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

Carroll Van West, Director of the Center for Historic Preservation and History Professor

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.


Degrees of Recognition

by Jimmy Hart and Drew Ruble

The granting of an honorary doctorate degree, a tradition of universities dating back to the Middle Ages, is higher education’s most significant accolade. Such degrees recognize those with sustained records of achievement who have made outstanding contributions and who exemplify the ideals for which a university stands. They are not lightly given. It is a university’s ultimate sign of respect.

On May 10, 2014, during the University’s commencement ceremonies, MTSU granted just the third and fourth honorary degrees in its 103-year history. Receiving them were MTSU alumnus Lt. Gen. William Phillips (’76), a U.S. Army three- star general from Bell Buckle, and Madam Xu Lin of China, a vice minister of education and director-general of the worldwide network of Confucius Institutes. Each honoree addressed graduates during commencement exercises.



A Soldier’s Soldier

From February 2010 to April 2014, Phillips was stationed at the Pentagon and served as principal military deputy to the assistant secretary of the U.S. Army for acquisition, logistics, and technology. He retired in April after 38 years of service.

In a recent House speech honoring Phillips, U.S. Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, called Phillips “a true champion for soldiers and their families,” adding, “His dedication to excel- lence has ensured our beloved soldiers fighting on behalf of the nation have always had, and will continue to have well into the future, the most technologically advanced and reliable equipment whenever and wherever they need it most.”

Phillips graduated from MTSU in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree. He received a master’s in procurement and materials management from Webster University and a master’s in personnel management from Troy State University. He is a graduate of the Command and General Staff College, the Defense Systems Management College, and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.

Among his many awards are the Bronze Star Medal, the Army Meritorious Service Medal, and the Iraq Campaign Medal. In 2001, he was named U.S. Army Acquisition Commander of the Year.




A Cultural Icon

Xu Lin leads the Chinese Language Council International (Hanban) and serves as chief executive of Confucius Institute Headquarters in Beijing. During her tenure, the organization has experienced tremendous growth. Since 2004, it has expanded to more than 120 countries with more than 440 Confucius Institutes and 650 Confucius Classrooms, reaching more than 850,000 students. MTSU joined China’s Hangzhou Normal University to open its Confucius Institute in 2010.

“Under Xu’s leadership, Hanban has been committed to making Chinese language and culture teaching resources and services available to the world, meeting the demands of over-seas Chinese learners and contributing to the formation of a world of cultural diversity and harmony,” said President Sidney A. McPhee.

In October 2013, Xu visited the MTSU Confucius Institute and the Tennessee State Capitol, where she met with Sen. Bill Ketron and Gov. Bill Haslam, among others, to discuss the importance of cultural exchanges between the U.S. and China. Xu received her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Fudan University in Shanghai and a master’s degree from Beijing Normal University. She has received many honorary doctorate degrees from universities around the globe. MTSU

[Editor’s Note: Almost 2,300 students graduated at MTSU’s spring 2014 commencement ceremonies on May 10. Of that number, 1,893 were undergraduates and 393 were graduate students.]


Back in the Groove


























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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Par for the Course

MTSU golf coach Whit Turnbow proves that one good deed leads to many others


By Bill Lewis
Photography by J. Intintoli

On the eight-degree morning Coach Whit Turnbow tweeted an offer to find a winter coat for anyone in need of one, he was shocked by the need he discovered. What didn’t surprise him was the generosity of the MTSU family.

“It’s a reminder what kind of country we live in,” says the Blue Raider men’s golf coach. Students, alumni, and local sports fans rallied to support his effort, donating hundreds of coats and the cash to purchase more.

The coat drive grew so dramatically that it earned a name—the True Blue Turnbow Project—and may become an annual event.

The whole thing began quite simply. Turnbow remembers being chilly in his car as he drove to campus at 6:45 a.m. for a team meeting. He could only imagine how cold it was for a man he saw on the street walking without a jacket.

“It was one of those days when the high was 14,” he says. Turnbow picked up his phone and tweeted, “Thinking about the kids who don’t have a warm place to wait on the bus or a winter jacket . . . If you know someone like this, DM me, and I will personally see to it that they get a new coat.”

“I just thought I’d run down to Walmart and buy a few coats,” said Turnbow.

He had no idea just how many coats were needed, or that just a few miles away, two first graders were suffering from frostbite after walking to school in their shirtsleeves. His tweets went viral among teachers in Murfreesboro and Rutherford County schools and in Bedford County, where Turnbow’s brother is a coach.

“Suddenly there were 30, 50, then 70 requests,” he says.

He called Murfreesboro businessman Matthew Neal, who offered to drop everything and meet the coach at Walmart. They walked out with $600 worth of jackets.

The Murfreesboro school system alone received 100 coats, along with mittens, gloves, and scarves, says central office employee Lisa Trail. “It was truly a blessing,” she says. “Children grow so quickly in elementary school, it can be a tremendous strain on families.”

She wasn’t surprised when she heard about Turnbow’s tweets or when he called her to see if the schools needed help getting the coats to children who needed them.

“The MTSU community, especially athletics, reaches out to [our] students on a regular basis,” Trail says. “MTSU is a strong community supporter and has a tremendous outreach to our students.”

When Director of Athletics Chris Massaro suggested collecting coats at a men’s basketball game, fans donated hundreds of winter jackets. The Student-Athlete Advisory Council and members of the men’s and women’s golf teams collected them at the doors of Murphy Center. At a later women’s game, fans made donations of $20 to $200 “right out of their pocket,” Turnbow says.

