Student Spotlight – Gillian

CLASS Scholars attend high schools all across middle Tennessee and bring to the Seminars a variety of interests and experiences. In the Student Spotlight feature, we’ll be letting you know a little more about who the CLASS Scholars are and what they do besides attend Seminars.

Gillian has trouble choosing a favorite subject in school, because she loves them all. Her favorite CLASS Seminar was either the one with former Nashville mayor Mayor Karl Dean or Ken Spring’s discussion of the Sociology of Music.


She loves to debate everything, from religion and politics to animal rights and whether bananas are good. A vegetarian and self-styled “old school hippie,” she is  the president of a liberal thinking club.




Philosophy: Field of Wonder

Last Thursday, the Scholars were treated to a “crazy little romp” through 2,500 years of human thought as Dr. Mélanie Walton of Belmont’s Department of Philosophy presented “Philosophy as Wondering: The Meaning of Life and Art.”


Dr. Walton began by reviewing the definition of philosophy, which combines love (philos) with wisdom (sophia). This raised the question of what wisdom actually is, which according to Socrates is knowing what you do not know–that is, recognizing your limits by understanding that your knowledge about anything only goes so far. This not knowing, Dr. Walton explained, leads to desire for more knowledge in certain persons–explorers, for example, or philosophers. Wonder, therefore, is the disposition a philosopher needs to have, a willingness to be perplexed and to seek out new answers and questions.

Dr. Walton then traced the notion of wonder through the history of philosophy, from Aristotle, who explored more fully the ways wondering leads to knowledge and vice versa; through the early moderns, like Rene Descartes, who found use in wonder as far as it assisted reason; to mid-moderns like Emmanuel Kant, who linked wonder with judgment, specifically in the judgment of art.

Art and wonder are often connected through the notion of sublimity, the idea of the mind being overwhelmed in the presence of something that defies what we know. Art can challenge us, lifting us out of our mundane existence in order to get us to question the answers we have arrived at through day to day living. Wonder is a way to see the extraordinary in seemingly ordinary things.

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The Scholars then were asked to respond to a series of works of visual art, examining how their own senses of wonder were engaged in each case. Very lively discussions ensued, especially about Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World and Odilon Redon’s The Eye.

Throughout the evening, Dr. Walton explained how her love of philosophy grew out of her own wondering in the face of sublime art or ideas, things that “overwhelmed” her and “lifted her to vocation.” She urged the Scholars to consider, in the extreme busyness of their lives, whether and how often they allow themselves to be perplexed and to be reawakened to a sense of wonder.

Images in the slideshow:

Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, 1948, Tempera on Panel, MoMA
Odilon Redon, The Eye (Vision), 1881, Charcoal, incising, pastel, Baltimore Mus. Of Art
Pablo Picasso, The Old Guitarist, 1903-04 or 1910, Art Institute of Chicago
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Boy and a Dog in a Johnnypump, 1982, Acrylic, crayon, spray paint on canvas, private collection
Vincent Van Gogh, The Corridor in the Asylum, 1889, Oil, chalk, on paper, Met

Method to the Madness

Last Thursday, the Scholars got to discuss and even perform parts of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a performance of which they saw the previous week at the Troutt Theater. After Dr. Marcia McDonald of Belmont’s Department of English provided some cultural and historical context for the play,  Denice Hicks, Executive Artistic Director of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival, explained the concepts this performance was created to explore.

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After directing this play 10 years ago, Denice Hicks decided this time to examine whether there was any light to be found in what is usually the brooding story of a moody prince who wants things to go back to being the way they were. Special care was taken, for example, to show the Polonius family as a loving family whose patriarch–in this iteration more corny than overbearing, is affectionately tolerated rather than despised by his children, at least before tragedy overtakes them all.

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After a discussion and some excellent questions about everything from the set design and costumes to Hamlet’s use of a mask on stage, the Scholars got to try their hands at dramatically reading scenes from the play. Some of the actors were very committed to their roles–we feared for a moment if the actor playing Laertes, who left the room during his scene, had actually departed for France! “The rest” may have been “silence” in Shakespeare’s play, but there was nothing quiet about this seminar!

Class of 2018 Graduates!

On December 14, the Class of 2018 CLASS Scholars celebrated completion of the program with a graduation ceremony. After remarks from College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Dean Bryce Sullivan and Professor David Curtis, the Scholars received their cords and certificates. A photo session and reception followed. Thanks, Class of 2018 (and families), for making the CLASS Seminars such a great experience!

The Frame Game


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How do we organize what we know? How does that organizational structure affect what we can know? How can those structures be used and how are they used against us? This past Thursday evening, Dr. Jimmy Davis of the Department of Communication Studies challenged the Scholars to be more aware of the frames that control our thinking. After a few minutes of chatting about his life and experiences, He asked scholars to connect all the dots in the grid he drew on the board–using only four straight lines.


To successfully connect the dots, the Scholars had to think outside the implied frame of the grid. Dr. Davis used the exercise to introduce the concept of frames, which, according to Stephen D. Reese, ” are organizing principles that are socially shared and persistent over time, that work symbolically to meaningfully structure the social world.”

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Dr. Davis then put the Scholars through a scenario that demonstrated how we use frames to fill in the gaps in the stories we hear. He discussed ways in which companies had tried to market healthier eating to middle school students, and how various frames interfered with the initiative until they were understood and the message revised. He argued that Communications Studies is often about advocacy, and frames can be both useful tools and harmful barriers to communicating effectively.

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Next, Dr. Davis broke out his famous “sticky wall” as the Scholars got some practice at framing messages themselves. He asked them to think about how to market a new high school to potential students. He started by asking them for words to describe high school to an eighth grader. After putting them on the board and grouping them into various categories, he had them boil down their list of descriptors into mission statements and bumper stickers.2017-11-16 20.19.35

The Scholars enjoyed the hands-on experience, and now they all have a better sense of how to use the idea of frames to be critical consumers and producers of the messages that come their way every day.

A Taste of Chinese Language

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Last Thursday evening, Dr. Joan Li of the Department of Foreign Languages asked the Scholars to get past the attitude that learning Chinese is impossible so they could learn what Chinese can do for them. After discussing the widespread use of Chinese (20% of the world’s population speaks it) and the significance of China on the world stage, she worked with the scholars to learn a bit more about using the language itself.

Many Scholars cited the pictographic nature of written Chinese as one difficulty in learning the language. However, she encouraged Scholars to understand that a person could survive in a Chinese-speaking culture who knew only three hundred or so characters.

Dr. Li explained how many of the characters are aggregates of other characters–hao, meaning “good,” is the aggregate of woman and son. This, along with various other words, like “slave” and “greedy,” were used to demonstrate how sexism is inscribed and passed down through language.

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The development of pinyin, a phonetic system depicting Chinese sounds, has helped speakers to learn pronunciation of Chinese without having to read pictographs. Dr. Li worked with the Scholars to understand the pronunciation of the four tones of the word ma, which depending on inflection can mean “mother,” “hemp,” “horse,” or “to curse or scold.”

By the end of the evening, all the Scholars had some success in reading, writing, and speaking Chinese, and many left wanting to learn more!