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Springsteen school is in session: A rocker’s life studied

A Rutgers University professor and long-time Bruce Springsteen fan will teach a course this fall on the rocker and his cultural and historical significance. Teaching Springsteen has been popular in halls of higher learning for years.

Rutgers University Professor Louis P. Masur will teach a course on Bruce Spingsteen this fall. Masur has been a fan for decades and loves to teach students about the historical and cultural significance of Springsteen's words and music.
Rutgers University Professor Louis P. Masur will teach a course on Bruce Spingsteen this fall. Masur has been a fan for decades and loves to teach students about the historical and cultural significance of Springsteen's words and music.Read moreRutgers University

Louis P. Masur took a date when he went to his first Bruce Springsteen concert in high school.

The girl didn’t last.

But Masur’s relationship with Springsteen “has lasted ever since,” he said.

The Rutgers University professor has even made the New Jersey-born rocker his work.

And in the fall, he’ll do it again when he teaches a course on Springsteen on the New Brunswick campus, in part commemorating the star’s 70th birthday in September. The course, he said, will focus on how Springsteen’s vision reflects the fight for personal growth and political and social change, the search for joy and appreciation of community, the effort to improve the world, and the age-old story of struggle and survival.

Masur, 62, an American cultural historian who grew up in the Bronx, is far from the first academic to teach Springsteen. It’s not at all unusual for academics to use rock icons to lecture on American cultural history.

Princeton has offered a course called “Sociology from E Street: Bruce Springsteen’s America.” At the University of Rochester, students have been able to take a course on how Springsteen’s music reflects on the American working-class experience. “Springsteen: the Man and the Music” has been taught at Montclair University. On the menu last fall at Rider University was “Unpacking Bruce Springsteen,” a course offered by a professor of popular music.

And another Rutgers professor has taught students to explore the theology of Springsteen at the New Brunswick campus.

Masur said his course gets students to understand Springsteen’s work lyrically and musically, how the simple change of a chord “does something to you.”

“They come to a deeper understanding of Springsteen’s work and its place in the culture but they also develop the skills and abilities to think about other things more critically,” he said.

Masur caps enrollment at 50 and typically reaches it. Students are required to do a lot of reading, essay writing, and listening to the rock star’s music.

Masur starts the class by asking students to write about a song that has had great influence in their life. For him, that song was “Born to Run,” which “captured my teenage sense of longing, dreams of escape, and search for connection and love.” He uses it as the ringtone on his phone.

“It quickly became the defining song and album of my life,” Masur said.

In books he’s authored, he uses the “Born to Run” lines “love is wild," "love is real” in the acknowledgments where he mentions his wife. He’s seen the rocker in concert more than 100 times. And he raised his two children on Springsteen, taking them to their first concert when they were ages 5 and 9. His son surprised him by choosing the Springsteen song, “Happy” from the box set Tracks as his wedding song.

“I was weeping like a baby,” Masur said.

Over time, Masur began to think about Springsteen not only as a fan, but as a scholar. A decade ago, he wrote the book Runaway Dream: Born to Run and Bruce Springsteen’s American Vision. Masur also authored an essay on Springsteen that will appear in a collection of essays on the artist called Long Walk Home, which will be released by Rutgers University Press next month.

He first taught a Springsteen course when he was still a professor at Trinity College in Connecticut. He wrote about the experience in a 2005 essay titled “The Boss in the Classroom,” which appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

He decided to teach the course after discussing Springsteen in one of his classes, which turned into an impromptu concert.

“As the opening beats of “Born to Run” blared into the lecture room, I started singing and annotating: ‘In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream’ (the underside of making it in America, I told my students); ‘Baby this town rips the bones from your back’ (the feeling of being cut off from community); ‘We gotta get out while we’re young’ (the need to hit the road to find oneself),” Masur wrote.

“I was scampering up and down the aisles, singing, yelling, and performing before 50 students. ... That evening I received multiple email messages from students who said that the class had been one of the best they had ever taken."

Since then, Masur has taught Springsteen a handful of times at Trinity and later Rutgers, where he began working in 2012.

This fall seemed like the perfect time to do it again, he said, noting the rocker’s soon-to-be septuagenarian milestone. The timing also is good, given Springsteen’s release of a new album, Western Stars, and his recent Broadway run.

The three-hour, once-a-week course is called “Springsteen’s American Vision.” Springsteen school starts next month.