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.

For A Song

One of MTSU’s newest professors aims to keep the memory of a country music legend alive and help students build careers   

by Stephanie Stewart-Howard

Odie Blackmon, songwriting faculty in the Recording Industry program, in RIM Studio A and in his Ezell Hall classroom.

Odie Blackmon, songwriting faculty in the Recording Industry program, in RIM Studio A and in his Ezell Hall classroom.

Charles “Odie” Blackmon (’96), newly appointed coordinator for MTSU’s Commercial Songwriting concentration, has thrived as a Nashville songwriter.

A Grammy nominee for Lee Ann Womack’s “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” (CMA Single of the Year in 2005), Blackmon has also written hits for country music superstars including George Strait (“She’ll Leave You with a Smile”) and Gary Allan (“Nothing on but the Radio”), among others. His songs have graced albums that have sold more than 20 million copies.

It should come as no surprise that a top Nashville songsmith like Blackmon treasures the music of the late George Jones and also understands the contributions the man nicknamed “Possum” made to Nashville and the country music industry.

Blackmon says he’s honored that his return to his alma mater led to a project that’s burnishing Jones’s legacy. With the blessing of Jones’s widow, Nancy, Blackmon has partnered with John Allen, CEO at New West Records, an Americana record label in Nashville, to create a George Jones tribute album. And he is making sure MTSU students will be part of the experience.


Planting the Seed

Jones died in 2013 after a six-decade career of songwriting and performing that helped define country music. Shortly thereafter, Nancy Jones funded a scholarship for the Recording Industry Department as a way to keep her late husband’s legacy alive and help others.

George Jones is shown in Nashville, Tenn., Jan. 10, 2007. At 75, Jones says he has a lot to look back on and a lot to celebrate, including a recent album with fellow country legend Merle Haggard. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

George Jones is shown in Nashville, Tenn., Jan. 10, 2007. At 75, Jones says he has a lot to look back on and a lot to celebrate, including a recent album with fellow country legend Merle Haggard. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

“George received help from people as he strove to have a country music career, so I am thrilled that we will be able to help young people in the name of George Jones,” she said at the time the scholarship was established. “I know he would have loved this.”

Jones’s donation has been followed by contributions that have increased the George Jones Scholarship Fund to more than $170,000. The first scholarship recipient was Ashley Doris, one of Blackmon’s best students (see sidebar).

The Center for Popular Music has added to its collection of research material and artifacts surrounding Jones’s career, and the Recording Industry Department has developed a first-of-its-kind college course on Jones’s life and music. Beverly Keel, department chair, says the course will “create opportunities for scholars to offer their analyses and interpretations of his music that can then be shared with scholars internationally.”

George Jones had number-one hits from the 1950s through the 1980s including the Grammy-winning “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” He received the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.

“We want to make sure that students 100 years from now will fall in love with ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today,’ just as we did, no matter what future technology they may use to listen to traditional country music,” Keel says.

Right Place, Right Time

While the George Jones–MTSU connection was being made, Odie Blackmon was interviewing for a position at the University. He thought it would be a dream come true to teach the George Jones class that Keel intended to create. When he came to the job interview, he already had a third of the curriculum planned and told Keel if she hadn’t assigned it to any faculty member yet, he’d love to do it. (Blackmon already had teaching experience at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music.)

Blackmon’s lesson plan was a thorough exploration of Jones’s life and music, from his birth during the Great Depression to the influence of that period’s music and culture on who he became and what he achieved. “It gives you a sense of who George was, what he came from, and why he felt the way he did and had the demons he did, and it brings into focus the real golden era of his recording,” Blackmon says.

Blackmon wanted to do even more to tell the whole George Jones story. He fashioned the idea of a tribute album, and he wanted the project to be something other than contemporary country. He imagined recording Americana artists like Jim Lauderdale, Kacey Musgraves, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Buddy Miller, Mike Farris, Nikki Lane, Old Crow Medicine Show, and others.

He shared his notion with Stacy Merida, who spearheads MTSU’s student-run Match Records. She encouraged him to go to Keel with the idea. The project was greenlighted by Ken Paulson, dean of the College of Mass Communication, and then pitched to John Allan at New West Records in Nashville. Allan loved the idea and a deal was hammered out that leaves room for MTSU to benefit from the proceeds of the eventual record.

The project will be a collection of styles interpreting Jones with an Americana flair. Keel and Nancy Jones wrote letters to prospective artists. “We’re in the process of actually finding out who among our wish list of potential artists will participate right now,” Blackmon says.

The project should give students a chance to help with publicity and solicit Grammy votes when the time comes. It will also be a teaching tool for accounting and music business classes.

“I have known Odie for a long time from my publishing and A&R background,” Allan says. “We have similar sensibilities when it comes to artists and songwriting, so he felt comfortable sharing this idea. We both felt that this can’t be a knee-jerk tribute record. The production and arranging must be done right so that it moves George’s music forward with an interesting juxtaposition of established artists and rising stars that ‘get’ the heritage of the catalog but still make the songs their own.”

Asked how he feels Jones’s music will appeal to audiences today, especially reinterpreted through the Americana genre, Allan says, “George Jones was a master craftsman. His music is timeless, and no matter what genre someone likes, everyone can appreciate his songwriting and talent. George poured his heart and soul into his songs, and his raw emotion and authenticity resonate in an era when these attributes aren’t as common as they used to be. I hope this album will act as a fitting tribute to George’s music and serve as a reminder of what a force of nature he was.”

Odie Blackmon, songwriting faculty in the Recording Industry program, in RIM Studio A and in his Ezell Hall classroom.

Odie Blackmon, songwriting faculty in the Recording Industry program, in RIM Studio A and in his Ezell Hall classroom.



Daily Grind

Ramping up MTSU’s involvement in all things George Jones isn’t the only work Blackmon has been doing.

The winner of Blackmon’s Advanced Commercial Songwriting class competition got the chance to trade ideas with hit songwriter Erin Enderlin (’04), a friend of Blackmon’s. Opportunities for students to pitch original songs directly to publishers have been created and the relationship with performing rights organization ASCAP has been deepened and expanded.

Concerts headlined by alums including Eric Paslay have raised money to hire new adjunct faculty members who will focus on students interested in genres outside the commercial country realm. Along the way, Blackmon published a textbook: Music Theory and the Nashville Number System: For Songwriters and Performers.

His boss, Paulson, who calls MTSU’s songwriting program “one of the best in the country” and “a source of great pride for us,” likes Blackmon’s work. “Odie has taken it to new levels,” Paulson says. “His passion for songwriting translates into an extraordinary learning experience for our students.”

Blackmon merely says he’s always been a creative person, only half joking when he says he could have been a jingle writer or an advertising copywriter. He’s added a jingle writing class to this fall’s curriculum. “You can make money in any market if you can write jingles for radio and TV,” he says.

Blackmon is a natural mentor for aspiring student songwriters. Who better to look up to than a songwriter who had his first cut on MCA Records and who negotiated his first publishing deal while enrolled at MTSU?

These days, Blackmon’s efforts, whether directed toward MTSU students or George Jones’s legacy, are bringing the University’s songwriting program even more welcome attention.


jones article sidebar            Gifts That Keep on Giving

Nancy Jones, widow of country music icon George Jones, established a scholarship fund at MTSU in 2013 as a living memorial to the late singer. Mrs. Jones also recently opened a George Jones Museum in downtown Nashville.

Odie Blackmon, a hit songwriter himself and director of MTSU’s Commercial Songwriting concentration, gave Jones the résumé of Bethany Scott, a stellar student in a class devoted to the study of George Jones. Scott had told Blackmon of her desire to work at the new museum.

Jones promptly called Scott, and the two met in Murfreesboro for lunch. Before the lunch was over, Jones and her manager had hired Scott. (The museum officially opened in downtown Nashville this past April.)

Scott’s father wrote on Facebook, “This means so much to my family. To see that girl. . . meet the Lady who saved the Legend for the last 30 years of his life and to return with her first job in the business she loves was, to say the least, moving. My mother was George Jones’s biggest fan; my dad loved Miss Nancy. They are smiling down from above. . . beaming with pride.”

jones article 4Jones says she’s very happy “with everything Odie has done with his students,” adding that she has since hired several other MTSU students who took Blackmon’s class. “We don’t even have to train them, they know the story so well,” Jones says, adding that she is pleased with the way the scholarship has been overseen “and so proud of Ashley Doris, the first recipient.”

Blackmon describes it as “heartwarming” to see that Jones not only gave money to MTSU but also that “she genuinely cares about our students and takes an interest in them.”



Donations to the George Jones Scholarship Fund can be made online at www.MTSU.edu/georgejones or by calling (615) 898-5595.

True Blue!

Solid Leadership

by Katie Porterfield

MTSU’s Concrete Industry Management Department, the first of its kind in the U.S. and, perhaps, the world, is led by Heather Brown, a woman who has defied stereotypes and carved out a solid reputation in the industry.

Heather Brown, Concrete Industry Management Chair, around the MTSU campus for the cover MTSU Magazine.

Heather Brown, Concrete Industry Management Chair, around the MTSU campus for the cover MTSU Magazine.


Between 2011 and 2013, China, which has been building whole cities to accommodate population growth, consumed 6.6 gigatons of concrete—more than the U.S. used in the entire 20th century.

That fact, uncovered by population and energy researcher Vaclav Smil, prompted business magnate Bill Gates to write about it on his blog, which in turn drew worldwide media attention to Smil’s analysis. Forbes magazine wrote, “Look at what the U.S. built between 1901 and 2000: all those skyscrapers, the Interstate, the Hoover Dam, the list goes on and on, but all that concrete only amounted to 4.5 gigatons.”

That’s not to say the U.S. isn’t still building. Concrete is a $200 billion industry with 500,000 people employed in a variety of careers working with this “liquid rock.”

Though easy to take for granted, concrete has been the cornerstone of engineering for centuries, from the Roman Empire to the development of modern-day skyscrapers. So how is all of this relevant to MTSU?