For a time, it was impossible to buy a winter coat in Murfreesboro. They had all been snapped up by members of the MTSU community.

“People who brought coats said, ‘I had to drive to Smyrna or even Nashville to get this,’” Turnbow says. “We cleaned out Walmart, Kmart, and Old Navy.” The weather in Murfreesboro is warm now, but Turnbow is already planning for next winter.

“We’ll replenish the supply at the schools,” he says, “Our job will be to make sure they have coats to keep them warm.”

Turnbow was awarded the Make a Difference Award for his True Blue Turnbow Project at the third annual Raiders Choice Awards in April. The awards highlight accomplishments in the Blue Raider athletic family. MTSU


Chasing the Green

MTSU golf alum Jason Millard attracted the attention of major sports outlets nationwide in June when he self-reported a penalty for grounding his club in a bunker on the 18th hole of a qualifying tournament that resulted in his disqualification from playing in the 2014 U.S. Open.

PGA.com described Millard’s action as “a prime example of the honor code in professional golf.” Reaction around the golf world, it added, was first one of shock, then respect and admiration.

Millard admitted he wasn’t 100 percent sure he actually grounded the club but that deep down he thought he did. His decision to report the possible infraction to officials deferred his dream of playing in one of golf’s annual major tournaments.

That isn’t to say Millard hasn’t had a breakthrough year in professional golf. A few weeks before the incident, he became the first Blue Raider since Mike Harmon in 1982 to play in a PGA event. Millard qualified and played in the Honda Classic in Florida.

Golf coach Whit Turnbow flew to Palm Beach Gardens to caddy for Millard during a practice round. Though Millard didn’t walk away with the winner’s share of the $6 million purse that weekend, he did gain something invaluable.


“He took away the confidence that he can compete at the highest level,” Turnbow says. “He’s chasing
that dream.” The U.S. Open experience no doubt confirms that.


Another former Blue Raider golfer, Hunter Green, later qualified for and played in the PGA Wells Fargo Championship in May in Charlotte, N.C.



Not to be outdone by the men, MTSU freshman Samantha Gotcher qualified earlier this year for the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open, becoming only the second Blue Raider in history (Taryn Durham in 2007 was first) to qualify for the prestigious tournament.





Teeing Off

For the sixth time in the last seven years, Middle Tennessee’s men’s golf program earned a bid to the NCAA tournament. Only the nation’s top 81 teams were invited to compete in the 2014 tournament. MTSU’s regional took place at The Club at Old Hawthorne in Columbia, Missouri, May 15–17. The low five teams from a total of six regionals advanced to the NCAA National Championships. Other universities competing in MTSU’s regional included No. 2 Oklahoma State, No. 11 Virginia, No. 14 LSU, No. 24 Arkansas, and 26th-ranked Arizona State. MTSU was led this year by juniors Brett Patterson and Payne Denman.

The MTSU golf team excelled academically in 2014 as well, earning a Public Recognition Award from the NCAA for scoring in the top 10 percent on its most recent multiyear Academic Progress Rates. The APR provides a real-time look at a team’s academic success each semester or quarter by tracking the academic progress of each student-athlete. The APR includes eligibility, retention, and graduation in the calculation and provides a clear picture of the academic culture in each sport.

It marks the fourth straight year the men’s golf program has been recognized. The women’s golf team, led by coach Chris Adams, also received the award, a first for the women’s team.

Working Behind Bars

Meredith Dye studies on oft-ignored female population

by Katie Porterfield


As a little girl, Assistant Professor Meredith Dye (Sociology and Anthropology) watched a lot of Scooby-Doo.

“At the end of each show, when they unmask the bad guy or the ghost, they see that it’s a real person, and it’s usually someone they know,” says the 37-year-old Dye, who mentions her affection for the cartoon to help make sense of what’s perhaps an unlikely calling: prison research.

“I have a tendency to see people in prison as people, not for what they’ve done,” she says.

It’s this tendency that fuels Dye’s most recent research on women serving life sentences in prison, a small population (5,000 in the United States) that receives little research attention.

In fact, in 2010, she and her colleague Professor Ron Aday (Sociology and Anthropology) visited three Georgia prisons and surveyed 214 of the 300 women serving life sentences in the state. As far as the pair knows, their data represents the largest sample of its kind. In addition to the fact that female lifers are an overlooked prison population, it’s difficult to get permission to work with them.

        “If it weren’t for Ron, I don’t think I would have been able to get access to prisons to collect data,” Dye says, explaining that Aday, who wrote a book on women aging in prison, has a contact in the Georgia Department of Corrections who paved the way for them. “When I was at Georgia [in graduate school], I was discouraged to hear that it took someone 13 years to establish a relationship that enabled him to gain access.”

Teaming up with Aday after joining MTSU is just one of the many experiences that shaped Dye’s interest in prison research. In other words, Scooby-Doo isn’t solely responsible for her “pathway to prison,” as she calls it. As she got older, her concern and compassion for people portrayed as “bad guys” spilled over to her academic career. At Erskine College, where she majored in behavioral science, she helped a Ph.D. student conduct research on deviant behavior in controlled and isolated environments. Between undergraduate and graduate school, she worked as a counselor at a residential treatment center for juvenile sex offenders and found herself asking questions about the environment and its approach to helping patients. While working toward her master’s in sociology with a concentration in criminology at the University of North Carolina–Greensboro, she developed a fascination with those who must live in and adapt to institutions in which their lives are completely controlled. She began to focus mostly on prisons and wrote her thesis and dissertation on factors associated with prison suicides (using secondary data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics). In 2008, after getting her Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, she ventured to MTSU, where she met Aday just as she was beginning to look at gender differences related to suicide in prison.

