Liberal Arts Seminar Experiments With Theme Residential Living

At first glance, Dr. Meghan Winchell’s Liberal Arts Seminar looks much like many other Nebraska Wesleyan classes.

A quaint classroom decorated with world maps and dry erase boards, a professor who sits among her students to participate in a class discussion, and a small group of 13 students who today are comparing and contrasting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to a TV episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

What makes this course different from all the others is when these students leave their 50-minute class, they will likely grab some lunch together and then head over to Centennial Hall, where they all live in the same pod.

Winchell’s Liberal Arts Class — titled “Decoding Buffy the Vampire Slayer — is one of the university’s first attempts at using themed residential living. The goal is to blend living and learning experiences, which education experts say contributes to student success.

“I really like the idea that students can see firsthand how their academic life is also part of their social space,” said Winchell, who volunteered her class to try the concept. “I think the residence halls should be more academic. Students should spend time on their school work and be proud of it.”

Winchell’s course dissects episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, a TV series that follows a girl’s efforts to fight vampires and evil forces. The class explores historical themes and compares them to both past and current events. Their homework includes watching Buffy episodes in preparation for the class’ next discussion.

“I like having my class in the same dorm because we can watch episodes together rather than watching and renting them separately,” said first-year student Jon Keck of Omaha.

A few times this semester Winchell moved her classroom to a living area in the students’ residence hall. Aside from occasionally moving locations, Winchell said the new format did not require much change to her curriculum.

“I think it’s had a bigger impact on my teaching assistant,” said Winchell.

Jennifer Wiederspan of Prague is Winchell’s teaching assistant. She is also the student’s peer assistant in their residence hall.

“When there is a big homework assignment or paper due, I definitely will have a lot of the students in and out of my room or texting me for help,” she said. These students see me every day because I’m a few feet from them and they are not shy in any way, shape, or form to ask for help. It makes the whole experience for me so enjoyable and beneficial to them as well.”

Wiederspan took Winchell’s LAS class as a first-year student two years ago. She compared her traditional classroom experience to the experience her LAS students are getting now, noting how their friendships and comfort levels contribute to better course discussions both in and outside of the classroom.

“There is a huge comfort zone between us because we are in constant contact that I don’t think has ever been there for a LAS class before,” said Wiederspan. “They do homework and papers together, and sometimes I join in with them. It’s convenient to have someone to bounce ideas off of or watch episodes with, and they all use that to its fullest potential.”

Wesleyan administrators and faculty hope to add more residential theme classes. Winchell said they recognize potential challenges including the possibility that a group of students may not get along with one another.

“It teaches them a lot about living in a community,” said Nebraska Wesleyan Provost Judy Muyskens. “It’s an opportunity to live and work with people who are very different from you.”

First-year student Jennifer Goossen of Henderson said she is enjoying the experience.

“If I wasn’t fond of my classmates, I might think differently of it,” she said. “But I really like the students in my class and having them nearby.”

Winchell said she will likely volunteer to use her class for residential theme living again next year.

“From a professor’s standpoint, the students are more comfortable with each other,” she said. “They will laugh with each other and then turn around and have a drag out battle in one of our discussions. This class has had some of the best discussions I’ve seen in the five years of teaching my LAS.”

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LAS students participate in a class discussion. Their class is the first to use residential theme living.