Although other MTSU departments tend to grab more headlines, the Concrete Industry Management Department (CIM) may be MTSU’s most well known. Throughout the nation, the CIM program is recognized as the first and finest of its kind. The concrete industry helped fashion the program at MTSU nearly two decades ago. It has been the template for every other university program like it in the U.S.

From cutting-edge research, to almost guaranteeing student success and job placement, to the recent rollout of a new executive M.B.A. designed in concert with industry, the CIM program is one of the University’s biggest success stories. Adding interest to the mix is that steering the department is a woman who has defied stereotypes and carved out a solid reputation in the national concrete industry.

Heather Brown, Concrete Industry Management Chair, around the MTSU campus for the cover MTSU Magazine.

Heather Brown, Concrete Industry Management Chair, around the MTSU campus for the cover MTSU Magazine.

A Firm Foundation
As a little girl, Heather Brown was a tomboy. Her specialty? Building. In addition to crafting Lego masterpieces, she also built forts out of snow, wood, and even leaves. So, when she took a test in ninth grade that indicated she was well suited for civil engineering, she bought into the idea. She attended Tennessee Tech University and earned a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate in the subject.

Today, as chair of the CIM Department, Brown does more than just recruit students who think of themselves as master builders (or who may have scored well on one of those career aptitude tests). She also promises to give them chances to find a career in the high-growth, science-driven concrete industry.

“In recent graduating classes, I’ve had four jobs for every graduate,” Brown says. “I’ve had 200 jobs and 50 kids to take them.”

According to Brown, that number will continue to climb as the booming construction industry expands for at least the next five years and perhaps the next decade. But these job openings aren’t for laborers who place and finish concrete. Brown’s students fill a wide variety of jobs in the industry, from sales or quality control to production management or contracting.

“Our degree was started for the management side of the business,” Brown says, using the pitch she delivers to parents of prospective students. “Our industry, which continues to be a partner, dreamt this whole thing up because they realized they were not getting college-educated kids to enter concrete construction and production.”


bucket IMG_2343

Cementing a Reputation
MTSU, with its already well-known academic programs such as Recording Industry, Horse Science, Agribusiness/Agriscience and Aerospace, seemed the perfect fit for a CIM program. In 1995, industry representatives started pushing for the first four-year bachelor’s degree dedicated to the development of managers for the concrete industry. They convinced MTSU officials that CIM was a degree that would open doors for students.

“The industry saw a need, and there wasn’t a university in the entire country that had a degree focused on concrete construction,” Brown says. “MTSU, unlike many other
universities they approached, had open arms and took them in and said, ‘We can work together; we can be a partner.’”

Those same industry folks became teachers, turning out the first graduates in 2000. In 2001, Brown, who’d been a research assistant for the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) while pursuing her education, agreed to come aboard as a teacher and researcher.

“It was all about concrete, and that’s what I’d primarily worked on during my master’s and Ph.D., so it was a passion of mine already,” Brown says. “I jumped right in, and I loved it.”

In 2006, she became the program director, and in 2011, when CIM became a department in the College of Basic and Applied Sciences, she became its chair. Under her leadership and with the continued support of industry executives now known as the National Steering Committee (NSC), the program has since expanded to other universities (California State University–Chico, New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Texas State University) to better serve industry needs beyond the Southeast. The NSC plans eventually to introduce the program at two more U.S. schools and possibly in foreign countries.


A Concrete Advantage
In 2012, MTSU rolled out the first-ever M.B.A. with a concentration in Concrete Industry Management, offered through the Jennings A. Jones College of Business. Executives or managers from across the nation take online courses for 15 months from business faculty who have received training in the industry.

“This was a huge effort because after we started the four schools, we realized there was a whole level of workforce out there . . . already in concrete who needed that degree to move up in their organization,” Brown says.

Comparing it favorably to Belmont University’s music business M.B.A. or Vanderbilt University’s healthcare M.B.A. in the local market, Brown says the first class of eight students graduated from the M.B.A. program in concrete in March 2014. A second group of six students followed last March, and 10 will come online in January 2016.

Those graduates, along with more than 800 from the undergraduate CIM program, continue to work their way up in a field that is hungry for young people. The average age of a manager in the concrete industry, Brown says, is about 57, and when the recession hit in 2008, managers who’d been expected to retire decided to stay on a bit longer to earn more money.

“There’s going to be and has been a big let-go of all of these seasoned professionals, and our guys are just waiting in the wings,” Brown says, adding that at least two MTSU alumni have already reached the vice president level after only 10 years.

CIM alum Nicholas Edwards (’06), director of sales (Eastern U.S.) for Kalyn-Siebert (a company that manufactures custom-engineered transport equipment and trailers), says his experience in the program prepared him for career acceleration and opened doors “beyond description.”

“What folks don’t realize is we are missing an entire generation . . . within the concrete industry,” says Edwards, who is also vice president of the MTSU CIM Patrons Board, a group of local concrete professionals who serve the department and its students with financial, marketing, and mentoring help. “Filling this void with accelerated, adequately prepared individuals was the very vision the founders of the CIM program conceived.”

Set in Stone
The future for CIM graduates seems bright, and Brown’s plan is to continue to expand the department with its own concrete building. In addition to giving CIM a separate space, the building would showcase the different ways concrete can be used and be a learning lab for students.

“People don’t realize that concrete can be made to look like anything else,” Brown says.

The proposed new building would look like other red brick buildings on campus from a distance, Brown says. However, the exterior would be concrete sanded and stained to give the appearance of red brick. The inside of the proposed building would feature translucent concrete, a light-transmitting material that allows, among other things, people with windowless offices to feel as though they have windows to the outside because they see shadows and sunlight.

Brown plans to finance the building with industry money. She’s already raised $2 million and hopes to raise the remaining $6 million in cash and materials such as steel and rock in time to break ground when the program turns 20 years old next year.




Heather Brown, Concrete Industry Management Chair, around the MTSU campus for the cover MTSU Magazine.

Heather Brown, Concrete Industry Management Chair, around the MTSU campus for the cover MTSU Magazine.

Breaking the Mold
In the meantime, Brown plans to stay busy recruiting students to help industry benefactors fill all those vacant positions.

“I’m just trying to get more students that want to be around construction and have a passion for this,” she says.

Perhaps some of those will be women looking to follow in Brown’s footsteps.

“When I got into concrete, I was the only girl in the room,” Brown says.

Today, although the number of females in the industry has grown somewhat, Brown says only 10 percent of her students are women. Such a low percentage reflects the problem of women and girls eschewing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

A 2010 report by the American Association of University Women found that the number of women in science and engineering is growing, but men continue to outnumber women, especially at the upper levels of the professions. It doesn’t bode well for research and discovery when half of the human race—for whatever reason—remains outside the arena of science. Nor does it help America fill the STEM jobs that are increasingly available.

Brown would like to see that percentage in her department reach 15 to 20 percent.

“At the end of the day, I can’t say, ‘Every woman come over to concrete,’” she says, “because you do have to have a certain kind of personality or spunk. You have to have thick skin because it is still very male-dominated and very ‘good-old-boy’ in nature.”

If women are willing to enter that culture, opportunities are there to be had. The industry wants to be more diverse.

“Females are just so different in this world,” Brown says. “They are way better at multitasking and diffusing conflicts, and they are really go-getters, so companies who have traditionally hired men get a couple of our girls and say, ‘Send us more.’ That’s good for us, but we still need more to sign up.”

One thing is certain: women who decide to give concrete a try at MTSU will have the perfect mentor in Dr. Heather Brown.

From the Ground Up
It’s simply hard to imagine a world without concrete. Often overlooked, though, is that there is an underlying science to concrete and its many uses that must be understood in order to be properly applied.

Given concrete’s fundamental role in the built environment, the CIM Department at MTSU will likely continue to benefit the concrete industry as it cements the professional prospects of its graduates.

Concrete Industry Management Chair Dr. Heather Brown with a piece of pervious concrete for the MTSU Research Magazine.

Concrete Industry Management Chair Dr. Heather Brown with a piece of pervious concrete for the MTSU Research Magazine.

Hard Evidence

In addition to preparing graduates to   work in the high-growth field of concrete management, MTSU’s program is a powerhouse in research. Much of the research produced by CIM is done by undergraduate students and in time intervals that match the speed of the    ever-evolving concrete industry.

“Essentially, we investigate anything to    do with concrete floors, roads, elevated slabs, walls, bridges, columns, etc.,” says Dr. Heather Brown, chair of the Concrete Industry Management Department. “We are most concerned with durability, utilizing recycled products, economics,
and safety.”

College of Basic and Applied Sciences dean Bud Fischer says the program regularly receives grants from TDOT for projects such as gauging the life expectancy of roads and bridges and selecting the correct concrete for transportation projects.

“It’s pretty unusual nationally to see students involved in state transportation projects like this,” says Fischer. “It allows our students to do hands-on research activity, which is also important for the state.”



Beyond Critical Mass

MTSU’s multifaceted and innovative media offerings come of age

by Allison Gorman

When USA Today launched in 1982, the journalism establishment was startled by its bold colors and condensed stories. The new national newspaper was quickly derided as “fast-food journalism.”

In retrospect, the newspaper was actually pretty traditional. Like two centuries of papers before it, it printed the most important news of the day, shared its views on an editorial page, and tried to be as timely as the medium would permit. It also adopted strong policies on accuracy, attribution, and ethics.

But those core values were also complemented by a groundbreaking design, tighter editing, and a Technicolor weather map.

Ken Paulson was a young editor on the team that launched USA Today in 1982. He returned there as editor-in-chief in 2004 after a scandal cost the paper its hard-won credibility. Paulson later left USA Today to head the Freedom Forum and Newseum in Washington, D.C., and then the First Amendment Center in Nashville, where a search committee contacted the nationally recognized First Amendment expert about the dean’s post at MTSU’s College of Mass Communication—the fifth-largest in the nation.

