Brandywine professor, students present at international Springsteen symposium

Brandywine students at a conference

Penn State Brandywine Assistant Teaching Professor of English Pat Hillen and four of her students recently presented at Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town: An International Symposium. Pictured from left to right are Brandywine students Ekaterina Iatsenko, Ruchiben Patel, Nick Peart and Kayleigh Izzo. 

Credit: Penn State

MEDIA, Pa. — While teaching one of her dream courses, Brandywine Assistant Teaching Professor of English Pat Hillen led her students on a journey that culminated in a group presentation at an international symposium in New Jersey.

Hillen, a longtime Bruce Springsteen fan and scholar of pop culture, taught an American Studies course this spring, “Springsteen: Studies and Social Justice,” that explored the social implications of Springsteen’s musical career.

“Most of our incoming students, at 18 or 19 years old, don’t necessarily know Springsteen’s music,” said Hillen. “I was interested in teaching a course that would expose those students to an icon of American pop culture while focusing on the historic social impact of his work.”

Simultaneously, Hillen was preparing to present an overview of her course at an academic conference called Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town: An International Symposium, which was held at Monmouth University in New Jersey. She quickly recognized an opportunity to further connect her students with the course content.

“I came up with the idea to moderate a student panel presentation at the conference,” she said. “I selected a few outstanding papers from my students and encouraged them to submit their work.”

In the end, four of her students submitted papers to the conference. All four were accepted, and, with Hillen as their moderator, they worked together to lead their own panel discussion, which they titled “Springsteen Students Talk about a Dream.”

Ekaterina Iatsenko, a biochemistry major, presented a study about Springsteen’s 1988 concert in East Berlin, analyzing its contributions to the eventual destruction of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.

Management information systems major Nick Peart shared his study, “The Blue Collar Hustler,” which compared the lyrics and musical tendencies of Springsteen to those of modern rappers.

Aerospace engineering major Ruchiben Patel traced Springsteen’s albums “Darkness,” “Nebraska” and “Wrecking Ball” to underscore their ongoing narrative about the realities of working-class life.

Neuroscience major Kayleigh Izzo’s paper, “Springsteen, Lennon and Lyrics,” contrasted the social-justice views of Bruce Springsteen and British contemporary John Lennon.

“They were the only undergraduates presenting at this conference, and they rightfully got a lot of attention,” said Hillen. “The audience had lots of comments and feedback.”

The students also were interviewed by E-Street Radio, a Sirius XM radio channel that features Bruce Springsteen’s music around the clock.

This year’s symposium celebrated the 40th anniversary of Springsteen’s 1978 album "Darkness on the Edge of Town" with discussion panels, keynote speakers and, of course, musical performances. The conference location, Monmouth University, is home to the archives of Bruce Springsteen’s special collections and boasts more than 30,000 holdings. Hillen and 14 of her students even had a chance to utilize the archive for their end-of-semester group presentations.

In the end, the symposium became much more than an opportunity to learn — and teach others — about an icon of American pop culture.

“By looking at one man’s work and addressing the issues of language and culture within it, we were able to track Bruce’s legacy of social justice and apply it to our studies,” said Hillen. “The fact that four of those students now have honors undergraduate research on their resumes is a bonus.”