By Kate Rix
This spring, freshman Helen Tam signed up for a seminar about jazz for a chance to explore something new. She looked forward to venturing beyond her knowledge of classical music with a small group of enthusiastic freshmen.
Turns out, the same was true for the professor.
Together with Professor Michael Lucey, chair of the Department of French, students listened to and discussed the music of jazz vocalist Kurt Elling. Then, at the end of the semester, they saw Elling perform at Zellerbach Hall in Cal Performance’s spring program.
“It was exciting to see Elling perform live because it felt like our course had come to a full circle,” says Tam, who plans to major in psychology and Chinese. “I know Professor Lucey is in the French and Comparative Literature Department but I would never know that one of his keen life long interests was in jazz music. His breadth of knowledge and genuine enthusiasm for this topic was inspiring and refreshing.”
This spring semester saw the launch of Berkeley Arts Seminars, a new offering through the Freshman and Sophomore Seminars program. Organized by the Berkeley Arts Research Center and led by professors who design the seminars themselves, the courses allow students to explore the rich array of arts experiences available on campus.
For students it is a unique learning experience. For faculty, it’s a chance to work outside of their usual course offerings.
Lucey is specialist in French, British and American literature, but in designing his own arts seminar he saw an opportunity to stretch beyond his chosen field and explore something else he loves.
“I haven’t taught much about music, but I am interested in the practice of artists studying other artists and then paying homage,” he says. “When a jazz artist listens intently, over and over again, to another jazz artist, what is it they hear, what do they learn, what do they do with what they learn? There is a similar practice involved with novel writing. You take certain stylistic or formal features, or subjects or techniques, and make them your own. Henry James might take a subject from Balzac, but it’s less the subject he reconveys than his way of altering the presentation of the subject.”
He called his seminar “Jazz Tributes” and used one of Elling’s recordings, Dedicated to You, to explore themes of influence and paying creative homage. The album features Elling singing the music of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.
“People feel intimidated by jazz theory, but it was a nice class because no intense amount of jazz experience was required,” Lucey says. “We listened and talked and went a little deeper than our spontaneous reactions. We learned from each other.”
Other seminars offered this semester included Professor of Near Eastern Studies Chana Kronfeld’s “Reading Modern Jewish Cultures,” in which students were able to go behind the scenes and view special objects in Berkeley’s Magnes Collection that are not yet on public exhibit. “Brazil’s Greatest Hits in Literature and Film” was created by Candace Slater, professor of Spanish and Portuguese, who arranged a special screening of Brazilian films at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive, home to one of the country’s richest collections of films.
Each seminar included visits to at least two arts venues on campus. Course development and admission costs for students are covered by the generosity of a donor.
“Berkeley offers our students a rich array of arts experiences, and our faculty are excited by the new teaching paths that the Berkeley Arts Seminar program creates,” said Arts and Humanities Dean Janet Broughton. “This is a perfect example of the ways in which Berkeley’s comprehensive excellence provides us with unparalleled opportunities to learn and teach.”
Students also receive what students in every Berkeley Freshman Seminar get: contact with great faculty, right off the bat.
Many of the students in Leigh Raiford’s seminar on the African Diaspora had never been to a live campus performance until they attended four shows together. Thanks to Cal Performances, they saw the Brazilian Balé Folklórica de Bahia, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Afro-Cuban All-Stars. At the Pacific Film Archive they watched a program of shorts included in the African Film Festival. And they were equally excited by attending a theater event about true events in black history depicted at the 1901 Buffalo World’s Fair, presented by the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies.
“It was hands on, attending performances and then reflecting in a close atmosphere full of talented individuals,” says student Cache Jones. This course and others at Berkeley, Jones says, have helped her understand her identity as a young black woman, who spent part of her child in white foster care families.
The experience was broadening for the professor as well.
“I’m not a performance theory person, but for this course we got to talk about the powerful gestures of dance and music,” says Raiford, professor of African American Studies, whose research delves into race, gender and visual culture.
Including live performances in the content of the seminar, she says, helped make some of the core ideas in her research more explicit. Connections between African-descended people can be complicated to explore, but actual performances can ground the theory.
“We used performances on campus as a launching point for talking about connections between African-descended people,” Raiford says. “It was a grand experiment. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen from week to week.”
This is the core of the Berkeley Arts Seminars program. By integrating performance with scholarly discussion and research, Professor Abigail De Kosnik was able to teach a subject close to her heart — and closer, in fact, to what she studied in graduate school.
Her research examines the history and cutting edge theory of new media. She has written about the origins of the digital music “mash up” and about the slide of the daytime soap opera in a post-television era. As a professor of New Media as well as Theater, Dance & Performance studies, de Kosnik is firmly planted at the shifting intersection between performance and technology.
But her seminar was called “The Best New Books You’ve Never Read: Masterpieces of Global Contemporary Literature.” Students, whose exposure to experimental literature in high school may have gone no further than James Joyce, read recent, or recently translated, avant garde novels from the United States, Czech Republic, Austria, Argentina and Chile, and their understanding of these difficult works was deepened by viewing experimental films at the Pacific Film Archive and attending two author readings at Morrison Library.
“I encourage my students to be open to genres they’ve never encountered,” De Kosnik says. “These seminars feed my passion for teaching and learning from students.”
For more information about the Berkeley Arts Seminars or the Arts Research Center, visit http://arts.berkeley.edu/prog_bas.html.