Paulson immediately saw possibilities, starting with a USA Today–like melding of old values and new approaches as the key to the college’s future.

“This is a college in which I truly saw unprecedented potential,” he says. “I believe that it can position itself as the most multifaceted and innovative program of mass communication in the country, and for a variety of reasons.”

Those reasons include a Department of Recording Industry (RI) that’s the largest and, arguably, one of the best in the country—not to mention one located a short drive from Nashville, Tennessee, a cradle of the music business; a Department of Electronic Media Communication (EMC), whose students and state-of-the-art facilities have attracted national recognition; and a tradition-rich School of Journalism that houses the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies.

For Mass Comm to fulfill its potential, though, Paulson knew it also needed retooling.

“All traditional media have been buffeted by digital technology, and that in turn has led to cutbacks and job losses,” Paulson says. “But there will always be news. There will always be music. And film. And commercial art. And communication. Our challenge is to prepare our students for the new era of opportunities.”

Preparing students to succeed despite those realities isn’t just about having tech-savvy faculty and cutting-edge tools, Paulson says. It’s about reinforcing traditional communication skills (research, writing, ethics, critical thinking) while breaking down traditional academic barriers, thinking beyond traditional media platforms, and finding nontraditional ways to communicate.

“It’s not enough for us to just teach journalism, media, and production skills; we need to anticipate the future and help reinvent these industries,” Paulson says. “What better place to thoughtfully explore the future of media than a forward-looking College of Mass Communication that now also boasts a Center for Innovation in Media?”

In July 2013, Paulson accepted the position as dean of the college and received a blunt directive from President Sidney A. McPhee: make the College of Mass Communication as contemporary,
innovative, and prominent as possible. Or, as interpreted by Paulson, make it “famous.”

“We’re embracing that challenge,” Paulson says.


Beyond the Buzz

The Journalism Department’s new Center for Innovation in Media is fast becoming a mecca in its own right. The state-of-the-art facility in beautifully renovated space in Bragg Mass Communication Building houses all student-run media— television station MT10, radio station WMTS, and monthly print and daily digital newspaper Sidelines—as well as student-run Match Records and professional National Public Radio affiliate WMOT.

After the $700,000 center opened in 2012, the Associated Press Media Editors recognized it as “a model for journalism schools and professional news organizations” for its converged newsroom, where some 250 students can collaborate to create content across media platforms.

Val Hoeppner, Director, Center for Innovation in Media.

Just like a real newsroom, it gets loud.

For the center’s new director, Val Hoeppner, quiet time is over by 9:30 a.m., when she meets with leaders from student-run media and the students who work at WMOT. A veteran multimedia journalist who worked at newspapers including the Indianapolis Star, Hoeppner says she’s a bit like publisher for the student organizations (which are editorially independent).

“I run a daily news meeting, I make a lot of suggestions, and I offer support,” she says. That could mean anything from helping students create interactive graphics for a website to advocating on their behalf for the prompt release of public records.

Hoeppner says she’s been impressed by the students’ enthusiasm. This year, more than 140 students tried out for 82 positions with MT10 News, she says, and most who didn’t make the cut now work production for the station.

With so many students sharing the newsroom, Hoeppner has to close her office door to have a conversation. And that’s a good thing.

“There’s just this buzz out there,” she says, “and it’s cool to sit back and listen to it every day.”

Emily Kinzer (‘14), a reporter for the ABC-affiliate TV station in South Bend, Ind., recalls staying up all night putting together her first on-air piece for MT10 News and learning to stand her ground as a field reporter when she covered a homicide for the station. The hands-on experience was invaluable, she says, and made her feel “locked, loaded, and ready to go” for a career as
a broadcast journalist.


Beyond the Printed Page

Blue Raiders regularly win accolades for traditional journalism, but in the College of Mass Communication, as in the real world, journalism is bursting out of the confines of print.

The college’s aforementioned journalism programs—the School of Journalism’s traditional program, for print, and the Electronic Media Communication Department’s multimedia program for practically everything else—are currently being melded together in a single, vibrant, multi-platform program poised for roll out in the fall of 2015. From a curriculum perspective, it’s a savvy shift in approach by the college that better reflects the media industry students will enter after graduation.

Dwight Brooks, director of the School of Journalism, says there will always be a need for trained journalists in a democracy.

“But we’ve got to prepare our students for the careers that are out there,” he says. “And they all involve being able to shoot video and write for the Internet, in addition to the traditional skills of reporting and writing. That’s the tricky thing: balancing. Ethics are still important, and we still do a lot of that very effectively.”

In addition, Paulson plans to expand the role of the Center for Innovation in Media as “a laboratory for change, anticipating where the media are going and how we can ensure that our students get there ahead of it.” Brooks calls it a “teaching hospital model”: professional journalists working with students and professors to create a real product.

Paulson also reworked a practicum course under the purview of the Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence, headed by former Tennessean and Nashville Banner editor Pat Embry. The original model, an idea of the late Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler, allowed students to work as beat reporters covering federal courts for the newspaper. This year, Paulson expanded the concept as the Music City Project, with students contributing stories, videos, and photos about the music industry to local media. Media partners provided $15,000 in pilot project funding, from which each student receives a $1,000 scholarship at the semester’s end.

“This model makes sure that students get something for their hard work, and it also guarantees them a professional outlet under the guidance of a professor,” Paulson says. “And that model is going to grow.”

The college is also collaborating with music industry partners such as the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival and the Americana Music Festival in Nashville to build on the natural synergy of all
its disciplines. In June, the Music City Project covered Bonnaroo for The Tennessean, and in April and October, Bonnaroo founders Ashley Capps and Rick Farman visited the college as guest speakers. “It’s simply unprecedented for the management team of a world-class music festival to take a full day to engage and educate the next generation of music and media professionals,” Paulson says.

In September, the project covered the Americana Music Festival, whose organizer brings guest artists like Billy Bragg to campus.

Meanwhile, Pittard says EMC is building partnerships with local tech companies that support Nashville’s growing reputation as “the live-event video capital of the world.” (An example of such
a firm is DWP Live: six recent department grads are now on staff there.)

“So many opportunities come out of our proximity to Nashville,” Brooks sums up. “Most of these opportunities cross all our departments. . . . At a certain point, these divisions are so artificial.”

The convergence of print and other forms of communication suits the college particularly well. For years, it has been the nation’s only college of mass communication offering fully functional journalism, electronic media, and recording industry academic units. Now, “with the walls crumbling everywhere,” Paulson says, that arrangement seems prescient.

The cumulative effect of this newfound departmental synergy, alongside such high levels of activity and industry engagement, will result in graduates better prepared not just to work in modern media, but also to help infuse the fields of journalism and recorded music with the fresh ideas needed to resurrect them.

“The young people entering our college are members of the Google Generation, many of them born the same year as the dominant tech company,” Paulson says. “They are intuitive communicators who value instant information and interaction. They engage with technology like no generation before them. But they also decided not to pay for music, leading to layoffs in the recording industry. They decided newspapers had little value, which fueled a downward spiral in print journalism. And their preference for YouTube and viral videos took a toll on television broadcasting.”

As a result, Paulson says he often jokes with incoming Mass Comm students planning to one day graduate and work in the media professions “that the new motto of our college should be ‘You broke it; you fix it.’”

Beyond “Famous”

Soon after Paulson became dean of the college, he and President McPhee visited the Newseum in Washington, where they gathered 12 of the nation’s leaders in news media to discuss the future of
the industry.

Last January, Paulson, Keel, and McPhee flew to the Grammy Awards (three former Blue Raiders were involved with Grammy-nominated projects) and held a West Hollywood reception in partnership with the Americana Music Association for the late Phil Everly. MTSU was the only university represented at the Grammy event.

“We are doing what a nationally prominent program would do, and that means going well beyond the borders of Murfreesboro or Tennessee,” Paulson says.

Creating a buzz about Mass Comm, he says, will help it attract the main thing it lacks to fulfill its tremendous potential: significant support—financial and otherwise—from the industries it serves.

Paulson and his team of leaders in the College are fully aware of their college’s past successes and its potential, and they know that the best kind of fame must be earned. But with an innovative, multifaceted vision for the future and the backing of an enthusiastic University administration, they also know that the college is meeting new challenges, shaping its own destiny, and writing
its own special definition of what becoming a contemporary, innovative, prominent, and, yes, “famous” College of Mass Communication really means.

Bookmark The Leading Edge (mtsumasscomments.wordpress.com), the blog of the College of Mass Communication, for news about faculty, students, and alumni.


Pursuit of Excellence

Pat Embry, Chairholder, Seigenthaler Chair of First Amendment Studies.

Pat Embry, a former editor of both the Nashville Banner and The Tennessean, was recently named director of the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies. Seigenthaler, who died July 11, 2014, at age 86, was a reporter, editor, publisher, and CEO of The Tennessean. After serving as founding editorial director for USA Today, he established the First Amendment Center in Nashville in 1991. MTSU established the chair in his name in 1986 to honor the iconic journalist’s lifelong commitment to free expression. The Seigenthaler Chair supports activities related to free speech, free press, and other topics of concern for contemporary journalism.

Seigenthaler championed civil rights and women’s rights, Embry says, so those issues have become his early focus as he builds a website and social media presence for the chair and revitalizes its speaker/symposium program. Noting that journalists in Ferguson, Mo., were handcuffed for recharging their laptops and cellphones in fast-food restaurants, he says, “If the events of Ferguson and its aftermath . . . have shown us anything, it’s that the First Amendment remains a strong but fragile foot soldier on the front lines of American justice.”


Beyond Industry Standard

Taylor Thompson is a huge music fan, but she doesn’t sing or play. Until she enrolled as an undeclared freshman, she didn’t know she could make a living in music.

“I read about the MTSU music business program and I thought, ‘Murfreesboro, Tennessee, has the number-one program?’ It just blew me away.”

