Instructor Chad Israelson Combines Love of Music and History in Classroom
Chad Israelson’s love of history is only equaled by his infatuation with music.
It’s something he enjoys so much that he even teaches a class on music history, one that focuses on how music is inspired by the time period, world events, and cultural norms.
The Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC) history instructor’s love affair with rock and roll and history can easily be traced back to his childhood.
The American bicentennial took place when he was 6. He remembers being enamored by the public service announcements, programs, documentaries – and even a Mickey Mouse t-shirt depicting George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware – built around the event.
At 17 he was knee-deep in the music of the time.
“Going back, I was a big Beatles fan, and I thought, ‘well, I better check out this Dylan guy,’ and my parents had one 8-track, so I was somewhat familiar,” he recalls.
A friend’s dad lent him some Bob Dylan albums, and that was it.
“It was his lyrics,” Israelson remembers latching onto him. “That just captivated me; I have all of his albums and have been listening to him for 20, 30 years.”
When it came time to go to college, someone told him to do what he always loved.
“I thought, ‘well, alright, I’m probably not going to play for the Vikings or Twins, so that’s out,’” he says.
What he always loved was history.
Israelson attended the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse before heading to the University of Nebraska to earn his Masters degree. He began his career at RCTC as a part-time instructor before moving into full-time work, and has been here for nearly 20 years.
During that time he’s taught a lot of history – an eclectic mix, really.
“One thing I actually enjoy about being at RCTC is that it forces you to be more general than very specific and narrow,” Israelson says.
He’s lectured on U.S. history, world history, western civilization, religion history, and – one of his favorites – the history of the rock and roll era. Apart from history, Israelson has also taught philosophy.
When it comes to teaching history, there is always a subset of something that teachers like. For example, the importance of air warfare, or even propaganda in World War II. Israelson’s niche is a little more creative.
“One of the things that I always enjoyed was how culture reflected the historical time,” he says.
He gives an example of the enlightenment era. Full of rational thinking, the music becomes very structured, and you have people like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Napoleon Bonaparte ushers in the romantic era, and musicians like Ludwig van Beethoven.
Israelson started to put some rock and roll into his U.S. and European History courses. Then he thought an entire class on it would be pretty cool, and suddenly the same type of classes began sprouting up across the country.
“I thought, ‘yup, better strike while the iron is hot,’” Israelson says.
He’s been teaching History of Rock and Roll since 2008. What students have learned about are musicians, songs, and albums that reflect what was going on at the time – the Vietnam War, economics of the 1970s, and more.
Teaching about music is easy for Israelson. He’s such a Bob Dylan fan that he co-authored a book in 2015 on the popular Minnesota-born musician.
“Dylan in the historical context, and the political context of his time, really hadn’t been done,” Israelson says.
One chapter focuses on Minnesota history and politics, and how Dylan’s songs fit the state’s political themes.
“What we were able to pull out of that, just in that one example, is that, yeah, Dylan fits into the political culture of Minnesota pretty well,” Israelson says. “Things like having a puritanical political culture steeped in our New England heritage, which provides a distinct dislike for abuse of power, and liking fairness and equality.”
That syncs up with Dylan’s lyrics when you listen to his early 60s songs like “Blowin in the Wind” or “Masters of War.”
As excited as Israelson is to teach history and sometimes music (he calls being an instructor a “tremendously rewarding job”), he doesn’t just revel in the opportunity to talk about past events. He gains joy in being able to help impact a student’s life in a positive way.
“I look at students that come through and they’re trying to move on to whatever it is next… and it’s very fulfilling and rewarding to be a part of that process,” he says.
“That classroom experience is, it’s really priceless. I really like the notion that my job is something that I believe is making other people’s lives better. They come out of my class hopefully enriched, hopefully rewarded, but also a step closer to some goal that they want.”