Visual Analysis & Life Writing: Assignments from the First-Year Seminar

James Arthur Bond, California Lutheran University. Copyright © 2009 by Brian Stethem.

Teaching at any level ought to engage students in significant integrative activities. In both my teaching and directing of programs, I do my best to encourage students to connect their lives with what they are exploring in their academic studies, and to also let the various parts of their studies “speak to one other,” as I describe it to them. Too often in the name of education, we separate areas that should be integrated. The assignments that I have included below were part of the first-year seminar I directed in 2014, which focused on the music of composer Morten Lauridsen for the common reading. All entering first-year students that fall collaborated with faculty and administrative and peer mentors in exploring the common reading. If you have not yet read about this seminar, you may wish to first read more about it here:

Cover of Morten Lauridsen’s Waldron Island Reflections. Copyright © 2014 by GIA Publications.
Cover of Documentary Film by Michael Stillwater, 2012.

I designed a number of activities to help students “read” or listen carefully to Morten Lauridsen’s music. Because we have very few music majors at California Lutheran University, I did not want to assume that our first-year students would be able to literally read music. However, I knew that most of them already had significant experience in listening to music in their daily lives. Although they might not all be sophisticated listeners, at least they were familiar with the sense of excitement when music spoke to them. To prepare them for the composer’s visit to campus and the concert of his music by our student singers, I had all the students immerse themselves in the rich cultural context of Morten Lauridsen’s composing life. We used both Michael Stillwater’s documentary film Shining Night and the accompanying booklet Morten Lauridsen’s Waldron Island Reflections to engage students ahead of time. In running the film screenings of Michael Stillwater’s award-winning film for the entire freshman class, I distributed a handout to encourage students to reflect on the film as they watched it, and to prepare them for class discussion in their next seminar meeting. Each individual instructor could choose what to do in that class session, but if they found it useful, the handout could be used as an initial guide for creating a fruitful discussion.

Students needed a writing activity that would give them an opportunity to integrate their personal lives with their new academic lives as college students. The following assignment, which was completed prior to the composer’s visit to campus, asked students to draw from the booklet, the documentary film, and significant images from their own lives to write a paper that connected these various parts into a meaningful whole. I think of this assignment as not only one that engages students in what literary scholars call life writing, but also as one to assist students in finding what Mike Rose has called “entry points”–places in which inquiry in a new area can begin. –So much of education is about beginnings, in that we all need to develop appropriate strategies that will allow us to try on and to build new kinds of knowledge and skills by drawing from some of the things we already know. This assignment was my attempt to do exactly that.

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