Professor uses heavy metal to teach literature

Heavy Metal as  Literary Genre class at West Texas A&M University. Photo by Jeff Heimsath / Amarillo Globe-News.

Heavy Metal as Literary Genre class at West Texas A&M University. Photo by Jeff Heimsath / Amarillo Globe-News.

Yesterday we reported on how a Texas professor has been using heavy metal to teach literature. Today we are fortunate to have an interview with Professor Martin Jacobsen, who teaches “Introduction to Literature: Heavy Metal as a Literary Genre” at West Texas A&M University.

Professor Jacobsen uses heavy metal music to introduce students to literature in a class that he says is “50/50” lecture and listening to music. Among other topics, he tackles the history of metal, the reason the first songs on metal albums are important, the artistic superiority of …And Justice for All among Metallica albums, and the progression of first generation black metal.

Apparently this class arose from a sentence diagramming exercise in another class. How did you realize that this could be a class of its own?

The students realized it. I just mentioned it would be cool to have a class on heavy metal, and the response was crazy. Word spread and people started asking me about it. The boss was in favor of it, and we had already been offering some classes off the beaten path. So, I proposed it.

Approximately how many of your students do you think are heavy metal fans?

That’s a hard question. It’s fair to say most of my students aren’t. I teach a lot of elementary education majors, and most of them are not metal fans. But the English majors are. And among them, it seems to cut across genders and ages and other factors. You’re probably right that Romantic literature and metal have much in common, and the questioning mindset of a humanities major surely brings them in line with heavy metal.

“Introduction to Literature: Heavy Metal as a Literary Genre” teaches English using metal from over its forty-year history. What generations of metal do you consider, and can you give us some examples of each?

It’s pretty even across decade: 1970-Classic Metal; 1980-NWOBHM; 1990-Mainstream Metal; Nu Metal-2000. These are centers rather than inceptions, and I mean to suggest that this is when they reach a type of critical mass (i.e. albums Paranoid, British Steel, Metallica, etc). The early 1980s are when all the genres became established really — especially black, death, and thrash metal. All of them persist into the present. Prog metal is surely an outgrowth of RUSH, but there seems to be a lot more of it since the 1990s.

Do you think heavy metal artists are actually reading and influenced by literature?

Yes, some of them are. Or the news. Or some other source of ideas. Geezer Butler and Ronnie James Dio have talked openly about their reading. Clearly Steve Harris and Bruce Dickinson are very familiar with literature. Rush and Dream Theater in prog metal use literary themes and models (like Ayn Rand’s ideas in 2112 or the Hamlet motif in DT’s “Pull Me Under” or the Metropolis suite). Movies play a huge role too, and metal artists seem to see books and movies rather equally. Iron Maiden seems especially prone to use imagery from movies, though literature and history are also clearly sources for them.

Of all the literary movements throughout history, which one do you think is the closest in form and content to heavy metal? Is heavy metal an artistic “movement”?

That’s a very interesting question. I think it follows them in some ways. Much of it is similar in nature to Romanticism. Surely Death metal and Black Metal have postmodern elements. It is a movement, I think, and what’s interesting to me is how it has so many sub-genres within it. We can really analyze metal as a literature of it’s own making. While it’s interesting that metal artists use so much from literature, it’s even more interesting that they have enough depth and innovation to create an independent ethos.

Do the literary qualities of metal change between generations of metal, for example between NWOBHM and black metal?

That’s a good question. Some of the newer stuff seeks to be shocking for the sake of being shocking. That ruins it a little bit, I think. But even at that, one of the things metal does is put every question on the table. That’s what art does. It’s like cubism in painting or baroque in classical music. Take the norm and skew it and then re-present it to the world so they can think about it. I think new groups can ask the questions more explicitly, but I’m not sure the questions have changed. Death, pair, fear, war, pessimism, metal stability–all of these recur again and again. And they are questions that need asking. If heavy metal serves the world, it does so by interrogating notions every other approach seems afraid to interrogate. There are a lot of scary ideas in this world. And some people think that metal is one of them, I suppose. But any real metal fan will know that the real point is to talk about these things openly. Maybe that’s why we’re so loud. We talk about things no one else dares to engage. We have to speak up to be heard.

How have the students responded so far? Do you see more engagement with this as the subject matter, versus literature at large?

