UNCP5544: The Vision Quest

Dorothy Miller

Adjunct Faculty in English

Course also offered as ENGL4637

A Vision Quest is a Native American ritual to help young people search for their connections to the spirit world in order to find themselves and their missions in life, in relation to the people in their lives, past and present, and to their community. The ritual provides a means for personal growth and is a gateway to the status and responsibilities of adulthood. The ritual typically takes four days, during which participants go to solitary places, away from what has been familiar to them, to commune with their inner selves and to make contact with their spiritual guides.

To go on a vision quest is to go into the presence of the great mystery.
—Lakota proverb

At age 18, Harley Windsoldier from The Grass Dancer felt isolated, confused, and lacking self-confidence. What good are you? he taunted himself. Harley didn't think he was particularly interesting or talented. After completing his vision quest, which he undertook the following week, Harley joined his community in song, feeling comforted by the united voices. But a powerful new voice, unfamiliar to Harley, disturbed his ears. It was only as the song neared its end that he realized the truth. What he heard was the music of his own voice rising above the rest.

Purpose of the Course

In this course, we will use the Vision Quest as a metaphor for the four years at Boston College. Using readings from a variety of cultures as discussion points, students will be asked to reflect on the various influences during their college years that have affected them and brought them to self-understanding. Relating their lives to the lives of the characters in literature who have all gone on some variation of a quest, members of the class will explore their own education and the way their experiences at Boston College have formed them in the following ways:

  • their relationships;
  • their attitudes toward work;
  • their commitment to community;
  • and their spirituality to help them face the great mystery of life ahead of them.

The course will have students look at their past, who they were before they came to college, and their four years at Boston College, in order to make sense of who they are at the present time and to anticipate their future.


The course is predicated on participation from its members in the form of oral presentations, discussions, and written assignments. Small groups will be assigned topics and questions to prepare and research in order to lead classroom discussions. The papers will vary; some will analyze aspects of the literature, while others will be personal responses to the readings in relation to the four aspects we are focusing on in this course.

Since this Capstone course is designed to help students discover who they are at this important stage of their lives and how they have arrived at this place, the emphasis will be on the students themselves. They should expect to reflect on their experiences and share them openly in the classroom. One major goal of this class is to have students come to understand the way their four years at BC have been a kind of Vision Quest for them, and through this understanding help them to clarify for themselves their goals and values for the future. Using works from a variety of cultures should add a dimension of exploration for some students and familiarity for others.


  • Film: Thunderheart
  • The Grass Dancer, Susan Power
  • The Life of Pi, Yann Martel
  • Go Tell It On the Mountain, James Baldwin
  • Film: The Whale Rider
  • The Bonesetter's Daughter, Amy Tan
  • How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Alvarez
  • Writing the Memoir, Judith Barrington

While the various aspects of the course will be discussed in all the assigned works, certain works will have a more specific focus, which will determine the writing assignments connected to the work and the classroom discussions.

  • The film Thunderheart introduces the concept of The Vision Quest.
  • The Grass Dancer will focus on community and its relationship to self fulfillment.
  • The Life of Pi explores educational choices and how they relate to individuals.
  • Go Tell It On the Mountain and the film The Whale Rider are works about spirituality.
  • The Bonesetter's Daughter asks questions about work and how it relates to who we are.
  • How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents deals with relationships among siblings, with parents and other relatives, and with significant others.
  • Writing the Memoir will provide students with guidelines and suggestions for personal, reflective writing.


The course grade will be based on all the work done during the semester: group reports, class discussions and participation, papers on the literature, personal exploration papers, assignments, etc. In addition, there will be a long final paper due at the end of the semester in which students sum up their discoveries about themselves and relate their self-understanding to the work they have done during the course.