Dr. Merrielle Turnbull Discusses Her VBC Seminar

In the spring of 2013, Dr. Merrielle Turnbull taught a semester-long course at the Virginia Ball Center. In the following post she discusses her experience with the Center and the amazing educational opportunity it provides to Ball State students.

The life of a contract faculty member teaching Freshman composition is pretty much the same semester to semester.  Sure, there’s 103 in the Fall and 104 in the Spring, but there’s always 100 faces to recognize, 100 names to remember, and thousands of papers to grade.  Yes, literally!  So when some friends suggested I consider submitting a proposal to lead an immersive-learning seminar, I was intrigued, but hesitant.

The Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry offers two faculty members each semester the opportunity of a lifetime – to choose a handful of students to work together over the course of a semester with no other obligations to other classes.  Each seminar has a general topic, chosen by the faculty member, that becomes more defined as the semester goes on with input by students and with the community partner.  I had attended previous VBC showcases and was very impressed with the level of commitment that the students showed in producing something extraordinary.  What a wonderful experience for them to move beyond the classroom and do something meaningful!  Of course, I also knew those brave faculty members were extraordinary teachers, which helped them achieve such lofty goals.  I was, on the other hand, a darn good composition teacher, end of story.  I didn’t have the confidence to explore new worlds and seek out new civilizations.  Basically, I wanted to only boldly go into Lafollette and share my love of writing.

What made me finally decide to submit a proposal?  Was it the encouragement of friends who were previous VBC leaders?  Was it talking to VBC Head Honcho Joe Trimmer who was enthusiastic?  Was it the thought of not having to face thousands of essays?  Yes… all of the above!

My general topic was looking at the role of animal welfare agencies in their communities with a goal of creating educational materials, both written and film.  This project linked my two passions: education and animals.  It seemed like a project that students would have an interest in, and that certainly was the case.  After a few well-placed flyers and help from Barb Stedman in the Honors College, students were selected.  Then, I talked to department heads to see where the students could earn credit – they take 15 hours for the seminar, so each needed 5 courses.  The students were from a wide variety of majors, so the classes needed to be as well.  I must brag on our own department – Adam Beach was WONDERFUL in approving a variety of courses.  Other courses came from biology, telecommunications, communication studies, psychology and the honors college.  I admit it was strange to see that I was the instructor-of-record for a 400 level Biology course, especially since I’d failed the class as an undergraduate in the 1970s!

As the 14 brave students and I started our seminar at the Kittselman Center, we quickly found out that it’s a challenge to be around the same folks every day – especially with so many BIG personalities.  But the type of student who is willing to take on the challenge of an immersive experience needs to be exceptionally motivated and determined.  And for our seminar – must love dogs (and cats)!  All of the students matched that description, and it was an incredible experience getting to know each of them.  They quickly formed bonds as well – something well beyond what happens in a traditional classroom.

I won’t say it wasn’t nerve-wracking for me and the students at the start.  We floundered a bit as the project started to take shape.  I told them it could go in the direction they wanted, and they did, shifting the focus more into pet ownership responsibility and the terrible tragedy of animal abuse.  They took the project into territories I hadn’t even imagined possible – what an educational gift to each of them!  In the end, we prepared a variety of educational materials for 2nd -8th grade teachers, brochures and handouts for shelters, and two videos.  The children’s video has the appropriate humorous tone that children will relate to, yet also can lead teachers into discussions about pet care and responsibility.  The documentary went into a darker place than I originally imagined by looking at the reasons for and the effects of animal abuse, and what a good choice made by the students who worked on it to do so.  It hits hard – and that’s perhaps the best testament to a documentary on such a serious subject.

In my 22 years of teaching, I have never been prouder of students than I was at the public presentation of our project.  Each student had a role to play, and they did it with grace and poise.  I saw them with their families, just bursting with enthusiasm for what we’d been through the past semester.  And I made sure I thanked the parents I met for being so brave in allowing their kids to have this experience.

So now looking back, what did this semester mean to everyone involved?  For the students, it was a chance for them to grow in confidence and experience working closely with others that an ordinary classroom couldn’t come close to offering.  Each of them got so much out of it that will go with them through their lives.  They made friends, developed their characters, and expanded their thoughts about what they were capable of.  That seems like a pretty good definition of education to me.

For me, this project was such a total departure from my normal teaching – I always joked with the students about how you go into teaching because you like to be in charge and that the seminar went totally against this!  But what this semester reminded me of was just how much students can do when given the opportunity.  What I’ll take back into the composition classroom is that belief.  Will it be tougher with 100 students than 14?  Certainly.  But my VBC seminar students have shown me the way.

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