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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making the Leap

Generous alumni provide a lift to current and future ROTC cadets

By Bill Lewis

John Harris can’t count the number of times he stood on the roof of Forrest Hall and stepped off into empty space, supported by only a rope and his confidence in his fellow ROTC cadets. Visiting campus four decades later, he was astonished to see students still doing the same thing.

“I saw the kids rappelling off the building 40 years later and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” says Harris, who as an undergraduate was a member of the Blue Raider Battalion and went on to an eventful Army career that included service in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. He retired as a lieutenant colonel.

When he returned to campus, Harris, a member of the class of 1974, found the answer to the question that led him to MTSU that day. Having recently sold the technology business he cofounded in Hawaii after leaving the Army, he was looking for a way to give something back.

“MTSU helped me grow up and become who I am,” he says. “It certainly set me on a path, [providing] a solid foundation to get started with.”

Gifts from Harris and other donors allowed MTSU to break ground on its first-ever freestanding rappelling tower. To be located near the softball fields and the Recreation Center on the burgeoning east side of campus, the tower was under construction at press time.

The Tennessee National Guard also made a contribution, providing manpower for construction of the 10-foot security fence around the site of the tower and an obstacle course that is expected to be added in the future.

The tower is more than just a structure, says Lt. Col. Joel Miller, professor of military science. For the cadets who train there, it will help build pride and confidence.

“The big piece is confidence in themselves, their equipment, and their superior, [as well as] the development of esprit de corps and morale,” Miller says.

Model of the type of tower Cornerstone Designs of Asheville, North Carolina, is building on campus

Rappelling is one of the crucial first steps in the development    of young officers. Generations of cadets in the Blue Raider Battalion learned those lessons at Forrest Hall. They include  the top officer in the Tennessee National Guard, Major   General Max Haston.

Walking across campus one day in 1975, Haston noticed   cadets rappelling off the building.

“The next thing I knew, I was enrolled the next semester,” Haston says. “I have never looked back and still believe it       was a life-changing decision. I have never regretted being      part of ROTC as the military became my life’s direction.”

He sees the Guard’s assistance with the project as something greater than building a fence. It is an investment in the future         of ROTC at MTSU and the future of the military itself.

The service academies—the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Air Force Academy in Colorado, and the Navy Academy at Annapolis—can’t possibly produce enough     officers for the military. The armed forces depend on ROTC programs at MTSU and other schools for a steady stream of future leaders.

“We must maintain a strong ROTC program to ensure quality [and] balanced leadership,” Haston says.

The lessons cadets learn at Forrest Hall are timeless, but warfare and the way soldiers train for it have changed over the decades. The limited experience of rappelling off the roof of a two-story building can’t prepare cadets for real-world situations—which include rappelling from upper-story windows and from helicopters.

“Soldiers have operations that are different from going off the side of a building,” says Joe Lackey, whose company, Asheville, N.C.-based Cornerstone Designs Inc., was selected to build the rappelling tower.

 

Forrest Ranger cadet JB Burton rappels off the side of Forrest Hall in 1981

The 52-foot-high wooden structure will be a landmark on campus. Its highest rappelling station, 44 feet off the ground, will be twice as high as Forrest Hall. Its cantilevered top deck—with no footholds, just air, below—will allow cadets to simulate the experience of rappelling out of a helicopter. Exits on multiple levels will provide the experience of leaping from a window or doorway.

The tower will also provide areas for Blue Raider cadets to gather their equipment and conduct safety checks. It also has another advantage over Forrest Hall, where everybody had to rappel from the roof whether it was their one hundredth experience or their first.

The planned tower features a “beginner’s platform” about 10 or 12 feet off the ground, he says. Beginners can gain experience before climbing the stairs and stepping off the top deck.

  “The first step is a big one,” Lackey says. “It takes someone who knows nothing and helps them progress.”

The rappelling tower will be used solely by the roughly 120 students studying military science. Any student can participate in the basic ROTC program for two years without making a commitment to serve in the Army. Students who choose to pursue a commission can become “contracted” cadets and participate in the program for their junior and senior years.

The Blue Raider Battalion has produced officers who serve in the Tennessee National Guard, the Army Reserves, and in the Army on active duty. Seventeen alumni of the battalion have risen to the rank of general since the founding of MTSU’s ROTC program in 1950, earning the University the nickname “cradle of generals.”