After working with Aday to gather data, she published “I Just Wanted to Die” in Criminal Justice and Behavior Journal. The article compared suicidal ideation among women before receiving life sentences and then while in prison. Her latest study, “The Rock I Cling To: Religion in the Lives of Life-Sentenced Women,” was cowritten for the Prison Journal.

Dye is far from finished. She’s yet to write a general paper on the characteristics of women serving life sentences, and because her survey contained closed and open-ended questions, she has a wealth of material that should eventually lead to a book. Her findings so far, she explains, are myth breaking in that they don’t fit most preexisting perceptions of who women serving life sentences really are.

“One thing that stands out right away when you meet these women is that they’re like your mom and your grandmom,” Dye says. “They are aging. They have wheelchairs, walkers, white hair, and health problems associated with aging. Or they are middle-aged women who never saw themselves ending up in prison, much less serving a life sentence.”

Unless they are serving life without parole, most women serving life sentences will not be in prison for life. Yet, as Dye explains, they are almost invisible because they comprise such a small population. (Less than one percent of all Georgia inmates are female lifers.)

“What I heard from them over and over again was ‘We are overlooked,’” says Dye. “The prison administration and staff are more concerned about people serving shorter sentences and getting them back into society so they don’t come back to prison.”

Though Dye readily cites useful and interesting percentages about the women she surveyed (see page 37), she’s quick to point out that her research isn’t just about crunching numbers. It’s also about telling the stories of incarcerated women “nobody seems to care about.”

“I’m not saying these women don’t need to be in prison, but who are they, how did they get there, how are they serving their time? Do I think this particular research will lead to a change in policy or their daily lives? Probably not, but I think we always need to ask ourselves what we’re doing.”

Meanwhile, she thinks she’s exactly where she needs to be. “A professor who does research on gangs told me one time that he always tells the people he interviews that for just a series of different life circumstances, choices, or opportunities, he could be where they are,” Dye says. “I feel the same way. I feel privileged and fortunate. I’ve had a lot of opportunities, and I think this is what I’m supposed to do.”


Creating a Paper Trail

Charles Clary’s art cuts both ways.



by Darby Campbell

When you step into an exhibition of Charles Clary’s (’04) paper sculptures, it can be an overwhelming experience.

The playful shapes come off the wall and reach out to the viewer. Cut in such precise, delicate detail, the tiny brightly colored landscapes invite you to come closer for exploration. What you see there may surprise you. Organic topographies, pencil marks, and subtle imperfections let you know that each piece was cut by hand. Given that the room contains hundreds of pieces with thousands of layers—all hand-cut—the sheer volume of work is astonishing.

The art world is taking notice. Clary recently exhibited as part of a two-person show at the prestigious Nancy Margolis Gallery in Chelsea, New York City. He was a featured artist on television program Daily Planet, of Discovery Canada. Highly regarded art journals including Hi Fructose have covered him. By the end of this year, Clary’s work will have been featured in five books devoted to paper art.

He produces all of this work while also working as a foundations and painting professor at MTSU, teaching four classes each semester. A devoted teacher, he’s passionate about setting an example for his students as a practicing professional.

“If I’m not doing what I preach, what good am I to my students?” he asks. “If I’m not pursuing my professional goals of being a recognized artist who has relevance in the contemporary dialogue, then I’m not of any use to my students because I’m trying to tell them this is a possibility, this is something they could do with their lives. And if all I’m doing is teaching, then that’s telling them, ‘Forget it. All you can do with [an art degree] is teach.’”


In December, the Rymer Gallery in Nashville held an exhibition of Clary’s work called Meticulous Excavations, in conjunction with fellow artist Jamey Grimes. This particular body of work was a sort of memorial. Each of the 204 pieces represent a day between his mother’s diagnosis of stage-four lung cancer in July 2012 and her death in February 2013, followed two weeks later by the death of his father.


Clary described making the work as cathartic.

“It was kind of a nice renewal of getting back into working just as hard as I did before they passed,” he says. “So the work that’s going to come out of it is going to be energetic. The colors I used were based on radiation and chemotherapy, and some of the other colors were quite a bit more pastel, so it kind of emphasizes the idea of losing one’s life, of having that kind of essence pumped out of you.”

Despite the grief that inspired the work, Clary strives to leave the viewer with a feeling of joy. No wonder he relishes describing a time when a four-year-old girl came to one of his exhibits in France and started poking her fingers in all the openings of his work.

“She was just laughing, all giddy, and people were horrified that she was doing this. I was like, ‘Whatever, I can always make another one, but that reaction is priceless!’” he recalls.


Though Clary freely admits he would discourage adults from doing the same, his goal is clear—always leave the viewer with a smile.







You can watch a video of Charles Clary creating one of his paper sculptures below:

From Literary Canon to Vampire Slaying

Dr. David Lavery is crafting a new pop canon, one Buffy at a time

by Candie Moonshower


MTSU Literature faculty and Buffy, Sopranos, and Avengers pop culture expert David Levery in studio.

I’ve been asked a hundred times why I’m interested in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer,” says Dr. David Lavery, director of Graduate Studies in English at MTSU. “I say it’s because it makes me feel like my education wasn’t for nothing.”

Connecting the respected canon of literature to a TV show about vampires and a heroine slayer isn’t the typical self-reflection one might expect from a professor of English literature with curriculum vitae long enough to warrant an ISBN number. But Lavery isn’t typical.