The Department of Recording Industry has been blowing people away for 40 years. In September 2014, Billboard reinforced the department’s well-established reputation when it named MTSU one of the nation’s five top universities for learning about the music industry. More recently, The Hollywood Reporter listed MTSU’s music business program among its “Top 25 Music Schools” for 2014, ranking it ahead of nearby Belmont University’s Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business.

Chair Beverly Keel, an award-winning music journalist, former recording industry executive, and longtime professor, says that in her 19-year association with the RI program, it has selectively narrowed its enrollment from 1,800 to 1,200 while expanding its digital curricula and continuing to invest in the recording studios that serve as its classrooms. An outside reviewer recently called those facilities “second to none,” Keel says, “even topping NYU—and without the subway noise.”

With concentrations in Audio Production, Commercial Songwriting, and Music Business, the department boasts many alumni, former students, and current faculty who are firmly established in the industry. More than a dozen have been nominated for Grammys, and seven have won the award. Former students, including country music stars Chris Young, Hillary Scott, Eric Paslay, Sam Hunt, and Brett Eldridge, have recently found themselves on the Billboard Country Airplay chart
simultaneously. Sony Music Nashville Chairman and CEO Gary Overton and multi-Grammy-winning producer Blake Chancey are just two other examples of prominent RI graduates.

“The list of UMG Nashville staffers and artists who have attended MTSU is too long to put in print,” says Mike Dungan, president and CEO of Universal Music Group Nashville. “There is no doubt why this university has always been at the top for music industry study.”

The faculty as well is a who’s who of industry insiders, including John Hill, a double-Grammy-winning recording engineer; John Merchant, a Grammy-nominated producer and recording engineer; and Odie Blackmon, a Grammy-nominated songwriter who is currently hard at work building up the department’s fledgling songwriting program. Blackmon recently used his industry connections to hire as adjuncts three highly regarded songwriters/musicians whose real-world experience, like his, can benefit students.

Keel says that faculty diversity and depth of experience is what separates the department from similar programs at other universities. Faculty members can connect students with jobs
and internships—“We’re the first to hear about job openings,” she says—and students get real-time advice about succeeding as entrepreneurs in a rapidly changing industry.

“As record companies shrink in size, you’re seeing more independent contractors, because the work still has to be done,” Keel says. “So there’s more employment at social media companies, marketing companies, and artist management companies, and we’re seeing real growth in live entertainment and talent agencies.”

Thompson, now a junior, says she honed her skills at Match Records, the department’s working record label, which gives students experience in every facet of the music business from production to promotion. After graduation, she hopes to be an artist manager in Nashville.

“I have a lot of connections already set up there, and so I’m not really willing to say I’ve been promised a job,” she says. “But . . .”

As an industry hub, Nashville provides a lot of fieldwork opportunities for MTSU students, Keel says.

“I think Nashville is as close to perfect as you can get on this earth,” she says. “We do amazing business here that reaches the world, but the people are friendly and there’s still a level of accountability, because you’re going to run into them at Kroger.”


Leader in Innovation

Val Hoeppner, who had been serving as journalist-in-residence in MTSU’s School of Journalism, became director of MTSU’s nationally recognized Center for Innovation in Media in July 2014. Hoeppner was previously director of education for the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute and spent 20 years in newsrooms as a photojournalist, newsroom leader, and multimedia director at the Indianapolis Star. Replacing Hoeppner as journalist-in-residence is pop culture critic Whitney Matheson, who built a large audience as writer and editor of Pop Candy, the award-winning blog she founded during her 15-year tenure at USA Today.

Spring Fed Middle

For nearly 30 years, the world-renowned Center for Popular Music (CPM), located in the Bragg Mass Communication Building, has been a resource for all things related to American vernacular music—from country and folk to gospel, blues, jazz, and rock. It is the largest and oldest research institution for popular music in the world.

New director Dr. Greg Reish is bolstering the CPM’s role as a place where music and ideas about music are made—for instance by producing (with students’ help) new reissues of historic Americana music for Spring Fed Records, the Grammy-winning label devoted to issuing historically significant recordings of traditional Southern music that Reish helped the center acquire. What comes out of the CPM, Reish says, should be just as important as what goes into it.


Music City Mavens

Beverly Keel, chair of the Department of Recording Industry, and former student Hillary Scott of Grammy-winning music group Lady Antebellum were among honorees at the Nashville Business Journal’s inaugural Women in Music City Awards last fall.

Keel (’88), an award-winning music journalist and longtime MTSU professor, most recently served as senior vice president of media and artist relations for Universal Music Group Nashville, where she developed extensive media campaigns for a roster including Lionel Richie, Scotty McCreery, and Sugarland, among others. Scott, who attended MTSU before launching a successful music career, keynoted the red carpet event. Also honored was MTSU graduate Jill Napier (’99), director of copyright management at Music Services Inc. in Brentwood.

Beyond Broadcast Borders

Senior Chris Davis says he was drawn to the University’s Department of Electronic Media Communication when he toured the Mass Comm building and was told he could work on camera starting day one with MT10.

“That’s exactly what I ended up doing,” he says. He went on to intern with WTVF-TV in Nashville and produce football and basketball broadcasts for ESPN3, experiences that contradicted dire predictions about the future of broadcasting.

“Instead of gloom and doom, I see promise and opportunities on the horizon for this industry,” he says.

Billy Pittard, department chair, seconds that opinion. Though broadcasting has changed—a TV journalist is now a “one-man band,” reporting and producing—there are still jobs in the industry, he says. (At last count, there were 35 MTSU alumni working in Nashville’s four television news stations.)

And the department’s reach goes beyond broadcast television and radio. Its students can also learn to create content for film, the Web, and live events—e.g., big-screen video.

“There are still films being made,” says Pittard, who joined MTSU in 2011 after an award-winning career in media and entertainment design that included several Emmys. “There is still a lot of television and video being shot. . . . The disruption is in the traditional structure of those businesses, and that’s a concern for people who are established in them. But for students, it spells opportunity.”

As in the recording industry, today’s electronic media professionals often freelance, Pittard says. So they need more than technical skill—they need to understand where the jobs are and how to market themselves.

Pittard covers that territory in a new class, Create Your Career. He also offers a freelancing workshop. He says he’s trying to foster an entrepreneurial culture throughout the department.

Senior Scotty Wright has been networking and building his professional reputation since his freshman year. The aspiring filmmaker started at MT10 operating a camera and then producing and directing. He eventually started freelancing. His portfolio now includes music videos, live concerts and sporting events, reality TV for cable and network, Web series, and short films—among them Sbocciare, a group project that won top honors from the Broadcast Education Association and was screened at the Newport Beach Film Festival.

EMC Productions (the department’s “varsity team” for live-event TV) recently placed first nationally among student-produced sports broadcasts. MTSU also swept 11 of 12 categories at the 2014 Tennessee Associated Press College Broadcast Awards.

Electronic Media Communication, William B. Pittard (Alumni)


Street Cred

Students don’t usually get to do the kind of big projects available to Electronic Media Communication (EMC) students at MTSU. Here is just one example of the type of remarkable opportunities the EMC Department (chaired by multiple Emmy-winner Billy Pittard) has recently offered.

Freedom Sings is a celebration of free speech and music that has toured college campuses across the nation under the direction of College of Mass Communication dean Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center. When the event celebrated its 15th anniversary with two concerts at Nashville’s landmark Bluebird Café, MTSU students were there working behind-the-scenes deploying the college’s 40-foot, $1.7 million HD mobile video production lab, managing social media content, helping with public relations, and covering the event for student media outlets.

Lights . . . Camera . . . Action!

Eleven College of Mass Communication students invited the public to see their cinematic work from summer travels in Paris during a September 2014 screening at Nashville’s historic Belcourt Theatre. Led by Documentary Channel founder and MTSU associate professor Tom Neff, the students made films about up-and-coming fashion designers and musicians. “These students went to a foreign city, worked with new artists for only three weeks, and produced three documentaries of the highest caliber, comparable to any films coming out of any film school, bar none,” Neff said.


Pitch Perfect

A new partnership between Sony/ATV Music Publishing Nashville and the MTSU Department of Recording Industry allows students to submit two of their songs directly to Sony/ATV’s creative team. Sony/ATV will then choose students to perform two more songs at a live showcase. Ken Paulson, dean of the College of Mass Communication, said “This bridges the gap between the classroom and recording industry in a creative and positive way.” Troy Tomlinson, president and CEO of Sony/ATV, also lauded the collaboration, saying “We are constantly searching for new writers and writer/artists.”

MTSU’s Commercial Songwriting concentration, one of just a few songwriting programs offered nationally, is led by MTSU alum and esteemed Nashville songwriter Odie Blackmon, whose past cuts include country artist Gary Allen’s hit “Nothing On But the Radio.” Other hit songwriters who have studied at MTSU include Grammy-winning songwriters Luke Laird and Josh Kear, among many others.


A Legend’s Legacy

In 2014, the family of country music icon George Jones established a scholarship fund at MTSU to serve as a living memorial to the late singer, who died April 26, 2013, at age 81. “George would have liked the fact that MTSU attracts so many first-generation college students, as well as students who face financial challenges,” stated Jones’s widow, Nancy, in announcing the gift. “Like George, they are hardworking folks who are determined to make their dreams a reality.”

The College of Mass Communication is working to preserve and promote Jones’s legacy in numerous ways, including by offering a course on Jones’s life and music and developing opportunities for scholars to offer analyses and interpretations of his music that can be shared with scholars internationally.

Survey Says . . .

Not every state is fortunate enough to have a University-led, independent statewide poll that can reliably and regularly inform its population. Starting in fall 1998, the MTSU Poll, a product of the College of Mass Communication, has collected public opinion data every spring and fall on major social, political, and ethical issues affecting Tennessee. The latest MTSU Poll in 2014 showed a close vote would be likely in Tennessee’s proposed constitutional amendment on abortion. (The measure passed with 53 percent of the vote.)

