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Teaching U2: U2 in 10

@U2, June 21, 2017
By: David Whitt


Designing a new college course from scratch is an intimidating, yet ultimately rewarding experience. Planning 16 weeks of readings, assignments and activities requires creativity, patience and constant tweaking to make everything come together into a cohesive whole. It’s especially difficult when you don’t have an instructor’s manual or syllabus from a similar course to help guide your planning. This was the challenge I faced creating Songs Of Ascent: The Music And Meaning Of U2 in 2015.

In my previous article, Teaching U2: My Second Year Evaluation, I described how Songs Of Ascent was part of the Archway Seminar (AWS) at Nebraska Wesleyan University, a required course for all first-year students. While the topic of each AWS is different, each course includes some requisite speaking and writing assignments, which made developing the course syllabus a little easier. The capstone project is a 10-page research paper due at the end of the semester. For my AWS that paper is called U2 in 10, described as follows:

After several months of listening to U2 music, watching U2 concerts and documentaries, and reading critical scholarship about U2, you are all now experts on the band. For your major research paper, you will summarize this knowledge and write a 10-page paper (minimum) arguing which 10 songs, albums, people and/or events you believe best reflect the music and meaning of U2. It will probably be easiest to write your paper using a chronological organizational pattern moving from past to present. For example, if you believe the album Boy (1980) should be on your list, discuss it first rather than toward the end of your paper. A chronological pattern will also help you see how the band’s music, influence and popularity have evolved over time.

To be clear, students don’t select 10 songs, 10 albums, 10 people and 10 events. They only have 10 selections total, which means each must be carefully considered and supported with sources (books, periodicals, radio/TV programs, etc.). So the research paper is more like writing 10 one-page papers, requiring the students to be concise with their descriptions and discussion. When first explaining the objective of the U2 in 10 paper, I tell students to imagine they’re sitting around the table during holiday season and a relative asks, “You took a college class on U2? That sounds (cool/ridiculous/interesting/a waste of tuition money).” The student can then provide specific examples of U2’s influence on music and activism to not only impress fans and skeptics, but also further justify the value of U2 as a subject of inquiry.

In the 2015 and 2016 classes the 36 students selected a total of 42 different topics, which meant no two papers were alike. Still, there was some general agreement between both classes as to what albums, people and events best define U2. Fortunately, I saved the U2 in 10 papers from both classes, and tallied the results. Here is the combined overall Top 10:

1. The Joshua Tree
2. Live Aid
3. Boy
4. Achtung Baby
5. TIE: Dublin/Mount Temple & War
6. Live At Red Rocks: Under A Blood Red Sky
7. Activism
8. Death of Bono’s and Larry’s Mothers
9. TIE: All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Songs Of Innocence & 360 tour
10. Paul McGuinness

As you can see, there were a few ties, so the list is more of a Top 13. Still, the results are in interesting mix of albums, concerts, history and people. However, if I create a separate Top 10 for 2015 and 2016, some different topics appear:

 Fall 2015

1. TIE: The Joshua Tree & Live Aid
2. Boy
3. TIE: Live At Red Rocks: Under A Blood Red Sky & All That You Can’t Leave Behind
4. TIE: Activism, War, Achtung Baby & ZooTV tour
5. Songs Of Innocence
6. Paul McGuinness
7. Super Bowl Performance
8. 360 tour
9. TIE: Brian Eno & Bono’s Characters (The Fly, MacPhisto, Mirror Ball Man)
10. The Unforgettable Fire

Fall 2016

1. The Joshua Tree
2. Live Aid
3. Death of Bono’s and Larry’s Mothers
4. Dublin/Mount Temple
5. Achtung Baby
6. TIE: Boy & War
7. Live At Red Rocks: Under A Blood Red Sky
8. TIE: Activism & Christianity
9. 360 tour
10. Zoo TV tour

Comparing the 2015 and 2016 lists, The Joshua Tree and Live Aid were solidly in the Top 2 both years, while War, Boy, Live At Red Rocks, Achtung Baby and Activism were also in the Top 10. However, U2’s Super Bowl Performance (2002), Brian Eno, Bono’s Characters and The Unforgettable Fire (1984) were popular in 2015, but not in 2016.  If I go inside the numbers a bit more, there are some striking differences between classes. For example:

• In 2015 two students wrote about the Death of Bono’s and Larry’s Mothers, but 16 (almost the entire class) did so in 2016.

• In 2015 11 students (almost the entire class) selected All That You Can’t Leave Behind, while in 2016 there were only two.

• In 2015 no students wrote about Christianity, but nine did so in 2016.

I can’t explain why there was such a disparity between the two classes as there was no significant change in course content, and our discussions were generally the same. One possibility was that during the brainstorming session, where I wrote down every topic generated by students on a whiteboard, each class created a slightly different list. This would have changed the options for the Top 10, with some students, perhaps, not wanting to consider albums, people or events not included on the board. A simpler explanation is that some topics just resonated more with one class than another.

Overall, my first-year students like U2 in 10 as their major research paper, and several have commented in course evaluations that I should keep the assignment. Students understand that U2 in 10 should be more than a basic history of U2, but rather an exercise in critical thinking to evaluate and argue what people, music and moments have made the band popular for over 40 years. After compiling the various Top 10 lists, even the most hardcore U2 fan would agree that my students, many with a limited knowledge of U2 coming into the class, did well with their selections. I made my own U2 in 10 list before I started teaching Songs Of Ascent in 2015, and looking back at that list now I can honestly say my students have made me reconsider several of my choices.

So, if you were to create your own U2 in 10 list, what would it look like? It’s more difficult than it sounds. Good luck!

© @U2/Whitt, 2017            

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