Teaching during 'Christmas at Luther'

Sometime last week, as we faculty piled up our stacks of papers in anticipation of a long weekend with family, pie and of course, grading, the Luther facilities team lit the tree. The gorgeous tree that stands between the Center for Faith and Life and the Union.

Kate Elliot1 

For my little boys, the Christmas season begins when our advent calendar—appropriately stuffed with chocolate coins and miniature Kit Kats—appears on our bookshelf. But for me the holiday season really begins when the tree is lit.

I’ll be honest, though. Trying to teach these next two weeks is a bit of a problem. This is not unique to Luther, of course. We’re nearing the end of the semester. Students are stressed about finals. The grading is piling up. But we have the added pressure here at Luther in that more than a quarter of our students participate in the three day musical celebration that is "Christmas at Luther." Wow.

Kate Elliot2

The ensembles have been practicing all semester, but this past weekend they came back early from Thanksgiving Break for an epic, six-hour-long, full rehearsal. Let's be clear. These are not all music majors. These are kids who are juggling bio lab and calculus, painting class and Paideia. They have a lot going on beyond their participation in Christmas at Luther. But the event has a way of seeping into every classroom this week.

All week this week, I'll bravely be standing in front of my Survey of Art History I class, describing the modifications architects made to church designs in response to the specifics needs of pilgrims in the Romanesque era. (It comes down to doubling the side aisles and increasing the number radiating chapels so pilgrims can visit the relics without disturbing worship services, for what it's worth). I'll gesticulate wildly in front of diagrams of Notre-Dame in Paris, reminding them that although the word "buttress" is really fun to say, they were also taken very seriously by Gothic architects who vied with one another to build the largest, the tallest, the most beautiful church as a perfect testament to the glory of God. I'll be doing this as a quarter of my students struggle to stay awake after a long night of rehearsal (a task I make far more difficult as I insist on turning down the lights so we can see the slides!). Those who manage are distracted, worrying about difficult passages of a song that they still stumble over, worrying that they'll never be able to get everything done.

When I started at Luther in 2010, I was perplexed by the all-encompassing nature of Christmas at Luther. I went to a peer school that hosted a similar Christmas concert, but it didn't affect me as a student beyond the lutefisk they served in the cafeteria on Friday night. I was a swimmer and an art major; we didn't mix much with "the choir kids." By the time late November rolled around during my first year of teaching at Luther, I knew the students well enough to know that they don't complain about work and they like being challenged, so the audible groan that the class issued when I passed out a pop quiz during "Christmas at Luther" week surprised me, and honestly had me thinking critically about what I had gotten myself into.

But then one of my juniors invited me to the Friday night performance and I sat with 1,600 others in the Center for Faith and Life. As the light dimmed and the orchestra began to play, choir members slowly walked into the hall and I started to pick out familiar faces. Two of my first-year students stood among the women in Aurora. Another, who I knew was an English and art double major, sat in the orchestra. Three more stood with Cathedral Choir; another four in Collegiate Choir.

Kate Elliot3

Seeing all these students gathered together, creating something together so beautiful, gave me the chills. There was a sense of professionalism that I hadn't expected. Afterwards in the packed CFL lobby, a few of my students found me, exhausted faces transformed by the joy of performance. They thanked me for coming and proudly introduced their parents to me. At that point I started to understand what the big deal was. Now when I'm faced with those tired faces glancing blearily up at me in the classroom, I step up the energy and try to support them during these next busy days.

I'm not caving in to the pressures of their busy extracurricular lives, but rather I understand now that they are actively developing some of those "soft" skills that they so desperately need in the workforce—dedication, collaboration, perseverance, enthusiasm and yes—time management. Like course content, mastery of these skills takes time and effort, and it can be exhausting.

We faculty sometimes grumble about how over-scheduled our students are, beyond those who hang out in Jenson-Noble. From the cross-country runners, who just returned from Nationals, to the students who made the fall production of "Cabaret" a rousing success, to those students who worked so hard on SAC committees to bring Macklemore to Luther's stage, our students get it done and learn important transferable skills in the process.

Kate Elliot4

There is one additional lesson I took from my first experience with Christmas at Luther that is harder to quantify. My students reminded me that we all need to find time for those things we love, and that this cultivation of passion is something that makes life joyous and worth living.

Current student, Sam Jones '14, just blogged about getting caught up in the energy of "Christmas at Luther." He writes that in that moment, "everything is gone except this one perfect chord, and the orchestra is soaring and the conductor is flying, and there are sparkles in your eyes and suddenly you're completely overcome and you're crying as you look out into the black sea of audience and orchestra in front of you. I don't care in that moment about my homework or my future or any of my other problems. All that matters is the beauty of the music and the people around me creating it and swimming in it." http://www.luther.edu/music/know-the-score/?story_id=514166

That's a passion that I wish we saw more often in our world today.

I'm glad the tree is lit and I'm glad the parade of Norwegian sweaters is on its way. Each is a unique reminder of this great place where we've all found ourselves. I think I'll refrain from giving a pop quiz this week, but Sam, the homework picks back up next week, I promise.

Headshot - Kate ElliotKate Elliott is an assistant professor of art history at Luther College. She teaches courses from ancient, medieval and renaissance art to art of the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as a Paideia 450 course in the Paideia program. She also serves as the curator of the Luther College Fine Arts Collection.

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Comments

  • December 5 2013 at 12:17 pm
    Mary Sundet Jones

    Beautifully written and a great perspective, Kate. And - as Sam's mom - I also think it's worthwhile to note that Christmas at Luther is not even "extracurricular" for many students. They get academic credit for being in these choirs, and performance and rehearsal times are part of the expectation for grades. Perhaps especially important to music majors like Sam, but you could liken the time they spend working on Christmas at Luther to what's needed for a major, major paper or lab project or sculpture. It's such an amazing effort, that involves such a huge portion of the student body - thanks to you and any other faculty members who understand that it has a legitimate place in the lives and schedules of these students.

  • December 5 2013 at 2:28 pm
    Gina Phearman

    Christmas at Luther is so hard to explain to those who didn't attend Luther College.  It is an amazing thing to be a part of.  Well stated piece, indeed!

     

  • December 5 2013 at 9:56 pm
    Patti Wellman Rohwer
    To experience music in this way, with friends and classmates is truly trancendent. Those who share the experience are so very fortunate. Music is powerful and magical. It has the potential to create an experience that be fully expressed in words. How lucky we are to have been part of the community at Luther. The impact of this school and its alums spreads out like ripples on a still lake. Thank you for your thoughtful writing. (Know though, that the music majors are also juggling bio labs, calc, Paidea, and rehearsals. It is Luther after all.)
  • December 6 2013 at 4:10 pm
    Kate Elliott
    Thank you. You are all absolutely correct! As a liberal arts college ALL of our students are juggling academic work across the campus. Thank you for clarifying for those who may not be aware of this. The challenge, I have found, is to explain to those unfamiliar with the C@L experience what might motivate the non-music major to devote so much time to such a production. But as you all say, and what I tried to express, is that the value of such experiences go beyond the classroom. Patti, you are right. We are so fortunate. Enjoy Christmas at Luther and thank you for your wonderful comments!

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