Pomona College Magazine
Volume 45, No. 2
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English / Professor Kevin Dettmar
When James Joyce Meets Bob Dylan

By Adam Conner-Simons ’08

Newly hired English Professor and department chair Kevin Dettmar is busy editing the Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, one of the series’ first excursions into pop-culture analysis. Dettmar, though, is a veteran of voyaging beyond disciplinary boundaries and smack dab into rock ‘n’ roll.

At Pomona this year, Dettmar is teaching courses on James Joyce and Anglo-Irish literature, as well as a freshman seminar called Flashpoints in Rock History that will analyze controversial pop music moments. “Why did people get pissed off at Dylan when he went electric? What did he do to violate their expectations?” Dettmar asks. “We often learn most about the values of rock when its taboos are violated.”

The manner in which Dettmar infuses his classes with music is, he hopes, interesting but also organic. “I would hate it if it seemed calculated,” says Dettmar, who has previously taught at Clemson University and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. “You don’t want students to think, ‘Look, here’s this 50-year-old guy trying to be cool.’ You have to realize that your examples are already dated and be willing to have students offer their own examples, too.”

Dettmar has written extensively about rock within and outside of the realm of academia. In addition to contributing regularly to the music section of The Chronicle Review, he also explored the cultural logic behind the question “Is rock dead?” in his 2005 book of the same name. “It seems like there is a whole generation of rock writers who say that music used to be interesting and important when they were teen-agers, and now it’s dead,” says Dettmar, who recently became editor of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. “But that’s pretty suspicious, since people have been saying it for 50 years.”

Even as he explores popular music, Dettmar remains firmly anchored in his chosen field. He is editing a book series on modernism with Vanderbilt University English Professor Mark Wollaeger that published its first two volumes in November.

And the music-literature influence goes in both directions. Case in point: On the first page of Is Rock Dead?, Dettmar makes mention of several literary giants, including James Joyce.

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