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Rock Meets Postmodernism

New Professor of English and Department Chair Kevin Dettmar brings rock music to literary studies.

Classes about Ulysses usually don’t lend themselves to toe-tapping beats, but new English Professor Kevin Dettmar is ready to inject some rock ‘n’ roll into literature and English classes.

“A lot of the same types of dynamics involved in my training in literary studies apply to music,” says Kevin Dettmar, who is also the new chair of the English Department, and has previously taught a course at Clemson University on postmodernism in which he incorporated musicians like Brian Eno and John Cage (a former Pomona student). “I find that sometimes, in trying to talk about irony for instance, it’s easier to come up with cases in music than literature. The examples are quicker and more immediate.”

At Pomona this year, Dettmar will be teaching courses on James Joyce and Anglo-Irish literature, but also a freshman seminar called Flashpoints in Rock History that will analyze controversial pop music moments. “Why did people get pissed off at [Bob] Dylan when he went electric? What did he do to violate their expectations?” Dettmar asks. “We often learn more 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,” he says. “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.”

Interdisciplinary courses such as Flashpoints indicate an increasingly flexible approach to teaching English, which manifests itself at Pomona with the Department's new curriculum in which majors have only three of the 11 required courses dictated by the Department; with the other eight, students are free to design a major "path" that investigates a problem of their own choosing, such as poetry and poetics or American literature pedagogy. “The old model of studying centuries and nations is falling apart,” says Dettmar. “[The new curriculum] is great because it reflects the way the field is progressing.”

Dettmar has written extensively about rock outside of academics. In addition to contributing regularly to the music section of The Chronicle Review, he also explores the cultural logic behind the question of “Is rock dead?” in his 2006 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 teenagers, and now it's dead,” Dettmar says. “But that’s pretty suspicious, since people have been saying it for 50 years.”

More recently, Dettmar has also edited the Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan. Due out by the end of the year, the volume represents one of the publisher’s first excursions into pop-culture analysis; it’s intended for undergraduates but written in a less theory-intensive manner. He is also the new editor for the Journal of Popular Music Studies, and is editing a book series on modernism with Vanderbilt English professor Mark Wollaeger. Two volumes will be published in November. “I like working in a few different areas, because it provides some variety,” Dettmar says. “I didn’t go into English because I like to read, but because I like to write about the books that I read.”

Growing up in Tarzana, Dettmar was enthralled by Pomona during his college search (“it’s always held a mystical place in my imagination”), but couldn’t afford it. He instead double-majored in psychology and English at UC Davis, before spending a year at Trinity College in Dublin and then getting a Ph.D. in British Literature from UCLA. He has since taught at Loyola Marymount, Clemson, and, for the past nine years, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

After 17 years of teaching at large state schools, Dettmar looks forward to a smaller group of professors at Pomona. “When the department is 12 or 15 people, you're in daily contact with everyone,” he says. ‘It's a much more intimate environment.”

Living in Claremont with his wife, a physician assistant, Dettmar looks forward to an exciting academic year ahead of him--as well as, of course, the requisite trips to LA to see what the City of Angels has to offer. “My friend’s got a Village Voice press pass,” he says with a smile. “So I’m definitely hoping to check out some shows.”--Adam Conner-Simons '08