It may seem unusual for some Wofford College students to spend this month studying the cultural influences of the rock band the Grateful Dead, but it isn't.
"Innovation, Improvisation and the Grateful Dead" is one of the course offerings during Wofford's Interim 2014 — a time for exploration and hands-on learning and a change from the rigors of traditional academic courses for both students and faculty.
The course is taught by professors Jeremy Jones and Christine Dinkin. As part of the class, students also are learning to play the harmonica and ukulele. Max Hightower, harmonica player for blues band Mac Arnold and Plate Full O' Blues, was guest instructor this week for the class.
The 23 students, sophomores to seniors, sat at tables in an informal setting in the Burwell Building, while Hightower led the class on harmonica, showing them how to hold the instrument and bend notes. Laughter could be heard over the high-pitched wheezes and low groans of harmonica.
"You're going to hit that one note and slide up to the next one," Hightower said, assisting a smaller group of students. "Don't be so intense — you just gotta relax."
This is the third time Jones, an adjunct professor who teaches creative writing to high school students on campus during the summer, has taught the Grateful Dead course. He said ukulele and harmonica are taught during the course because they're two of the easiest instruments to learn as a group.
"We're not teaching a song, but how to play around with the instrument, explore it," Jones said. "These guys (pointing to a group of students) said they spent three hours practicing and said, 'My roommate wants to kill me.' " That's what we want. I want them to fall in love with the instrument."
The course uses the Grateful Dead, the founding fathers of the jam band genre whose music is a tie-dyed rock fusion of blues, jazz, folk and country, as a lens to look at American culture and creativity, Jones said.
"If you study the Grateful Dead, you could end up studying history, sociology, philosophy," he said. "It's a dialogue between rules and no rules, structure and no structure. This is a liberal arts college, and what we want the students to do is think across the disciplines. It's just this great big stew of music and ideas, and they're having a ball."
Jones' fledgling Deadheads have watched documentaries about the 1960s. Thursday morning, students created psychedelic posters for an upcoming performance of Phuncle Sam on campus. Dinkins, a philosophy professor, said she was impressed by the creativity and artistry of some of the students.
"It's fun for us to teach a class like this, to see another side of our students," said Dinkins, who plays piano and flute and like her students, is now working ukulele into her repertoire.
The class will also make tie-dyed shirts and form jug bands for a performance at the end of the interim. Jones agreed that the wardrobe of his classroom Deadheads could use a little more color.
"I got to," he said, of teaching the art of tie-dye. "There's way too much black and plaid in here."
Karen Gravely, a sophomore majoring in government and environmental studies, said she signed up for the Grateful Dead course because she wanted to learn the ukulele. But she said she also enjoys the band's music, having grown up hearing it from her dad and stepmom. She also owns the band's greatest hits album on vinyl.
"The atmosphere in here is really chill," said Gravely, also a fan of folk guitar and Creedence Clearwater Revival. "One day we watched a documentary on acid trips and LSD and I thought, 'What have I gotten myself into?' But this class exposes us to culture we obviously wouldn't know because we weren't alive then. It opens us up to a new way of thinking."
Senior religion major Rob Levin said he's liked the Grateful Dead since he was 12, so the interim course was a natural fit for him.
"During the first week, we've learned about the roots of the band, where they came from, how they met and about San Francisco in the mid-1960s, the breeding ground for psychedelic music," Levin said.
Musically inclined, Levin sings and plays saxophone, but he says learning the harmonica has been a challenge.
"The harmonica always looks easy and it really isn't," he said.
Interim courses or projects are graded on an honors/pass/fail basis not figured into the student's grade point average. All students are required to complete and pass four interim projects, one per year, during their four years of course work.
In other interim courses this month, students will be woodworking, making artisan bread, analyzing the assassination of John F. Kennedy, producing and performing a Broadway musical, learning civic engagement, studying the works of Woody Allen, illustrating chapters of "Moby Dick" with Legos and volunteering at the Spartanburg Humane Society. Students may also do an independent study or study abroad during interim.
Max Hightower of Mac Arnold and Plate Full O'Blues, will perform a free concert from 3 to 5 p.m. Friday in the Sandor Teszler Library Gallery at Wofford College.