Changing the Conversation

Recording Industry Chair Beverly Keel has kick-started a national public discourse about the need for greater female involvement in country music

Beverly Keel, Chair, Department of Recording Industry on Nashville's Music Row at the Owen Bradley Park.

Beverly Keel, Chair, Department of Recording Industry on Nashville’s Music Row at the Owen Bradley Park.

Interview by Drew Ruble


For two consecutive years—2015 and 2016—MTSU professor Beverly Keel (’88), chair of the University’s Department of Recording Industry, was among the honorees receiving a Women in Music City Award from the Nashville Business Journal.

Launched in 2015, the awards honor women working in the music business “who are making a creative and economic impact on the industry.”

Keel also recently appeared in Variety magazine’s “2015 Music City Impact Report,” which focused on the people “igniting” Nashville’s latest popularity surge.

Currently in her third year of leading the Recording Industry department within the College of Media and Entertainment, Keel continues to build partnerships between MTSU and music industry leaders to enhance the student experience, align them with jobs in the industry, and bring in accomplished guest lecturers and instructors on a routine basis.

Keel previously served as senior vice president of artist and media relations
for Universal Music Group Nashville, where she actively guided the musical careers of stars ranging from American Idol winner Scotty McCreery to pop
icon Lionel Ritchie.

Also a former entertainment journalist, Keel has made waves on the national landscape as the outspoken co-founder of Change the Conversation, a coalition created, in part, to help change the way that women are perceived in the country music industry.

MTSU Magazine recently sat down with Keel to discuss all the attention she’s
been getting.

What led you to form Change the Conversation?

Let me start by saying that my concern about the unequal playing field for women in country music has since been far outweighed by the inspiration of women banding together to create a solution.

In 2014, women on Music Row were worried about the increased difficulty of getting women played on country radio, signed to record companies, or booked on some high-profile events.  I remember telling my friend Leslie Fram, Country Music Television’s senior vice president, that I wished I could do something about it. Unbeknownst to me, she was hearing the same sentiments from her good friend, Tracy Gershon, a veteran music executive who is currently vice president of A&R for Rounder Records and an artist manager.

Leslie suggested that we all get together to see if there was anything we could do to spotlight the problem and create a solution. The result was Change the Conversation, a group of women from various music backgrounds who are working together to improve the environment for women in country music.

What exactly are you hoping the group can accomplish?

Our goals include getting more women played on country radio, getting more women signed to major record label and publishing company deals, and getting more women featured in high-profile opportunities, whether it is an appearance on an awards show or TV show.

We want to banish the myths and misperceptions that women don’t like to hear other women on the radio or support other female artists. We are working to create a set of facts that shows the realities of the success of women, whether it is through album sales, concert tickets, or alcohol sales at venues. We want to fight inequality with truth.

Let me stress: We don’t believe that women should be played on radio or signed to record deals just because they are women. It is that women who are of the same quality of the male artists—if not higher—should receive the same opportunities and participate on a level playing field. We believe that there shouldn’t be just a few predetermined slots for women at country radio.

How big of a problem is this really?

When Tracy was trying to get record deals for her female artists, several labels said, “We don’t sign females,” or, “We already have too many females and they are too hard to get on the radio,” or, “It is too hard to find songs for females.”

Billboard’s year-end country radio airplay chart, which lists country music’s 60 most heard songs on radio in 2015, includes just six from female artists.

Meanwhile, women are making much of the best country music today, and that’s not just my opinion. According to the music industry voters of the CMA, Miranda Lambert made the best country album and country single and participated in the best vocal event of the year in 2014, while Kacey Musgraves co-wrote the best song. In the past three years, only three of the 15 artists nominated for the CMA’s best new artist award have been females.

The Change the Conversation group recently launched its mentoring sessions for young artists at the Bluebird Café in Nashville, Tennessee. Pictured, from left, are Beverly Keel, chair of MTSU's Department of Recording Industry and co-founder of Change the Conversation; Leslie Fram, CMT senior vice president and Change the Conversation co-founder; country music legend and special guest Reba McEntire; and Tracy Gershon, Rounder Records Group's vice president of A&R and Change the Conversation co-founder. (Photo courtesy of Justin McIntosh)

The Change the Conversation group recently launched its mentoring sessions for young artists at the Bluebird Café in Nashville, Tennessee. Pictured, from left, are Beverly Keel, chair of MTSU’s Department of Recording Industry and co-founder of Change the Conversation; Leslie Fram, CMT senior vice president and Change the Conversation co-founder; country music legend and special guest Reba McEntire; and Tracy Gershon, Rounder Records Group’s vice president of A&R and Change the Conversation co-founder. (Photo courtesy of Justin McIntosh)

Explain to us why making an impact on radio is so crucial to your movement.

The lack of airplay for women has launched a vicious cycle. If country radio doesn’t play females, labels won’t sign as many artists, and then publishers won’t sign as many females.

It’s important to note that this doesn’t affect just the women who are trying to make a living in country music, but it affects all women because music is an important force in shaping popular culture, which should reflect who we are as a society.

When women don’t hear other women on country radio, it takes its toll on our self-esteem, dreams, and ambitions. There is little that most women can relate to when listening to today’s country radio, and pop culture is important in shaping how we view ourselves.

Are you surprised at how impactful Change the Conversation has already been?

In late May 2016, we received a beautifully wrapped gift that couldn’t have come at a better time. Radio consultant Keith Hill told the trade publication Country Radio Aircheck that he advised radio stations not to play too many songs by women and not to play two women back to back. “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out,” he said, noting that female listeners like male artists.

“Trust me,” he said. “I play great female records, and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists
like that. The tomatoes of our salad
are females.”

The story made national headlines and propelled our fight to the national stage. No longer could country radio deny what the problem was. Not only did he help galvanize a movement, he gave it a symbol. Martina McBride had shirts printed with the slogan “Tomato,” and even Rush Limbaugh weighed in on the unfortunate choice of the word “tomato.”

These comments were made the day before our third meeting, which was held at Creative Artist Agency and was attended by about 75 fired-up and passionate people. Soon after, Martina McBride held an intimate gathering for female artists and their managers at her studio in Nashville, so that they could ask questions and learn about Change the Conversation in a safe environment.

In June, about 80 people gathered at Sambuca in Nashville at a City National Bank-sponsored event to hear Devarati Ghosh, a New York-based political economist and Stanford University Ph.D. candidate, and author Jay Frank present research that they conducted for Change the Conversation.

One of our most exciting nights came last summer, when YouTube sponsored an event, and Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, presented the institute’s findings on gender prevalence in entertainment. Another event focused on live entertainment and attracted several hundred people at 3rd and Lindsley, where we all stayed for a show by Natalie Stovall and her guests.

But perhaps the highlight came in March, when Reba McEntire served as a special guest mentor for five young female artists at the Bluebird Café and offered advice
to those beginning their careers.

We have garnered substantial media coverage in music and country music publications, and Billboard said Change the Conversation began having an impact


on Music Row after only six months. It has brought a spotlight to radio programming, so they can’t ignore or dismiss the claims of inequality any longer.

What’s next?

This is about the young generation of girls who have dreams of having a career in country music. We want to improve the situation for them so that they’re not still battling this problem 10–20 years from now.

Thanks, Beverly.




Painting the Grammys True Blue


MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee and Nashville Mayor Megan Barry are shown here at the Leadership Music reception in Los Angeles before Monday's telecast of the 58th annual Grammy Awards. (MTSU photo by Andrew Oppmann)

MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee and Nashville Mayor Megan Barry are shown here at the Leadership Music reception in Los Angeles before Monday’s telecast of the 58th annual Grammy Awards. (MTSU photo by Andrew Oppmann)

Almost 20 MTSU alumni or former students and faculty from around the University have been nominated for Grammy Awards in the past seven years. Eight have won Grammys so far, including some repeat recipients, in categories from classical to gospel to bluegrass. Few universities in America can boast such high-brow musical success.

In 2016, MTSU alumnus Luke Laird (’01) was again nominated for a Grammy award in the Best Country Song category for his song “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools,” written with Barry Dean and Jonathan Singleton and performed by artist Tim McGraw. Laird was nominated in 2015 for co-writing both Kenny Chesney’s “American Kids” and Eric Church’s “Give Me Back My Hometown.” Laird was also nominated that year for Best Country Album, as producer of Kasey Musgraves’ album, “Pageant Material.” Laird won the Grammy for Best Country Album in 2014 for co-producing Musgraves’ “Same Trailer, Different Park.”

Other Grammy nominees with MTSU ties in 2016 included Sam Hunt, who was up for Best Country Album for “Montevallo” and Best New Artist, and Eric Pasley, who was nominated for Best Country Duo/Group Performance for “The Driver,” along with Charles Kelley and Dierks Bentley. In 2015, “Messengers,” co-written by 2003 music business graduate Torrance Esmond—known professionally as Street Symphony—and former MTSU student Lecrae Moore for Moore’s latest album, won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song. Esmond later established the Street Symphony Scholarship, a $750-per-semester award for MTSU recording industry students. Former student Jaren Johnston was also nominated in the Best Country Song category in 2015 as a co-writer on “Meanwhile, Back at Mama’s,” performed by McGraw.