MTSU’s Spiderman

How “Spill Doctor” Ryan Otter found truth in the ashes of Tennessee’s worst environmental disaster

by Allison Gorman



In early 2009, Dr. Ryan Otter (Biology) stood awestruck on the banks of the Emory River in Roane County. What two months earlier had been a serene fishing alcove now looked like a lunar landscape or a present-day Pompeii. Under his boots, where there should have been vegetation, there was gray sludge. And the water in the alcove was simply gone, displaced by wet fly ash, a thick chemical stew that had spilled into the river when an earthen retention pond ruptured at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant.

“It was amazing, the volume of this thing,” Otter says. “I mean, it was a billion gallons of fly ash that clogged up a river. It looked like a war zone. And I thought, ‘This is a billion gallons of something that we know contains metals that can be toxic. How can this not be catastrophic?’”

That’s the kind of loaded question Otter doesn’t allow himself—or his students—to ask. An ardent “science nerd,” he’s all about design and data: assume nothing, develop a bulletproof experiment, and see what the numbers reveal.

However, the scope of the spill was unlike anything Otter, an environmental toxicologist, had ever seen. It was also unlike anything the United States had ever seen. The slurry blanketed everything in its path, pushing homes off foundations, choking two tributaries of the Tennessee River, and burying a 300-acre ecosystem.

For the people who lost their homes, the event was a life-changing disaster. But for the area’s quieter (and far more numerous) residents—the water and land animals—the prognosis wasn’t so
clear. Despite the ubiquity of fossil fuel plants worldwide, Otter says, there had been very little research on fly ash, a byproduct of coal combustion that contains trace amounts of many potentially dangerous elements, including arsenic, lead, and mercury.

Weeks after the spill, Otter joined a coordinated effort of several agencies to answer a slightly different version of his gut-level question: Is this an environmental catastrophe?

He found the answer in an unexpected place, and that answer surprised everyone.

Complexity and Confluence

More than six years after the Kingston spill, cleanup is ongoing. It’s projected to cost $1.2 billion and is slated for completion in 2015. Environmental monitoring of the site will continue for
years afterward.

Scientific analysis of the spill has involved university researchers, federal and state government agencies, and private consultants.

Otter was initially called to the scene by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which asked him to study the effects of dredging on mussels. Then he was connected with TVA and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which asked him to test fish for toxins to help gauge immediate and future implications of the spill.

He says the project was the most complicated he has ever worked on, and not just because of its massive scale. There were also the complex dynamics of the Emory River, which regularly runs backward when water is released from Melton Hill Dam on the Clinch River, which merges with the Emory. “The water literally goes back and forth, depending on what the dam is doing,” Otter says. “I had divers in the water who were three miles upstream of the spill, and they were sitting in ash.”

And while the Emory was relatively clean before the spill, the Clinch has long been polluted by runoff from ORNL. Researchers had to find out whether the toxins they found came from fly ash or from previous contamination. Then, in 2010, widespread flooding of the Tennessee River system further muddied the waters.

“All this made the hydrology crazy,” Otter says.

Spiders and the Fly

Otter’s test subjects were problematic, too. When analyses of toxin levels in fish proved inconclusive, he knew he needed a different animal—something whose diet was more closely connected with the fly ash. Then he remembered his Ph.D. work with researchers from the Environmental Protection Agency, who used a commonly found spider to measure contamination at polluted sites. The spiders are ideal indicators, he says, because they have high fat levels that store toxins.

The spiders, known as long-jawed orb weavers, are easy to find on any riverbank in the country. Shy and harmless, they hide in trees near the water during the day, and at night they spin webs to catch mosquitoes, black flies, and other bugs that live in and feed on sediment. With the help of two students, Otter spent two days on the river, shaking tree branches and bagging several hundred spiders, which he sent to a lab for chemical analysis.

Otter says he tries to conduct research with no expectations about the outcome. But when the lab results came in, he was as shocked as anyone. The spiders tested negative for every toxin but selenium—levels of which, while concerning, weren’t “off the charts,” he says. Further field and controlled studies supported his initial findings. Apparently, the other toxins had bound with carbon in the fly ash and settled, uneaten, on the river bottom.

While media images of the Kingston site were terrifying, the spiders told a more accurate story. Because they bridge the ecosystems of river and land, says Otter, spiders reveal more than most animals can.

“All fish can tell you is the impact on fish . . . and how contamination moves through water systems in one way,” he says. “But how is that contamination impacting things on the land? Fish can’t really help with that.”

Long-jawed orb weavers aren’t the only creatures that eat aquatic bugs, he says. So do birds and bats, which then become part of the terrestrial food chain. “So these spiders are really cool
indicators,” Otter says. “They can tell a story about what’s going on in the water and how much is leaving the water to come onto the land.”

Thanks in great part to Ryan Otter, there’s no longer a dearth of research on the environmental effects of fly ash. (His phone rang in early 2014, when a pipe ruptured at a Duke Energy fly ash pond in North Carolina.) And while his work on the Kingston spill site is complete, he’s just beginning his research with long-jawed orb weavers, which he considers invaluable but overlooked subjects in the study of food-chain dynamics. “They can tell a huge story that typically has not been told,” he says.


By the Book

Ryan Otter might think of himself as a science nerd, but his students think of him as a guy they can go to for advice.

Since he joined the Department of Biology in 2007, Otter has spent many office hours talking to rudderless students about strategies for college success and guiding them toward fulfilling careers. He’s given so much advice, in fact, that he wrote a book on the subject, How to Win at the Game of College.

Otter sees himself in these students, who have been told they need a degree to get a job but who don’t know how to find their way or even where the path will lead.

“That was me,” he says. “I went to college with no idea what I was doing.” As a zoology major at Michigan State, he plugged away at his classes, driven by the vague promise that a degree equals a good job and good money. “Then I started looking at the data and I thought, ‘I don’t think that this is very accurate. I don’t see a diploma setting me up for what I think it’s going to.’”

As all scientists know, the data doesn’t lie. The trend Otter discovered when he ran the numbers still holds true: there are more college graduates than there are jobs for them. While graduation is critical, it doesn’t guarantee a job, much less a rewarding career. So college student Otter developed a detailed game plan to get where he wanted to go.

“[College is] just like any other game that you want to win,” he says. “You have to know who the other players are; you have to know what the rules are; and you have to have a strategy.” The plan worked for him, and at MTSU he began sharing it with students. He didn’t write it down until 2010, when his wife suggested that a book would save him time in the long run.

The book turned into a website, TheCollegeGameProject.org, with the tagline “Be Weird” (statistically weird, he explains.) The website has led to speaking engagements across the country.

Okay, call him a science nerd. But call his book and website great tools for playing and excelling in the college game.


Competitive Edge



Honors student-athletes excel on the field and in

the classroom


by Carol Stuart


For many student-athletes, the competitive drive, discipline, and intensity that make them successful in their sports can also make them successful in the classroom. MTSU baseball player Kaleb King and cheerleader Kailey McDonald are evidence of that.

King and McDonald have challenged their minds as well as their bodies by becoming Honors College students.


“We’ve had some top students who have gone through here and competed at a very high level, but it is unusual for them to be in the full-blown Honors College,” says MTSU Director of Athletics Chris Massaro. “We encourage that; we think it’s the ideal. You strive for academic excellence, and you push for it as hard as you push for athletic excellence.”

King, a sophomore from St. Louis, and McDonald, a junior from Murfreesboro, also are among 20 students annually awarded the prestigious Buchanan Fellowship through the Honors College. Named for Nobel Prize–winning alumnus Dr. James M. Buchanan, the full-ride scholarship is the highest award given to an entering freshman at MTSU.

According to Massaro, it perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise to find that some student-athletes can achieve as much in the classroom as they do on the field of play, especially considering that they are “used to a reaching a very high standard of excellence in everything that they do.” The key, he says, is learning how to balance their time. Those who master that, he says, are deserving of high praise.

“[In athletics], it is hours upon hours of training,” he says. “To balance that with the rigors of the Honors College program . . . well, it takes a special person to be able to accomplish all that.”

Here is a closer look at two such people, Honors student-athletes King and McDonald.



Kaleb King, Baseball2014-09-01D Honors Fall 2014 Cover

King, who scored an impressive 32 on the ACT, is among only five out-of-state Buchanan Fellows in his class.

He attended St. Louis University High School to challenge himself academically as well as athletically. He knew that baseball usually has a dozen college scholarships to award among teams of 35.

“I knew that would help me make college a lot more affordable and make me a lot more recruitable,” King says.

His dad, who as a young ballplayer himself was considered a major league prospect, played a year at Missouri–St. Louis under current MTSU baseball coach Jim McGuire. McGuire mentioned the Buchanan opportunity during recruiting, and school officials showed King how being in the Honors College and playing baseball could be a winning combination on a résumé.

“Ultimately, it will open up a lot of doors,” King says.

He says pushing himself both athletically and academically is a way to thank his parents for giving him opportunities and to prepare for the future. King’s mom is an elementary school teacher; his father studied business and sells security systems.

“My dad just kind of told me that he was in the same situation I was and to remember that someday baseball
was going to come to an end,” the outfielder says.

Baseball players have some of the busiest athletic road schedules, especially in springtime. Practice is 2 p.m.–4:30 or 5 p.m. on nongame days, followed by weight training. Although Monday is the NCAA-required off day, most players work out individually. The squad usually travels every other weekend, missing Thursday and Friday classes.

“It’s an every day thing,” King says. “It’s like another class or two a day, to be able to play a sport. But it’s definitely worth it.”

King, who is thinking of majoring in Business Administration or Marketing, carries a 3.8–3.9 GPA, has made the Dean’s List two semesters, and has received a Conference USA Academic Medal. Collectively, the baseball team had one of its highest GPAs in spring—in part with the help of King’s high marks.