That count includes Army officers who were members of the Blue Raider Battalion. It doesn’t include MTSU graduates who have risen to the rank of general in the Air Force and Marines or to admiral in the Navy.

“For sure, MTSU has produced better than its fair share of general officers,” Haston says. “The pro rata share of generals produced compared to the years the ROTC department has been in operation places MTSU as one of the  top-producing schools [of general officers].”

SFC Frederick Greenwell instructing Graham Hutcheson rapelling at Forrest Hall in 2012

Harris, whose contribution, along with those of other alumni and families of cadets, made the rappelling tower a reality, didn’t arrive on campus with dreams of military glory. A defensive end on the Blue Raider football team, he was dreaming of the NFL.

ROTC was a required course for freshmen and sophomores at the time, so Harris quickly found himself standing on the roof of Forrest Hall.   Becoming a contracted cadet for his junior and      senior years meant he received a small monthly stipend of about $100 and something priceless—an exemption from the draft at the height of the war in Vietnam.

“In my effort to stay out of the Army, I spent 20 years in the Army,” says Harris, who served in the Medical Service Corps and in Desert Storm, on behalf of the Army Surgeon General, where he helped the Army deploy modern field hospitals, replacing MASH-style hospitals with modern facilities.

“Fortunately, we didn’t need most of those hospitals,” he says. Desert Storm had few casualties and was “nothing like what the kids are going through today.”

After retiring, Harris and two Army buddies founded Akimeka, an IT services and software development company. (The name is Hawaiian and means “perseverance.”)

They sold the company a few years ago to a publicly traded company. Harris, who lives in the Orlando area, began looking for ways to give back to the University.

“What better place is there to give back than where your roots are?” he says.

He plans to return to campus for the rappelling tower’s dedication. But Harris, a qualified parachutist whose souvenirs of military service include knee replacements and back surgeries, has no plans to try out the tower firsthand.
“Absolutely not,” he says. “But the dedication is on my calendar.”


A Red, White, and Blue Raider Experience

 

Freedom Sings at the Bluebird 

 Freedom Sings is a celebration of free speech and music that tours college campuses across the nation. Two sold-out concerts at Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe last October commemorated the organization’s 15th anniversary. If the event had a positively Blue Raider feel, that’s because MTSU Electronic Media Communication (EMC) faculty, staff, and students were front and center organizing and orchestrating the whole thing.

The signature program of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, Freedom Sings features prominent recording artists playing music that has been banned or censored or has called for social change. Launched in 1999, the program has toured the United States under the direction of Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center and recently appointed dean of MTSU’s College of Mass Communication, and Gene Policinski, the institute’s chief operating officer and senior vice president of the center.

 

 

“For 15 years, we’ve been privileged to tell the vibrant story of the First Amendment with the help of extraordinary musicians,” Paulson said. The event featured Janis Ian, Ashley Cleveland, and Don Henry (all Grammy winners) and Bill Lloyd, Kim Richey, Gretchen Peters, Webb Wilder, Will Kimbrough, Jonell Mosser, Lari White, Joseph Wooten, Dez Dickerson, and others. (The backing band included Dave Pomeroy, Craig Krampf, Danny Flowers, E-Street Band bassist Garry Tallent, and Lloyd.) “It’s a hallmark of our program that our students learn very quickly to work at a professional level,” Paulson said.

 

 

Nashville mayor Karl Dean attended the event and honored Freedom Sings with a city proclamation, calling the program a “critically acclaimed multimedia experience” that invites audiences “to experience the First Amendment in a new way.”

 

 

MTSU crews work regularly with ESPN3 and Sinclair Broadcasting Corp. to produce sports broadcasts and other events and have gained a strong reputation for their work on projects with PBS affiliates. For the past two summers, dozens of MTSU EMC students worked the Capitol Records street party in Nashville—modulating audio, operating high-definition cameras, conducting interviews, and recording concerts for the label.

 

Getting a preprofessional experience that few, if any, of their peers nation wide could possibly obtain, Mass Comm students worked behind the scenes at the Bluebird for both events. The Bluebird Cafe is known worldwide as an epicenter for the best in songwriting. Students used the college’s $1.4 million mobile video production lab, managed social media content, helped with public relations, and covered the event for student media outlets.

