Hometown U: What's a class on Bob Dylan doing in Honors College? Ask Mike McCormick

Hometown UNovember 17, 2012 

Maybe you know Mike McCormick from his enthusiastic welcomes for Whistling Swan artists at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts or the Snow Goose.

Or maybe he was the principal at your kids' elementary school, or taught your fifth-grader.

But most people probably don't know that nowadays McCormick works at the University of Alaska Anchorage. All those musicians, comedians and writers who walk across the stage at the Wendy Williamson? That's UAA's Student Life and Leadership in action, where Mike is an adviser. He knows a thing or two about that line of work.

This semester, he's sharing his musical background in a course devoted to Bob Dylan, based on the National Book Award-winning autobiography, "Chronicles," and, of course, more than a half-century of music and lyrics.

Here's an incongruous moment: Sitting in a classroom in the buttoned-down business college and hearing "Like a Rolling Stone" cascade in waves from the ceiling speakers.

"Now, what do you think that song's about?" McCormick starts off, teasing some analysis from his 11 students.

Dylan got top billing this semester, but the course is a humanities class offered through the Honors College, each time built around "an enduring book." An astronomer taught Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time." A biologist taught Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring." Next semester, an engineer will teach Tracy Kidder's "The Soul of a New Machine."

For the most part, freshmen and sophomores take the class. The strategy is to introduce a compelling topic, deeply loved by the instructor, through which students practice writing and critical thinking skills. A passionate teacher brings the material to life. Their intensity is meant to ignite a connection to the transformative power, and even comfort, found in arts and humanities.

So how does that happen in a Bob Dylan class?

Their midterm assignment offered a clue. McCormick had them imagine that Dylan had died in a motorcycle accident in 1966. They were to compose a set list for his memorial concert. For the encore, they needed to select a Dylan tune that had personal meaning to them, and explain why.

One student chose "The Ballad of Hollis Brown," a song about a South Dakota farmer overwhelmed by poverty who kills himself and his wife and children. That song reminded the student of his immigrant mother and the struggles she'd gone through. "I could never bring that to that song," McCormick says. "Their connections are very personal."

Another wrote that he has a hard time coping with change. As his mantra, he chose "The Times, They are A-Changin.' "

Much of the class is spent listening to songs, dissecting lyrics and discussing what was happening in Dylan's life when he wrote them. After "You're a Big Girl Now" from "Blood on the Tracks," McCormick shares a favorite: "With a pain that stops and starts, like a corkscrew to the heart."

In front of him, a student's eyes widen. "He got it," McCormick said later. "Oh, man . . . you hope you never feel that bad. But you do. Some of them have. And most of them will."

That student was Jonathan Heynen, a music major. Heynen is just getting launched after ticking off a few years as a high school dropout in Juneau, finally getting his GED, and then nearly blowing it again at UAA.

But a few semesters ago he decided to grow up. Music was the only thing that mattered to him so he buckled down, earning a 4.0.

The Honors College called. "You must have the wrong guy," he told them. But they weren't kidding. And when the adviser offered an array of classes that ran the gamut from global environmental issues to Bob Dylan, Heynen didn't hesitate.

That's not unlike McCormick's own story, at least in the way music pulled him through young adulthood. He grew up in working-class Haverhill, Mass., his mom a bartender and his dad a coal-shoveling janitor. Both had only eighth-grade educations; both were alcoholics. He says they were hard-working and loving but "I needed a refuge."

That became music, loved and explored from The Cave, a room he built in the basement to share music with friends, where he released a weekly Top 10 and started a music magazine. Liner notes were his Blue Highway to the world. He earned money for a Woodstock ticket at his cooking job but never got the time off to go.

That penetrating passion has been a lifetime soulmate. It gave birth to the Whistling Swan concert series, and it informs his Dylan class.

"If it's valuable at all, when I meet these people in 30 years," he says, "they'll still be carrying a bit of Dylan in them."

The artist may change but the lesson will remain: "They see the potential of what art can be in their lives. Now they know -- stay open to it, reach for it."

 

Kathleen McCoy is an electronic media specialist at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.

 

 

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