King also excelled on the field his freshman season, starting 10 games at designated hitter or outfield and pinch-hitting. He also recently played in a Midwest summer league and had a July 4 walk-off hit at his home stadium, where A League of Their Own
was filmed.

His rigorous high school studies, including two hours of homework a night, prepared him for demanding Honors College studies.

“When the professor assigns something, I’m able to get it done
and then be able to go to practice and get to bed at a decent hour,” King says.

A lot of his MTSU teammates work to come out on top in schoolwork, too, because of the same competitive drive, he adds.

“There’s no camera on you while you’re studying for a test, but in your mind you’re thinking ‘I want to be the best. I want to be the one the teacher calls out,” King says.



Kailey McDonald, Cheerleading 2014-09-01D Honors Fall 2014 Cover

McDonald, a junior on the cheerleading squad, took a 10-day study-abroad trip to Israel before the fall semester for three hours interdisciplinary credit in the Honors College.

“That’s an opportunity that I’ve had at MTSU and with the Honors College that not everybody gets,” she says.

McDonald had a 4.0 academic record as a Siegel High valedictorian, and the Buchanan scholarship sealed the
choice of her hometown university.

“The Honors College is basically funding my education,”
she says.

She still has a perfect GPA after four semesters at MTSU, despite balancing studying, working at a gymnastics gym, and cheering for Blue Raider football, basketball, and volleyball.

McDonald bursts the pop-culture stereotypes of both bubble-headed cheerleaders and Computer Science majors. She
wants to follow her father’s example and secure a career in computer programming.

“People usually don’t know in class that I’m a cheerleader,” McDonald says. “Last year, I had to miss a couple of classes for an away game, so when I told my professor, one of my friends was behind me. He’s like, ‘Wait you’re a cheerleader?’ It was super funny.”

McDonald grew up participating in competitive sports, winning individual and team Level 8 state championships in gymnastics before moving to competitive and school cheerleading.

As a spirit squad member, her schedule is demanding. Practices are usually three nights a week in the fall and start at 6:30 a.m. in basketball season. Cheerleaders chosen to travel for road games leave Thursday or Friday for the whole weekend. The cheer squad divides into three rotating groups for men’s and women’s basketball home games and tournaments. Home football games require cheerleaders to arrive four hours before kickoff
for Raider Walk and tailgating.

“Pretty much all day Saturday is football games,” McDonald says.

“Being in competitive gymnastics, I used to practice 24 hours a week, so I’ve had to prioritize and manage my time ever since I can remember. That really helps me in college,” McDonald says. “Sometimes I have to say no and make sacrifices to my friends or not do other things that I want to do.”

That said, there are times when McDonald gets a little relief from her hectic schedule. Her team understands that from time to time McDonald may miss a community appearance or activity due to her difficult academic schedule. It is not unusual for her to be left off the squad selected to travel on longer road trips that require missing several days of classes. But she has traveled to Memphis, North Carolina, and Southern Miss football games and to the NCAA Women’s Tournament in Louisville.

According to McDonald, Honors College classes have been her favorites during her first two years.

“The professors are always really open, and the classes are usually more discussion-based instead of just lectures,” she says. “That’s been really cool getting to see other Honors students’ perspective on things.”



Athletes & Honors

McDonald and King aren’t the only MTSU Honors College-qualified athletes:

Aaron Aucker, baseball

Reid Clements, baseball

Brad Jarreau, baseball

Ronnie Jebavy, baseball

Mackenzie Sells, women’s basketball



Team Efforts

It’s not only MTSU athletes who are also Honors students who are excelling on both the fields of play and in the classroom. Check out some of these academic statistics worth crowing about!

Lady Raiders soccer (3.604) and softball (3.299) programs earned Conference USA 2013-14 Sport Academic Awards for the league’s highest team GPA in their sport. The women’s tennis team (3.299) received an academic award from the Intercollegiate Tennis Association. For the fourth consecutive year, ITA also recognized the men’s squad for academic excellence in 2014.

All 17 of Middle Tennessee’s athletic teams earned adequate multi-year Academic Progress Rates from the NCAA for the academic years 2009-13. APR is a term-by-term measure of eligibility and retention for Division I student-athletes developed as an early indicator of eventual graduation rates. The current threshold for adequate progress is 925, below which the NCAA can hit a program with sanctions.

Middle Tennessee’s football team (972) was second only behind Vanderbilt in the state in the APR released by the NCAA.

Men’s golf and women’s golf, with perfect 1,000s, won Public Recognition Awards for APRs in the top 10 percent in their sport nationally. Standout golfer Brett Patterson was named the Conference USA Men’s Golf Scholar Athlete of the Year, boasting a perfect 4.0 GPA with a major in business administration.

Middle Tennessee’s NCAA Graduation Success Rate set a new school record at 87 percent and is five points higher than the NCAA average, Middle Tennessee’s men’s and women’s basketball teams both recorded a 100 percent GSR score, while the Blue Raider football team turned in an impressive 87 percent score.

The ABCs of MTSU’s Quest for Student Success

An alphabetical look at MTSU’s commitment to student retention and graduation

by Drew Ruble


Governor Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative aims to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with postsecondary credentials from 32 percent to 55 percent to meet the state’s present and future workforce and economic needs.

According to the governor’s office, more than 20,000 Tennessee high school graduates choose not to continue their education each year, and there are approximately 940,000 adult Tennesseans who have some college credit but haven’t earned an associate or four-year degree. The question is: how do colleges and universities in Tennessee do a better job of attracting and retaining college-degree seekers to reach the 55 percent goal?

Every college and university says that student success is its number-one priority, but not every institution lives up to that claim. We decided to find out if MTSU is doing more than just talk about student success.

We looked high and low across campus to identify concrete examples of the University putting its money where its mouth is regarding retention and graduation. What we found is perhaps best expressed in this alphabetical look at the many ways MTSU really is all about student success!



Even with significant budget cutbacks in higher education across Tennessee, MTSU has reallocated many of its precious dollars to hire 47 new student academic advisors. Housed in individual colleges and schools, these new hires are working with faculty on a more proactive, real-time approach to students who are struggling.



The $65 million, nearly 211,000-square-foot Student Union, opened in 2013 and dedicated entirely to student activities, speaks to the University’s student-centered focus. The recent opening of a $16 million Student Services and Admissions Center and MT One Stop help center (both connected to the Student Union by a walking bridge) is another example of MTSU’s emphasis on keeping students enrolled and working toward a degree. Everything dealing with financial aid, scholarships, records and scheduling, bills, transcripts, and holds (and more!) is now located in one place. Last but not least, the brand-new state-of-the-art $147 million Science Building, which opened in summer 2014, is offering classes and labs for approximately 80 percent of all students!

Course redesign

In recent years, MTSU has launched a mammoth effort to change how it structures and delivers some General Education courses in which too many students were failing. With much effort and painstaking faculty review, these courses have been redesigned in an effort to increase attendance, engagement, and eventual success. As President Sidney A. McPhee is quick to emphasize, this is not grade inflation. It’s taking a good look in the mirror and doing what’s right by our hardworking students.


Career Development

While great emphasis has been placed on increasing graduation and retention, MTSU has also given careful consideration to ways it can ensure that students graduate with the skills to get a job and a realistic understanding of the job market. MTSU’s University College, in particular, has distinguished itself with programs to help each incoming student identify an appropriate major and chart a path to a career.


Expanded Scholars Academy

Seven years ago, the Scholar’s Academy was developed to attract and
acclimate qualified low-income, Pell-eligible students to the University and equip them for success. Historically, the program enrolled a small group of students (32 or less) and gave them an opportunity to earn six credit hours, learn success strategies, get used to college life, and develop a network of peers. By summer 2014, the number of participants had jumped to a total of 114. These students continue to meet with student-success staff to strengthen their academic and social connections and participate in workshops on topics like note-taking techniques, how to study for exams, and financial literacy.



MTSU’s most ambitious quest for philanthropy in its history—the ongoing $80 million Centennial Campaign—has student success as its focus. Priorities are increasing financial aid and support for students, maintaining the finest teaching and research faculty possible to educate students, improving physical facilities and academic opportunities for students, and enhancing the Blue Raider athletic program to give student-athletes a world-class educational and athletic experience.


Many MTSU students are first-generation college students who juggle academic and work demands in pursuit of a degree. For many, a relatively small financial barrier—say, an emergency room visit or unexpected car repair—can delay their studies and their progress toward a degree. Students who find themselves in a financial pinch can now apply for one-time emergency microgrants aimed at keeping them in school and on track to earning a degree. These smaller sums can help with verified needs such as tuition, fees, books, housing, and transportation. Grants up to $250 are available and do not have to be repaid. To be eligible, students must be in good academic standing.


High-tech, high-touch approach

Remember those aforementioned 47 new advisors the University has hired to ensure that struggling students get the help they need? They do their jobs in part through the use of new, cutting-edge software the University has adopted that allows them to reach out to students who might be having trouble academically as identified through instructor alerts or the software’s predictive analytics function. Other universities have seen great results from similar, more proactive methods of advising. But although technology can boost efficiency, President McPhee is quick to warn that nothing takes the place of genuine relationships that faculty and advisors create with students.


International experiences

Today’s students simply must communicate across cultures effectively if they are to participate successfully in the international workplace. At MTSU, internationalization of the student body is a priority. International student enrollment has increased from 396 to 789 in five years, and the University placed 335 students in its study-abroad programs last summer. International student undergraduate new enrollment increased 20.7 percent in 2014, and new applications increased by 35 percent. For the first time, more than 400 MTSU students studied abroad during a single academic year. MTSU was recognized last year by the Chronicle of Higher Education as a top producer of Fulbright award winners. The Fulbright Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, is the government’s flagship international exchange effort. MTSU was the only Tennessee college or university to earn the Chronicle’s distinction. Finally, MTSU has more than 40 exchange agreements with institutions around the world, including in China, where MTSU’s strong academic partnerships in research and industry rival those of any university in America.