 

Editorial contributions by Gina E. Fann

Wayne’s World

Wayne White frolics among influences, creating art that refuses to be pigeonholed

by Gina E. Fann

Wayne White is one of those increasingly rare beings: an artist who makes a living by turning his wildest ideas into tangible, talked-about pieces that others want to see, hear, feel, and share.

He also may be the embodiment of a liberal arts education: a person well-versed in enough fields to connect with almost anyone in his audience. Art is more than just a theory; it’s a fusion of many disciplines—the physics of building a sculpture, the chemistry of mixing colors, the psychology of self- and other-awareness, the wordsmithing that plays with meanings.

Sometimes it’s a funny story and a flailing buck dance across a stage, too.

The MTSU alumnus repeatedly brought a full house in Keathley University Center Theater to laughter and applause last March during an ongoing nationwide series of screenings of the 2012 documentary about his life and work, Beauty Is Embarrassing.

Dancing a jig in front of the screen as the credits rolled, White unexpectedly pulled his longtime friend and partner in puppetry, fellow alumnus P. Michael “Mike” Quinn (’81, ’87) onstage for an audience Q-and-A session.

The pair met in an MTSU drawing class, did puppet shows at parties, and got their first serious creative jobs on a Nashville public TV children’s show. Calling students “the real treasure” in a “shared society of ideas,” they encouraged the crowd to “do what you love; it’s going to lead you to where you want to go.”

“How do you resist the temptation to go for the straight-ahead life, though?” one earnest young man asked. “I’m finding I can’t resist the allure of the white picket fence and the regular paycheck.

“I got the white picket fence and the paycheck by following what I love,” White answered, just as earnestly. “This documentary makes it look like it was easy, like I’ve solved all the problems and answered all the questions. I most certainly have not. But . . . you have to commit to what you want to do. Don’t hedge your bets.

“The world is dying for stuff that’s done out of love. Most everything in the world now is done out of fear: fear of losing your job, fear of making someone angry. Art is one thing that’s done out of love. That’s what the world needs.”

White, a native of Hixson, earned his bachelor of fine arts degree from MTSU in 1979 and went to New York City. He worked as an illustrator for several publications there, including the New York Times and the Village Voice, and in 1986 became a designer and puppeteer for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, earning three Emmy Awards in the process.

He and his wife, artist and author Mimi Pond, then moved to California, where he continued his TV work with sets and characters for Shining Time Station, Beakman’s World, Riders in the Sky, and Bill & Willis and the couple welcomed two children, Woodrow and Lulu. White also worked with music videos, winning Billboard and MTV Music Video Awards as an art director for his work on “Tonight, Tonight” by the Smashing Pumpkins and Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time.”

After a long struggle with Hollywood hierarchy led White to work himself nearly to a frazzle, he embarked on a “second act” in the new century, creating paintings, sculptures, and public works exhibited worldwide. White’s most recognized works now are his word paintings, which use thrift-shop “sofa painting” landscapes as backdrops for detailed, deadpan words and phrases like “He Acts All Weird for No Good Reason,” “Awopbopalubop,” “You’re Just Agreeing with Me So I’ll Shut Up,” “I Took Off Work and Came All the Way Down Here,” and “Hoozy Thinky Iz?”

“I’m a real oddball because I’m a middle-aged man living out a five-year-old’s fantasy,” White remarks at one point in Beauty Is Embarrassing before dancing a jig wearing a giant cardboard puppet head of Lyndon B. Johnson. He happily describes himself as a “painter, sculptor, cartoonist, puppeteer, set designer, illustrator, and animator.”

How does someone travel from a Tennessee childhood filled with unexpected artistic influences and gentle family encouragement to a drawing class in MTSU’s old Art Barn to work under Art Spiegelman and Red Grooms in New York? Where does the route twist from preparing puppets with friend Quinn for a show called Mrs. Cabobble’s Caboose onto a road of winning Emmys, exhibiting sculpture at Rockefeller Center, seeing designer Todd Oldham edit a book of your artwork, and being called “one of the founding fathers of American Pop Art” by the lead singer of Devo?