Since 1978, when he earned his Ph.D. in English at the University of Florida, Lavery’s career trajectory, which began with a desire to focus on American literature and specialize in Native American literature, has taken a surprising detour out of the realm of the canon and into the uncharted waters of popular culture, particu­larly television studies. The first leg of that journey was his dissertation, which came out of a push to see a Federico Fellini film. Then, during an early stint at the University of Memphis as a professor of communica­tion and film studies, Lavery was asked to teach a class called TV and Culture.

“At first, I thought it was ridiculous, but I enjoyed it,” he said. Little did he know, but he was in the first group of scholars engaged in groundbreaking studies about TV and its impact on our culture.

Since arriving at MTSU in 1993, he has continued to break new ground, bridging the gap between pop culture and the canon.

“It’s exciting to teach at a school with such a comfort level,” Lavery says. “Here at MTSU, I can teach Wallace Stevens and then Joss Whedon,” the latter being the creator of Buffy, the director of recent box-office smash The Avengers, and other iconic shows and movies. (Lavery recently published a book titled Joss Whedon: A Creative Portrait.)

According to Lavery, the division between low and high culture is not as strong as it once was—or as people thought.

“As a graduate student, I used to hate TV,” he admits. “I thought it was Orwellian and would ruin our souls. I never pictured myself here, in this career. And I’m having fun.”

Lavery adds, “No one has ever invited me to Australia to talk about Wallace Stevens, but they have invited me there to talk about Buffy.” (His eyes twinkle as he tries not to smile too broadly.)

One promising aspect of this burgeoning area of study? The need for scholarly articles and books. Lavery created the first scholarly book devoted to an individual TV series, Twin Peaks.

“No one had thought of taking on a book about TV—and I certainly never anticipated being that person,” he says. Since that seminal work, Lavery has authored, coauthored, edited or coedited over 20 books and over 150 published essays, chapters, and reviews, including the aforementioned book-length biography of Whedon.

Lavery believes MTSU is a leader in the integration of pop culture and traditional English studies. He acknowledges that while English depart­ments have accepted film studies, many have not yet taken on TV, which he calls misguided.

“TV shows are like novels,” he says. “They cover a long narrative time, and they should be part of the canon. The canon will grow.”

It’s not the first time MTSU has done pioneering scholarly work related to pop culture. Lavery points to former professors Michael and Sara Dunne (also noted pop culture scholars) and the much-celebrated Charles Wolfe, who became, arguably, the most important music scholar in the world writing about country music.

For Lavery, it all starts with Buffy.

“I hated the movie, so I didn’t watch the show on TV,” Lavery admits. “Four years in, students wanted me to watch. They said, ‘It’s your kind of show!’ I finally watched it, and it changed my life. Those students changed my life.”

And what about Joss Whedon, around and about whom a good deal of Lavery’s work has been centered?

“Whedon is the champion out there for all of us out here who once thought we were losers,” he says.

Lavery boldly places Whedon studies as a natural complement to those of a better-known literary icon.

“Shakespeare . . . has kept English teachers busy for 400 years,” Lavery says. “Whedon . . . has tapped into how our imaginations work and changed TV. He has reached whole families and spoken in a language we understand. Like Shakespeare in his day, Whedon is one of us.”

Lavery is one of us, too. Tori Warenik, a former student of Lavery’s who received her master’s in English from MTSU in 2013, says she enrolled specifically to study under Lavery.

“I first met Dr. Lavery in 2010 at Slayage, a popular culture conference on Joss Whedon, which convenes every other year. When applying for graduate programs, I contacted Dr. Lavery, who volunteered some advice: ‘Go where you feel like you belong.’” (Lavery was a cofounder of the Slayage conference, and the Slayage Journal—each outgrowths of the Whedon Studies Association Lavery also cofounded.)

Warenik chose MTSU.

“Many people don’t get the opportunity I did to make a connection with someone so plugged in to his area of interest as well as to his legacy: his students,” Warenik says. “Though he has written and edited a veritable shelf of books and academic papers, Dr. Lavery wants his students to succeed in their chosen paths as he has, which in academia, is actually extraordinary.”

Warenik, now a high school English teacher in Florida, says she is excited to try to make those same types of connections with her own students.

What is next for David Lavery? His ambitions are many and varied. He certainly doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. He admits that he has always chafed at the “turf ” of academia.

“In my perfect world, the English Department and the Chemistry Department would teach together,” he says.

Lavery says he has enjoyed teaching in the Honors College and would like to teach an interdisciplinary course on the topic of creativity.

“Our Honors [program] does an incredible job of giving good students a chance to think outside the box,” he says, acknowledging that MTSU is the number-one target for the state’s best and brightest students.

In summer 2014, Lavery is teaching Special Topics in Popular Culture: James Tiptree, Jr. and Science Fiction—a graduate class. He is also finishing a book called Finale about the great television finales of all time.

And the canon?

“I’d like to write a book on Wallace Stevens,” Lavery says with a smile.



Find out more about MTSU’s English Department below:

The Stone Pride

The Honors College is home to some nonliving embodiments of its nobler aspirations

By Drew Ruble


MTSU has a beautiful campus. There are many beautiful buildings (both new and old) and several important landmarks that include the enduring columns of Kirksey Old Main, the obelisk at the Main Street entrance, the horseshoe in Walnut Grove, the columns in the roundabout from the Old Capitol Building, and the new veterans memorial near the University’s four original buildings.


Enter the lions.