Just graduate in 4 and get more

MTSU recently unveiled a bold new financial aid package to encourage students to graduate in four years. The Graduate in 4 and Get More program promises to supplement by $1,000 the Hope Lottery Scholarships of incoming students who stay on track to graduate in four years and to award a Finish Line Scholarship to graduating seniors that will return any tuition increases over that span. Both initiatives are part of the new Student Success Advantage (see next page), which is part of the overall Quest for Student Success (see next page).


Knowledgeable teachers/professors

An internationally renowned forensic scientist who is regularly called to crime scenes across Tennessee and consulted by the FBI’s top forensic lab. A contamination expert who used native spiders to gauge nature’s recovery in the aftermath of the TVA-Kingston coal ash spill. A pair of exercise scientists who have successfully used underwater treadmills to treat paralysis victims others had given up on. A nationally recognized economist who regularly appears on business talk shows televised around the world. A music recording instructor who is also a Grammy winner. The only National Teacher of the Year ever to hail from Tennessee. No matter what subject area claims the interest of a prospective college student, there is an expert at MTSU who can deliver real knowledge to help get that student where he or she wants to go professionally.


Long distance learning

Distance learners comprise more than one-third of MTSU’s undergraduate population, and unlike many universities, MTSU does not have a separate faculty serving its online student body. Distance learners have access to the same core faculty that traditional students have in on-campus classroom settings.


Midterm grades

MTSU’s midterm grading initiative ensures that students know where they stand academically when they most need to know it and can receive appropriate updates and feedback from their professors. The full participation of faculty members in this initiative shows how committed they are to the overall success of their students. The University’s academic alert system also allows faculty to send electronic messages to students and their academic advisors about their progress at any time. Faculty members believe their job is not only to teach students but also to help them succeed and graduate.


New Student Orientation

CUSTOMS is MTSU’s new student orientation program. It helps new undergraduates feel comfortable at the University, prepares them for MTSU’s educational opportunities, and starts their integration into the intellectual, cultural, and social climate of the institution. CUSTOMS shows new students the ropes. During CUSTOMS, students are shown how MTSU works hard to develop a community devoted to learning, growth, and service. A simple phrase that describes that devotion is “I am True Blue.” Each time members of the MTSU family repeat those words, they give voice to ideals the University wants to share with students, and they reaffirm the institution’s commitment to a student-centered culture. Reciting the True Blue Pledge—which commits new students to honesty and integrity, respect for diversity, community engagement, and reason, not violence—has become a tradition at MTSU Convocations.

Alternative Degree Options

Many students change majors during their college careers (sometimes more than once), or they are faced with candidacy issues and are forced to make changes. Often, credit hours earned in one major can’t be applied to others, and students can lose time and money. In fall 2013, the Bachelor of Science in Integrated Studies (formerly Bachelor of University Studies) was launched with the goal of providing a valuable option to make use of these potentially lost hours.


Connection Point

Studies show that students who are involved in campus life tend to perform better academically
and are more likely to graduate than those who don’t. Connection Point is a program that connects students to the University through extracurricular activities with the goal of improving retention and graduation. In 2013, its first year, more than 2,700 first-time students participated in Connection Point, and more than 2,100 first-time students attended at least one event during fall semester. More than 1,100 first-time students attended four or more events during the semester.


The Quest for Student Success itself!

A presidentially mandated, provost-driven blueprint for student success at MTSU is proof of how seriously the University takes this mission! The plan, unveiled last year, is designed to make sure that every student who attends MTSU with a drive to achieve will be met with the best instruction from excellent professors who care about student success. Instead of focusing on external factors beyond its control, MTSU undertook this quest to focus its energies and talents on tackling internal factors over which it has direct influence and which it knows can positively affect learning. Key initiatives include recruiting students who value academic success, enhancing the academic experience by implementing curriculum innovation across all disciplines, emphasizing the role of quality advising, championing enhancements in administrative processes, and eliminating barriers to student success. The whole plan is geared toward staff and faculty discovering and developing new and innovative ways to help students be successful.

Recapture and R.E.B.O.U.N.D.

Advisors at MTSU now call all previously enrolled students who have not registered for each upcoming semester to encourage them to stay on track and to help them deal with issues like work responsibilities and family issues that might be hindering them. That’s recapture. Another initiative called R.E.B.O.U.N.D. helps students recover from a bad semester. Approximately 600 first-time, first-year students will achieve below a 2.0 grade point average in their first fall semester, and of those, only about 20 percent will return the following year. Advisors use the new R.E.B.O.U.N.D. program (“Retake classes. Engage your purpose. Be intentional about attendance. Own your future. Understand what went wrong. Narrow your activities. Determine that you are going to succeed.”) to intervene.


Student Success Advantage

As mentioned above (Graduate in 4 and Get More), the Student Success Advantage plan provides a $1,000 supplement to the Hope scholarship—making up for a recent state reduction in that program—and also promises to refund any tuition increases that occur during a student’s college career if he/she graduates in four years. The Student Success Advantage also scales back minimum ACT scores required to qualify for five major scholarships guaranteed to eligible students. And the University’s Transfer Academic Scholarships are now guaranteed for students from all Tennessee community colleges.



Tutoring can be crucial to student success. At every step of the academic journey, students discover that tutoring helps understanding, recollection, and application of what is presented in class. Tutoring opportunities can be found all over campus, and an ambitious new tutoring space in Walker Library is available. MTSU students enrolled online can take advantage of tutoring support 24 hours a day!


University College offerings

MTSU is the only college or university in Tennessee designated an Adult Learning Focused Institution by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. Officially, half of MTSU students are classified as adults. MTSU operates the most successful summer school program in America. In terms of participation, no other U.S. university comes close. Data strongly suggest that students who attend summer school (including those still in high school or attending another college in fall and spring) graduate at a higher rate. The Middle Tennessee Education Center (MTEC) in Shelbyville is a partnership of MTSU, Motlow State Community College, and Bedford County that offers additional higher education opportunities to those living in south middle Tennessee. That’s higher education in your own backyard. MTSU has been repeatedly named a Military Friendly School by G.I. Jobs magazine. No Tennessee university does more to embrace military service members, veterans, and spouses as students and ensure their success.


Vice Provost for Student Success

Dr. Rick Sluder is MTSU’s new vice provost for student success. Sluder was previously vice provost for recruitment and outreach at University of Central Missouri, where he helped increase enrollment and led an initiative to improve student retention and graduation. Dr. Sluder has one mission at MTSU: ensuring academic success!


Real-World Opportunities

As an estimated 14,000 fans on Lower Broadway in Nashville enjoyed the music of Capitol Records artists including Luke Bryan back in October 2012, 53 MTSU students were modulating audio, operating high-definition cameras, conducting interviews, and recording the concert for the label. A year later, MTSU students did the same for the second annual Capitol Street Festival.

Other real-world experiences await MTSU students in the research arena. In fall 2014, students in Dr. R. Drew Sieg’s Honors biology courses joined the search for natural sources to isolate new medicines and drugs through the Small World Initiative, a research experience designed in conjunction with Yale University that addresses the increase in antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Collaborators from more than 60 universities are crowdsourcing the search for new antibiotics and making it a unifying theme for introductory biology lab experiments. In Dr. Sieg’s class, students isolate bacteria from local soils, identify them through gene amplification and sequencing, and screen bacteria and their chemical extracts for inhibitory activity against bacterial strains closely related to common pathogens. Students may or may not isolate the next wonder drug, but they will definitely get first-hand experience in the pursuit of scientific discovery.



The Experiential Learning program gives students practical experience in real-world environments related to their fields of study. The idea is to engage students directly in public service and offer them experience beyond textbooks and lectures. More than 200 courses are now approved as EXL courses University-wide. Students have worked with local organizations such as Room in the Inn, Make a Wish Foundation, and Habitat for Humanity. Participation has demonstrated promise as a way to increase engagement with a corresponding increase in retention. The six-year graduation rate for students taking EXL courses is 86 percent—well above average.

Year-Two Experience

The freshman-year experience gets lots of attention, but research indicates that many second-year students feel a sense of abandonment, which can cause them to leave school. Increasing student involvement in campus life and academic programs during the sophomore year is a key issue MTSU is addressing through more academic guidance and extracurricular opportunities.


Zeroing in on undeclared/undecided students

Academic advisors often meet students who begin college without a clear direction. It is also common for them to work with students who begin by charting their own courses but, after facing roadblocks or detours, realize that an alternative route is necessary. Without the right support system in place, indecision can negatively affect commitment to academic and career goals and be a strong hindrance to graduation. Recent mandates by the Tennessee Board of Regents require MTSU to modify how it deals with students who are not ready to select a particular major. These students now get extra advising support.


Unraveling Dyslexia

An MTSU center helps students and parents recognize and overcome obstacles posed by a common reading disorder



Envision standing near the entrance to a walled garden. Inside is a fascinating place where letters and words take root and bloom into meaning. People happily come and go at will through the gate, but not you. No matter how many times you try or how hard you push, it won’t open. It is embarrassing to have others watch you. You feel discouraged. Eventually, a sense of failure takes root, and you walk away.


While metaphorical, this is a picture of what those with dyslexia regularly experience when trying to read, write, or spell.


Although most of us take it for granted, reading enables us to step outside our own experience, see the world through different eyes, and gain new perspectives that inform our worldview. It isn’t any wonder, then, that a person’s reading ability can prove to be a significant barometer of success in life, whether in academics, a career, or even one’s health.


Dyslexia–which has nothing to do with a child’s intelligence and desire to learn (or even good teaching)–is like the garden wall described above: a barrier to literacy. Failure to clear that barrier can produce negative consequences not just for students but also for society as a whole. Illiteracy often leads to undesirable social outcomes ranging from unemployment to homelessness and poverty.


The good news is, students with dyslexia can learn to read, and they can do so through the types of specialized instructional approaches employed at the Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia at MTSU.


