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FeatureSpring 2009

The Commons is NOT your parent’s freshman dorm

The Heard Library helps open new chapter in Vanderbilt’s history

“I’ve joked with friends that living with 18-year-olds in a first-year residence hall is my version of a midlife crisis. I know that I was looking for new ways of engaging with students, new challenges in teaching and to shake things up in my life. I have found all this—and more—in The Commons.”

—Jo-Anne Bachorowski, faculty head of West House, associate professor of psychology.

The Commons, a brand new community of first-year students, residential faculty and professional staff, welcomed its first class last fall. This is not your parents’ freshman dorm. All first-year students live in The Commons in one of 10 new residence halls called houses, which are grouped around quads on the Peabody side of campus. Each residence hall has an apartment for its faculty head of house, rooms for seminars, study and music practice, and lots of light and space. This is not your typical freshman dorm.

Faculty, students, staff and administrators put a decade of planning into The Commons. The Jean and Alexander Heard Library staff was actively involved, including the formation of The Commons Service Exploration Team, led by Sue Erickson. This group was formed to streamline library service to The Commons. Librarians talked to Dean of the Commons Frank Wcislo and his staff to get input on needs and services the library could provide. Sophomores and juniors who had lived in some of The Commons residence halls that were completed last year also gave suggestions.

The Commons includes 10 residence halls, known as houses.

The Commons includes 10 residence halls, known as houses.

The team communicated with heads of houses about targeted library services available to them. The Heard Library also offered free book delivery to The Commons for faculty members residing in the houses. Greg Barz, faculty head for North House, said the library services have made his job much simpler. The medical ethnomusicologist is an associate professor at Blair School of Music, the College of Arts and Science and the Divinity School.

“As a faculty head of house, I’ve had to shift daily teaching and research patterns in ways that I thought would be challenging,” Barz says. “Instead, I find myself reinvigorated. As a professor at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music, for example, I now find myself relying heavily on the fabulous facilities and support staff of the Peabody Library due to its proximity to The Commons. Teaching in new Commons spaces has also encouraged faculty, staff, students and librarians to collaborate in unique ways, as witnessed by the successful ‘Stealing in Music City’ Commons music piracy seminar this fall.”

Barz is not the only one who has found the Peabody Library a convenient option. “I check out my books at the Central Library, but I do all my studying at the Peabody Library,” says John Alexander of San Antonio. Freshman Jeff Deming of Eldorado, Ark., adds, “I use Peabody Library every time I have a major test or paper.”

The mosaic sculpture “Black Cat” by Lynn Driver overlooks a side entry to the Peabody Library. The library, housed in a classically styled building dating to 1919, offers 250,000 volumes, completely modern technology, a popular group work space called the Learning Commons, and more than 40 computer workstations.

The mosaic sculpture “Black Cat” by Lynn Driver overlooks a side entry to the Peabody Library. The library, housed in a classically styled building dating to 1919, offers 250,000 volumes, completely modern technology, a popular group work space called the Learning Commons, and more than 40 computer workstations.

Tiffany Patterson, head of Stambaugh House and associate professor of African American and diaspora studies, is planning to establish a library for use by her residents. “Our fine library has offered to help me in this endeavor,” she says. “The students are a generation interested in being leaders in the world and our country needs thoughtful, well-informed leaders who are not afraid of a complicated and often dangerous world. Many are well-read beyond their years. Yet, like all freshmen, they have gaps.”

The Heard Library played a key role in helping The Commons residents get oriented to campus through Vanderbilt Visions, a one-semester, university core program required for all first-year students. Students worked in groups of 17, guided by a student leader and a professor. Students could choose from more than 20 topics, some prepared by the library. They included:

  • Racing across Campus—Students hurried across campus using a variety of navigation aids (maps, GPS, etc.) to get familiar with campus libraries and other landmarks.
  • Class of 1912—Students used materials from the University Archives to discover what life was like for the Class of 1912, which preceded them by a century, using archive images, student publications and newspaper articles from that era.
  • What the C.R.A.P.—Students learned to evaluate information by using the online encyclopedia Wikipedia as a springboard and the C.R.A.P. (currency, reliability, accuracy and point of view) test as a method to evaluate information.
  • Election of 2008 —Students either watched political ads on YouTube and then used the Internet to check them for accuracy and fairness or to research the stands of major and minor parties.

Learn more about the library-provided themes to the Vanderbilt Visions program at www.library.vanderbilt.edu/ visions.

Activity abounds on all levels at The Commons Center, a popular campus crossroads.

Activity abounds on all levels at The Commons Center, a popular campus crossroads.

The Commons isn’t all about studying and research, however. It was developed to provide first-year students a caring community away from home. Heads of house regularly host study breaks when students can stop by for a chat or enjoy popcorn, ice cream or cookies. Over at East House, head Mark Dalhouse and his wife share their apartment with year-old twin sons, Teddy and Braden. Tuck and Stick, the Portuguese water dogs of Jo-Anne Bachorowski, make regular appearances at West House.

“One of the things I was looking for was a university that really put a lot of effort into making the freshman experience a great one,” says Matt Aliber of Needham, Mass. “You got the impression that they’re really caring about the first year and we were not just going to be thrown into the first year without any guidance or transition time.”

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photo credit: John Russell, Neil Brake

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