Student Songwriter

MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee, left, chats with alumnus, Grammy-winner and 2016 Grammy nominee Luke Laird at a reception held Sunday in his honor in Los Angeles by the MTSU College of Media and Entertainment as part of the Grammy weekend festivities in Los Angeles. (MTSU photo by Andrew Oppmann)

MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee, left, chats with alumnus, Grammy-winner and 2016 Grammy nominee Luke Laird at a reception held Sunday in his honor in Los Angeles by the MTSU College of Media and Entertainment as part of the Grammy weekend festivities in Los Angeles. (MTSU photo by Andrew Oppmann)

Laird earned his MTSU music business degree in 2001 and has had more than 14 No. 1 singles since he signed his first publishing deal in 2002. He’s written 20 Billboard No. 1 hits and was recently named BMI’s Songwriter of the Year and the Academy of Country Music’s songwriter of the year. MTSU honored him at a special reception in Los Angeles held the day before this year’s Grammys event. President Sidney A. McPhee, Media and Entertainment college dean Ken Paulson and Beverly Keel, chair of the Recording Industry department (who taught Laird while a student) were in attendance.

Laird, in thanking MTSU for the recognition, talked about the encouragement and support he received from the faculty while he was a student. “The people there encouraged me, still to this day,” Laird said. “My time at MTSU is a time I look back on very fondly.”

On the Scene

The Americana Music Association held a pre-Grammy tribute Saturday night to the late Glenn Frey at the legendary Troubadour nightclub, sponsored by Middle Tennessee State University. From left is Beverly Keel, chair of MTSU’s Recording Industry department; MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee; headliner Lee Ann Womack; Ken Paulson, dean of the MTSU College of Media and Entertainment; and Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Association. (MTSU photo by Andrew Oppmann)

The Americana Music Association held a pre-Grammy tribute Saturday night to the late Glenn Frey at the legendary Troubadour nightclub, sponsored by Middle Tennessee State University. From left is Beverly Keel, chair of MTSU’s Recording Industry department; MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee; headliner Lee Ann Womack; Ken Paulson, dean of the MTSU College of Media and Entertainment; and Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Association. (MTSU photo by Andrew Oppmann)

For three consecutive years from 2014 through 2016, MTSU has been among the only universities represented at the Grammy event. For the past two years, MTSU has been a presenting sponsor of a Leadership Music alumni reunion held at the legendary Troubadour nightclub near the site of the Grammy telecast. This year, MTSU joined Nashville’s Americana Music Association in paying tribute at that event to late Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey. Bonnie Raitt and Lee Ann Womack were among the artists on the bill for the pre-Grammy concert. The day before that event, McPhee, Paulson, and Keel held a reunion with alumni, supporters and friends of the college—including Nashville Mayor Megan Barry—at Rock’N Fish Restaurant.

“MTSU’s increasing presence at the Grammys as been noticed and appreciated, not only by our alumni but others in the recording industry,” McPhee said. “We’ve planted the True Blue flag in a very visible location.”

Even the actual Grammy telecast had a True Blue connection, as MTSU alumnus Garry Hood (’77) once again served as the head stage manager for the Grammy ceremony.


A Medieval Mindset

Amy Kaufman studies the pervasive power of a mythologized Middle Ages on modern life


by Katie Porterfield


COVERsimplifiedWpinWhen the fifth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones premiered in April 2015, the show based on the best-selling medieval fantasy books by George R.R. Martin drew about eight million viewers live. Days to follow would yield online, on-demand, and DVR viewings that brought the audience total to 18 million viewers, according to HBO, which later declared the show the most-watched in HBO history.

Set in a brutish yet simpler pre-industrial world where men dominate women and disputes are settled with the sword, Game of Thrones and its soaring popularity speak to a modern obsession with the Middle Ages. It also provides a hearty new platform for researchers like MTSU English professor Amy Kaufman, who studies medievalism, a mythologized version of the Middle Ages.

“Pardon the pun, but medievalism is really experiencing a renaissance these days,” Kaufman said.

Examples of medievalism permeate American pop culture in the 21st century, whether it’s Game of Thrones or Vikings (another popular television series, which airs on the History Channel); the Warner Brothers multi-film version of the King Arthur legend scheduled to hit theaters in 2016; or video games with names like World of Warcraft, the Elder Scrolls series, and Dragon Age (or Game of War … think Kate Upton).

Though Kaufman is trained in what she calls “traditional medieval studies,” meaning she studied—and still does—works that came out of the Middle Ages such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (14th century) and Thomas Malory’s rendition of the Arthurian legend (15th century), she also looks at the entertainment Americans consume and the ideas that entertainment has about the time period in which she specializes.

Typically, there’s a disconnect between those “worlds.” Kaufman seeks to determine what that disconnect is and why it happens. Essentially, she asks, “Why does the Middle Ages look so different in popular culture than it does when we actually encounter it in literature?”


An Appealing Fantasy

What Kaufman and others in her field have determined is that medievalism seems to gain traction in popular culture when audiences feel insecure, unstable, and threatened by rapid change. That, Kaufman explains, is clearly applicable for today’s society, but it was also the case in the nineteenth century, a period that saw colonies wanting liberation, slavery coming to an end, agitation for women’s suffrage, industrialization, and new ideas by Darwin and Freud. Thus, the medieval past, a time before such turmoil, looked very attractive to those living in the eighteen hundreds.

“They imagined it as a time and place where men were men, women were women, everyone was the same race and practiced the same faith, and no one was corrupted by technology, sexuality or democracy,” Kaufman said.

More importantly, Kaufman adds, writers, artists, and even historians created versions of medieval stories that stabilized gender, race, and religion, and in turn perfected this simplistic notion of the medieval period that we have today.

“What people don’t realize is that a whole lot of the ‘neomedieval’ material we consume in popular culture is filtered through late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century medievalism, rather than actual medieval sources,” Kaufman said, citing the fact that the popular image of a Viking with a horned helmet, for example, is a construct conceived for the four operas that make up nineteenth-century German composer Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

“Our sources are less often medieval literature or history than they are, in many ways, cloudy nostalgia and imaginative propaganda.”


Misled by Myths

Take, for example, Game of Thrones.

“The series sells the typical fantasy of medieval life as nasty, brutish and short, but my concern with it, and my focus in studying it, has been the way that it normalizes sexual violence,” Kaufman said.

The excessive violence associated with the show and the original book series has drawn a great deal of attention and criticism. According to Kaufman, what’s worthy of noticing is the way the Middle Ages is mistakenly used to justify that violence. As she points out, Martin, in commenting about the amount of rape in his novels, once said, “Well, I’m not writing about contemporary sex. It’s medieval.”

In reality, however, it’s not. Rape, Kaufman confirms, was a serious crime in the Middle Ages, and the laws and punishments for the crime varied from century to century and nation to nation. So, although the high level of sexual violence in Game of Thrones is supposed to make its world “authentic, gritty and real,” it’s actually more modern than medieval in terms of how frequent rape is in contemporary entertainment culture and in the lives of people in the United States and globally.

Kaufman said the danger is that audiences watch “rape victims become disposable tropes in the service of ‘history’ and become complacent about sexual violence, either with false confidence that everything has improved since the ‘dark ages,’ or with resignation about the inevitability of violence against women in any time period.

“It lends horrific acts of violence and oppression the validating weight of history,” Kaufman said. “Ultimately, the kind of reductionist thinking we use when we imagine our medieval past is toxic to our sense of human identity. It limits what we think we’re capable of changing and who we are capable of being.”


A Conspicuous Absence

In general, today’s examples of medievalism diminish the role of women, playing into the idea that the Middle Ages represent a more authentic manhood. Kaufman admits that when she began to study medieval literature, she expected to see the absence or oppression of women, as well as an unenlightened understanding of gender and sexism. However, what she found was quite the opposite. Examples of women in literature throughout the Middle Ages include heroic women with supernatural strength, sorceresses who both tormented and rescued men with magic, women who dressed as knights and won tournaments, and highly educated women who wrote and argued on their own behalf, often from positions within the church.

“I would never argue that things were perfect for women in the Middle Ages—they certainly weren’t—but medieval women were neither silent nor invisible,” Kaufman said. “They fought back, and many men supported them.”

The imagined, mythological version of medievalism in which women are submissive, however, has been utilized not only in entertainment media today, but in religious and political propaganda as well. Kaufman’s research also examines how extreme religious movements promise a return to an idealized past. Medievalism, Kaufman said, has been used in widely divergent religious movements ranging from the “masculine church” and Biblical Patriarchy movements throughout the last 15 years to, more recently, the recruitment propaganda of the Islamic State (ISIS).

“ISIS is basically selling recruits the opportunity to be the hero in a live-action, medieval-themed video game,” Kaufman said.

It’s all fascinating, book-worthy stuff. In fact, Kaufman is struggling with whether her research lends itself to one book or two: one on medievalism and pop culture, and another on medievalism and religious extremism. One thing is certain—she won’t be lacking material. As she puts it, for those who study medievalism, the world today offers “an embarrassment of riches.”


