This semester, I have the pleasure of being a fellow at the Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry. The idea behind the VBC is to create space for immersive, collaborative, interdisciplinary learning. The reality of being at the VBC is, well, flat-out fantastic. It’s the only teaching responsibility I have this semester, and it’s the only coursework my students have (they’re each earning 15 credit hours for the seminar). We get to meet in a beautiful house; we get to travel to Washington, DC; and we get to work together in ways that regular classes just can’t allow.
English majors are working together with students majoring and minoring in Communication Studies, Digital Publishing, History, Sociology, Telecommunications, and other fields in my seminar to investigate what we’re calling “vernacular memorials.” You’ve seen them: roadside crosses marking the scene of an accident, complex tattoos honoring a friend or family member, decal stickers on a car’s rear window, blogs and Facebook pages kept open in honor of someone who has passed away. And maybe, like me and my students, you’ve wondered about the stories behind them. Thrillingly enough, that’s just what we get to investigate this semester, and our goal is to develop a map of the memorials we’ve found in Delaware County along with a catalog-style book of photographs and essays documenting them.
In preparing to teach this seminar, I had to go outside my comfort zone. Usually, I read and write about twentieth-century American women writers. But this summer I read articles in journals like Death Studies, Folklore, Material Religion, Qualitative Sociology, and Visual Studies. Usually, I sit in front of a computer with a pile of books to prepare for my classes. But this summer I traveled to Washington, DC, to do some reconnaissance for our class trip, and I drove around Delaware County a lot. And now that the semester’s started, my students are helping to push me (and themselves) even further outside our collective comfort zones. We’re teaching ourselves to create an annotated map on Google Earth (we’ll have a link to it in a future blog post). We’re making our way through the IRB approval process, making appointments with the Delaware County Department of Transportation, and taking photographs. It’s thrilling and more than a little bit terrifying.
I invite you to check back with the English Department’s blog throughout the semester to find out more about the seminar as it develops. And you won’t have to hear about it from me—English majors will be writing future posts. I’ll also invite you now to attend our end-of-the-semester showcase, where you’ll see the remarkable work I know my students will do. And finally, when the spring VBC fellows (or those who will be running seminars in future semesters) come a-calling, I encourage you to apply to join a seminar. Where else will you get the chance to throw yourself in the deep end with a bunch of sharp, creative, committed peers to create and collaborate?