In the spring of 2014, as the director of the first-year seminar program at California Lutheran University, I was responsible for choosing the “common reading” for all entering first-year (“freshman”) students for the following fall. The seminar was an entry point for our students. It not only acquainted them with the practical matters of navigating the college experience, it also gave them significant practice in what it means to engage deeply with other students, faculty, and administrators in exploring a compelling topic for intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual inquiry. For several years we had chosen a book as the common reading, just as similar programs did at colleges and universities around the country.
After reviewing publishers’ catalogs and recommendations from Cal Lutheran faculty, I felt that all suggestions offered the same predictable books and activities that most schools had chosen for their programs. Moreover, something troubled me about the category of “common reading,” because it seemed to imply that there was a single kind of reading (i.e., reading traditional print) through one form (books). As an English professor, I certainly had no problem with asking college students to read books–after all, I love books! However, it seemed to me that first-year students, faculty, and administrators would all benefit if we did something outside the standard way of doing things–not merely by choosing an offbeat book for us to read together, but especially by helping all of us to expand what we took reading to be.
One Sunday afternoon in my living room, I was particularly conscious of the clock ticking away. I knew that I needed to make a decision soon so that everything could be arranged for the fall seminar. I wanted the choice to be an innovative one–not something predictable. But as I stared at the pile of publishers’ catalogs before me and looked back at emails from colleagues, it seemed inevitable that I would choose a book just as we had done before, and then prepare some typical discussion questions and classroom activities centered on that book. My mind drifted to my DVD player and television. To help my mind relax, I was watching for about the ninth or tenth time a favorite documentary film by Michael Stillwater, Shining Night: A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen. https://vimeo.com/ondemand/shiningnight Just as I was debating about which of the books to choose for our common reading, I heard the opening movement of Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna (eternal light or extended light) for chorus and orchestra playing in the background of the film, with the composer and various musicians commenting on how the music helped so many listeners cope with the significant losses of loved ones. In a flash of insight, I recognized the possibility of doing a radically different kind of “common reading” for the first-year seminar, and as the words for the common reading slowly took shape in my head, I said them out loud to myself in my living room, pausing as my mind processed the new idea: “The common reading for next fall . . . . is . . . . . . the music of composer Morten Lauridsen.” I knew right then that this is what we would do, and I threw all my energy and passion I already had for this beloved music into the task of making Lauridsen’s music the centerpiece of our fall program.
–My original teaching notes for the seminar are included below. I wrote them for the thirty faculty and also for the administrative and student mentors who served in the program–all of whom contributed so much to our success in the fall semester of 2014. The notes include a letter to the students signed by the provost (but written by me), which helped our first-year students prepare for the fall. The main part of the notes provide background for faculty and all our mentors, with suggestions for activities and assignments for our individual sections of the seminar. I also included some ideas from colleagues. Writing these notes was sheer joy for me, because of my passion for Morten Lauridsen’s music. I spent much of the summer prior to that fall semester listening to his music, studying scores, and reading the insights of others–particularly the work of Dr. James Jordan and Dr. Nick Strimple. I recall standing in my kitchen when I finished the notes. I felt a sense of completion–of wholeness–in having fulfilled something I felt called to do. I sent them to Morten Lauridsen, and in my accompanying email message, I told him that if I died right then, I would die a very happy man, because everything was set up for the seminar and for his November visit. He loved my teaching notes, and that meant the world to me. In response to my notion of dying a very happy man as I stood with that feeling of fulfillment in my kitchen, he said something like, “well, I hope it doesn’t have to come to that!”
Read my first published article on the composer’s music. It discusses his famous motet O Magnum Mysterium (1994). https://timelessmusicandpoetry.org/project-detail-with-description/
Read about two related assignments on visual analysis and life writing, which I designed for the first-year seminar. https://timelessmusicandpoetry.org/visual-analysis-and-life-writing-integrative-assignments-from-the-2014-first-year-seminar/