Those who know John Vile, dean of the Honors College, know that, next to writing, he loves to collect. Vile and his wife spend many Saturday mornings going to estate sales and flea markets, and the dean has a special fancy for old books, political collectibles, and art.


The hobbyist/collector just happened to spend two summers studying at Princeton University, where he was especially impressed by the statues of tigers spread throughout the campus.


“It was almost as though they were breeding,” Vile says. “One could practically direct a visitor through the campus by directing them from one such statue to another.”


Imagine Vile’s delight, then, when he was at a favorite consignment shop in Nashville a few years ago and saw two gray granite lions.


Though he says he was tempted to carry them to his own front porch, both had been brought from China, with which MTSU has many connections, and both were stately symbols that in Vile’s mind seemed to epitomize the strength of mind, will, and character that the Honors College seeks to imbue. Vile placed the lions outside the Paul W. Martin Sr. Honors Building, facing visitors approaching from the College of Mass Communication or the College of Education to the west.


“I thought perhaps they would also inspire courage,” Vile says. “After all, the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz is so memorable because it so contradicts the stereotype.”


To be precise, the lions are actually Fu dogs. In feng shui, the Chinese art of placement, a Fu Dog is a door guardian. The lion-like statues usually appear in pairs (a male and a female) and have muscular bodies, fearsome faces, and curly hair. Fu dogs are sometimes referred to as lion dogs, temple lions, or Chinese guardian lions.


Fu dogs guard and bring energy blessings to the places they “protect.” They are traditionally displayed in front of a door or a hallway near a door to prevent bad spirits and harmful energy from entering a home or business.


Vile says he only purchased the lions because of the University’s China connection and because he liked them—not because he is a follower of feng shui (or was even fully aware of the connection at the time). “I think they add a bit of personality to the entrances,” Vile says. “The Chinese consider them to bring good luck. And if they do so, then that’s just an added bonus!”


The deal was done after some negotiation. Luckily for Vile’s pocketbook, the owner had an MTSU connection and was proud to have the statues ending up on campus. Vile soon discov­ered that each lion seemed to weigh about a ton! He recruited one of his strongest students, who helped lift them into the dean’s Honda Odyssey and eventually onto the back steps of the Honors Building, where they now regally reside.


Smitten with his first pair of guardians, the search was on for Vile.


He found four other lions later at the same Nashville shop. They are now found on the other side of the Honors Building, facing the Rec Center and the new student services building. They are white rather than gray, smaller, look more distinctly Chinese than the first two, and are perhaps more whimsical than imposing. Two have marbles in their mouths.


Lions are often associated with strength, but Vile says he thinks the six now perched outside the Honors Building also look just a bit wise.


“The statues help remind me that the Honors College values not only the retention of facts but also strength of character and wisdom,” Vile says. “That, at least, is what I think of when I look at them. It seems fitting that statutes from one of the world’s most ancient civilizations, which values wisdom, have found a home at the Honors College.”


In many ways, the lions dotting the perimeter of the building also provide a new, signature, artistic marker for the campus.


Hear them roar.




Check out the Honors College in the video below:

A Flying Start

Col. Greg Gregory’s lifelong commitment to aviation brings him back to the campus where his feet first left the ground

On the campus of what is today MTSU, in spring 1941, William James “Greg” Gregory, a sharecropper’s son from Smith County, Tennessee, got his first taste of flight. He has never forgotten it.

More than seven decades later, following a distinguished career in aviation that included piloting some of the earliest spy planes in American history and helping develop America’s earliest un-manned (drone) aircraft models, the 93-year-old Gregory still gets  a gleam in his eye when asked about those first experiences flying over campus.

“It was the beginning of my flying career right there,” says Gregory, who now lives in Austin, Texas. “We had an airstrip at that time right behind what was then Jones Hall men’s dorm.”

How smitten was Gregory with taking to the skies? Consider that in the summer of 1941, a young fellow from Alabama ferrying a Taylorcraft to Minneapolis landed at MTSU’s airfield—the strip behind Jones Hall—in need of fuel, food, and rest.

Gregory went to dinner with the Alabama traveler that evening, at which time he asked Gregory if he would be interested in piloting his 40-horsepower plane the following day on the next leg of his journey.

“It was probably not a smart thing to do, because I had a test on Monday,” Gregory relates. “But we left early, just at daybreak. We flew all day long—I flew it myself all day long—and landed in Waterloo, Iowa, at dark. Then I got out and got on the highway and started hitchhiking.”

Gregory hitchhiked all night long—and the next day and the next—finally arriving in Nashville at about eleven o’clock on a Sunday night.

“I caught the last bus to Murfreesboro and got there about midnight, and then I got a taxi out to the University,” Gregory relates. “I took a shower and got up the next morning and took my exam, and everything was just normal. Like I said, it was probably not a smart thing to do, but it was indicative of how much I wanted to get a little flying in.”

Taking Flight

Even though he never graduated from MTSU—Gregory joined the war effort during his junior year—he says he still feels a “closeness” to the University, saying, “I felt they gave me a start.”

That “start” only happened because a high school principal reached out on Gregory’s behalf to then dean of admissions N. C. Beasley, asking if a work-study opportunity might be available for the promising young farmhand. There was, and Gregory promptly reported to the college.

“I went over there and checked in at the Old Main with Dean Beasley, and he was my mentor from that point on,” Gregory recalls. “That’s how it all came about.”

