What’s In A Name? (A Lot, Actually!)

Last night, the CLASS Scholars gathered in the Janet Ayers Academic Center to hear from Dr. Marcia McDonald, grad student Alyssa Wynans, and Santiago Sosa, who directed the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s Winter Shakespeare production of Romeo and Juliet the scholars attended last week.

Dr. Marcia McDonald answers questions.

Dr. McDonald began the seminar by answering questions Scholars had written down the previous week during the production. She read from books from the 1580s that described the rigid social structure and family relationships of Shakespeare’s London, explaining some of the actions of the Montagues and Capulets. Then she asked the Scholars “to think about how Romeo and Juliet runs counter to all of these assumptions.”

Dr. McDonald also discussed our perception of the play vs. how it was marketed at the time. The examination of a title page of an early paperback version of the play advertised it as “An Excellent, conceited Tragedie of Romeo and Iuliet.” We don’t think of tragedies as being funny, but the word “Conceited” indicated to contemporary audiences that there were humorous elements in the play, as well as excellent wordplay.

Santiago Sosa, director of Romeo and Juliet.

Santiago Sosa spoke next, discussing how he came to Shakespeare as a Hispanic actor when all other kinds of roles in contemporary American plays seemed closed off to him. After getting his start in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Texas State University, he attended workshops and acted with a traveling company before completing an M.F.A. at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He has worked with Shakespeare Festivals in Illinois and Pennsylvania, among other places, before landing here in Nashville, where he had performed in several plays before being asked to direct Romeo and Juliet.

Santiago Sosa creates a sketch of Brutus based on the X-Men.

He answered Scholars’ questions on a variety of topics, from how he found and directed the very diverse cast of this play to how his background in Art helped him as a director. Prompted by one of the Scholars to “Draw something!”, he demonstrated how he might develop concept art for Julius Caesar, based on X-Men comics from the 1990s but reflecting our immersive media environment today. (Sosa’s concept art for Romeo and Juliet is available here.)

Draft Concept for Julius Caesar

Speaking of our media environments, Belmont M.A. student Alyssa Wynans discussed her current project investigating social media performances of Shakespeare plays across a number of cultures and platforms. Shakespeare’s works, it seems, are endlessly adaptable, ensuring the enduring reputation of the man and his plays.

Alyssa Wynans on Social Media and Shakespeare

To close out the evening, some Scholars tried their hand at being directed in the famous balcony scene. After the scholars read their lines, Santiago Sosa explained how a director would find direction for actors actually within the lines of the play. An actor playing Romeo has to figure out how to make “Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven” real for an audience, and Juliet’s “O” in one of her most famous lines has to forcefully express the emotion of the young girl in love, in order to give context and clarity to the rest: “Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?”

Sosa coaches “Juliet” and “Romeo” on their performances.

Some of the CLASS Scholars lingered to talk Shakespeare with our guests after the seminars, reminding us of those famous lines of the bard:

“Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.”

Making a Case for Communication

by Ashley Sanders

On December 1st, forensics team sponsor, Jason Stahl, and students from the Belmont forensics team came to give performances for CLASS scholars. Mr. Stahl began the seminar by explaining what a forensics team does. Forensics, he explained, stems from the idea “to build a case.” So the forensics team works to argue and persuade using a wide variety of communication methods. He explained that there are many different ways to make an argument. One less commonly known way is through performance.

Forensics Team Director Jason Stahl

Madison Kendrick demonstrated this with her performance combining all different kinds of literature to make an argument regarding the way society treats older women. Madison “built her case” by showing various stories that all spoke to the same theme. She used poetry, drama, prose, and even news headlines to demonstrate that women are frequently mistreated in the last third of their lives.


Allison Mahal also used performance to make a point. Allison’s performance, however, came from a single source. Allison performed a scene from a play that spoke to the nature of grief and how people cope.


Next, Janvi Shukla and Laura Durr gave speeches they wrote for public address.

Janvi gave an informative speech on the Sikh religion attempting to inform her audience about the religion’s history, beliefs, and the discrimination they are facing in post-9/11 America.