Modern medieval masculinity researcher Dr. Amy Kaufman, an assistant professor of English

Modern medieval masculinity researcher Dr. Amy Kaufman, an assistant professor of English



A brief conversation with MTSU English professor Amy Kaufman

Talk about your work in women’s shelters and rape crisis centers. How, if at all, does it relate to your studies today?

I started volunteering with a domestic violence and rape crisis center in Tallahassee, Fla., while I was working on my undergraduate degree at Florida State. I worked with the children who stayed in the shelter first, then switched to the Injunction Assistance Office in the courthouse. I was drawn to that work again during my Ph.D. and answered hotline calls for an organization in Massachusetts. The work was heartbreaking and incredibly frustrating, and early on I was passionate not only about working to stop this kind of violence, but also figuring out why it happened so frequently and with so much tacit acceptance. I guess the scholar in me wanted to figure out the origins of the problem.

At the same time, my Medieval Studies education was dispelling myths about women’s absence from literature and history, providing me with powerful alternate narratives that I wanted to share. When we believe that gender and its hierarchies have been the same way throughout all of history, we accept sexual violence as inevitable. We surrender to it, and we lose our will to fight back. And that’s not just dangerous for women; it also affects the treatment of men who have been sexually assaulted. If violence against women is inevitable because they are women, violence against men becomes impossible to believe. This makes it much harder for male survivors to seek help.

You had planned to go to law school and practice family law. What changed?

I took a year between my B.A. and what would have been a law degree to work and save up money. And I worked two jobs at that point, both of which had me working with lawyers. And they were miserable. Even those who had gotten into the field with a degree of idealism found that they weren’t able to help people, that their lives were more about filling out paperwork and bringing in money than they expected.

At the same time, I learned that there was such a thing as graduate school. This was right before I graduated from Florida State. It may sound strange that I could go through four years of a B.A. program and remain totally ignorant of how a person becomes a professor, but unlike a lot of people who pursue this career, I didn’t come from an academic family. No one in my social circle was going to graduate school; a lot of my friends never even went to college. All I knew was that I loved to write, I loved literature, and I loved learning about history, and suddenly there was this possibility in front of me to do what I really loved doing on a daily basis.

What impact did academia and the professors who populate it have
on your life?

There were some very tough points in my life where teachers—and eventually professors—really saved me. They helped me not just by being compassionate, but also by feeding my mind and wanting to see me grow and succeed. I feel like I have come really far from where I started out in life, and I owe nearly all of that to my teachers and professors. There is a lot of power in teaching, power to reach people, expand their possibilities, and open up their worlds.

Thanks, Dr. Kaufman.

The Pop Candy Pioneer

by Allison Gorman


How journalist Whitney Matheson found herself at the forefront of New Media


As a journalist for USAToday.com, Whitney Matheson had the kind of fervent following that could seem kind of creepy. Her readers didn’t just follow her online. They followed her.

And she was fine with that.

Drawn by Matheson’s lively observations of pop culture and their shared love of the same, those who made up the national audience of her USA Today blog, Pop Candy, coalesced into a virtual community and at times a physical one, gathering (at her invitation) in New York, San Diego, Austin, or wherever she happened to be on assignment.

“I was always surprised by how many people showed up and super-surprised when readers started holding their own meet-ups across the country without me,” she says.

By the time she hit her thirties, Matheson had the kind of passionate readership few journalists cultivate in a lifetime. What began as a personal column and a sideline from her official job with what was then the paper’s new dot-com side had grown into an extraordinary collaboration between writer and readers.

“Readers illustrated a comic book we distributed at Comic-Con,” Matheson says. “They created logos and promotional material for the blog. They stayed up all night to analyze episodes of Lost on our message boards. Heck, when I went on maternity leave, Pop Candy readers even filled in for me to ensure the blog kept going.”

IMG_0058When downsizing at USA Today ended Pop Candy’s 15-year run last year, Ken Paulson, the paper’s former editor and senior vice president of news who is now dean of the College of Mass Communication, hired Matheson as MTSU’s professional journalist-in-residence. For her students, she represents the new face of journalism and how to succeed outside traditional print media.

“She’s still a young woman but was indisputably a pioneer in establishing a new kind of relationship with her audience,” Paulson says. “Her readers were also her sources, collaborators, and friends. It’s a model that builds loyalty, quality, and reach, and it needs to be shared with our students.”

Opportunity Pings

That model, which is still evolving, was in its infancy in 1999, when Matheson earned her journalism degree from the University of Tennessee. Newspapers weren’t sure where the dot-com train was going, but they knew they’d better jump on or be left behind. So Matheson—who as editor of the University of Tennessee Daily Beacon had taken the path of top journalism students, spending far more time in the newsroom than in the classroom—graduated into an opportunity-rich environment. She went to USA Today right out of college.

WebMatheson was charged with updating the paper’s website every night (a task now obsolete, she notes) and writing online news stories and some for print. But her passion was writing about pop culture, so she pitched the idea for a weekly online entertainment column based on a popular one she’d written for the Beacon. Her editor said yes, and she ran with it.

“From my perspective, I was just writing about things that I loved that I didn’t see getting a lot of coverage,” she says, “and luckily I had the freedom to experiment with formats and different ways of delivering that.”

Her weekly column led to a daily, less conventional one that ultimately subsumed the original. It kept growing until writing and updating it became her full-time job.

“I called it a blog, but nobody was hyperaware of that term,” she says. “I worked without blogging software at the time. So I started USA Today’s first blog, but it was also one of the first blogs on any major publication’s website.”

The New Mainstream

Whether or not they knew what to call it, readers responded to Pop Candy in discussions of entertainment not considered mainstream or thought to be too pedestrian or edgy for coverage by traditional media. The job took her to events across the country, from South by Southwest to Lebowski Fest to moustache competitions, with her readers enthusiastically (and sometimes literally) following along.

By the time Matheson had cultivated what would be her groundbreaking readership—Paulson says she was his “top blogger” at USA Today—the platform she’d used to achieve success was on the lips of every naysayer predicting the death of journalism. The lament went something like this: “Now everyone with a blog thinks they’re journalists.”

Now Matheson offers an updated, and decidedly positive, spin on that theme to her students at MTSU.

“The great thing about being a journalist right now is that you can go out and make work tonight,” she says. “You can make a podcast and put it on iTunes. You can make a Web series. You can do it on your own—it’s very easy—and you can distribute it. What I try to tell my students is that I’m not teaching them how to be journalists ten years from now. They should consider themselves journalists right now.”

matheson facebook

Voice Work

That’s not to say that journalism students don’t need to learn the core skills of the trade. One of Paulson’s challenges as dean of the College of Mass Communication has been to restructure its curriculum, and the college itself, to better integrate training in various digital platforms while doubling down on traditional, pen-and-paper values such as responsible, effective writing and thorough research.

New hires like Matheson and multimedia specialist Val Hoeppner, Matheson’s predecessor as journalist-in-residence who now heads the Center for Innovation in Media, are helping build on Paulson’s vision of the college as a forward-looking source of journalism education.

“We have to give our students not just a fundamentally sound education but also instill receptivity to technology, new ideas, and lifelong learning,” Paulson says.

So in the editing class she taught last spring, Matheson plowed some familiar ground (plenty of reps with the AP Stylebook), while in her Reporting on Popular Culture class, she spent a long time discussing voice—a subject verboten in the old-school world of journalism’s “five W’s.”

“That’s something that’s changed dramatically in the last five years, and certainly in the last fifteen,” Matheson says. “It used to be that you had to take your voice out of your writing and be as objective as possible. . . . Publications used to say, ‘We’re looking for a music writer.’ Now they say, ‘We’re looking for a fresh voice.’ It’s because of voice that I was able to build a community [with Pop Candy], and it’s the reason I was fine after I got laid off from my job.”

Whitney Matheson, Mass Comm Pop Culture Journalism faculty

Whitney Matheson, Mass Comm Pop Culture Journalism faculty

A New Career Paradigm

Matheson is the model for what her students can expect from a career in modern journalism if they do it right. When Pop Candy ended, she landed on her feet because she’d established a strong online presence and professional relationships that led to the chance to freelance for editors she’d wanted to work with for years.

Fairly or not, “I’m a freelancer” used to be considered journalism-speak for “I can’t find a real job.” Now, freelancing is just another viable career route Matheson discusses with her students.

“It’s a very good market for freelancers,” she says. Not only are opportunities for contract journalists abundant, but the ability to work remotely means their potential client base is almost unlimited.

As journalist-in-residence, Matheson continues to freelance for various websites not just to stay professionally relevant, she says, but also to understand the job market her students hope to enter.

“I feel like those things feed into each other,” she says. “I have to stay very active in my field in order to relate to my students and be helpful to them.”



The New Hiring Grounds

The first thing Matheson tells students is to look for jobs outside the old business model. While there are still opportunities in “legacy media organizations,” she says, they are becoming fewer (as she can attest). Meanwhile, Web-based organizations from Facebook, Google, and Twitter to Vox, Mashable, and BuzzFeed are growing  exponentially and are hiring journalists.

