. So in speaking for himself Dylan ended up speaking for his generation, but as shown quite clearly in some rather awkward interviews with the press, Dylan strongly resisted being classified as a spokesman, a prophet, a leader, or a politician. He was quite convinced he was doing something at a higher level and part of the resistance was evidently so he would not be brought down to a more pedestrian place just to make others comfortable about his motives.

With this and with Dylan’s expressed need to keep trying new things and not to stay pat – the move from acoustic to electronic music is but one example of this – and his insistence on staying the course and not caving in on his principles are the essence of his heroism. And since his principles seem so much in line with what many edu bloggers are arguing for these days, I would think this film would resonate with them and show indeed that their own ideas are not at all transient but rather more enduring and that their aim is in some sense to see the spirit emblemized by Dylan take root in all of us.

* * * * *

My older son, who started High School this week will turn 14 at the end of the month. There has been banter between him and his younger brother about taking Driver’s Ed, which in Illinois can be done once a kid is 15. (The drinking age has been raised to 21, why not the driving age?) So it is beginning to dawn on me that although the old man has not been directly involved with his schoolwork and other activities, he may begin to ask serious questions about when to respect authority and when to ignore it, when to find his own truth and when to accept the wisdom of others, when to stick to one’s principles like Dylan and when to avoid fighting battles that there is no chance of winning. If he does ask, I’d like to engage him and not blow him off.

The driving thing raises these questions immediately, because just about everyone speeds and he can’t fail to notice that. We have three Interstates that go by Champaign-Urbana and in traveling almost anywhere outside of town it is likely to take one of those. So it’s an unmistakable lesson that breaking the law is a normal adult thing to do. Every teenager at this point must get the lesson that ethical behavior and obeying the law are not one and the same but rather two separate things. That there is overlap is easy to communicate. Defining where that overlap occurs is much harder.

I want my son to find a strong ethical sense in himself. All the adults I know whom I respect have that. I think it’s really important to develop, but I’m unsure how it is learned. My son is a well behaved kid now but I suspect he’ll hit a wall in a couple of years, as I did, about figuring out the underlying motives for his behavior, especially when getting good grades starts losing its primacy as a motivation and the need for learning appears more fundamental. In expecting that realization to occur, I don’t want him to think of me as the voice of the other side, for arbitrary authority, rules because there are rules rather than because the rules make sense to address some more basic need. I’d like him to think of me as thoughtful on these issues and in turn I hope he too becomes thoughtful about them.

And because these questions are beginning to emerge in me, I’m asking myself whether what I profess at work is consistent with this view of being a parent to a young adult child and in particular as a campus administrator whether the rules and regulations that we pass onto our students at the University of Illinois and which I’m obliged to embrace are those that I would want my own kid to obey if he were a student here.

Of course too much of this sort of thing can make you neurotic, but I think some of this is healthy to examine one’s own beliefs. Here is one example for me. Music and video file sharing are a hot issue now and one that I find vexing, without simple answers, and I’m somewhat dismayed by others who are proffering them. Part of the reason for including the first part of this post on Dylan with this second part was to show that while I was no bootlegger of illegal music, neither was I a purist on making copies when I was a student. Rather I lived in that gray zone that so many others occupied, drivers on the metaphorical highway who go faster than the speed limit but not so fast as to get a ticket.

Nowadays, I make copies of all sorts of content online (though mostly images and documents) and redistribute primarily via email, where I believe I can make a quite credible case for Fair Use since I literally do live my job – promoting learning technology – and my purpose is almost certainly educational (as well as the other factors for a fair use case such as the impact on the market being negligible). So I found it disturbing yesterday when I learned that Educause was promoting this site, in support of an RIAA sponsored video about illegal file sharing. The video doesn’t mention Fair Use. Nor does it mention content produced by instructors that is intended to be free for their students to download, nor other content produced by students themselves aimed at their fellow students, nor content that is freely available by podcast, etc.

And that the video itself has Graham Spanier, President of Penn State, featured in it is also disappointing, because that gives credibility to what is an overly simplistic message. The message doesn’t encourage students to think about the issues and modify their behavior because of the thinking. It encourages them to conform to the message out of fear that they might get sued for copyright violation. It is an argument about avoiding punishment, not about the sensibility of obeying the law.

Perhaps with this post I’ll end up at odds with the higher ups in administration from my own campus on this one. But to be clear I’m not denying that illegal file sharing is a problem. Instead, I’m trying to affirm that our students must be educated as adults with messages that appeal to their own sensibility, skepticism, and general distrust of authority. And in doing my little bit, I’m giving modest effort to follow Dylan in sticking to our own principles as we define them.

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