Smells Like A Cool Class

The band Nirvana played an important role in grunge
Nirvana plays an important role “Smells Like Teen Spirit: Grunge and the Seattle Sound.”

Dust off your favorite flannel and Nirvana tee. Professor Robert Newcomb of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese has found a way to bring grunge – its music and culture – to UC Davis with his class, “Smells Like Teen Spirit: Grunge and the Seattle Sound.”

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a part of UC Davis’ First-Year Seminar Program, a series of one- to two-unit classes designed to engage a small group of first-year students in conversation about innovative and nontraditional topics. This course is offered through the College of Letters and Science.

Grunge may not be played on mainstream radio stations anymore, but Newcomb said that when he taught the course for the first time in Spring 2015, he had “a sense that there was something in the air that might make this a course that would have some popularity and resonance.”

And he was right. This is Newcomb’s third quarter teaching the seminar at full capacity. Each quarter, the number of students with prior knowledge of grunge surprises Newcomb, “I'm very impressed with how knowledgeable a lot of the students are."

Like his students, Newcomb’s deep fascination with grunge started early. He first developed an interest in the music as a teenager living in Rochester, New York.

"We lived in an anomalous sort of town, where we had a randomly really progressive noncommercial radio station, WBER, that introduced a lot of underground rock music to kids in middle school and high school, like me,” Newcomb described. 

Robert Newcomb

Since then, grunge has remained somewhat of a mystery to Newcomb. The emergence of grunge bands, such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, in Seattle, Washington in the late 1980s and early 1990s is “a unique moment in musical history.”

"What was it about the time period, about the geographic and cultural state of Seattle?” Newcomb asked. “How did [grunge bands] manage to conquer U.S. popular culture, with what in many ways is uncommercial sounding music?”

These are questions Newcomb and his students continue to explore in his seminar.

Newcomb credits the First-Year Seminar Program with allowing him to integrate grunge into his teaching.

 “I think that's one of the great things about the program, that it allows faculty to share interests that transcend what they do academically,” he said.

In academia, Newcomb teaches and researches Brazilian and Latin American literatures and cultures, which is quite different from his seminar. “First of all, I teach it in English,” he joked. “I teach the vast majority of my other courses in either Portuguese or Spanish."

Newcomb also appreciates the diverse kinds of students he has encountered and worked with in his seminar.

“One of the things that's special about [the First-Year Seminar Program] is that it attracts students who are undeclared or who are studying all sorts of different things,” Newcomb said.

Much like grunge music and culture did in the early 1990s, his class has brought together unique groups of people. The seminar also provides a space for students to engage and think critically through the study of grunge songs, bands and the historical and political context of the grunge era.

"These are skills that are going to serve them, particularly if they are incoming students at UC Davis, in a number of different contexts,” Newcomb said.

Newcomb hopes his students will continue to think creatively about all of the topics they will explore in their undergraduate coursework as well as be more informed consumers and producers of music and culture in their daily lives

“You can approach those topics and ask similar sorts of questions to the ones that we do every day in courses in humanities here at UC Davis,” Newcomb said. “You can do that with literature, but you can absolutely do that with popular culture.”

— Jeanette Yue, undergraduate intern in communications and marketing in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science