“I tell my students there are jobs everywhere, they’re just not in the same places where I was told jobs were 16 years ago,” she says. “I guess you can look in traditional, print-based publications, but the truth is you’re going to find more experimentation and openness, and probably more money, in some other, less traditional places.”

Just as opportunities have increased for journalists, so has the skill set they are expected to have, she adds. Writers must now have basic proficiency in digital video and audio media, subjects now being integrated into the School of Journalism’s curricula.

But the most powerful tool an aspiring journalist can have is initiative, Matheson says.

“One lesson I’m constantly trying to get across is that it’s important not only to make your own work but also to take risks,” she says. “Every success I’ve had has been me going out and just doing something on my own.”

To borrow from another notable writer and risk taker, reports of the death of journalism have been greatly exaggerated. For proof, look at Whitney Matheson, who continues to show students what is possible—and profitable—in the new world of mass communication.


Faith Handlers

A folklorist studies a widely misunderstood Appalachian tradition

by Allison Gorman


Years before the National Geographic Channel sent film crews to Middlesboro, Ky., to document the life of preacher Jamie Coots for the show Snake Salvation, Associate Professor Patricia Gaitely (English) was there doing some documenting of her own. Equipped with a simple recorder and camera, a notebook, a Bible, and sometimes a tambourine, she traveled to Coots’s church and other small congregations in the rural Southeast to immerse herself in the culture of snake handling. She’d long been fascinated by this unusual Appalachian tradition, and she hoped to interview women in the insular, generally patriarchal denominations in which snake handling is practiced. What she learned changed many of her assumptions about these people, whose lives bear little resemblance to reality TV.

2014-05-41D Trisha Gaitely CLA Magazine

Gaitely began with more than a passing knowledge of the subject. Raised Anglican, she started attending Pentecostal services at age 22, before she left her native England for graduate school in Alabama. “I was familiar with fairly lively expressions of worship,” she says. “I believed in the supernatural, in healing, and speaking in tongues, that kind of thing.” But snake handling was a different matter. Only a few Pentecostal congregations—usually identified as “Holiness” churches—believe in a scriptural mandate (Mark 16:18) to take up serpents as a sign of faith.


Gaitely at Pastor Jimmy Morrow’s church in east Tennessee holding a snake box (securely) containing a copperhead. Photo by Rhonda L. McDaniel.

The first known snake handler practiced in East Tennessee in 1909, but the tradition is older than that, Gaitely says. It spread throughout southern Appalachia, where it still attracts a vibrant subculture with hundreds of adherents. When Gaitely joined MTSU in 2006, she saw an opportunity to explore that subculture from its birthplace. “As a Christian, I am very interested in how others of the same faith express that faith,” she says. “I’m also interested in snakes and belonged to a reptile club in Alabama. So it was an intriguing combination for me.”

The Internet and fellow researchers led her to Del Rio, Tenn., Sand Mountain, Ala., and Middlesboro, to churches that seemed remote from the world, although they weren’t far from the interstate. “Many are in quite depressed areas,” she says. “Every time I went to Middlesboro, it seemed like something else in town had closed down.”

When first visiting a church, Gaitely usually sat in the back, near other women. (“I would never have presumed to sit behind the pulpit with the men who were sitting there,” she says.) To interview the women, however, she typically went through a male “gatekeeper.”    But once she had access, what she saw and heard surprised her. The women acknowledged their traditional biblical roles as subordinate to men, yet they felt spiritually empowered. “I found that many women were active in these services, rather than passive,” Gaitely says. They couldn’t preach, but they “testified” (often a slim difference), sang and played music, and handled snakes as the spirit led them.


Pastor Morrow handling a copperhead during a worship service.

They also seemed socially empowered, as Gaitely noted in an article for the North Carolina Folklore Journal. They set their own standards for biblically appropriate dress and behavior. And because their congregations functioned much like extended families, sharing practical and sometimes even financial support, child rearing was less onerous and lonely than it can be for many mothers, especially those facing economic hardship. That might explain why many of the women Gaitely met weren’t raised in the tradition, as she had assumed, but had joined it voluntarily. As she concludes in her article, “The way of life they have chosen, and the way these women have chosen to express their faith, grants them a degree of freedom, autonomy, and self-expression that some with more material resources might find enviable.”

Pam Morrow (Jimmy’s wife), Gaitely, and Jimmy Morrow at their home.

Pam Morrow (Jimmy’s wife), Gaitely, and Jimmy Morrow at their home.

Television has portrayed these communities as anything but enviable, as Gaitely predicted it would when she was visiting the Del Rio church and the BBC arrived to film a service for its documentary Around the World in 80 Faiths. “I remember saying, ‘I know what they’re going to focus on. They’re going to film the toothless person or the person dancing around with no shoes on’—and that’s pretty much what they did.”

Gaitely has never seen Snake Salvation, but she understands its appeal; fascination with snake handling sparked her own research. (The subject got fresh media attention when Jamie Coots died of a snake bite in last year, and again when his son Cody, who succeeded him, suffered a nonfatal bite as well.) But she says focusing solely on snake handling—which, if it happens at all, might take up 10 minutes of a two-hour service—misses the larger picture, which is about people searching for spiritual authenticity. That’s a tradition as old as humankind.


2014-05-41D Trisha Gaitely CLA Magazine

Folklorist Trish Gaitely isn’t the only MTSU professor with an academic interest in serpent handling. Dr. Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand, assistant professor of religious studies in the Department of Philosophy, is frequently quoted by news outlets that cover the practice, specifically regarding legal aspects of the Tennessee law passed in 1947 that banned it. The last formal legal challenge to the law occurred in 1975, when the Tennessee Supreme Court weighed public safety over religious liberty and confirmed that serpent handling was too dangerous to be legal.






Photos courtesy of Trish Gaitely.


The Power of Preservation

Carroll Van West guides one of MTSU’s most respected Centers of Excellence toward a self-sufficient future

by Katie Porterfield

When Carroll Van West first visited a Selma, Ala., home that served as a safe haven for Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders during the Civil Rights movement, he was just a stranger to the homeowner, Richie Jean Sherrod Jackson. West, an MTSU history professor and director of the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP), had been invited to the home to help Jackson nominate it for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. As Jackson pointed to the chair where King sat the day he learned of the assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, she said, “I don’t let anyone sit in that chair.”

By the end of the visit, however, Jackson had changed her tune, telling West not only that he was welcome to sit in the chair (an offer he respectfully declined) but also that on his next visit he should come to the back door—the one used by two Nobel Peace Prize winners, King and Ralph Bunche.

“That’s how friends enter the house,” Jackson said.

Well known in a field that’s as much about gaining trust as it is about preserving structures, West excels at forging close relationships with those who have interesting stories.

  Since becoming CHP director in 1985, he’s established           a reputation that’s helped make the center and MTSU historic preservation students familiar in places well beyond Tennessee’s borders. And he’s far from finished. As he leads the center into its 30th year, he hopes to get funding to formalize the Historic Preservation major program’s hands-on approach and expand the CHP’s reach nationally and internationally.

“What does that do?” West asks. “It ends up creating more opportunities for students, and what are we about but that?”

Focusing on students has been part of the CHP’s foundation since it was established in 1984 by the Tennessee General Assembly as MTSU’s first Center of Excellence and one of nine original centers at Tennessee Board of Regents universities. The CHP became a full-time research and public service entity in 1991. Its mission is two-fold: to help Tennessee communities identify and use their heritage assets (historical sites, artifacts, and narratives that tell stories of the past) and to support and direct student research and experiential learning opportunities. Through the years, the CHP has helped communities develop historic preservation plans, historic structure reports, heritage tourism plans, National Register nominations, and more. Along the way, M.A. and Ph.D. students in Public History have worked alongside West and his staff, putting “boots on the ground,” as West calls it, and getting real-world historic preservation experience.

“There is no better way to learn history and develop a passion for it than to go put your hands on it,” West says. “It’s a great competitive advantage because when our students go on interviews they talk about their projects, and employers know from the get-go that they have real experience.”

Today, the mission of the CHP is still the same, but West and his staff have expanded its reach to include the Midsouth, which West defines as the area within about a six-hour radius from Murfreesboro.

“It makes for long days, but it really broadens the student experience,” he says. “Our students get to say they worked on something in Appalachia or in the Mississippi Delta. You can’t go other places to get that, so again, it gives them a competitive advantage.”

West and his staff began to aggressively venture into other states in 2002, when they accepted an invitation to document Civil Rights churches in Birmingham. (The invitation came after they had successfully obtained a National Register nomination in the late 1990s for the Glenview neighborhood in Memphis, one of the first parts of the city to integrate in the 1950s.) The Birmingham project led to several others in Alabama, including a recent effort to assist in marking Civil Rights sites in Selma. Shortly after crossing into Alabama, the CHP started working with the Mississippi Blues Commission on the Mississippi Blues Trail, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“I saw how much the students benefited,” says West. “I thought, ‘Well, if they don’t mind the travel, I don’t.’”

