Blog Post

Imagining America: Imagining Collaboration Exchange, Iowa at Vanderbilt (Friday)

Friday, March 4

Our day today began with an inspiring conversation with Sharon Shields, Mark Dalhouse, Bill Barnes, and Ravi Patel.

Sharon and Mark are house leaders in the Commons—that is, they are faculty who live in student housing and direct civic engagement projects within these housing communities ( Mark, a 20th c. American historian who also directs the Office of Active Citizenship and Serivce, is interested in teaching students about the caucus system. Seventy of Mark’s students traveled to Des Moines in 2008 to volunteer for a political party of choice and observe the caucus. We hope to create a collaborative exchange with students at Iowa and Vanderbilt during the 2012 caucus, as part of a continuing partnership between our universities.

Sharon has developed a number of large-scale civic engagement initiatives at Vanderbilt, including an exchange program with a largely Navajo population at a New Mexico community college, teleconferencing team-taught coursework. She also started a “Tuesdays with Seniors” program that focuses on health issues and aging, in which students collaborate with seniors to create a multimedia history of these individuals, including pictures, stories, and interviews, to share with their families.

One of Sharon’s most interesting projects is a course in Human and Organizational Development that asks students to design and implement a community-based health service delivery to diverse populations ( As a student in her course, Ravi had the idea to create a Nashville Mobile Market to deliver fresh food to people living in food deserts, or neighborhoods without full grocery stores nearby. He explains that since childcare, transport, distance, and time are the major challenges to accessing healthy food, food delivery can make a real difference for these populations (

Now in his second year of medical school, Ravi participated in a “Social Enterprise and Entrepreneurship” course in the business school to develop a business model for the Mobile Market. The “People’s Grocery” in Oakland (an organic food-delivery service) and the Peaches & Greens program in Detroit (an ice cream truck model, complete with music) were key models for the Mobile Market. Ravi has received substantial grant support from Vanderbilt and local foundations to fund a truck, trailer, and staff to provide a fresh food delivery service in these food deserts, delivering dairy and produce on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays in select Nashville neighborhoods.

Just finishing its first month of service, the Mobile Market broke even in February with $3,000 in sales. Sharon is developing future projects in conjunction with the Mobile Market, including a “Fizzy’s Lunch Lab” with computer games about healthy eating for children to play in the food truck while their parents shop for groceries. She also has plans to conduct an international study on ways that healthy lifestyles are promoted in schools in other countries, hoping to discover ways to change pedagogies and policies on healthy eating in the US. French schools, Sharon told us, provide set topics of discussion and white tablecloths during school lunch; students learn table manners, wash dishes, and set the tables. Here, it’s mayhem. What can we learn from other countries about promoting healthy eating in schools?

One of the communities that is served by Ravi’s Mobile Market is the Edgehill community. The Commons has developed a number of civic engagement programs with Edgehill in recent years, due to its proximity to the Vanderbilt campus. The quality of life, however, could hardly be more different, according to Bill.

Serving as a Methodist preacher in the Edgehill community for over three decades, Bill gave us a tour of the 95% black community, which was victim to urban renewal in the 1960s that created a concentration of urban poverty that continues to be a problem for the area. He showed us the Turnkey 3 units, single family rent-to-own units of federally subsidized housing that create real homes and real neighborhoods. He also showed us the 235 Purchase Program, high rises of concentrated poverty associated with higher instances of crime and poorer health and education.

“Universities have played a poor part,” Bill told us. However, there are success stories. Music students at TSU started the W.O. Smith Music School ( in Edgehill years ago that provides access to music classes in areas of dense poverty. Musicians from the nearby Music Row volunteer within the program, which offers not only arts education but also new career possibilities for a city so rooted in its musical culture.

Another success story is Juanita, a 38-year-old woman with three teenage daughters who went back to school at Tennessee State despite numerous obstacles, including a shootout in her apartment complex that destroyed her car and her 14-year-old daughters’ repeated pregnancies. Determined to finish, Juanita is one year away from earning her bachelor’s degree in social work.

Bill’s one wish for the future is to create proximity. By connecting the universities with the victims of social injustices, Bill is confident that spending time with the sick and the poor will give students an opportunity to grow to admire and love these people, and to find some way to communicate to them the worth of being a human being. Bill’s hope is to inspire students with “pissed off energy” to make change. Energy for justice, Bill explains, is based on proximity. And universities, according to Bill, are like “a Christmas tree that nobody sees.”

Returning to campus after our tour, we met with Derek Bruff, Joe Bandy, and Allison Pingree at the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching ( These were three of the most inspiring people we met on our trip, and I sincerely hope that any future collaborations with Vanderbilt will include these three rock stars of engaged learning. We had a great conversation about current projects at Vanderbilt and elsewhere that use mobile devices in higher education, unearthing local environmental history, capturing stories with geocoordinates, and widening access to create and access local social history.