Gregory’s daughter, Cookie Gregory Ruiz, executive director of Ballet Austin, puts the dean’s generosity in perspective when she says “The fact that Dean Beasley from MTSU took a phone call from my father’s high school principal one Sunday night about 70 years ago forever changed the trajectory of our family. My father was the first college graduate in his family and that area of Tennessee, and because he succeeded, my older cousins followed his lead and then the next generation and the next.”


While in his junior year at MTSU, the first-generation college student Gregory applied for and was accepted into the U.S. Army Air Corps in the aviation cadet program.

“The war had been going on in Europe for two years, and I had just reached 21, so it seemed like the smart thing to do,” Gregory says. “Because it was not a matter of if, but when we were going to get into the war. And, of course, we did, three months later, in December.”

Gregory cites MTSU’s nascent aerospace efforts at that time for supplying many needed young pilots for the war effort.

“It was a big contribution early on for the government for us to have that kind of training because it gave us a little feel for flying and a stimulation to want to continue to fly.”

After finishing the cadet program, Gregory left MTSU and reported for flight training at Randolph Field in San Antonio on Dec. 7, 1941—the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He finished flying school in April 1942 and was assigned to a fighter squadron based in California.


Spanning the Globe

Soon after, Gregory was an Air Force fighter pilot flying P-38s, B-29s and, later, B-47s in World War II. It was the beginning of a 31-year active duty career in the Air Force that ended with Gregory achieving the rank of colonel. His highly decorated military career spanned the most significant chapters of aviation development in history. Col. Gregory piloted 55 different airplanes while in the Air Force, including a number of aircraft flown with the U.S. Navy. For instance, he is one of just a few Air Force pilots to attain Aircraft Carrier Qualification, which he accomplished through training on the USS Lexington.

Gregory is also connected to some of the most significant military events in modern American history. His biography reads like research folder for a Tom Clancy novel. An important chapter relates to the Cuban missile crisis, during which Gregory served as a U-2 spy plane pilot and commander of the Air Force/Central Intelligence Agency U-2 collaborative squadron, which used high-resolution cameras to take the first photographs identifying the presence of surface-to-air missiles and the Soviet buildup in Cuba.

“President Eisenhower decided to overfly their country without their permission, and to do that, we had to have an airplane that would fly above 60,000 feet,” Gregory explains. “So the first airplane was the RB-57, and that was the one I got into first, and I was in that program four years. It was the first airplane to fly above 60,000 feet. In fact, it would go about 65,000 feet. And then, after four years in it, I got into the U-2 program, and it would fly even higher.”

As a result of Gregory’s command of the U-2 project, he was awarded the CIA’s Medal of Merit and received a personal letter of commendation from President John F. Kennedy. Gregory’s continued command of top-secret U-2 missions later provided surveillance images detailing the mounting tension in Vietnam.

Years later, Gregory ended up working at the Pentagon from 1967 to 1971 in the area of research and development of the first drone concepts. Gregory completed his undergraduate degree in education from Centenary College and, while stationed at the Pentagon, his master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University. He also served as chair of the United Nations Committee on Reconnaissance in Brussels.


“I really didn’t want to go to the Pentagon, but it’s a good experience to have,” Gregory says. “We were working on the drones, which were having a lot of trouble at that time . . . so it was really an important time at the Pentagon.”

Gregory’s final Air Force assignment was as vice commandant of the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. He retired from active duty in 1975. He holds the rare distinction of being awarded four Legions of Merit throughout his career for his service to the Air Force. His military career was followed by 15 years in the Texas attorney general’s office as assistant director of workers’ compensation.

Gregory was married for 46 years to Helen Dwire Gregory of Shreveport, La., until her death in 1990. He is the father of daughter Ruiz in Texas and Gretchen Gregory Davis of Keystone, Colo., and is a self-described devoted grandfather. Today, even at 93, he is in impeccable shape both physically and mentally. Gregory became an avid cyclist at age 72 and has biked across France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. He also continues to travel extensively, completing his most recent tour around the world in spring 2013.

His other interests include his 20-year involvement in the University of Texas LAMP Program, for which he developed an endowed scholarship for students in the process of completing teacher certification through the School of Education. Gregory has also funded scholarships at Centenary College and at MTSU.


At MTSU, Gregory established a scholarship for students from either Trousdale or Macon Counties. During a trip to MTSU for Homecoming in 2013—Gregory’s first visit back to campus since 1965—he expressed tremendous pride in the University, its growth and promise, and, more specifically, the quality and growth of its aerospace program.

“I’m just proud that they have continued the program from a really tiny little program that we had back then—to something that is really significant. They have a great program,” he says.

Even after all he has accomplished in life, he still looks back to his early days at MTSU as a key period of growth and development, and he wanted to visit campus again for that reason and more.

“Particularly after I retired, I really felt like I owed something to Middle Tennessee State, having gotten my start there even though I didn’t graduate. So it was just a wonderful visit back.”


By Drew Ruble

Ahead of the Game

 MTSU’s College of Education is leading the way in teacher education by Allison Gorman

Kaci Allison (SR), Interdisciplinary Studies (K-6) teaching Maddie Moore, Leah Davis, Caleb Hagan, Mauricio Garcia, Ava Vixayvong

Jillian Hinesley graduated from MTSU with an education degree in December 2012. Weeks later she was in Memphis, working on her master’s degree and substitute teaching in the socioeconomic stew that is the Shelby County School System. Although she’d specialized in fourth through eighth grade, she was placed in every conceivable classroom environment from kindergarten through high school. She taught the child who was hungry to learn and the child who was just plain hungry, the child with helicopter parents and the child with AWOL parents, the child who learned best when he was moving, and the child who told her to bug off (except he didn’t say “bug”).