Today, in addition to the Selma undertaking, the CHP is working in Kentucky, North Carolina, Missouri, Oklahoma, and, of course, Tennessee.

“That’s still our core mission,” West says. “But to entice students and to get good students, you’ve got to do more than that.”

And they have done more. In the early days, the CHP tackled about four projects a year. Today, West, his staff, and students engage in fifteen to twenty projects annually, and the CHP typically provides funding for at least sixteen graduate assistants. This year, the center is supporting ten Ph.D. candidates and six master’s students.

As have many distinguished graduates before them, those students are likely go on to careers in historic preservation. They’ll find jobs in a variety of public and private settings including state historic preservation offices, military bases, national parks, federal agencies, historic sites and museums, preservation or cultural resources management consulting firms, and departments of transportation.

Several MTSU Historic Preservation alums hold high-profile positions in Washington, D.C., including David Brown (’77) at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Blythe Semmer (’98) at the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and Jeff Durbin (’89) at the National Park Service.

“While none of us walked into our current positions straight out of graduate school in Murfreesboro,” says Durbin, “I do believe that our education and hands-on training at MTSU gave us a foot in the door, which undoubtedly led to where we are now.”

Durbin not only speaks highly of Dr. West and his experience at MTSU but also lauds the historic preservation program’s reputation.

“MTSU’s historic preservation program (and especially the public service work of the Center for Historic Preservation) has a strong reputation for producing well-prepared and well-rounded graduates who have a lot of practical experience as well as the intellect necessary to work in this profession,” Durbin says.

Chris Hetzel, an alumnus and historic preservation consultant working on compliance-related projects across the country, agrees with Durbin, saying MTSU’s program has long had a good reputation in the field. “MTSU’s program always has high visibility and presence at national conferences and the like, largely due to Dr. West and his many students who have moved on to jobs and positions throughout the country,” says Hetzel.

Graduates not only do work that strengthens MTSU’s reputation but also create more CHP projects and form a network for other graduates seeking jobs.

“The students who come out of this real-world environment grow over time, and when they, themselves, are in hiring mode, they want people from that same process,” West says.

West would like to safeguard that process for years to come.

“We need to make sure that the center’s vision and boots-on-the-ground approach to doing history is institutionalized and sustainable in the future,” he says.

His goals include figuring out ways to underwrite fieldwork.

“Then we can really work with communities in need and we can make sure this fieldwork-centered approach is here five years from now, ten years from now, twenty years from now,” he says.

With money for travel, the CHP could continue to spread its national and international reputation.

With no plans to slow down, West is forging ahead (including blogging to stimulate dialogue about the CHP’s work). With the help of staff members who offer fresh perspectives, he’s doing everything he can to ensure that the CHP is ready for the future.

“I’m lucky,” he says. “I have great people to work with: my colleagues work hard, the students who come to MTSU are almost invariably motivated, and then communities allow you to work on these projects.”

In other words, bring on the next 30 years.



An Honor and an Opportunity

In July 2013, Carroll Van West, CHP director, was appointed state historian by Gov. Bill Haslam.

“Gov. Haslam and his staff made it clear that one reason they asked me is that I am active in all 95 counties, and they want to be able to rely on that experience whenever necessary,” said West.

While he’s thrilled and he acknowledges that there is no greater honor for someone in his field than to serve as state historian, he also sees the appointment as a way to create more opportunities for MTSU Historic Preservation majors.

“People are always asking me, ‘Do you have someone who can do this, do you have someone who can do that?’” West says. “Sometimes there isn’t a match, but there often is, and a student gets an internship or an entry-level job. In today’s job market, just being able to open doors can matter.”




MTSU has produced a True Blue army of preservationists whose effect on communities large and small is unmistakable. One of MTSU’s most celebrated historic preservation graduates is David J. Brown, chief preservation officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Brown is one of the key figures working to protect America’s national treasures.

The program is equally proud of graduates like Jessica White,who recently took a position with the Huntsville Historic Preservation Commission in Alabama. Since then, she’s worked as fieldwork preservationist for the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area, among other activities.







In 1985, the Center for Historic Preservation began administering the Tennessee Century Farms program to identify, document, and recognize farms that have been in the same family continuously for at least 100 years.

There are Century Farms in each of Tennessee’s 95 counties, and the program has certified more than 1,500 farms. Of that number, 157 are at least 200 years old and 634 are at least 150 years old.

In addition to honoring these farms and families, the program allows the CHP to collect information necessary to interpret the agrarian history and culture of the state and provides learning opportunities for MTSU student research assistants.

(Editor’s Note: Nothing written about the Tennessee Century Farms initiative would be complete without the name Caneta Hankins, who was indispensable to the program’s success since it was transferred from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture to the CHP in 1984. She was director of the program for 12 years before her retirement in 2013.)



A Source of Praise

In 2013, when the Library of Congress released the first issue of Teaching with Primary Sources Journal, it was all about the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation’s work in Tennessee teaching the Civil War era in a multidisciplinary context. Thousands of teachers across the nation have read the edition and many use the materials in their classrooms.

“Teaching about the Civil War with primary sources—original documents and objects that were created at the time under study—provides opportunities for expanding this familiar topic in history into subject areas as varied as geography, language arts, and science,” the Journal said, “giving students unique opportunities to discover how this epic struggle bled into nearly every aspect of American life.”



Ninety-Five Pieces of heritage

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War has been widely commemorated in recent years. Dr. Carroll Van West, director of the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area, cochaired the Tennessee Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission, which was created to highlight the state’s Civil War history and to encourage tourism. Because each of Tennessee’s 95 counties was touched by the war, the heritage area directed by West is the nation’s only one to cover an entire state.


Back in the Groove








Vinyl is back. According to Nielson SoundScan retail figures, album sales leapt 33 percent in 2013. While the total number of units sold (six million) isn’t going to save the recorded music industry, it’s not insignificant, either—particularly for middle Tennessee, where the economy is in part dependent on strong sales. So what exactly is fueling the vinyl revival?

In the world of Recording Industry professor Paul “Doc Rock” Fischer, vinyl has never fallen out of style. A vinyl collector since age twelve, Fischer started working in record stores as a teenager in the 1970s for $2.10 an hour. Like all music lovers since then, Fischer adapted to format changes through the years, from records to tapes to CDs to digital downloads; but unlike most, Fischer never chucked his vinyl while buying everything all over again on CDs.

About 15 years ago, Fischer began accumulating vinyl again in earnest, mainly by going to estate sales in and around Nashville.  The fact that his hobby evolved into his becoming a secondhand vinyl dealer, frequently traveling to record shows in Chattanooga, Knoxville, Louisville, Huntsville, Indianapolis, and Dayton, is evidence that the world has caught up with his obsession. But so, too, has the industry.

“All of the major record labels are doing it now,” Fischer says, citing the proliferation of vinyl recordings by modern day acts like Nashville-based pop star Jack White. “It is one of the few categories of physical media . . . growing in sales of new music.” Fischer, who has been cited in publications nationwide regarding the uptick in vinyl sales, points to several reasons for the trend. First and foremost is the important distinction that purchasing vinyl nowadays is smartly paired with a modern method of consuming music.

“If you buy new vinyl—the record companies are very smart—you also get the download code for all of the songs,” Fischer says. “So at no additional cost, you can get the digital version of it for your iPod or other mobile digital music player and you can listen to that wherever you go, but you can listen to the vinyl when you get home.”

Next, he says, is the younger generation’s growing appreciation for packaging and album art—an integral part of the music-buying experience that older generations were accustomed to (and now wax nostalgic about) but one that younger music fans never experienced.

“I know that when I was a kid, that was part of the thrill—digging into the liner notes and the additional art,” Fischer says. “Whole generations of kids who grew up with digital downloads and access to all of the music that they want, either free or streamed or downloaded, didn’t even know what that experience was like until now. An LP with a big picture and maybe a gatefold and a booklet in the center—that adds a lot to the sitting and listening experience at home.”

Also key to the vinyl revival among younger listeners, according to Fischer, is that most of their parents tossed out their old record collections.

“So this is also a cultural, generational kind of thing,” he explains. “Most moms and dads did not hang on to their vinyl.  So it can be cool all over again. For the younger generation, it’s like they discovered it for themselves. It is of their generation.”

Fischer also believes the tactile nature of retrieving music from a vinyl record and a turntable with a needle is key to the medium’s revival, especially in a time where a few taps on a smartphone can play music.


“When you push the button to start your CD player, you are not manipulating the laser. You are telling the machine to go to work,” Fischer says. “However, when you have that tone arm in your hand and you poise it over the entrance groove to the record and you let it drop, that’s a different kind of relationship with what you are listening to.”

When explaining vinyl’s revival, many experts are quick to cite the opinion of many that music played on vinyl with a needle—despite the hisses and pops that accompany it—sounds better, or “warmer” than today’s compressed digital files. Martin Fisher, curator of recorded media collections for the internationally recognized Center for Popular Music at MTSU, believes nostalgia, not sound quality, has more to do with the opinion that vinyl offers a superior listening experience.  “I don’t think the sound is better. In fact, in many instances it’s a lot worse,” he says. “Some people might call it warmth; I call it noise, which is basically what it is . . . but it gives some people something to plant their ears on. With CDs, by comparison, there is no room noise there so the bottom falls out, and from a listener’s perspective you are kind of left hanging there in dead space.”

