Topics in songwriting and pop culture: 2013’s student seminars

Sam Smith ’14 will teach a student seminar on the art of songwriting. Her class is one of many—with topics ranging from Tolkien to Irish step dance—that reveal the diverse range of interests within the student body. Photo By: Katie de Heras
Sam Smith ’14 will teach a student seminar on the art of songwriting. Her class is one of many—with topics ranging from Tolkien to Irish step dance—that reveal the diverse range of interests within the student body. Photo By: Katie de Heras
Sam Smith ’14 will teach a student seminar on the art of songwriting. Her class is one of many—with topics
ranging from Tolkien to Irish step dance—that reveal the diverse range of interests within the student body. Photo By: Katie de Heras

Returning for the third year in a row, student seminars has been a draw for students since its inception in 2011. The program has expanded from its humble beginnings­—only eight student seminars—to over 22. Courses include “Introduction to Shape Note Singing,” “Silenced Voices and Social Empowerment at Vassar,” “Fundamental Improv,” and “License to Thrill: the Cultural Politics of 007 James Bond,” among others.

These seminars, consisting of four sessions of one hour each over the course of a month, offer Vassar students the chance to learn something from students with unique interests in a subject. While a student firstly has to be really passionate about sharing what he or she knows to volunteer for such a commitment, students first have to make a case for their course to the VSA. To be chosen to lead one of these seminars, the student had to submit an interest statement, syllabus, course title and description.

VP of Academics Amanda Zeligs stated, “We look for creative, well-thought out seminars. We focus less on the subject matter of the seminar and more on the details the students have provided in regards to the course description and the content of the syllabi.”

With an expanse of possibilities, she sees this as a great opportunity for students.

Among these students who will soon play the role of professor, Samantha Smith ’14 will be leading a song-writing workshop­—an opportunity which she said allows her to share her passion for music.

As a Media Studies major, Smith is fascinated by how music can be used to develop self-identity.

“I hope to study how music is used as a means of individual and community identity, and how the agency of songwriting plays into identifying oneself into the symbolic order,” Smith said.

For Smith, music lends itself to collaboration as everyone is working towards a common goal.

“That’s why I call this seminar a workshop,” she said, “It exists for people to bounce their ideas off of other people whose goal is the same; for some unexplained reason, we don’t want to just play music, we want to create it.”

She stated that while she hasn’t taught a seminar before, she really enjoyed taking a barbershop seminar last year, and that thinking about other seminars inspired her to think about how she might go about teaching one.

She said, “I’ve learned that teachers don’t have all the answers. In fact, in my classes they seem to ask more questions than all the students put together. What teachers do is guide discussions, give you things to mull over, and of course, tell you how much they think you have learned by giving you a grade at the end. I hope to do the first two in my workshop.”

For Matthew Ortilé ‘14, thinking about structuring a course gave him some empathy for his own professors.

He said, “I’ve learned that a lot of thought goes into planning each class, especially thinking of guiding questions. I never realized how much work our professors do in terms of navigating a subject or guiding us through all the theory and texts. My respect for professors has grown hundredfold, definitely.” Similarly, he is feeling the crunch of designing a course which will only last for a compressed amount of time: “It was difficult constructing a syllabus for a class that lasts a total of four hours in the entire semester. There are classes where a single session is three hours!”

Ortilé course is titled “The Will and the Grace: Women and Gay Men in Popular Media” and will explore the relationship between straight females and gay males as it is represented in television, films and comedy.

While he hopes to share some insight by way of theory, he is more lenient than the avergae Vassar professor: Ortilé said readings are optional so as to share his interests with as many people as possible.

“For students taking the class, it’s a low-commitment opportunity to learn something new in a low-pressure environment — no grades, no assignments, no stress. As for the students teaching, it’s a great chance to test the waters of professional academia,” he said.

These classes will test the peer instructors to improve their own knowledge and control of the course subject. For the students teaching the seminars, stepping into a professor’s shoes may seem daunting.

Associate Professor of English Peter Antelyes offered advice for the student instructors, as well as the students taking the course.

“I suppose the particularities would depend on the subject, but I could suggest two general things: first, both might want to emulate the best models they’ve experienced for those specific roles, and second, both might want to find ways to use the unique nature of the peer-led seminar to move past those models, to explore new ways to learn,” said Antelyes in an emailed statement.

“I think it’s valuable for students to be able to take the place of a professor in front of the classroom and teach a subject that genuinely interests them to their peers,” Zelig said.

Though it is not necessarily crucial for a student to be an expert on their topic: Ortilé acknowledged that he doesn’t know everything about his subject. Instead he aims to create a space for dialogue and discussion.

“I’m less interested in teaching the topic, but instead looking to start a conversation about it.

I don’t pretend to know everything about women, gay men and their relationships, so I envision this student seminar as a collaborative learning process” he said.

Smith too sees the value in this process. “This is a wonderful chance for me to compare my methods of songwriting those of my other peers” she said.

There are additional benefits for Ortilé beyond just getting the opportunity to talk about a subject about which he is excited.

Ortilé hopes that this will help him decide whether he really wants to continue to graduate school. He said, “I’ve been thinking about a master’s, a PhD, and teaching as an option in the far future, so this is my sort of test drive as professor.”

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