What Class? Humanities Residential College Foundation Seminar: Punk Rock Subcultures
Who Teaches It? Professor Pete Groff, philosophy
"I've loved punk rock since I was young. I'm not a scholar of it as such, but I spend a lot of my spare time reading histories of bands, scenes and movements, and I figured a few decades of playing in punk bands, attending punk shows, and soaking up the music, culture and literature has given me a solid body of knowledge to draw upon. Teaching the class as a foundation seminar in the Humanities Residential College is ideal, because the course is introductory, interdisciplinary and exploratory. It's less a formal, scholarly study of punk than an attempt to have a thoughtful, philosophical discussion about an interesting way of life.
"Students don't have to like punk to take this class. It might appeal to anyone who loves music, is interested in countercultures or alternative ways of life, or who wants to think in a philosophical way about such things. Students learn a lot about the various scenes, movements, genres, fashions and bands that make up the history of punk, and they get a chance to hear lots of different kinds of music. But the recurrent focus of the class is on values. We consider transgression, irreverence, amateurism, primitivity, noise, speed, energy, the grotesque, imperfection and decay as aesthetic categories. We also discuss confrontation, the DIY ethic, and the notion of punk as a lifestyle and identity.
"I hope students walk away with a deep and wide-ranging love of punk, but ultimately it's really about understanding — finding your way into another very different interpretive horizon and acquiring a richer experience of the world as a result of that.
"The class begins with 1970s British punk and artists such as the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. We work backward through the mid-'70s NYC scene, looking at artists like Patti Smith, the Ramones and Blondie, and then go further back to early protopunk bands like Nuggets-style '60s garage rock, the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the New York Dolls and Glam Rock. From there we move forward, from the postpunk explosion of the late '70s and early '80s through the emergence of Hardcore punk and its various subgenres, such as Anarchopunk, Straight-Edge, Queercore, Riot Grrrl and Krishnacore. We then examine the experimental indie underground of the '80s, the breakthrough of Grunge in the '90s and finally, the mainstreaming of Pop Punk.
"For a typical class, I assign a reading — it could be music journalism, a popular or scholarly historical overview, a cultural analysis or a philosophical reflection — along with Spotify playlists and a few videos or some documentary footage of live performances, since the visual aspect of punk is so important. Most classes begin with music. I bring in an old turntable and play a song from an iconic record that's relevant to the genre or movement we're exploring. I still have a pretty extensive vinyl collection, and I think it's important for students to see some of the material culture of punk.
"We focus on open-ended questions and discussion of the music, and the students keep personal listening journals throughout the semester. They do team presentations on various post-punk movements like Industrial, No Wave, New Romanticism and Agitprop Punk-Funk One assignment challenges them to invent an imaginary punk band and write an encyclopedia article about the group, weaving them into the actual history of their chosen genre. As part of that project, they create a related piece of material culture for their band, such as a flyer, a fragment of an underground fanzine, a t-shirt or a song. The aim is to strive for as much realistic detail as possible, so their artifact could fool an expert. The final paper allows them to explore a broader thematic concern of their choosing, which is tied in with the Humanities Symposium at the end of the semester."
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