In essence, according to Fisher, it’s not the sound the vinyl is making but rather what listeners are hearing.  “Does it sound better? Not really. It’s all subjective,” he says.

“I think a lot of it is nostalgia, while the sonic explanation of it is probably because there is a security in having some sort of a noise floor to hold on to.”

Are nostalgia-less younger listeners perhaps better judges of what does or does not sound good when it comes to recorded music? Fisher argues they are not.

“They are running around with earbuds or listening to a system that has digital artifacts introduced through MP3 coding,” he says. “They don’t know what sounds good. I’m not demeaning them. They simply haven’t been exposed.” In addition, most of the new vinyl being pressed by younger musicians (which is accounting for most or all of the increase in vinyl sales) is actually cut from digital masters.  “So it’s like taking a CD and putting it on plastic, which is going to have a relatively high noise floor with distortion,” Fisher says. “A music collector would say, ‘What’s the big deal?’”

The creation of new vinyl product from digitally compressed files etched in plastic would seem to offer proof that the medium’s revival is more tied to packaging or cultural resurgence, not sound quality.

Jennings A. Jones College of Business professor Melodie Phillips, who specializes in entertainment marketing, says business and social factors are indeed part of the revival. Not unlike sweeping support for local farmers, local mom-andpop shops, and local artisans, people today—especially 15- to 30-year-olds—are turning to local sources for music. That’s helped the revival of record shops, where older generations were accustomed to shopping for music.  From a retail perspective, according to Phillips, society is collectively reprogramming its patterns and priorities.  “We think locally as opposed to supporting big corporations.  We’re thinking local groceries and organic foods. We support local farmers and farmers’ markets and businesses and entrepreneurs,” she says. “And the push to local businesses, local artists, and local farmers that has in large part grown out of social marketing has also really been the genesis for some of the success experienced in efforts like Record Store Day, where people are encouraging and promoting and reconnecting at college age with the idea of getting their music from an actual local record store as opposed to a Best Buy or Target or virtually through iTunes.” (Record Store Day was conceived in 2007 at a gathering of independent record store owners as a way to celebrate and spread the word about the unique culture surrounding nearly 1,000 independently owned record stores in the United States.)

Phillips points to the success of the grassroots push “Local Saturday” as an answer to “Black Friday,” which has successfully persuaded Americans to intentionally shop locally one Saturday each year.

“The idea is the same,” she says. “Don’t just run to Best Buy for price; instead, come to your local community shops and support them, because these are the people who live and work in your community.  Plus, you can find unique items there, not the mass-produced, generic big corporation items.”

Phillips also emphasizes that the return of the desire for a personalized point of sale for recorded music—not an electronic transaction—is partly driving vinyl’s resurgence.  “It’s like the old days,” Phillips says. “There’s a person there to talk with who knows music, perhaps alerts you to an upcoming concert, even lets you try an album out first before you buy it.”

A recent Tennessean business article offered more hard proof of vinyl’s revival. The newspaper reported in May that Nashvillebased United Record Pressing, one of the nation’s leading vinyl record makers, announced plans to open a second location to try to meet demand. According to the report, United recently paid $5.5 million for a warehouse where it plans to add 16 presses and storage space. The article added that several existing independent record stores around the city are expanding and that new retail stores are opening.

Got an old turntable gathering dust in the attic? It might be time to dig it out. Though still modest, the trend in recorded music in America today appears clear: what’s old is new again.

[Editor’s Note: Most of the business reporting on vinyl sales focuses exclusively on new vinyl being sold by record companies for the first time. But there’s an untracked secondary market of vinyl sales taking place at flea markets, record shows in hotel conference rooms, and second-hand music stores that never went away. Arguably, such sales are not important to the industry. They don’t make a dime on it. These are the places where people like “Doc Rock” Fischer, who are passionate about vinyl and looking for collector’s items, can be found. Though invisible on most business reports, that scene is a large part of the vinyl resurgence.]



Making It Better

From Home Ec to Human Sciences: The lessons to be learned remain the same

By Candace Moonshower


While “home economics” has long been synonymous with cooking and sewing and considered solely the province of girls and women, the history of home economics—and the current flourishing state of the department that houses it at MTSU—tells a completely different story.


Born at MTSU in 1916 as the Department of Home Economics, the Department of Human Sciences encompasses Family and Consumer Studies; Interior Design; Nutrition and Food Science; and Textiles, Merchandising, and Design. Bachelor of science degrees are offered in six different programs of study.

What we now know as Human Sciences developed not out of the realm of domestic duties, but out of scientific inquiry. Ellen Swallow Richards, after graduating from Vassar, was the first woman in America to be accepted at a scientific school, and she graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a B.S. After working without pay at the Women’s Laboratory she established at MIT, Richards was appointed as an instructor at the nation’s first laboratory of sanitary chemistry at MIT in 1884. In 1887, at the request of the state of Massachusetts, Richards and her assistants at the lab began to survey the condition of the inland waters in Massachusetts, leading to the first state water quality standards in the nation. Richards went on to apply her knowledge of scientific principles to domestic topics and endeavors, and the field of home economics took shape as a science that studies humans and their needs in the areas of food, shelter, clothing, and relationships.


One of the pioneers of home economics and human sciences at MTSU was Lyndall “Lyn” McMillian, who attended MTSU and received her degree in home economics. A native of New York, as a teacher McMillian worked with students at Castle Heights Military Academy, military wives, Wilson County school system students, and finally in the Home Economics Department at MTSU. Retired Health and Human Sciences professor Sondra Wilcox first heard of Lyn McMillian while sitting at a lunch counter in a drugstore in Jackson Heights shopping center.


“Two young women were talking, and one commented that they might as well stay—they were already late and would not be able to get into their class because Mrs. McMillian locked the door when class began,” says Wilcox. Wilcox was later invited to a dinner by a student in a nutrition class of McMillian’s. “It was a formal dinner with students serving as hostesses, and formal etiquette was required. While it may seem outdated now, students were learning things— including manners—that would help them professionally,” Wilcox says.


As fellow faculty members at MTSU, the two were soon acquainted. “I took home economics in high school and college, but it didn’t really ‘take,’” Wilcox says. “But opposites attract, and we became good friends.” McMillian passed away at age 101 on August 1, 2013. “Lyn McMillian was so professional—an alumna and a faculty member to be proud of,” Wilcox says.


Hilary Turner Walker, a 2010 graduate of the department with a B.S. in interior design,represents the new face of home economics and human sciences. “I had always been interested in home decor, design, and interiors,” she says. “I loved doll houses as a child and was constantly decorating, redecorating, and changing the furniture around in the houses.”

Walker was minoring in dance but was unsure of her major until she heard that there was an interior design program at MTSU that offered a degree. She researched the program and, while intimidated, she thought it would be fun. “And it was fun,” she says, “but rigorous. People do not realize what a serious degree program it is—one that combines technical, conceptual, and theoretical skills and knowledge and all within a wide range of industries.” Walker explains that what used to be considered just sewing, cooking, and childcare is so much more. “It is fashion and fashion merchandising, interior design, nutrition, and early childhood development,” she says. “What used to be done primarily in the home has been ‘outsourced’ to meet the needs of this new world we’re living in.”

Walker’s career trajectory illustrates the wide variety of paths a B.S. from the department might encompass—from an early job in furniture sales, Walker transitioned into managing social media for a company that produces high-end lighting and accessories. After making connections, she went into freelancing and assisting other interior designers with their projects, which gave her a broad perspective on how different designers work. She began working exclusively for Pulp Design Studios in Dallas and became interested in publishing in the design industry. Now she blogs and writes for D Home magazine and is a freelance writer for other companies.


“These days, we aren’t able to be home 24/7,” Walker says. “A lot of younger women aren’t learning the same skills as a generation ago.”


She is happy that there is a revival of sorts going on in the field of human sciences as illustrated by TV shows about design and food; fashion, home design, and cooking blogs; and the use of social media such as Facebook and Pinterest to share ideas about subjects previously considered as “home economics” and the province of mostly women.


From its early years as the Department of Home Economics, the goals of the department have always reflected its roots in the physical, biological, behavioral, and social sciences. In 1990, in order to more clearly represent the breadth of the programs in the department and improve the marketing of the programs to recruit quality faculty and students, the faculty passed a motion to change the name to the Department of Human Sciences. In January 1991, the name change was formally adopted, and Ernestine Reeder, department chair, reminded the community in a press release that Ellen Swallow Richards, the founder of home economics, had described the field “as the application of sciences to the betterment of the human condition.”


Current department chair Deborah Belcher wholeheartedly agrees.


“Human sciences is about basic survival,” she says. “It is a science that studies humans, and all our professional degrees deal with the human condition from early childhood through adolescence and adulthood and into old age.”