Before leaving Murfreesboro, Hinesley had been one of several graduating seniors invited to dinner by Lana Seivers, dean of the College of Education (COE), who wanted to know about their student teaching experience and how well their coursework had prepared them for it. In August 2013, Hinesley—by then a resident teacher at the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence—sent Seivers a follow-up email. “I may not have realized the full extent at dinner that night,” she wrote, “but I am confident now that MTSU prepared me for a myriad of ‘real worlds.’”


An Equation, Ever Shifting
The real world of teaching has a thousand moving parts, many of them far outside the reach of the classroom. Teachers must address the needs of each student (and whatever baggage that student brings) but they are also unwitting variables in a critical, often cyclical, economic calculation: good schools = good jobs = good tax base = good schools.

“We’re in a county that proves that having a quality education system from the ground up really helps in recruiting and retaining quality industry in a community,” says Andy Womack, a former state senator from Murfreesboro. Certainly some Tennessee communities have seen that dynamic in action, but plenty of others perennially struggle. As a result, Tennessee has lingered for years near the bottom of various K–12 rankings.

Lana Seivers, Dean, College of Education


Then again, the idea that public schools across the country are declining has long been the subject of debate, Seivers says. “I have in my office a cover from LIFE magazine with the headline ‘U.S. Schools Face a Crisis,’” she says. “It’s from October 1950.”

While the call for education reform has sounded for
generations, over the past decade Tennessee has begun
to establish itself as a leader in the reform movement. That
fact became nationally apparent in 2009, when Tennessee
was one of the first two states to win Race to the Top funding from the U.S. Department of Education.

Now, MTSU is leading the effort to reform teacher education in Tennessee.

In fall 2013, after years of planning, MTSU and all Tennessee Board of Regents schools rolled out Ready2Teach (R2T), giving prospective teachers more and earlier exposure to those myriad real worlds referred to by Hinesley.

“Ready2Teach is a game-changer in teacher preparation,” says Dr. Paula Short, the former TBR vice chancellor who spearheaded the redesign. “No other state has approached that necessary change as substantially and completely.”

Teacher training might look different under R2T, but the principles behind it would be instantly recognizable to COE
grads like Jillian Hinesley. They are the same principles that have made MTSU the state’s leader in education for more than a century.


 A Mission, Long Critical
MTSU’s roots are in teacher training: Middle Tennessee Normal School opened in 1911 with a two-year program
serving 125 students. But even as it evolved into Middle Tennessee State University, with 24,000 students, and more than 100 academic programs of study, its mission as a teacher-training institution remained central to the school’s identity.

Dr. Robert Eaker, who served as dean of education and then interim vice president and provost of MTSU, credits the influence of key University administrators—former MTSU president Sam Ingram was Tennessee commissioner of education, as was Lana Seivers under Gov. Phil Bredesen— as well as education faculty past and present who are leaders in their field. “I think of our milestones in terms of the giants in education that Middle’s been blessed to have,” Eaker says. He says President Sidney McPhee upped the ante by supporting the establishment of COE’s two doctoral programs as well as a state-of-the-art COE facility that had been on the college’s wish list for decades.

Seivers notes that MTSU placed a high value on teacher training even when the subject of public education became politicized.

“The University has not only supported [the COE] in terms of resources,” she says, “but they’re proud of the fact that we started as a teacher institution and that we still educate large numbers of students to teach.”

According to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, MTSU produced 540 licensed teachers in 2011 (the most recent data available), significantly more than any other program in Tennessee. Womack says the heavy presence of COE grads in Tennessee’s public schools was “extremely apparent” when he was chair of the Tennessee Senate Education Committee. “MTSU had teachers and educators working in all 95 counties,” he says. “The bulk of other graduates were teaching within a 60-to-90-mile radius of where they went to school.”

It makes sense, then, that the conversation about teacher education reform in Tennessee began at MTSU. Seivers was still commissioner of education when Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) and McPhee invited stakeholders from across the state to come to campus and discuss how teachers could be better prepared to meet the needs of Tennessee’s K–12 students. The consensus? “More practical experience and less theory,” Seivers says. “And what theory we had should be clearly linked to what happened in the classroom and student achievement. And from that,
Ready2Teach was born.”

Krista Cashion, SR, Interdisciplinary Studies (K-6) reading to 1st graders at Homer Pittard Campus School, Emma Lakes on the right

An Initiative, Swiftly Embraced

By 2010, when Seivers was appointed dean of COE, Ready2Teach had been formalized as a TBR initiative. Because its mandates built on inherent principles of MTSU’s teacher prep program and many were designed with guidance from MTSU faculty, the University blazed the trail that other schools would follow.

“MTSU led the TBR universities in developing and implementing Ready2Teach and also continued to stay true to the model,” Short says. “They understood the research behind the R2T reform effort and embraced that research to build support for change.”

MTSU already had deep-rooted relationships with area schools, she says. As a result, it was ahead of the R2T mandate that universities collaborate with K–12s so that education majors spend half their time out in schools. Area K–12s were quick to offer feedback and clinical opportunities, given their familiarity with MTSU’s student teachers and with individual COE faculty members, many of whom have done professional outreach in the schools.

Eaker, for example, helped establish Professional Learning Communities in the Murfreesboro City and Rutherford County school systems. “You can’t have collaborative relationships with the school district if you have faculty with whom the districts don’t want to collaborate,” he says.

