A conversation with Vanessa Beasley, dean of The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons

Vanessa Beasley, BA’88, became dean of The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons at Vanderbilt this summer. She is an expert in race, gender and diversity in U.S. political rhetoric and an associate professor of communication studies. We sat down with her prior to Move-In Day to talk about what makes The Ingram Commons community and the conversations it fosters so important.

Why did you want to be the dean of The Ingram Commons?

VB: I have admired The Ingram Commons for years now. It features all of the things Vanderbilt does so well rolled into one. It’s a campus within a campus. It’s a living-learning environment. It’s a neighborhood where people know and support each other. You hear a lot in higher education about extracurricular and co-curricular enrichments as add-ons. What we are saying with The Ingram Commons is that we believe these forms of enrichment are essential for learning to take place outside as well as inside of the classroom. I believe that, too, and I wanted to be part of it.

On The Ingram Commons, students are living with a Vanderbilt faculty member as a head of house, and this person has made a commitment to living and learning with students. That gives students the best of both worlds. They are living near someone who’s a leader in her or his academic discipline and committed to a scholarly agenda yet also understands the importance of the first-year experience.

What makes The Ingram Commons unique to students?

VB: Vanderbilt has been very successful at integrating the developmental needs of our students with their intellectual needs so it doesn’t feel like the two are in opposition to each other. I like to tell people that The Ingram Commons is a place where we are dedicated to finding just the right balance between care and rigor, between support and challenge, during a liminal period in students’ lives, a time when they are making a consequential transition.

For example, helping students learn how, when and why and to make good personal and social choices is indeed part of their intellectual lives, too. Our world needs this generation to take the capacities and interests they have developed up through high school and use those intellectual skills to think about how to solve big questions: climate change, social inequality, income inequality, the implications of global citizenship. And they are more than capable of meeting that challenge. We’re counting on them to do it. So we need to assist them as they make the transition to college and, at Vanderbilt specifically, to find their way within a university dedicated to discovery.

What can students learn from being part of The Ingram Commons community?

VB: Universities are one of the last remaining places where you’re invited to be an active participant within a community with other people who appear to be different from you but who are also committed to learning. Part of my job is to articulate that it matters that we’re all choosing to be here together, how it helps us grow intellectually and interpersonally when we talk with somebody with a different background or who holds different political views.

People grow and change through relationships, so we need to learn how to stay in conversation with each other. How do we learn to listen to each other and continue to be civil even when we may feel obligated to articulate and emphasize our differences? How do we still learn from each other, even when we disagree? I want our students to understand what it means to really hear somebody and to imagine, even just for a minute, why they would be coming to different conclusions.

That type of interaction isn’t about persuading somebody to your point of view. It’s about getting a deeper understanding of why and how another point of view is even possible. That’s a real opportunity for growth. How do we develop the habits of mind necessary for respectful engagement with each other?

Would you talk a bit about the learning part of the “living-learning community?”

VB: Discussions that take place in the classroom are great, and they are also working within a variety of constraints—time, space, limited forms of student interaction—that may only be one part of a learning process.

The Ingram Commons provides the physical space to entertain the possibility that your best thinking about an idea may happen late at night when you’re ostensibly talking about something else and you see a connection in a new way for the first time. But that kind of processing won’t happen if we don’t have space for it and if we don’t announce our intention to foster it.

That’s what The Ingram Commons really is—an intention to make sure those discoveries take place. Maybe it’s a conversation that started in one faculty member’s classroom and then took root over ice cream in the dining hall with a faculty member from an entirely different discipline. That conversation and its unlikely arc are sort of magical.

How do you think your undergraduate experience at Vanderbilt will inform your work at The Ingram Commons?

VB: When I came to Vanderbilt, I had no idea what I was going to major in or what my career goals were. But I did have the benefit of being part of an intellectual conversation that I didn’t even realize I was having at the time, where one idea after another inside and outside of my classes started to make me understand the world in a different way.

The conversation I was invited to join as an undergraduate by professors at Vanderbilt is still the conversation that I’m a part of today. That speaks to their ability to make me feel like I belonged at that table, that I had something to say—even though now I’m pretty sure that I had nothing interesting to say! But they believed otherwise. By asking me, “What do you think?” what they were really saying was, “I care about what you think.” That same invitation is open to today’s students, and The Ingram Commons makes sure that first-year students receive it, too.

Any parting thoughts?

VB: There are a few different messages I’d take to different members of the Vanderbilt community. First, for the parents who leave their child or children with us here after Move-In weekend, the transition to college may be hard on you, too. But here at Vanderbilt, your child will have many places to turn to for support.

For the incoming students, we know that it is an incredible achievement to be admitted to Vanderbilt. We don’t want to bring you here and say, “Great—now that you’re in, we want to change you completely.” We want to say instead, “We will help you identify and develop your best questions and ideas and skills, and we want to help you grow into the person you’ve already been preparing to be all of these years.”

For all of us, for all staff and faculty members involved with a living-learning community, there will be challenges. We are not going to have a problem-free experience. It is living and learning, after all! But the way we respond to problems shows who we really are. We will show up when we need each other, and we will try to seek solutions that make ourselves and our community stronger.