Each year, the department offers its approximately 700 students opportunities such as internships and experiential learning and programs such as “Farm to Fork” and composting. It also supports community initiatives including the War on Hunger and Bras for a Cause. And Lyn McMillian would be proud to know that there is still an etiquette seminar available. (Ellen Swallow Richard’s alma mater, MIT, also offers courses and workshops in etiquette.)


After all, social graces can play an important role in improving the human condition.



For more information about the Human Sciences, check out the videos below:

An Urban Development

MTSU Magazine editor Drew Ruble recently sat down with new Jennings A. Jones College of Business Dean David Urban to discuss the future for MTSU’s business program, which boasts more than 125 full-time faculty, more than 3,000 undergraduate majors, and more than 500 graduate students.


When David Urban started his undergraduate education at the University of Virginia, he was convinced he would major in history or government and go to law school. He had never taken a business class. In his sophomore year, however, he enrolled in a microeconomics class taught by a legendary professor at Virginia, Dr. Ken Elzinga. The professor’s passion for the subject and his effectiveness as an instructor got Urban interested in business and led him to enter the McIntire School of Commerce at Virginia, where he concentrated on marketing.

Before joining MTSU in summer 2013, Urban was executive associate dean and marketing professor at the School of Business at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where he also served stints as interim business dean and chair of the Department of Marketing. Urban believes the similarities between VCU and MTSU—both large, public universities with diverse student bodies in growing regions—will make his transition smoother.

New Dean of College of Business David Urban (Photo by J. Intintoli)

What do you bring to the position of dean of the college of business at MTSU?

I entered academia not intending to become an administrator but to teach and do research, which I did for 19 years. I was involved in faculty governance at the department, school, and university levels at Georgia State University and VCU. Colleagues often encouraged me to move into administration. Once I had achieved my goal of promotion to full professor, I moved into administration as a research center director and then department chair, interim dean, and executive associate dean. I did not seek those roles but was asked to take them. I enjoyed administration. Even in academia, the right person in the right leadership position at the right time can have tremendous positive impact. Having served as interim dean, I began selectively applying for positions as dean of a major business school. A search firm contacted me about Jones College. The more I learned about it, the more I felt my background and experience would fit well.

The key things I bring to the position include a full range of experience with excellent results as a faculty member and an academic administrator. I am always learning, but there is little in academia I have not done. I am a marketing professional and hold the American Marketing Association’s Professional Certified Marketer designation. I have worked with scores of businesses over the years in research, training, and consulting projects. Much of the success of a major business school depends on the interaction between the school and the business community. I can speak the language of people in business. Perhaps most important, I have strong communication skills and have been told I have the ability to inspire people. I believe this will be beneficial in working with faculty, staff, students, and colleagues as well as the college’s external constituents.

What is your vision for Jones College’s future?

Much of my time will be spent listening and learning. I must understand our situation. Then priorities will be clear. I will focus on collaboration and input from internal and external supporters so everyone understands where we are headed, why, and how they will play a part. In five years, we can examine several indicators to measure our progress. At any university, the business school should be the shining example of excellent leadership and management; effective organizational structure and processes; fiscal administration, human resource management, student services, and marketing and branding strategy; and a great place to work. I want to say we practice what we ‘teach.’ Retention and graduation rates and placement statistics are revealing, and we can benchmark our progress compared to our competitive, peer, and aspirant business schools. We should see significant positive movement in all of those statistics.

Leaders at major state universities in the past few years have had to deal with a reduction in state government financial support. I will focus with my development professionals on increased external support in the form of scholarships, professorships, research funding, and endowment. The amount we raise will be a tangible indicator of success in building our programs. It’s important to build the MTSU and Jones College brands. Investment in communication and marketing will be vital as we position Jones College as a superior business school regionally, nationally, and internationally. We will see improvement in our program and school rankings and broaden the recognition and prestige of Jones College.

What role do you see for Jones College within the regional business community, which is considered one of the hottest business and entrepreneurial markets in America right now?

A large proportion of our students are from the Nashville area. Many of our faculty work with businesses in the region, independently or in real-world class projects. Many of our alumni are prominent business and community leaders. Fundraising benefits from such connections, but it is difficult to expect people to support their alma mater financially if they haven’t heard from it since they graduated. It is critical to maintain lines of communication with alumni and to build the quality of our programs and reputation so our alumni’s degrees will increase in value. Aside from fundraising, we should be engaging our friends in the business community to help us evaluate our curricula, to employ our students in internships and full-time jobs, and to seek us out for continuing education and professional development. Universities can also advise. We can provide insights that can help businesses to improve, and I want to encourage that type of activity. I intend to reach out to the business community.

The VCU da Vinci Center for Innovation is a collaboration at VCU— involving the Schools of the Arts, Business, and Engineering and the College of Humanities and Sciences—intended to advance innovation and entrepreneurship through interdisciplinary collaboration. Are there similar, untapped partnerships at MTSU?

I worked closely with the da Vinci Center and on sponsored projects with researchers in medicine, education, political science, life sciences, and other fields. Working with people in other disciplines reveals commonalities. Centers like da Vinci can be catalysts for innovation and entrepreneurship. A program might be housed in one school, but a team orientation of cooperation among cross-disciplinary participants is essential. I see potential partnerships between Jones College and all other MTSU schools and will explore these options with their deans.

What should business schools be doing to help America better compete in the years ahead?

People around the world want to harness the spirit of American business. In the last recession, American businesses became more reflective, concerned with building and maintaining relationships with customers, willing to innovate, and efficient. Similarly, the best business schools have revised classical curricula like the traditional M.B.A.s, created specialized business education programs, become less theoretical and more concerned with improving business practice, and focused on providing better value for the tuition dollar. The keys for major business schools are market focus, balance, and complementarity. We must be constantly aware of current and emerging business trends and willing to change the way we teach in order to respond to the needs of business. Cross-disciplinary programs and new teaching methods are ways we can be more market driven. Faculty must balance research and teaching pursuits, and administrators must support their professional development in both areas. We need to stress the ways these two activities complement each other, for example, by engaging students in faculty research projects.

Peter Drucker, a pioneer in the field of management, said about business that “Culture eats strategy over breakfast.”

David Urban speaking at the 2013-2014 Fall Faculty Meeting (Photo by Andy Heidt)

Are business schools doing enough to teach leadership?

No strategy can cover every possible operational contingency. A strong culture can provide guidance when people wonder what they should do. In the Navy Supply Corps, our motto was “Service to the fleet.” As an officer, I wanted people working for me to pursue the path that provided maximum service to the crew. That’s where leadership comes in—the ability to inspire and reinforce core values. One can learn about leadership much as one can learn music appreciation, but there is a big difference between appreciating music and knowing how to play an instrument. Business schools can’t teach leadership exclusively in classrooms. We need a full range of opportunities for students to lead—in team projects, internships, student organizations, and community engagement—and practice what they learn in class.

A recent Forbes article wondered aloud if business school curricula adequately prepare today’s students to face the ethical questions related to the business practices that brought America to the economic brink in recent years. What is your response?

No business school can teach students everything about ethical conduct. Such lessons are learned from families, teachers, faith leaders, coworkers, and others. Business professors have a responsibility to engage students in discussions, case studies, and exercises about ethical dilemmas and to explore solutions. We can teach basic rules of ethical conduct. As a Rotarian for 19 years, I have shared with students the Rotary 4-Way Test, four questions about the things we think, say, and do: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned? If leaders had asked these questions, some high-profile business catastrophes may not have happened.



Thanks, Dean Urban. Good luck.



[Editor’s Note: Business school marketing specialist Sally Govan contributed heavily to this report.]


A Fourth “R"

Those who think they know reggae music are likely in for an education when they read The Encyclopedia of Reggae: The Golden Age of Roots Reggae. 

by Gina K. Logue

Those who think they know reggae music are likely in for an education when they read The Encyclopedia of Reggae: The Golden Age of Roots Reggae. Written by MTSU professor Dr. Mike Alleyne, the encyclopedia provides a colorful, 352-page study of the reggae genre, covering it from A to Z and from the late 1960s up to the mid-1980s.

Alleyne’s book is one of the most recent contributions from a department that is constantly working to further explore and expand its field. Beverly Keel, newly appointed chair of the Department of Recording Industry, is not bashful about the quality and reputation of the recording program. The former senior vice president of media and artist relations with Universal Music Group–Nashville, who graduated from MTSU herself in 1988, says while other institutions have emulated the University’s recording industry program, “We did it first, and we did it best.”

“It has been the nation’s leading recording industry program,” Keel says. “And we are poised now to take it to the next level. We have some amazing faculty. We have book authors. We have Grammy winners. We have professors who write the manuals for hardware and software. As the music industry changes, we are eager to lead the way.”

As one of those authors/professors, Alleyne, who was born in London to parents who were natives of Barbados, says he wanted his book to be authoritative enough to satisfy knowledgeable lovers of the genre but accessible enough to entice casual fans to want to know more.

