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The Making of Americans

Rai Peterson's seminar was one of the first to run at the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry (VBC). In fact, she recalls talking frequently with Joe Trimmer “as he shaped the goals for the center along with John Worthen (former Ball State University president), Warren Vander Hill (former director of the honors program and former Ball State provost and vice president for academic affairs), and prominent civic leader Virginia Ball.”

Along the way, she decided to try her hand at teaching a course at the center. “Their goals were in concert with the sort of learning I remembered from interim semesters at my undergraduate school, Buena Vista College in Storm Lake, Iowa, and I was excited to try to bring that sort of cross-disciplinary, immersive learning to a university like Ball State.”

Certainly, Peterson’s seminar, The Making of Americans, helped to successfully initiate immersive learning at Ball State. Peterson and her 12 students investigated modernist figures such as Gertrude Stein, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein and the role that these figures played in the modernist movement in Paris during the 1920s. Each student, as well as Peterson herself, selected one of these figures and became “responsible for reading the seminal biographies of their person, all of the primary material available, as well as criticism.”

Additionally, each of the students made a creative project inspired by his or her subject. The group traveled to Paris in order to, as Peterson says, “delve into archives and walk in the footsteps of our subjects.” Finally, Peterson and her students, with the help of the Ball State David Owsley Museum of Art, purchased an art piece from the 1920s period for the museum’s permanent collection and hosted a 1920s-style salon at which they “impersonated our subjects in the company of 300 visitors.”

Peterson says the seminar impacted both her research and her teaching. Her study of Gertrude Stein has extended to the study of less canonical lesbian writers in Paris between World War I and World War II.

“It was the foundation I started during the summer of preparation for the VBC seminar as well as what I learned and was taught by the students during that term that made that possible or at least very comfortable.” Peterson goes on, “Because of the intensity of learning, the experience of being a coinvestigator with the students, and just the amount of time we spent in class together, I had as near a sense as is probably possible of what it is like to be a student in my own classes.”

For more about Peterson’s seminar, visit The Making of Americans in the VBC archive.

Department of English
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