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Teaching U2: The Final Evaluation


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Sadly, this will be my last article for atu2. In fall 2019 I'll be taking a break from teaching to go on sabbatical, where I'll be editing and contributing to a book on teaching popular music in the classroom. The timing could not be more perfect. After two albums and three tours since 2014, U2 are taking their own well-deserved sabbatical, which means there likely won't be any new music for, well, who knows? This pause gives me the opportunity to reflect on the past four years teaching a course at Nebraska Wesleyan University titled "Songs Of Ascent: The Music And Meaning Of U2." So, here's my final evaluation for "Songs Of Ascent" and some suggestions for how to improve the course if I teach it again:

1. Book Most In Need Of An Update: U2 By U2 – First published in 2005, U2 By U2 has been an excellent resource for my students, cited in discussions, papers and presentations. However, considering the book ends with How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and the Vertigo tour, it is in desperate need of a new edition. I hope Neil McCormick and the band agree, and will someday find the time for additional interviews to make U2 By U2 more comprehensive. I'm guessing most U2 fans would like to see that as well.

2. The Value Of U2 Scholarship – I can't tell you how many times over the past several years I've heard students, parents, colleagues and even some friends ask, sometimes sarcastically, "You teach a class on U2? How do you do that?" Fortunately, books by Scott Calhoun (Exploring U2: Is This Rock 'n' Roll: Essays On The Music, Work, And Influence Of U2) and Alan McPherson (The World And U2: One Band's Remaking Of Global Activism), along with articles from religion, popular culture and music journals, provided a firm academic foundation for my course, guiding students in analyzing U2's music, concerts and activism. I was also able to attend U2CON 2018 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and within the first few weeks of "Songs of Ascent" last semester was able to incorporate some of what I learned into several discussions. My hope is that scholars, artists and fans will continue to study, write and teach about U2, inspiring others to contribute to the growing field of U2 studies.

3. Surprisingly Beneficial Teaching Tool: U2 Radio – My university has an internet-radio station that provided a unique educational activity for my students. Everyone was required to develop a one-hour radio program around U2's music, providing facts and commentary between songs, just like a real DJ. When developing their setlist I encouraged students to move beyond U2's Top 40 hits and include a mix of B-sides, live cuts and remixes for variety. Sometimes students developed themes for their shows ('80s, social/political songs, collaborations) and/or paired up with another student for a longer two-hour show (the banter was quite humorous at times). I tried to listen to each show and was impressed how detailed some students were discussing a song, album, event or tour. U2 Radio was originally created to just be a fun, late-semester diversion from the stresses of college. However, some students may have actually learned more about the band researching songs for their setlist than from any readings, lectures or videos. Additionally, the "on air" experience was so enjoyable some students even joined the internet-radio staff and created their own weekly program. Should I ever teach "Songs Of Ascent" again, U2 Radio will definitely be included in the syllabus.

4. YouTube Continues To Be A Teacher's Best Friend – Not only do I want to thank those who wrote books and articles on U2, but also the fans who posted concert videos on YouTube. Because of them I was able to show U2 performances at Dreamforce 2016 Dreamfest, The Joshua Tree 2017, and E + I in 2018. I also discovered Live Aid: Against All Odds, an excellent 2005 BBC documentary about the history, logistics and performances at Live Aid in 1985. YouTube was also valuable in finding U2 television interviews, their appearance at the US Festival in 1983, and their apology on Facebook after releasing Songs Of Innocence on everyone's iTunes account. It's probably not an overstatement to say that without YouTube my U2 class would not have been as educational, and certainly not as entertaining.

5. Greatest Teaching Challenge: Talking And Writing About Music – French New Wave film director Francois Truffaut once said, "What is interesting is not pronouncing a film good or bad, but explaining why." His thoughts about film also apply to other art forms, including music. We all have songs and albums we enjoy, but perhaps have difficultly articulating exactly why. The same is true for my students talking and writing about U2's music. For example, after listening to a U2 album I try to generate class discussion about what students liked or didn't like about it. Typical answers included variations on, "I don't know. I just did/didn't," "The lyrics were good/bad," or "It sounded/didn't sound like U2." However, sometimes students will become more thoughtful, commenting on how one album compares to another thematically, or the unique key or chord changes in a song (thank you music majors!). However, I must admit that with my background in communication studies I'm more comfortable discussing the interpretation of song lyrics than music theory. If I teach the course again I may contact a colleague in our music department to guest lecture or even team teach the course, thereby providing students with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for how songs are constructed.

Final Thoughts

I'm fortunate to teach at an institution that encourages faculty to develop unique courses outside the traditional curriculum. Not only does this broaden the educational opportunities for students, but it also inspires creativity for the instructor. Designing a U2 class with different assignments, activities, discussions, music and concert clips totally re-energized me in the classroom, and for that I'm thankful. If I do teach "Songs Of Ascent: The Music And Meaning Of U2" again it will probably be in several years if/when U2 releases a new album. Until then I'm developing a new course on music of the 1980s, which still allows me to discuss U2 within the context of my favorite musical decade. So, that's a nice compromise since I won't be teaching an entire course on U2.

In my first Teaching U2 article I wrote, "If there's one thing I've learned in all my years in education, it's that teaching is like being a DJ at a dance: It's impossible to make everyone happy with your song selection." After four years of teaching "Songs Of Ascent: The Music And Meaning Of U2," that still rings true. Some students walked away from the course questioning its value, while others thoroughly enjoyed it. My goal for "Songs Of Ascent" was never to turn every student into a U2 fan, but rather to increase their appreciation for the band's remarkable 40-plus year history, music and activism. I hope I was successful more often than not. At the very least I hope students will take what they've learned in the course and think about their own favorite musical artist in a different way, exploring their history, songs and influence. Knowing that would be the best course evaluation of all.

(c) @U2/Whitt, 2019.