“It’s very difficult to get most audiences to look beyond Bob Marley,” Alleyne says. His compilation, though, is designed to help readers do just that. The work includes a timeline, best-of lists, and essays on artists, labels, and producers, along with other aspects of the genre’s influence, including Rastafarianism and marijuana. It’s not a coffee-table book in the traditional sense, but how can it be when the subject—a style of music that incorporates politics and spirituality in every beat—can hardly be called traditional.

Asked to define reggae, Alleyne says, “It has many different facets, but it’s something that is spiritual in many ways, very rhythmically motivating, and very ideologically powerful as well.”

Reggae, Alleyne says, is the first music from people considered “Third World” to penetrate major Western commercial markets. The 1970s seemed to be a halcyon era for reggae influence on Western pop hits, including Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion,” Johnny Nash’s “Stir It Up,” and Eric Clapton’s cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” from 1982 is something of an anomaly because, while the hit is more of a rock track with a reggae beat, Grant had established his reggae credibility with straight reggae hits in Europe, Alleyne says.

According to Alleyne, reggae’s influence in American music is as strong now as it was then, but its visibility is not as great. He says the musical influence actually works both ways, with American music sometimes influencing reggae style, but the profitability of the music is a little more one-sided. “It’s interesting to see how a rock group can integrate reggae elements and achieve this incredible commercial success, but reggae groups who will integrate rock are never able to do that,” he says.

A case in point is a series of tribute albums to the Police’s 1997–2008 catalog that features notable reggae performers. “The artists were willing to participate in that because they welcomed the opportunity to reinterpret the interpretation of reggae that the Police had come up with,” Alleyne says.

While insisting he is not a reggae purist (he also teaches an occasional course on Jimi Hendrix), Alleyne says he would like to see more reggae artists become as well known and widely respected as the rock artists who appreciate reggae enough to appropriate it for their own music. The ethnocentrism behind that lack of renown is irksome but not surprising to Alleyne. After all, reggae is an art form firmly planted in the anticolonial politics that led to Jamaica’s independence from Britain in 1962.

Alleyne points out that many musicians had been harassed for their Rastafarian religion and were not part of the political or economic establishment anyway. They understood the average Jamaican. Men were chased down in the street and tackled, and their dreadlocks were cut off, as much a sign of racist intimidation as cutting a Chinese man’s queue, thus putting him in bad stead with the ancestors he worships. Reggae has always been political, he explains, but the industrialized nations to which the music is exported don’t necessarily absorb its political import.

“Reggae has this aura of exoticism that isn’t always clearly connected by sectors of the audience to a harsh political and economic reality,” Alleyne says.

And yet, musicians in Jamaica seem to find a way around their economic circumstances to produce the music they love. Some of Alleyne’s encyclopedia’s most compelling photographs are of Ampex reel-to-reel machines under spartan, tin-roofed buildings.

“It’s actually quite remarkable that the music has had such great historical resonance, because it was done with the bare minimum of equipment,” Alleyne says, noting that some of reggae’s best music was made with two-track or four-track machines while recordings in wealthier nations were made with 16-track or 24-track machines.

With department experts like Alleyne, who can reveal the history, politics, religion, and circumstances behind the music, it’s no wonder Keel calls recording industry “the greatest major on campus.”

“You get this great rock-and-roll degree, if you will,” she says, “but you also get a great basic college education with English, history, science, and all the things to make you a well-rounded person.”

Thanks to Alleyne, majors in the University’s Recording Industry program can now add a fourth “R” to their college education—reggae.

Completing the Circuit

Every year, more than 800 technology related jobs go unfilled in the Nashville area, putting an unwelcome brake on the region’s economy. Now the tech sector is looking to MTSU for a solution.

by Bill Lewis

Every year, more than 800 technology related jobs go unfilled in the Nashville area, putting an unwelcome brake on the region’s economy. Earlier this year, as reported by The Tennessean, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce went so far as to launch a recruiting campaign aimed at solving “the nagging and persistent shortage of IT workers.”

Now the tech sector is looking to MTSU (and other schools) for a solution.

Even with more than 1,300 undergraduate and graduate students in the departments of Computer Science, Engineering Technology, and Computer Information Systems, MTSU can’t meet the need. To fill the gap, the University is moving to add new curricula and attract more women to the traditionally male-dominated field.

“We’ve got this issue of needed tech workers, and it is not just Nashville or Tennessee orScreen-shot-2013-07-19-at-2.22.29-PM the United States,” says Liza Lowery Massey, former president and CEO of the Nashville Technology Council, an affiliate of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s global and it is not going away. If we want our economy to be vibrant and grow, we need to train our workforce.”

“Anything academia can do to tie its efforts, spending, and investments to workforce, and especially workforce in science, technology, engineering, and math, is a positive and should be met with a positive response,” she says. “The jobs of tomorrow—actually the jobs of today.” already—are in that area.”

That task might be easier if the region were home to a high-profile tech giant such as Facebook or Yahoo. But the jobs, many starting at $60,000 or better, are waiting to be taken.

“We have a number of big-name companies. We don’t have Google or Microsoft, but we have people go to HCA—the world’s largest hospital company—and startups down the street and find good opportunities,” says Chrisila Pettey, chair of the Department of Computer Science.

Knowing that the demand for computer science personnel is great not only in Tennessee but also in the U.S. and worldwide, Pettey’s vision is to have MTSU supply more talented graduates to the workforce. The MTSU alumna (’81) says her goal “is to do my best to facilitate continually moving the department forward. Our discipline is a rapidly changing one, and the faculty has to work hard to stay current and keep the curriculum current.”

Many of us might imagine that tech professionals spend their days designing the latest smart phone app, but old-school industries like automobile manufacturing and tire production are snapping up all the skilled graduates they can find.

“Companies like Nissan and Bridgestone are desperately seeking people and can’t find people with the skills they need in automation and robotics,” says Walter Boles, chair of the Department of Engineering Technology.

“The old kind of manufacturing jobs— grease under your fingernails and your back hurts—these aren’t those kinds of jobs,” he says. “People don’t go to work in their hard hat and safety shoes.”

To ensure that graduates have the well rounded skills in demand by advanced manufacturing companies like Siemens and others, the department has launched a new program in mechatronics, a growing field that blends mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering. The curriculum builds on existing courses and adds classes heavy in math and physics.

“Industry wants it now. They are really concerned,” Boles says.

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook reports a 22 percent projected growth in computer and information systems jobs between now and 2020. It’s no wonder then that when students graduate from MTSU’s technology programs, they are quickly absorbed by companies hungry for fresh talent. The Department of Computer Information Systems graduates 30 to 40 new professionals every semester, and more than 90 percent take jobs in middle Tennessee, says the department’s chair, Stan Gambill.

Large companies aren’t the only ones looking to MTSU for a workforce solution. Alumnus Tim Choate moved his software company, Bondware, to Murfreesboro a few years after startup to be closer to the talent pool on campus.

“We moved our business here specifically with the idea of partnering with MTSU, to have students as interns and turn them into full-time employees,” he says.

Today, about a half-dozen MTSU graduates work at Bondware, which has 15 employees in Murfreesboro and more than 30 contractors around the world. The company employs experts in online publishing, website construction, and email marketing.

Choate, who is on the University’s Computer Science Advisory Board, is also a member of the board of Mind2Marketplace, a group of people in higher education, business, K–12 education, chambers of commerce, and government. The Murfreesboro- based consortium’s mission is to strategically link people and organizations to bring innovation and technology to the marketplace. The topic of a recent forum was 3D printing, the process of making an object from a digital model.

Before the tech workforce can expand, certain stereotypes on campus have to be overcome, Choate says.

“In the past 10 years, a mindset developed among many students that technologists were a bunch of nerds sitting around doing math and playing with Rubik’s Cubes.”

Uprooting that stereotype, especially among young women, is high on Dr. Pettey’s to-do list. “They think only people like Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory  like technology,” she says. “You have to be a nerd and spend all your time on a computer. You can’t go our and do things.”

If women entered the technology workforce in numbers equal to their presence on campuses, it’s conceivable that there would be no worker shortage. But while women are the majority at MTSU and many other universities, nationally they earn just over 18 percent of undergraduate degrees in engineering and just slightly over 25 percent in math and computer science.

They are missing opportunities to have rewarding careers, says Judith Iriarte-Gross, director of WISTEM (Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) at MTSU.

“In STEM, they can command a higher income, and that means a better economic future,” Iriarte-Gross says.

WISTEM offers programs to capture the imaginations of women and girls, including the GRITS (Girls Raised in Tennessee Science) initiative to encourage them to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, or math. GRITS works with PTAs, the Girls Scouts, and other organizations to interest girls in STEM at an early age.

Young women are often steered into more traditional, “feminine” careers, says Mary

Thomas, an executive with the Rutherford County operation of Schneider Electric, a global energy management company. She is chair of the WISTEM board.

Thomas recalls counting engineers in one of the company’s departments. Of 150 engineers, four were women.

“As for software, I know of one female software engineer,” she says.

Numbers like those certainly don’t add up to filling available tech jobs in middle Tennessee. Nashville’s tech sector is counting on MTSU to help attract the workforce it needs— both men and women—to be successful.


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