Laura gave a persuasive speech on dishonorable discharge from the military due to sexuality. She built her argument providing evidence of real cases and personal anecdotes. At the end of her speech, she gave her audience some action steps they could take and had a petition the students could (and many did) sign.

Finally, Finley Sehorn and Justice Sloan debated Blake Simmons and Noah Miller. They debated whether or not the United State should fund germ line editing. The persuasive tactics used by both sides included poking holes in the other side’s argument attempting to discredit them before launching into their own argument.


Each of the students on the team demonstrated different ways you can build a case and make an argument. They all used different persuasive tactics: evoking emotion, providing solid evidence, and attempting to discredit the opposition.

Scholars and speakers talk after the presentation.

Feminism: Who Needs It?

by Ashley Sanders

Belmont English Professor Caresse John began her seminar, “Feminism: Who Needs It?” with a couple of questions – the first question, “Do you believe that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities?” drew every hand in the room up into the air. The second question, “Do you believe that men and women are equal in our society?” was met with silence. These answers confirmed the progress that has been made by the feminist movement and highlighted the fact that there is still work to be done.

Dr. Caresse John

Dr. John did a brief history of the feminist movement as a whole, beginning with pre-first wave women. There is a lot we don’t know about the lives of women in this time because their stories have been erased or were never told. We do know that they were allowed very little education; they could not have a job, they had no legal or civil identity, or authority. They were at the total mercy of the men in their lives.

The first wave of feminism began with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 where 300 people gathered and signed the Declaration of Sentiments: where every “he” in the Declaration of Independence was replaced with “she.” The goals of this convention were women’s invisibility in law and government and the right to vote. There were a few things standing in the way of progress after the convention. The first, there was no national organization in place to keep up communication after the convention. During the civil war, women worked for abolition. After helping to earn black men the right to vote, women’s own right to vote became the main fight of the movement. Every year beginning in 1878, Congress denied women’s proposal for suffrage until finally granting women the right to vote in 1920.

In the time between earning the right to vote and the second wave, America went through the Great Depression, fought in WWII and saw the beginnings of the Cold War. The second wave of feminism began with the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970 led by Betty Friedan. After achieving the goals of the first wave, the second wave focused on women’s issues big and small dealing with standards of beauty, multiplicity of female experience, reproductive rights and sexual violence. During this wave, the phrase: “The Personal is Political” was coined.

Finally, Dr. John discussed where we are today. The feminist movement has made great strides. We are now living in a time when it’s cool to be a woman; She showed videos of famous feminists, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Emma Watson. These days, “feminism is the fluoride in the water”: it’s everywhere and it’s good for you. We have grown up in that. But there is still a ways to go. We still live in a culture where women are slut-shamed, men cannot cry and BIC makes pens for women. Now to be a feminist means more than just believing that men and women should be equal, it means doing something about it. It means caring enough about the experience of both women and men to try to make it better. Because as Dr. John said, “At its core, feminism is about compassion, all of us being human beings.”

What Does It Mean To Be Human?

by Ashley Sanders

On September 22nd, the CLASS scholars went to Michael Bess’s talk entitled “Technology, Ethics and the Quest to Build a Better Human” as a part of Belmont’s 15th annual Humanities Symposium, Machines Made of Words. Bess, Chancellor’s Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, began his talk by addressing what he calls the “Jetsons fallacy” which describes science fiction movies that depict a futuristic society where technology has massively evolved but humans have remained the same. Bess argues that this picture of unchanged humans with really cool gadgets is an incorrect depiction of our future. Instead, he believes that humans will evolve with new technologies.

He spent the bulk of his time discussing bio-enhancements: how humans are manipulating biology to create superhumans. He addressed in what ways we are already manipulating biology and in what direction he believes we are headed. Right now, we are able to influence our physical traits, abilities and emotions through drugs– using chemicals to fine-tune our own emotional states. In the future, Bess believes that we will be able to override our current physical limitations and slow down the aging process.