R2T’s mandatory emphasis on Problem-Based Learning (PBL), a relatively new, holistic approach to teacher education, reflects the input of Dr. Terry Goodin, a professor of secondary education at MTSU and a Vanderbilt-trained expert in PBL. “To my knowledge, Tennessee is leading the way with a PBL approach to teacher preparation,” he says. “I’m not aware of any other state that has put so much into such a sweeping change at the state level.”

Because many COE faculty members were already using a problem-based approach to teaching, designing a PBL curriculum at MTSU wasn’t the challenge that it was at other schools, Goodin says.

Perhaps the most notable R2T mandate eliminates the traditional semester of student teaching and replaces it with a two-semester residency in schools. Seivers says many students were concerned at the prospect of spending a full year student teaching, but MTSU has designed its residency program to ease students into the classroom. Bobbi Lussier, executive director of the Office of Professional Laboratory Experiences and Teacher Licensure, says Residency 1 students spend two days a week “immersed in the culture in the schools”: observing, assisting, and working on PBL introduced in their coursework. “It’s a two-way street,” Lussier says. “Our public schools need to see that we’re willing to partner with them and share expertise and in turn ask them to share their expertise with our teacher candidates.”

Initial feedback from residency students has been “very, very positive,” Goodin says. “It’s been an absolute home run.”

“Residency 1 is an extremely challenging course,” says Vickie Bridges, a major in early childhood education who participated in a Residency 1 pilot program last spring. “We were pushed very hard, and our work was torn apart constantly. However, it was a huge benefit for us.”


A Balance, Finely Struck

The residency program is still evolving, Seivers says, and implementing a field-based curriculum has not been without controversy. A few theory courses were cut altogether, which concerned some faculty. “Not that everybody’s agreed,” she says, “but we’ve been determined to make it work.”

Seivers was surprised by how accommodating other department heads were as COE overhauled its curriculum, which involves multiple disciplines. In her previous life in K–12 (as a teacher and principal in Oak Ridge and director of schools in Clinton), she’d heard that the world of higher education could be territorial. Not so at MTSU, she says: “Dr. McPhee has put together a group of people who have a shared vision, who have certain dispositions—the work ethic, the ability to think outside the box while working within certain parameters.”

Eaker says McPhee made a strategic and unexpected choice by adding Seivers to that mix, departing from the tradition of hiring from the ranks of higher education. Short agrees: “Lana Seivers has the public school administrative, teaching, and policy experience to help bring credibility to the COE at a time when most colleges of education are under attack for being irrelevant to improving schools, teacher preparation, and leader preparation.”

That’s a critical advantage because Tennessee has established a new, stricter framework for teacher licensing and evaluation. MTSU’s overhauled education curriculum includes a taste of the alphabet soup public school teachers will face on the job. Their schooling might have begun with the ABCs, but it ends with the edTPA and the PRAXIS, and once they’re licensed they’ll regularly take the TEAM, administer the TCAP and the PARCC, and watch the TVAAS (see glossary page 32).

“We’ve just tried to hit it head-on,” Seivers says. “Based upon the current culture and the policies and rules and regulations, whether we agree with them or not, they’re here, and we’re doing our students a vast disservice if we don’t better prepare them for the world they’re entering.”

That’s Seivers’s world, too; education is data-driven at every level. She says assessments of teacher-training programs, like the reports regularly generated by the Tennessee Department of Education and THEC, provide critical if incomplete (and sometimes dated) information; they are best used in combination with other information—from personal feedback to test scores from K–12s where MTSU graduates teach—to determine what skills COE students lack and to tweak the program accordingly.

Still, a program’s reputation can rise or fall on widely publicized reports like the one released in early 2013 by the National Council on Teacher Quality, which ranked teacher-training programs largely on the basis of their course descriptions. (MTSU came out fairly favorably, but some large universities in Tennessee did not—a fact not lost on national media.)

Snapshot reports like those often drive the political conversation about education, which too often views students as products, says Dr. Rick Vanosdall, director of the COE’s new Ed.D. program in Assessment, Learning, and School Improvement.

“We’re not producing widgets,” he says. “We’re working with human beings.”

Dr. Terry Weeks, a professor of secondary education at MTSU and former National Teacher of the Year when he was a faculty member at Central Middle School in Murfreesboro, says classroom teaching is often a balancing act between politics and best practices.

“Every few years, you could count on politics introducing some new plan into the school system to which you had to respond,” he said. “It’s going to change what you do and what you’re accountable for . . . but in the final analysis, you go into that classroom and do what you think needs to be done.”

The professional passion of COE faculty sums up MTSU’s approach to education at every level, and it explains why its graduates were ready to teach even before R2T.

“MTSU’s focus was understanding the whole child: where they come from and what they bring,” Hinesley says of her
own training. “It’s been eye-opening trying to get them to understand the importance of school when they’re wondering, ‘Is my mom going to be home tonight? Am I going to be hungry again tomorrow?’ There’s just so much that’s out of our control—but I don’t know that everybody gets that.”


A Reward, Justly Earned
Seivers says the best teachers feel a visceral pull to a job whose real payoff might come years later and without fanfare.

“It’s not about the money or any 15 minutes of fame,” she says. “When our students get to be my age, they’ll see that person they taught as a child, who’ll tell them, ‘Wow, if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be where I am,’ or ‘You were one of my favorite teachers.’ It’s not going to buy them a mansion, but I doubt there are many professions that have that level of reward.”

The state of Tennessee will reap the reward, too, as MTSU builds on century-old strengths to produce a new generation of educators who are readier than ever to tackle the real-world challenges of teaching our children.