Derek talked about using clickers to create an American Idol model of education, in which students can contribute more actively to class discussions, interact more fully with course material, and self-test. Derek suggested asking students to predict the most likely answer, then discuss discrepancies with the reality, as a way to maximize clickers as tools. He pointed out that mobile devices allow for these kinds of participatory experiences both inside and outside the classroom.

Participating in the creation of an app, wiki, or blog creates an authentic audience, Derek told us, facilitating a form of “social pedagogy.” By creating work that is both public and persistent, this process of writing and producing for a real audience can be pedagogically meaningful. By asking students to read and comment on one another’s work, participating in the process of evaluation, allows students to be an authentic audience to one another. Derek suggested asking students to respond to two other papers, with a maximum of two responses per paper, to ensure even distribution.

Allison pointed out that Centers for Teaching are really becoming Centers for Learning, as higher education is moving from teaching institutions to learning institutions. While the distinction is subtle, the impact is major—and this value shift aligns nicely with HASTAC’s mission.

As illustration of this shift, Allison told us about a teaching certificate program at Vanderbilt that focuses on inquiry, experimentation, and reflection. The capstone teaching and learning project asks instructors to rigorously focus on measuring the impact of innovative teaching methods on student learning.

Joe recently joined the CFT staff at Vanderbilt, after building a successful public service center at Bowdoin College. Joe told us that community engagement is alive and well at Vanderbilt, but not very well coordinated. With the Medical Center, Peabody, Barbara Clinton Center, Ingram Scholars Program, separate faculty working groups for both teaching and research, ACE program, and Center for Nashville studies all developing civic engagement programs independently, the campus lacks coherence between programs. His goal is to guild a set of programs to work toward institutionalization. One major hurdle is the necessity of balancing theory and practice, presentations and discussions, teaching and research, pedagogy and community needs. Because public scholarship can take so many forms, creating coherence is rightly challenging.

Joe has the passion and the pragmatism to make this integration a reality, and his vision is a real asset to the Vanderbilt community. Using Imagining America’s model of recasting civic engagement initiatives as intellectually rigorous for both teaching and research, Joe hopes to provide the coherence that will ensure Vanderbilt’s public scholarship programs are as successful as possible.

Allison echoed Joe’s desire for stronger digital infrastructures and institutionalized collaboration. Allison also told us about the Cumberland Project, a two-day faculty sustainability symposium that is part of a larger initiative to institute a “Year of Sustainability” at Vanderbilt. A joint collaboration between the Center for Teaching and the American Studies program, the seminar will help faculty develop curriculum for units, courses, or entire programs in sustainability. Lectures and films will supplement individual courses, mirroring the “Piedmont Project” at Emory.

Our final meeting was with the staff at the Ingram Scholars Program ( The office displayed a framed quote from Margaret Mead that read, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” It seems a fit mantra for this radical program in moral leadership, which combines civic engagement and social enterprise.

Begun in 1994, the Ingram Scholars Program offers a 4-year full tuition scholarship to 15 students committed to innovative, entrepreneurial volunteerism. Seeking to raise social consciousness and solve critical societal needs, the program requires students to volunteer 20 hours per month during the school year, participate in weekly meetings, and design and implement a minimum of one generously funded service project during summer holidays (often abroad). In addition, seniors complete an internship on a local non-profit board. The Faculty Fellows Program, inviting a faculty mentor to collaborate on a more research-based summer project, doubles the funding from $5,000 to $10,000.

Former fellows, often successful business philanthropists, are invited to speak at seminars on campus, and bi-annual reunions contribute to a vibrant alumni network. With 562 applicants this year for the dozen or so positions, the program is highly competitive.

A well-developed metacognitive vocabulary on social justice is an important prerequisite for selection, though weekly meetings offer students opportunities to develop an ethos of civic engagement through all-fellow meetings, cohort meetings, on-site visits, individual project presentations, summer project meetings, guest speakers, and social events. Reflection processes and individual meetings are key to the program’s sense of intentionality. While the program relies on substantial monetary support, it would be easy to imagine implementing summer projects and weekly meetings on a tighter budget.

One of the most important parts of any successful civic engagement program is its ability to reflect the needs of a particular community. While Vanderbilt is extremely eager to create programs that fit the needs of the Nashville community, the most impressive quality of Vanderbilt’s numerous civic engagement programs, including and especially the Ingram Scholars Program, is their appeal to this unique student body. By creating projects and programs that rely on competition, independent student leadership, and entrepreneurship, these programs appeal to the typical Vanderbilt student, who is ambitious, business-minded, and highly self-motivated. In this way, the staff and faculty have developed civic engagement opportunities that truly fit student needs along with community needs.

On the plane ride home, I read E.V. Lucas’ “The Cricket Ball Sings,” who describes the bowler’s “singleness of purpose ad stead[iness] of aim” as evidence that “ours is a fellowship sure to prevail.” What a perfect description of the new possibilities for collaboration in public digital scholarship between Vanderbilt and the University of Iowa.


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