Students will Skype with rockers from Nirvana and The Byrds in music history class
By Samantha Bambino
Rock and roll is here to stay at Delaware Valley University … at least for adjunct professor Stephen Tow’s class. As the spring semester kicked off on Monday, Jan. 22, students across campus were given the dreaded syllabi detailing every assignment they’ll be completing in the coming months. But Tow’s syllabus was different.
Instead of outlining essays and projects, it listed legendary musicians the class will be Skyping with throughout the term. From Nirvana to The Byrds, the lucky millenials who signed up for “Critical Issues in American History (LA 4116)” will get a firsthand glimpse into the world of rock and roll straight from the mouths of the genre’s biggest influences.
Tow, an adjunct professor since 1999, tested the idea of a rock and roll class last spring with a one-credit honors elective focusing on classic rock in the mid-’60s. After much success and positive feedback, he wanted to offer something this year for the whole student body.
“Critical Issues in American History” is a three-credit elective that covers the entire history of rock and roll, beginning in the ’20s with pre-war delta blues and ending with the early ‘90s.
“That was the last time rock and roll really mattered on a cultural level,” he said.
Though a large portion of Tow’s time at Delaware Valley University has been spent teaching various areas of non-musical American history, rock and roll has always been one of his biggest passions outside of the classroom.
“I’m a huge music geek,” he said.
In 2011, Tow wrote the book The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge, an in-depth look at the Seattle grunge music scene. Throughout his years as a music writer, he made a number of influential connections, which he realized he could utilize to enhance the student experience and unite his two loves of music and teaching.
For his first music history elective taught last spring, Tow locked in several key players of the rock and roll genre to Skype with his students. These included Dave Davis from The Kinks and Steve Howe of Yes, who unexpectedly pulled out his guitar and played for the class.
“We got a private show,” Tow reflected. “It was great.”
While not every musician performs a mini concert, each one talks about their career and chats with students about anything they’re curious to know. For senior Emma Conard, who took Tow’s classic rock course last year, it was an honor to speak to some of her biggest musical influences.
“It’s humbling to see them as people, not idols,” Conard said. “To actually have them answer your direct questions has been so eye-opening to who they are as people and where the music has come from.”
Whether a student is familiar with rock and roll, like Conard, or just looking to learn something new, Tow promises they’ll enjoy an even bigger lineup this semester. Artists slated to appear via Skype include Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Chad Channing of Nirvana, Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, Terry Marshall of Marshall Amplification, Judy Dyble of Fairport Convention, Lenny Kaye of Patti Smith Group, Rob Morgan of Squirrels, Kevin Whitworth of Love Battery and Roger Stevens of Blind Melon.
Tow understands these Skype sessions will be an exciting highlight of the class, but he doesn’t want these to be the only reason students get out of bed to attend. On the first day, he had a “down to earth moment” where he outlined his expectations. While a low focus is placed on tests and exams, students are required to write about and actively discuss the songs covered. They should also be respectful of the artists, who aren’t getting paid for their time.
“Don’t text when Jethro Tull is talking,” he said.
But Tow doesn’t think he’ll need to worry about that. Though his students are young, it never fails to amaze him when they come to class sporting T-shirts of The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. And when he says music was better back in the day, they actually agree with him.
His single hope for this elective is that it continues to enlighten students beyond the semester, opening their eyes to artists and genres they never knew existed.
“If this class sets them on a journey of exploring music, it will have accomplished its objective,” he said. ••
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org