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What Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Means for Teachers

Jordan Catapano

Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan delivered a lecture on his winning the prize this week. We ran this piece on how you can use Dylan in your class in TeachHUB Magazine a few issues back.

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa must’ve had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles

These lyrics are from Bob Dylan’s song “Visions of Johanna,” from his 1966 album “Blonde on Blonde.” And it’s thanks to lyrics like these that Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Dylan’s selection for a Nobel Prize in Literature comes as a surprise in two ways. First, it has been several decades since any American has been awarded this prestigious literary accolade (the last being awarded to Toni Morrison in 1993). Second – and much more importantly – Bob Dylan is the very first musician to be honored with this award.

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While America is grateful to have its literary talent recognized again, it – along with much of the literary world – is simultaneously confounded by a musician earning the commendation. Dylan is a musician, first and foremost. He doesn’t write poetry; he writes lyrics. His words are backed up with music and rhythm; his songs are consumed by the masses, not the literary elite. Does someone like Dylan even qualify?

Many critics – even ones who respect Dylan’s work – disdain the Swedish Academy’s selection of a musician for the literary genre. Many others claim that Dylan’s winning of the prize is overdue. Regardless of people’s opinion of Dylan’s selection, it is now a fact, and was commemorated at the December Award Ceremony.

In light of this fact, English and language arts teachers might have some new opportunities – for better or worse – to talk about literature with their students.

Include Dylan’s Songs in Your Course

At first glance it might seem unusual to slide Bob Dylan between Hemingway, Eliot, and Morrison – other American Literature Nobel Prize winners. After all, is a popular folksy songwriter on the same level as these long-acknowledged masters? Are songs even the same thing as poetry or prose?

But Dylan is awarded for “Having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” according to the Nobel committee. His “Poetic expressions” and connection to the American tradition might offer avenues of exploration worthy of consideration in a classroom.

Perhaps Dylan can help combine the high art so predominant in American language arts experiences with the seeming “Low art” of the pop culture students gravitate toward. Dylan’s receiving of this award can serve as a pathway for students to look at songs not just as entertainment, but as works of art and poetry. Beyonce and Lady Gaga might not be receiving Nobel Prizes anytime soon, but showing students that the wide world considers powerful song lyrics to be just as important as prose or poetry might help students think through what they hear from anywhere with a little more depth and passion.

Consider Previous Nobel Prize Winners

While many literary Nobel Prize winners have earned a rank in the accepted canon – such as Eliot, Steinbeck, and Faulkner – when was the last time we introduced students to less canonized American authors? Consider Pearl S. Buck, Isaac Singer, or Saul Bellows and their contributions to American literature. Introducing students to Dylan might help introduce them to other American winners we can take pride in and learn from.

But why stop at American authors? Some people like to watch all the movies nominated for “Best Picture” by the “Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences” because they enjoy an official organization leading them to see works of art they might not have noticed on their own. Likewise, the Nobel Prize for Literature list of winners features names from around the world that could serve as an inspiring list for students to explore. We might at least introduce students to other English-speaking winners, such as William Golding, Doris Lessing, or W.B. Yeats. And from there … perhaps students will find works from foreign lands and times that further inspire their growth and imagination.

Who Inspires Them?

Artists rarely exist in a vacuum. Instead, it’s better to see artists – like Dylan – as part of a conversation. We might use Dylan’s award as a way to talk about artists in general and introduce students to the notions of influence and inspiration. For example, Bob Dylan has spoken frequently about artists who have inspired him and his work, such as Woody Guthrie.

Similarly, there are artists who were in turn inspired by Dylan. Johnny Cash, Neil Young, and Jimi Hendrix, for example, all speak to the influence Dylan had on their work. While on the one hand you might be able to demonstrate to students the chain of influence from one artist to the next and the developments their art takes at each stage, you might on the other hand enjoy a conversation with students about the importance of role models, imitation, and inspiration.

Maybe introducing students to Dylan could help them see the most unlikely candidate as a true artist: Themselves. There is a simple elegance to Dylan’s works, and Dylan himself might serve as an inspiration for students to write their own poems, voice their own narratives, or craft their own tunes.

Get Students Involved in the Argument

Finally, since the announcement of Dylan’s prize has stirred controversy, why not let your students in on the argument? There are several important, unanswerable questions you can encourage students to develop their views on.

For one, you can ask students what art and an artist is, and if a prize means anything to a true artist. Jean-Paul Sartre, for instance, famously refused the Nobel Prize in 1964, stating that he did not want to be “Institutionalized.” Bob Dylan took this one step further by not even acknowledging that he won the award at all. He didn’t answer emails or return phone calls … for several weeks anyway. It seems like Dylan himself cares little for the accolade.

For another debate, ask students if music really counts as literature. Music has its own slew of awards, and Dylan has won many, many musical awards. Does music and its lyrics really deserve to be put into the same class as poetry and literature?

Or consider opening up debate on Dylan himself. Many people have advocated for Dylan’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature for years; others call him overrated. Does Dylan deserve the award and placement on the same rungs as previous winners?

Questions like these can help students explore the world of music, literature, and art all through the lens of argumentation. Encourage students to read others’ opinions, to craft their own perception, and attempt to clearly communicate what they think about these matters.

New Winner, New Opportunity

As with any prize award, opportunity and controversy inevitably follow. As an English teacher, I don’t pity other English teachers who now have to consider how Dylan’s folksy music contends with other literary giants. I see opportunity to think, expand, and consider for myself and my students. Although I don’t quite agree that Dylan “Is a great poet in the grand English tradition” as secretary of the Swedish Academy Sara Danius suggests, I do know an opportunity when I see one for introducing students to the wide world of art, a world in which their opinion and contribution matters.


Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.