Five Minutes With … Penny Peirce
You can call it kismet, karma or serendipity, but whatever approach you prefer, there is little doubt that Penelope “Penny” Peirce is exactly where she’s supposed to be—at the helm of Technology Support Services for the College of Arts and Science.
As director of Technology Support Services, Peirce, MDiv’73, JD’79, supervises all classroom technology, production services, computer support and ongoing projects for the school. Her first job at Vanderbilt was working as secretary to the legendary Dr. Mildred Stahlman (BA’43, MD’46, HO’48) in the Department of Pediatrics. Today Peirce works with teams of staff and students to determine what equipment is needed for new and renovated classrooms, provide computer equipment and services, and respond to all of the audiovisual needs of the school.
How long have you been at Vanderbilt and what road led you here?
I have been at Vanderbilt more than 30 years. I stopped counting at 30 because it makes me feel too old. I did get a Vanderbilt law degree while working here, but I decided not to practice after realizing that I wanted the knowledge and not the lifestyle.
I came to Vanderbilt to go to divinity school. I wanted to concern myself with “ultimate concerns.” I soon discovered that I was probably an atheist and that my ultimate concerns were how to pay the rent and buy food. It was an interesting time to be in divinity school. The country was in the middle of the Vietnam War, and men my age were being drafted. Divinity students were given deferments, so most of the people in divinity school at the time were political activists of some kind.
How did you wind up working for the College of Arts and Science?
Vanderbilt Divinity School gave me a chance to do an internship with what was then the television and film division of the Methodist Church. I had already developed an interest in media and in making films from doing still photography and loving music. Around the time I was graduating from the divinity school, I found out the College of Arts and Science wanted to start a media center, and I persuaded them that I was the one who could do it.
I started the Learning Resource Center in one room in Garland Hall with no staff. After purchasing some basic equipment, which at that time was 16 mm projectors, overhead transparency projectors and reel-to-reel video and audio recorders, I hired a few student workers. When faculty needed something, we pushed it on carts to the classroom. We quickly expanded into a few more rooms in Garland. We were promised more space for many, many years and finally, when the Buttrick renovation was scheduled, we were given the space we needed and the opportunity to design it. Recently I have been given the opportunity to combine audiovisual services and computer services, and create the new division, Technology Support Services.
“I did get a Vanderbilt law degree while working here, but I decided not to practice after realizing that I wanted the knowledge and not the lifestyle.”
How has the technology changed since those early days?
Classes started out making films and documentary projects on Super 8 film and reel videotape, and now we are using HD cameras and recording on hard discs. Students today who complain about how long it takes to edit a project have no idea what it was like “back in the day.”
Today, the majority of the classrooms in the college are completely equipped with video projectors, computers, DVD players and VCRs. We also have a large amount of equipment available for students and faculty to check out, and we maintain 12 editing stations equipped with Final Cut Pro editing software as well as two sound recording rooms.
How is working with today’s students?
I like having student workers so I can talk with them about what they think and how they spend their time. Recently I was very critical of Facebook, quoting research to them that indicated the more time you spend on Facebook, the worse your grades were. They told me about a study that said Facebook users were better workers and informed me that everyone at Vanderbilt was on Facebook.
I set up a Facebook page and played with it for a while. I’m still not a fan. I would rather spend my time in other ways.
In what other ways do you spend your time?
I love to write. I write almost every day and hope that someday I will have time to finish a few things. Living life seems to get in the way of writing about it. I love my iPod. Actually, I have two iPods. I have made mixed tapes since cassette tape was invented. The iPod rocked my world, made everything about music much easier. I also love my bicycle, and I try to ride several times a week. I am also a recreational kayaker and recreational golfer.
During my internship with United Methodist Communications, I met several Chicago Theological Seminary students who had come to Nashville to begin an intentional living community, and so I became part of a hippie communal group. The group still gets together at least once a year, and I have vacationed in Michigan with three of those people every summer for the past 30 years.
I love the Hubble telescope. We can now see back to the beginning of our universe and we are fairly certain there is a black hole at the center of every galaxy. I think it is a great achievement. I love to read. The last physical book I read was Kevin Wilson’s short stories, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. I am reading Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days with the Kindle application on my iPhone, and I just finished listening to Spin (a book about the death of the Earth) on my iPod. For the last few years, I have been very interested in finding really positive science fiction because I am concerned that, as Douglas Adams said, we become our dreams.
photo credit: John Russell