A Model Organization

Mention dyslexia and most people have some awareness of the term but no clear understanding of its meaning or its impact. Dyslexia affects 10 to 20 percent of the population.


In 1993, the Tennessee General Assembly established the Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia, which is part of the MTSU College of Education, to assist K–12 students and their families, teachers, and other professionals grappling with the problem. The work of the center has touched the lives of thousands of people—helping them find new keys to open the gate—in 94 of the state’s 95 counties.

Dr. James Herman, the center’s director, is enthusiastic about the work being done.


“This is an exciting place,” he says. “We are constantly moving forward. The staff regularly meets to discuss the latest research and cutting-edge technology. We are all working to make dyslexia known for what it is and what it isn’t.”


What it is, according to the International Dyslexia Association, is “a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin, characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.”Struggling to read hinders vocabulary growth and reading comprehension and can lead to low literacy and poor self-esteem.


It’s important to understand that dyslexia is not a disease; it cannot be cured. Nor does it equate to intelligence; many dyslexics function at an average to above-average level. However, when detected early, dyslexia can be successfully addressed with education, training, and patience.


An example of someone who refuses to let dyslexia define him is Justin Lowe, 22, an MTSU junior from Murfreesboro majoring in anthropology. Lowe’s second-grade teacher at Homer Pittard Campus School recognized his student’s struggle and sent his family to the center for help.

“The people at the center helped me realize I should not focus on my weaknesses but rather my strengths,” he says.


“I can get the same thing achieved by taking a different route, but the outcome is the same. You learn to think outside of the box.”


Lowe remembers being motivated when he learned that celebrated military general George Patton had dyslexia.


“It made me realize that if I put my mind to it, I could do anything I wanted and dyslexia was not going to hold me back,” he says.


Other well-known Americans who have this disability include Jay Leno, Henry Winkler, Tom Cruise, Cher, and Anderson Cooper. Most struggled in school and couldn’t read well and were told they were not living up to their potential or, even worse, that they should quit school.


Such thoughts make Herman bristle.


“Students with dyslexia are always going to struggle, but we can help. It is not scary; it is workable,” he says. “I believe all students can be taught to be successful. There is not one child who cannot be taught to read better.”


Creating the Template

The same passion to help children succeed is the motivation that led Murfreesboro resident Kitty Murfree to lay the foundation on which the center was built. In the mid-1980s, she became keenly aware that the needs of students with dyslexia were not adequately being met in Tennessee.


“Dyslexia was a hidden element which families tried to quietly work with at the time,” said Murfree. “Testing was available at Vanderbilt, but after talking with teachers it was evident there was no real place to go for help.”


She responded by endowing the Katherine Davis Murfree Chair of Excellence in Dyslexic Studies at MTSU in 1988.


“Children are my first love. It became evident to me we had a big problem, with few resources,” said Murfree, who has served for years on the board of the Monroe Carell, Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. “I have always been a person that if you have a problem, you go after it.”


After a national search, Dr. Diane Sawyer, who was a professor in the Reading and Language Arts Department at Syracuse University, started as the new chairholder and faculty member in January 1990.


“Diane did an absolutely magnificent job,” said Murfree. “This is one of the things that put MTSU on the map. It is a great asset. Nobody else in the state had anything else like it.”


Reminiscing about the program’s humble beginnings, Sawyer says, “My first ‘office’ was half a dorm room that I shared with a part-time secretary and graduate assistant that actually sat on the heating and air unit located
on the wall.”


Shortly after arriving, the new chair was asked to testify before the Tennessee State Committee on Education about dyslexia. Later, to help address the challenges she was encountering across the state, she asked the General Assembly to provide funding to establish the center.


With the assistance of then–state senator Andy Womack of Murfreesboro (who chaired the Senate Education Committee) the money was appropriated in 1993. In January 1994, the Tennessee Higher Education Commision gave the final stamp of approval for the center to be a
permanent part of MTSU. Its first home was at what was then Central Middle School on East Main Street. Sawyer became the first director while maintaining her chair responsibilities.


“Dyslexia was often described as the hidden disability,” Sawyer says. “I knew that the detail and complexity of the work we were doing at the time was unique. It gave me an opportunity to do something that previously didn’t exist.”


Brick by Brick 

Another milestone occurred in 2001, when the current 4,300-square-foot building opened on the edge of campus at the corner of Baird Lane and Elrod Street. The brick building doubled the center’s size and was made possible with assistance from the MTSU Foundation and a $1 million grant from the nonprofit Murfreesboro-based Christy-Houston Foundation.


After years of groundbreaking research, Sawyer retired from the University in 2010.


Today, Herman, his talented professional staff, and four graduate assistants continue to expand the center’s vision.


An extensive annual calendar of professional development is offered to help educators recognize, evaluate, and provide learning options for dyslexic students. This includes the Ron Yoshimoto 40-Hour Orton-Gillingham training in July. In August, Deborah Simmons, a College of Education and Human Development professor at Texas A&M University, will be the keynote speaker for the Second Annual Reading Conference. (The 2013 inaugural conference was attended by 250 individuals with four universities represented.) The annual Fox Reading Conference is made possible through an endowment established by the late Tom Fox and his wife Elizabeth.


Both parents and teachers can attend the Saturday Dyslexia Success Series Workshops, held monthly except during the summer. Also, the staff can customize specific training programs for educators on- or off-site. A search is ongoing to fill the Murfree Chair of Excellence in Dyslexic Studies.


For parents who think their child may have dyslexia, Herman suggests they talk with the student’s teacher or principal or call the center and request an assessment.


“We are happy to work with all parents and their children. When prior testing has been done by the schools, it gives us a broader base of information to help the student,” Herman says.


Once the necessary funding is in place, the director’s plans for the future include:

  • to increase the number of students served,
  • more specific treatment options,
  • expansion of accessible online services, and
  • broadening of the center’s mission to help MTSU students stay in school and graduate.


“We care deeply for each student who comes through our doors,” said Herman. “We’re not just going to talk about what we can do, we’re going to do something about it.”

Grade A Grads

Alumni Association broadens field of Distinguished Alumni

by Randy Weiler


Alumni bring the University prestige and distinction through outstanding professional careers and loyal support.

Since 1960, the MTSU Alumni Association has recognized accomplished alumni with its highest honor: the Distinguished Alumni Award. Younger alumni who are having a positive impact in the world have received the Young Alumni Achievement Award.

New this year are True Blue Citations of Distinction in the categories of Achievement in Education (current or retired faculty), Achievement in Education (for accomplishment outside MTSU), Service to the University, and Service to the Community.

This year’s honorees include two with strong aviation backgrounds, two lifelong educators, a third whose vision and passion for education has affected thousands of students, and a politically savvy alumna whose talents have taken her all the way to the White House.

The six were recognized many times during Homecoming Week on campus in October. Here is a glance at the 2014–15 honorees.






Distinguished Alumna: Vernice “FlyGirl” Armour (1997)

Armour went from being a beat cop to a combat pilot in three years and became America’s first African American female combat pilot, serving two tours overseas. Armour enrolled at MTSU, joined the Army ROTC program, and, after earning an Exercise Science degree, served three years as a Metro Nashville police officer. Following her father and stepfather’s military path, she became a second lieutenant and pilot in the Marine Corps. Now a noted motivational author and speaker, Armour has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN, the Tavis Smiley Show, and National Public Radio and in many publications.


Young Alumni Achievement Award: Ashley Elizabeth Graham (2012)

Graham’s passion for politics landed her a role in a state senator’s campaign while she was an MTSU student, and then it catapulted her to Washington, D.C. Early in her career, she was writing speeches for the General Services Administration, a job that required security clearance. Later, she worked at the White House for the Bush administration as deputy director of presidential writers. She was one of six speechwriters for a recent Republican National Convention, and she’s now deputy communications director for U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee’s 7th congressional district. Graham, a Nashville resident, received the Maverick PAC 40 under 40 Award in 2013.


True Blue Citations of Distinction


Ray Phillips (1966): Achievement in Education

(current or retired MTSU faculty)

Phillips, who lives near Bell Buckle, is Professor Emeritus of Mathematical Sciences and a former department chair, associate dean of the College of Graduate Studies, and interim dean of the College of Basic and Applied Sciences. He served MTSU from 1990 to 2003 and was active in research, curriculum development, and crucial grant writing that earned several millions. He was a leader in the push for STEM education, and he established the Tennessee STEM Education Center at the University. A colleague said his “illustrious career in education . . . brought distinction to MTSU.”


Linda Gilbert (1972, ’79 and ’91): Achievement in Education


Gilbert, a Murfreesboro resident, has been a Murfreesboro City School administrator for many years and is now director of schools. Her leadership and knowledge have benefited both city schools and MTSU. She coauthored grants for MTeach, a University effort designed to increase the number and quality of math and science teachers and encourage dual enrollment between MTSU and county schools. Her involvement and service includes sitting on and chairing many advisory boards and committees—from the College of Behavioral and Health Sciences advisory board to Band of Blue executive board.


Donald McDonald (1963): Service to the University

McDonald and his wife, Frances, are avid MTSU supporters, scholarship benefactors, and 1911 Society members who are supporting the University through their estate plans. The aerospace maintenance laboratory at the Flight Operations Center at Murfreesboro Airport is named for McDonald, and he serves on the MTSU Foundation board and the Aerospace Department’s advisory board. The McDonalds open their home and personal hangar to aerospace students and faculty for many MTSU functions.



Matthew Little (2008): Service to the Community

Little, who lives in Huntsville, Alabama, has been a part of many service initiatives: running camps for 2,000 students, providing leadership for Tennessee’s statewide service day, and creating a National Park educational program. Tennessee named Little as a delegate to its first Truancy and Dropout Prevention Conference, and he participated in the Mayor’s Summit on Children and Youth in Nashville. He also works with the nonprofit ServeAlabama to support volunteer work. Little’s leadership has guided three institutions to places on the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll. He is senior associate director of admissions at the University of Alabama–Huntsville.


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.