“It’s not easy, and I’m not quite sure how I’ve pulled it off, but I am in a unique position. I think people are fascinated by that,” White said in a recent telephone interview from his Los Angeles home, an interview sandwiched between artist’s residencies, new art installations, family celebrations, and cross-country publicity trips.

“I like to have as many options as possible; I don’t want to be tied down to a gallery or one kind of marketplace. I like to be able to show my work in as many venues as possible. I try to keep my integrity too, but I’m so used to showbiz that it doesn’t bother me anymore.

“I’ve lived out here in L.A. and Hollywood for 23 years, so the publicity part of it is kind of a way of life. It’s not that foreign to me. I’ve lived among the TV culture and people who work in TV production and movies, and I take it all in stride. I don’t see anything as off-limits. I don’t see any sort of firewall between the art world and the entertainment world. I feel free to go back and forth. I might not get the respect, and people in the art world might think that’s suspect or lacking integrity, but I don’t really care. I think it’s all an open field to me.

“Plus, it’s a means of survival,” he continued. “I reserve the right to use either high or low culture to get my point across. I don’t have any qualms or distinctions between the two. I want as many people as possible to see my work. I want to communicate to as many people as possible. And I want to keep making a living, so I keep my options open. I can work in both commercial art and fine art.”

The publicity from the Oldham-edited Maybe Now I’ll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve, a 2009 400-page monograph of White’s work, led to the Beauty Is Embarrassing documentary, directed by Neil Berkeley. The film was first shown at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival.

Beauty has created more opportunities for White and his work. He recently completed one of the coveted inaugural residencies on Captiva Island, Fla., sponsored by the late artist Robert Rauschenberg’s foundation. He’s opened a new exhibit, Halo Amok, at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, featuring giant cubist cowboys and horses, that runs through Sept. 1. He’ll make a much-anticipated return to Houston in September, this time for a one-man exhibit of his word paintings.

Beauty even helped get him a gig judging the “The Friskies” Award for Best New Internet Cat Video of 2012 and a new project on the grounds of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival near Manchester.

“Jonathan Mayers, who’s CEO of the whole Bonnaroo organization, saw the movie. That inspired him to call me,” White says. “That’s another example of the power of that movie; it’s really opened up a lot of doors.

“I’m doing a big permanent sculpture on the Bonnaroo concert grounds that’ll take a while to finish. It’s going to be a 30-foot or taller tree made of steel and wood, mostly steel. It’s like a big cubist abstract tree, with big square shapes instead of leaves, and a steel trunk, and at night it turns into a psychedelic light show.”

White’s sculptures have turned his wordplay three-dimensional, too. A treelike, almost-humanoid wood sculpture that features the word “Soddy” was part of Master Retrospective 2000–2009, a collection of White’s work exhibited earlier this spring at the L.A. gallery Western Project.

“Some things are a mystery, you know, that aren’t completely explainable on the surface,” White explains. “I really do just like the sound of it as an abstract element. The sound alone is evocative without really knowing that it’s a small town near Chattanooga where I grew up.

“I think it can work on several levels: as an abstract, strange word-sound and, if you really wanted to dig, you wouldn’t have to do too much to find out that’s where I’m from. It’s literally me using my past, which is what all artists do: they use what they have. Soddy is definitely a sound and word that’s been in my life ever since I can remember. So it’s a little pet sound of mine, maybe like ‘rosebud,’” he adds, with a deep chuckle.

He hopes to return to MTSU very soon, perhaps to work again as a visiting artist “making prints in the printmaking studio and sculptures in the ceramic department” as he did before Beauty Is Embarrassing brought him to PBS’s Independent Lens and Netflix and Amazon.com and Tumblr and Pinterest.

White noted during his spring MTSU visit that he’d traveled all over the United States and into Canada as a result of Beauty Is Embarrassing, constantly hearing “I didn’t know you did all that stuff!” from admirers.

“That’s every artist’s dream,” he says. “Actually, it’s everyone’s dream. It’s what everyone wants: to know that you had an impact on people somehow.”

The (Not Quite) Lost World

One MTSU professor’s access to material culture—all we have left of prehistoric interactions—sheds light on early Tennessee trade

by Drew Ruble

Archaeologists postulate that Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto visited the Chattanooga area more than 450 years ago. Evidence suggests Soto probably visited the chiefdom of Coosa in the Moccasin Bend area around the year 1540 in the midst of his three-year search for gold, silver, and jewels across the southeastern United States, an expedition that ended for de Soto when he died of fever in either what is now Arkansas or Louisiana.

