The Immersion Vanderbilt initiative brings iSeminars to first-years this semester


Some members of the Class of 2022 during the Anchor Dash in August, 2018.

Elijah Sheridan

This spring semester, over 250 members of the class of 2022 have returned from their inaugural holiday breaks to participate in one of Vanderbilt’s newly-released Commons iSeminars.

These spring-semester, one-credit courses, available exclusively to first-year students, are marketed as unique, in-depth immersive experiences across a wide variety of departments.

iSeminars are the successor of Commons Seminars, which Associate Dean and Earth and Environmental Sciences professor Dan Morgan says were traditional special topics courses, essentially fun, less intensive, mini versions of classes. Morgan, who taught Commons Seminars and is teaching an iSeminar this Spring, sees iSeminars as more immersion-based in comparison to the previous traditional seminar setup.

“They were just mini versions of classes,” Morgan said. “You’re still going to write a paper, you’re still going to give some presentations, but it’s still sort of scaled down to one credit hour. The iSeminars are different in that they are much more about what can you do about [the topic]. They are a great opportunity to learn about immersion [and] the opportunities that are out there.”

iSeminars were created in direct response to the instantiation of the Immersion Vanderbilt graduation requirement for the class of 2022 and future graduating classes; the “i” at the beginning of the title stands for Immersion. Associate Director of the Office of Immersion Resources Carolyn Floyd introduced Immersion Vanderbilt as Vanderbilt’s commitment to the education of the “whole student.” Immersion Vanderbilt aims to provide beyond-the-classroom experiences, like how to develop mentor relationships, how to generate ideas, and how to see those ideas become a reality.

“Immersion Vanderbilt is taking students who are already doing really incredible, immersive things based on their passions and interests and giving them a framework and a little more guidance and faculty support to create something that is truly unique to every student and really identifies and defines what their experience was here at Vanderbilt,” Floyd said.

The idea of the iSeminar came from the Dean of Commons, Gregory Melchor-Barz. Three years ago, he realized the Commons Seminar could be repurposed into a first-year introduction to the newly-conceived Immersion Vanderbilt graduation requirement. He approached his fellow faculty members with the idea, and soon the Commons Seminar has evolved into the Immersion Seminar, or the iSeminar.

The iSeminar is an opportunity to provide first-year students a preview of the kind of information they will be exposed to later in their academic experiences at Vanderbilt, Melchor-Barz said.

“An iSeminar is not like a seminar,” Melchor-Barz said. “It’s not like a class, it’s an opportunity for 15 first-year students to sit down with a professor and expose the central questions of what is involved in a particular research question, production, product, or idea. It’s the willingness of the faculty to accompany and mentor the first-year students to think creatively about where they might end up four years from now, rather than just plowing forward.”

The iSeminar offerings this spring follow a pilot period which took place over two years and attempted to gauge student and faculty response to this new style of course. Results were very positive from both sides, according to Melchor-Barz. Faculty members who taught trial iSeminars reported that working with students in this immersive fashion led them to rethink and improve their teaching approaches; participating students indicated they were given a new perspective on their prospective majors and potential academic paths at Vanderbilt.

Engaging in iSeminars is, however, a daunting prospect for professors and students alike. The iSeminar is unique in that they require that all its participants familiarize themselves with new teaching and learning approaches, Melchor-Barz said.  In this way, the iSeminar represents an opportunity for growth for professor and student alike.

“From the faculty perspective it’s challenging.” Melchor-Barz said. “This is not something faculty are accustomed to doing, we’re more interested in process rather than the product. From the student perspective it’s challenging, the learning is conceptual and generative and about learning to approach ideas organically so it’s not about acquisition of knowledge.”

Despite the difficulties, Morgan enjoys the capacity for self-discovery that the deep, immersive nature of the iSeminar permits, he said. For his iSeminar this spring, he will be focus on environmental science and environmental ethics in the context of the university campus, he seeks to connect his students with the array of immediately-available environmental science resources here at Vanderbilt.

“It’s a little paralyzing sometimes,” Morgan said. “How do I pick a major, there’s almost 50 majors, and I can do any of them, how am I supposed to decide, who do I want to be?’ Ultimately what I think I would hope for is that [after my iSeminar] they have some idea of what they’re interested in. It’s fun to be a part of that journey with people, and sometimes I can give them some perspective and some information.”

First-year student Vikas Dodda enrolled in an iSeminar for the spring semester to achieve this academic self-discovery, he said. As a prospective history of art major, Dodda has chosen an iSeminar titled An Architect’s Toolkit, taught by history of art professor Matthew Worsnick, in order to immerse himself extensively within the topic of architecture and design and help himself decide whether or not he’d like to pursue architecture further.

“The iSeminars are interesting because they’re not traditional classes. You meet with someone who’s at the top of their field and dive in to a certain field not just by learning about it but by learning how to apply it.” Dodda said. “I think that taking an architecture iSeminar is a really good way to just throw myself into something that I have no experience in, so I can really see the applications in ways that my art history classes can’t teach me.”

The iSeminar can help students broaden their experiences beyond opportunities on campus. Professor Chalene Helmuth, affiliated faculty member of the Spanish and Portuguese department, is teaching an iSeminar that helps students explore the immersive potential of a studying abroad, emphasizing the exposure to diversity and multidisciplinary capacity imparted from study abroad experiences.

“Study abroad is an important feature of my personal professional activities, and it has so much potential to be a transformative experience for students. I love talking to them about it,” Helmush said. “The experience of not being in the majority, that is something that we encounter throughout our lives, I want to cultivate a willful exposure to difference. I hope students view my iSeminar as something very practical that aided them in their exposure to different ways of thinking about something they’re interested in.”

Nilai Vemula, another Vanderbilt first-year student, said that he hopes to utilize his iSeminar to gain increased exposure on-campus within the physics department. Vemula is taking the spring iSeminar, The Pursuit of Scientific Discovery, taught by physics professor Dr. Shane Hutson, to see what physics research looks like at Vanderbilt and to prepare for undergraduate research. This may help provide inspiration for a potential Immersion Vanderbilt project option, he said.

Students and faculty alike use iSeminars as a means to delve into the world of knowledge and projects in their fields of interest. This opportunity to gain hands-on-experience makes the iSeminar a notable curricular nuance of Vanderbilt, Melchor-Barz said.

“There’s one basic, fundamental issue that I need to remind myself and remind students, that is that Vanderbilt University is affording academic credit for this experience of the iSeminar. That is tremendous,” Melchor-Barz said. “This represents tremendous effort in the four undergraduate colleges, there is buy-in from every department on campus to offer these iSeminars, being taught by professors who don’t need to do this. [This] demonstrates for me, [and] it should demonstrate for students, the institutional buy-in for Immersion Vanderbilt at the level of the first year experience, to me that is profound.”