Way more. But, many of the students are in the class precisely because they are metalheads. Other literature classes at this level are seen as ‘have to’ humanities classes. I usually teach classical literature when I teach these classes. I get pretty good responses in those classes, but nothing like this. The students called the secretary the other day because we had a blizzard here and they wanted to make sure class was meeting. They didn’t want to miss it. Usually, a blizzard is a day off for most students, especially for a core class. This class draws people who want to be there. It’s not a fair comparison in many ways.

Thank you, Professor Jacobsen and students for taking the time to answer our questions and send over classroom materials. We hope this class becomes a regular at your college — and others!

29 thoughts on “Professor uses heavy metal to teach literature”

  1. John S. says:

    Hah, this is awesome, way better than I assumed!

    I tip my hat to Professor Jacobsen.

    1. We never got classes on why AJFA was the best Metallica album in my school. Bummer. These kids are luckier than they think!

  2. Winter North says:

    Real cool that he took the time for this interview. Hopefully this becomes a regular course at A&M.

  3. Wonder if they study Immortal and Emperor.

    1. Winter North says:

      Frost-bitten kingdoms of scorching hot Texas campi.

      1. I’d like to see the quizzes and tests.

        How would you compare Immortal to Moby-Dick?

        1. Might require a field trip to Norway.

  4. Hessian Warrior of Doom says:

    Future testing grounds for hessian warriors.

    1. They’re educated. They’ll be the officer corps.

  5. “Death, pair, fear, war, pessimism, me[n]tal stability–all of these recur again and again. And they are questions that need asking. If heavy metal serves the world, it does so by interrogating notions every other approach seems afraid to interrogate. There are a lot of scary ideas in this world. And some people think that metal is one of them, I suppose. But any real metal fan will know that the real point is to talk about these things openly. Maybe that’s why we’re so loud. We talk about things no one else dares to engage. We have to speak up to be heard.”

    Right on the money.

  6. Eric Syre says:

    As a teacher myself I often use music to reach out to my students. Music speaks to the youth like no other medium. I stay away from the commercial crap and the mainstream pop songs and lean more towards Classical, Electronic, Rock and Metal.

    1. “Commercial crap” will just entice the students to become commerce sheep. Good thinking.

      1. They’re already being enticed to be commerce sheep. If any strong voice speaks against that, they have a chance of escape.

    2. What metal bands do you use?

  7. Syd says:

    Interesting class anyway. There are many great examples of poetry in metal.

  8. Frank P. says:

    I will only attend if there is pyrotechnics during the lectures.

  9. thestrider says:

    It’s delightful to see Professor Jacobsen got good responses in those classes.

  10. Joe says:

    I like how he answers the question: “How does heavy metal serve the world?” Most English departments are too wrapped up in close reading nuances of style to detect any larger purpose of their texts.

  11. Rob says:

    Very enlightening interview! It’s good to see someone over 40 who’s still into metal and goes so far as to teach a course about it! Cheers to you, Jacobsen!

  12. Glad I'm not over 40 says:

    “It’s pretty even across decade: 1970-Classic Metal; 1980-NWOBHM; 1990-Mainstream Metal; Nu Metal-2000.”

    Great, another heavy metaller who teaches the young that the nineties were all about mainstream metal and nu-metal is the future. I have no respect for people like that. If those are the topics of his class then he’s just teaching kids what he likes, not what is important.

  13. metal bob says:

    my initial skepticism is dissipated a little after reading this. apart from the inclusion of nu metal (which, who knows, might not be all that glowingly discussed any way) i think hes got a pretty good handle on metal. hopefully this goes some way to getting people to take metal seriously – alienating the “whatever dude, its just, like, your opinion and stuff that slayer are better than korn” type of posers.

  14. Missy says:

    As a student at West Texas A&M University, I must say that I’m thrilled this is getting a positive reception. I am a Physics major, but I’m still trying to find a way to take this class. I salute Prof. Jacobsen for thinking outside the box, and in doing so, inspiring the love of literature in some that it would have been lost on. Cheers!

  15. Josh says:

    I am also a student at West Texas A&M University, and Prof. Jacobsen is a fantastic teacher! People love him because he uses methods to teach which deviate from traditional teaching methods but in doing so draws in the students and motivates you to learn! He’s a brilliant man!

  16. Aaron says:

    I went to this college. How did I miss out on this?!?!?!?!?

  17. This is really amazing. It really shouldn’t be surprising that metal lyrics often have profound literary roots. Sometimes they don’t, but that’s ok too. Great to see an educational institution embrace the genre this way.

    Well done!

Comments are closed.