The proof is in the soil. Metal artifacts, indicative of either Spanish contact or at least trading with people that traded with Spaniards, have long been uncovered in the area. So, too, have maritime artifacts—gastropods and whelk shells and such—that obviously came from the Gulf of Mexico and are not native to Chattanooga.

One MTSU professor was recently granted access to artifacts from a late prehistoric/early contact period site on a private residence in Chattanooga that adds to the body of evidence suggesting Spaniards traveled through the Tennessee region and traded with local Native Americans. Her analysis was time-limited, though, as the artifacts are soon slated to be reburied or, said another way, repatriated to the Muskogee (Creek) Nation under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Dr. Tanya Peres, associate professor of anthropology, recently studied various pieces of Native American craftsmanship from the Chattanooga site in her Peck Hall archeology laboratory. The pieces are important because many of the sites from the same period have long since been looted or were excavated in the 1800s by antiquarians who were not trained professional archeologists. Other sites have been destroyed by urban development, railroad construction, or road construction. This site, however, was preserved because it was on private property. When the landowner wanted to sell the property to a private corporation, Tennessee State Burial Law required human remains on the site to be relocated, which was done at the landowner’s expense. But because the owner knew there was an archeological site there and that this was a potentially important area for research, he hired an archeological firm to do the burial removal instead of a funeral home. Peres first got involved when a private consulting firm contacted her about doing analysis of animal remains from the mortuary contexts before they were reburied.

Some of the items uncovered along with the remains included marine shell artifacts with Indian drawings on them. One example would be gorgets, which would have been suspended around the neck, much like a necklace or a pendant. The design on the specific ones Peres handled from this particular site is the Citco rattlesnake gorget style, which is specific to East Tennessee and the Chattanooga area. It’s a highly stylized rattlesnake motif that was central to the ideology and iconography of the Native Americans who lived in the area at the time.

Peres, with the help of student assistant Tiffany Saul, who has a B.S. in anthropology and is finishing an M.S. in biology—both from MTSU—and will start a Ph.D. in anthropology at UT–Knoxville in August, used high-tech equipment from MTSU’s labs to attempt to determine from where the artifacts may have originated, which would explain a lot about trade networks with people who lived in Chattanooga and also along the Gulf Coast during the late prehistoric period. A portable x-ray fluorescence analyzer was used to glean information about the composition of each artifact. It is a nondestructive analysis, meaning Peres and Saul didn’t have to grind up the samples or destroy the artifacts in any way. That’s important since the artifacts are Native American and planned for reburial. Over time, the two built a database allowing comparisons of different artifacts from different places to identify similarities or major differences that could point to their geographic origins.

“It doesn’t tell us where these artifacts came from but gives us trace elements that are part of their chemical composition, which helps us build a database of chemical signatures that we will then use to compare with marine shell from areas around the Gulf of Mexico,” Peres explains. “We have a small database that was constructed back in the ’90s of marine shells from around the Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, I work on sites in southwest Florida that were occupied around the same time as this site in Chattanooga. (That chiefdom was the Calusa, and they met the Spanish as well.) So I have artifacts from those sites that we can do the same analysis on and see where we have some, maybe, overlap in chemical composition that we can try to determine where these may have come from.”

Though the presence of these marine artifacts suggests they were brought to the area by explorers and used in trade, that is by no means a certainty. “That’s the question,” Peres says. “Were they going to the Gulf of Mexico themselves? Was there some kind of spiritual journey where, for instance, a shaman or religious person went to extract these? Or were they trading with them?”

Peres’s hypothesis is that they were trading for them, as opposed to directly acquiring these resources, in part “because the Gulf of Mexico, the coastline, was not an open territory for just anybody to be able to go to.”

In addition to work like this in East Tennessee, Peres continues to conduct important analysis of archeological sites in Nashville, where the flood that submerged downtown Nashville in May 2010 also swept away thousands of years of human history: prehistoric burial sites along the banks of the Cumberland River. Along with students, Peres has surveyed numerous sites and documented samples from the most endangered. The work has curtailed raids by looters who covet the sites for their black-market potential.

