In rock ‘n’ roll’s nascent years—when Bill Haley was giddily rocking around the clock and later, as the Who’s Roger Daltrey screamed “hope I die before I get old!”—the notion that popular music had any lasting cultural value was almost uniformly dismissed. Fast forward seven decades, and college courses on Popular Music have become the norm—with seminars about the Beatles emerging as regular offerings at hundreds of universities across the globe.
With their new anthology Teaching the Beatles, Hugh Jenkins and Paul O. Jenkins provide readers with the go-to guide for understanding the in’s and out’s of preparing and delivering a Beatles course. As faculty members at Union College and Franklin Pierce University, respectively, the editors leave no stone unturned, addressing such matters as learning objectives, educational technology, interdisciplinary approaches, and teaching the Beatles to nontraditional students.
The Jenkins’ anthology is chockful of the work of top-flight essayists, including Gordon R. Thompson’s astute study of Beatles courses as laboratories for experimental learning. In one of the book’s finest chapters, the late Donna S. Parsons affords readers with a road map for a seminar that would undoubtedly pique the interest of Beatlemaniacs everywhere: “Lennon-McCartney and the Art of Songwriting in Two Days: An Intensive Honors Prime-Time Workshop.”
As a work of professional scholarship, Teaching the Beatles offers a vital window into the wide-ranging possibilities of a Beatles-centric pedagogy. With its dual accents upon learning outcomes and Fab Four wisdom alike, Teaching the Beatles is the kind of book that readers will find themselves coming back to—whether they’re preparing their next syllabus or simply in need of another fascinating anecdote about those four lads from Liverpool.
But I know what you’re thinking, dear reader: is it really possible to mount an academically forceful course on the Beatles? Really? Or are these seminars just an excuse for college professors to shunt James Joyce and Virginia Woolf aside in favor of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road? I mean, let’s face it, John, Paul, George, and Ringo trump the mind-numbing minutiae of wading through Joyce’s Ulysses eight days a week, right?
As a veteran instructor of dozens of Beatles courses across my career, I am delighted to report that a seasoned professor can undertake a thoroughgoing Fab Four seminar that is just as intellectually challenging as the meatiest course on Modern British Lit—take that, James Joyce!
In its current incarnation, my Beatles course requires students to be responsible for comprehending and deploying a wide-ranging terminology ranging across a host of different disciplines. And as the Jenkins would surely tell you, students are just as capable of underperforming—even failing—in a Beatles course as they are in Biology or Political Science. It’s unforgivable, of course, but it happens.
The brutal truth is that the Beatles are merely the vehicle for inspiring student learning and intellectual growth. Your students may be studying the lives and works of the Act You’ve Known for All These Years, but at the end of the day, an effective Beatles course rests upon the same foundation as any other meaningful educational initiative. If your course is worth its salt, you’ve challenged your students to think critically and to master the material. And you know that can’t be bad.