Dr. Michael Bess

Bess went on to discuss the possibilities of bioelectronics and the way that neuroscience is intersecting with medical technology. As our understanding of the brain has deepened, so has our ability to intervene and control its processes. Skull cap research has allowed people to pin point exact places in the brain that control emotions enabling intervention on a nuclear level with less side effects than drugs. In 2002, William H. Dobelle was able to give a blind man partial sight through bioelectronics. It occurred him that it was only a short step to adding in new technology like infrared sensors or a telescope feature. We have the capability to make ourselves “better than well.”

Finally, Dr. Bess discussed how we are taking control of our identity and abilities through genetics and particularly epigenetics. Epigenetics, he explained, are molecular mechanisms that change the expression of DNA (what is activated and what is deactivated at a certain time) without changing the code itself. Parents could design their children and people could, in a sense, re-wire themselves. This would allow people to be genetics works in progress.

He suggested that we are moving toward a future where people live longer and have a significant amount of control over their abilities and their emotional states. These technologies would mean creating a new generation of superhumans, with abilities that far surpass anything we are capable of now. But if we are manipulating our abilities, our emotions and even our genetics, what is left of who we are? He finished his talk raising some important and mostly unanswerable questions: Will these new technologies only be accessible to the chosen few? What will it do to the gap between the haves and the have-nots? How will we know what emotional states are real? What is it that makes a good life? And finally, what does it mean to be human?

Saying 你好 to 中文

By Anna Sharp

In the last CLASS Seminar of the school year, Dr. Joan Li, professor of Chinese and Asian Studies, educated the scholars on the language and culture of China. Dr. Li opened her seminar by asking the scholars what languages they knew, either from school or from individual study. Although a few were learning other languages like Korean or Japanese as a hobby, most had studied Spanish in school. With this in mind, Dr. Li posed a thought to the scholars: what if you told your family you wanted to study Chinese in college? She then answered her own question, saying, “They would say why? Are you crazy?” Dr. Li explained that Chinese is the most widely spoken first language in the world, yet only around four percent of American foreign language programs contain Chinese. People think it is an incredibly difficult language to learn, so they do not bother with it.

In contrast, Chinese children begin learning English at three years old. The Chinese are also far more familiar with American culture than we are with theirs. To demonstrate this, Dr. Li pulled up a photo of President Obama with China’s President Xi. She explained that people in China love Obama so much they often wear t-shirts with his picture on them, but most Americans cannot even name the president of China. Fortunately for the scholars, Dr. Li considers learning Chinese to be a rewarding long-term investment. “You are going to experience it,” she told them. “Chinese is not difficult, it’s just different.”

Learning to count Chinese numbers using only one hand

And experience it they did. The scholars started off learning how to count to ten, including the Chinese method of counting on one hand. After mastering one through ten, they moved onto a different kind of hands on practice—writing Chinese characters on dry erase boards. While the scholars practiced writing characters stroke by stroke, Dr. Li conveyed both the facts and the beauty of the Chinese language. She explained that the same characters are used today that were used thousands of years ago and that radicals are common strokes found across the language that indicate meaning and often reflect Chinese cultural ideas. For example, as the scholars practiced writing the character hao (好), which means ‘good,’ Dr. Li explained that the radicals found in the characters stand for ‘woman’ and ‘son.’ Therefore the word ‘good’ is connected to the traditional Chinese cultural idea that good is when a woman gives birth to a son.

The pīnyīn was another component of Chinese characters that the scholars learned about. This is the phonetic translation of a character that is used on an English keyboard. One can type the pīnyīn and the computer or smartphone will provide the Chinese character for it. Dr. Li also used the concept of the pīnyīn to explain the four tones of the language. In spoken Chinese, words with the same pīnyīn can have four different meanings depending on the tone of voice they are spoken in. Dr. Li demonstrated the different tones using the pīnyīn ‘ma.’ Depending on the tone, ‘ma’ can mean mother, hemp, horse, or scold. She made the scholars laugh, asking, “Are you calling your mom or are you calling your horse?”

The scholars practice writing hao (好)

After this, Dr. Li had everyone put their new knowledge into one final practice. They stood up and shook hands, using correct tones to say ni hao (你好), which means ‘hello.’ As it was the end of the seminar, ‘goodbye’ may have been more fitting—but perhaps the scholars were just saying hello to learning Chinese.


