In this activity, each student brought in a favorite piece of music that had a spiritual meaning to him or her and shared it with the class.
The music could be of any type, not necessarily a hymn or religious in the conventional sense. Each played it on laptop or iPod (one brought his violin) and then explained why it was chosen and why it was important. The listening together was the product. Professor Kiely was always powerfully moved by how respectfully and intently they listened to one another's choices - especially because they varied from classical to rock to African folk to pop etc. Some were close to tears when a piece concluded.
The goal was to teach students to sit still together and listen to the familiar and unfamiliar and to realize that, though this is primarily a literature course, words are not the only means of complex and nuanced human expression. Comments were welcome, but Professor Kiely assured them that silence was also a response and that even Harvard students don't always have to have something to say immediately after an experience.
Music is not Professor Kiely’s field so he says he has little to offer more than his ear and attention. He tells the students that he is not a musicologist and doesn’t expect them to be, but they always urge him to keep this assignment because it shows them how distinctive and varied taste and spirituality are and how close to the heart music is. Many have very personal reasons for loving a piece of music.
Professor Kiely says he gets a huge amount from these classes. He learns how differently students react to him and one another when the material isn't verbal and doesn't easily lend itself to description and analysis in words. He also encourages students both to trust their taste and to expand it by paying attention to the attitudes of their peers. He always brings the general discussion back to the central theme of the course: the relationship between concepts of beauty and the Christian tradition. Most are surprised by the range encompassed and the occasional tensions caused by differences of opinion about the role of literature and the arts in the religious realm.