Vanishing Giants

Dr. Brian Miller investigates the disappearance of one of the region’s strangest looking animals

By Candace Moonshower

Devil Dog. Ground Puppy. Snot Otter. Tweeg. Hellbender. These are just a few of the nicknames associated with Cryptobranchus alleganiensis (the Eastern Hellbender) and Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishopi (the Ozark Hellbender), two subspecies of North American giant salamander, one of the largest amphibians in the world and the specialty of Dr. Brian Miller, MTSU professor of biology.

Miller, who grew up north of St. Louis, has always been a big fan of amphibians and reptiles. Although he was working with snakes at the time, Miller began working with hellbenders in a herpetology class at the University of Missouri, where he was pursuing his bachelor’s degree in wildlife. After receiving his master’s in biology from the University of Missouri and a Ph.D. in zoology from Washington State University in 1989, Miller came to MTSU to work specifically with hellbenders. “The habitat looked promising for hellbenders,” he says as he recounts how he had no trouble finding the creatures in 1991 in the Duck, Little Duck, Collins, Buffalo, and Calfkiller Rivers.

Now, after researching almost every foot of water from the Duck River to the Normandy Reservoir, Miller hasn’t been able to find the creatures. “Almost all of the individual hellbenders we collected, marked, and released were older, larger, and sexually mature,” Miller says. “We think that in areas where we cannot find young individuals, it is because they aren’t reproducing well.”

The die-off has happened quickly, and alterations in the water quality and stream habitat may account for the changing population.

“Pollution, agricultural run-off, or disease may all account for the decreasing populations,” Miller says, “and we’re just trying to get a better feel about what might be happening.”

According to Miller, hellbenders used to be easy to find, and in the past, people harvested the creatures for pets or for science class dissections.

“I had snakes, lizards, and salamanders as pets,” Miller admits. “But it’s a different time now. Since I began my work at MTSU, my views on owning wildlife as pets have changed.”

He says if a previously easy-to-find group of animals is disappearing, it should be a cautionary tale.

“These are the largest salamanders we have that live in the clear, clean water of streams,” Miller says. “If they’re dying out, there is some kind of environmental problem that we need to investigate.”

Miller concedes that when something becomes rare, people automatically want it, and that we might see hellbenders now on the black market. But he doesn’t think that is as big an issue as water quality.

For its size, MTSU has a strong group of students working with everything from plants to salamanders in the area of field biology.

“I’ve hired more than 40 students off the grants I’ve obtained,” Miller says. “Within the state of Tennessee, you’re not going to find as large a group working with herps and other diverse animals.”

In the 1990s, funding for the hellbender studies came from the University. Recently, the money has come from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) and State Wildlife and Tribal Land Grants.

Several different entities—Lee University, the Nashville Zoo, and MTSU—were each separately awarded money to research and work on species that are in jeopardy of being listed as rare, threatened, or endangered. While each entity was given separate grants, they have worked in a partnership that makes sure activities don’t overlap and that maximizes the use of the money each group was awarded. Michael Freak at Lee University has conducted genetic analyses of hellbenders from as many watersheds in Tennessee as possible to better determine the genetic relationships of the remaining populations. Dale McGinnity at the Nashville Zoo is primarily interested in the husbandry of hellbenders and refining techniques that will allow the use of frozen sperm on fresh eggs. Miller’s work has been entirely field-oriented—searching streams that he worked 20 years ago and other streams in watersheds with past records of hellbender occurrence.

The partnership stems from the State Wildlife Action Plan Partnership Award that was presented at a “Teaming with Wildlife” convention in Washington, D.C. It is a competitive award given to those groups receiving State Wildlife and Tribal Grants money that exhibit collaborative success. It was presented to Miller, Freak, McGinnity, Bill Reeves (TWRA chief of bio­diversity), and Stephen Spear of the Orianne Society, a group dedicated to protecting imperiled snake species.

Miller views hellbenders as part of our natural heritage.

“Just as we try to protect our cultural heritage—Stones River Battlefield, Oaklands Mansion—I think it is also important to preserve our natural heritage. Future generations deserve the opportunity to visit local streams and see a diversity of wildlife and not just those species tolerant of more polluted or disturbed waters.”