Countdown to College

Picture1FAFSA? CSS? The Common App? Rolling admissions and early decisions? David Curtis, Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences and Director of the CLASS Scholars program, tried to clear up some of the confusion about these terms and others by giving the 2017 CLASS Scholars and their families a crash course on the college application process last Thursday evening. The presentation covered basics about the college search, including where and how to research colleges to find matches in terms of interest and affordability. From there the discussion went into applying for colleges and finding financial resources from grants to scholarships. Tennessee Promise and the Hope Scholarship were given an overview, as well as other local foundations, like the Scarlett Foundation and the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, both of which help fund the college dreams of local scholars.

And after all the preparation and application, the Scholars were told, to quote Tom Petty, “the waiting is the hardest part.” Though you might hear about admissions decisions early depending on how you apply and your destination university’s policies, you’re likely not going to get the full picture of admissions and financial aid until Spring of your Senior year.

And once the decision is made, there is yet more to do, including enrollment deposits, housing arrangements, and the all-important decisions about how that last summer before college will be spent. At the end of the evening, the Scholars had a lot more to think about, including the realization that, as one of them put it, “we’re almost done, aren’t we?”



Beyond the Spin

Olivia Pope in Scandal, ad men in Mad Men, lobbyists in Thank You for Smoking–familiar portrayals in the media tend to emphasize public relations professionals “fixing” or “spinning” (or lying!) in order to fight negative perceptions of their clients. Last Thursday, the CLASS Scholars were introduced to a somewhat different perspective on PR by Belmont Public Relations Professor Richard Rush and several current PR majors.

Dr. Rush showed the Scholars some examples of successful recent public relations campaigns like Coca-Cola’s “Happy Project,” in which coke machines on college campuses were specially fitted to provide vendees not only with soft drinks, but also bouquets of flowers, pizzas, and even a 6-foot submarine sandwich! The Scholars also got a look at the Blue Angels 360 project, which uses a number of camera angles to put people virtually into the cockpits of these incredibly skilled stunt flyers. Projects like these and others are more about creating a positive image for organizations and cultivating productive relationships than fixing problematic ones.

Belmont PR Professor Richard Rush

Examples of how public controversies over Cam Newton’s post-Super Bowl press conference and Adele’s Grammy performance were handled led into Dr. Rush’s discussion of the definition established by the Public Relations Society of America: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” It involves a strategic communication process involving research, planning, implementation, and evaluation. It also requires a great deal of flexibility and “learning on the fly,” according to Dr. Rush. He discussed his own experiences working in two different athletic departments, expanding his skills bases in photography and web design when those became necessary.

Current Belmont PR students then told their stories of how they came to study a subject most of them had not heard of–and certainly didn’t aspire to–when they were the Scholars’ age. Alex Murphy, for example, didn’t grow up wanting to be in Public Relations, but combined his love of the music business with skills in writing and now interns for All Eyes Media doing PR for artists including Jason Isbell. Haley Hall, Executive Director of Tower Creative Consultants (a PR firm run by students), wanted to do music, but discovered there were other things that she was good at and actually enjoyed doing more. She combined her interests in has worked at the Grand Ole Opry, among other places. Lindsey Barchent actually did know she wanted to do PR coming in because of a mentorship she got to do as a high school junior. She is currently one of a select group of students entered in the national Bateman Competition, working on a campaign raising awareness about the Student Veterans of America. Finally, Victoria Lewis dreamed of being on Broadway, but after learning about PR, she “got a new dream.” Through being a PR major, she has been able to travel around the country and ultimately has been elected as the National Vice President of Advocacy on the board of the Public Relations Student Society of America. She has also had the opportunity to work with clients like Amazon.

Haley Hall tells the Scholars how her interest in PR grew out of her love of music.

The Scholars had many questions for the presenters, including what kinds of minors they had and what they planned to do after graduation. The seminar closed with a discussion of whether, considering the public perception Dr. Rush mentioned at the beginning of the evening, PR itself has a PR problem. As it turns out, this is the very reason there is such an emphasis on ethics in PR programs and in the national society, as well as ongoing discussions in the profession of what constitutes “good” PR.