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English Professor and Associate Dean Lisa Carstens has been the guiding light behind Virginia Wesleyan's curriculum changes.
By Leona Baker | February 25, 2011
Professor of English; Associate Dean of the College
Holed up inside her office in Eggleston Commons, Dr. Lisa Carstens looks the part of the cool English professor—her smart, green-rimmed glasses, her petite frame arranged behind an orderly desk with an open Macbook on top, rows of late 19th- and early 20th-century British lit (one of her areas of expertise) and other volumes bursting from a packed shelf along one wall.
Presumably among those volumes is Carstens’ most recent scholarly writing, “Unbecoming Women: Sex Reversal in the Scientific Discourse on Female Deviance, 1880-1920,” published last month in the Journal of the History of Sexuality.
When she’s not at work, Carstens is a self-described “dabbler.” She loves to go hiking with her family. She’s audited both a painting and a pottery class since she became a faculty member at Virginia Wesleyan almost 14 years ago. Now she’s in her “fiddling phase.”
Inspired by Wesleyan history professor and Appalachian music expert Dan Margolies, Carstens took up the instrument two years ago after inheriting a violin from her grandmother. She was attracted to the fiddle in part because of a desire to connect with regional culture (Carstens was born and raised in Washington State and went to school in California), but also because of its versatility across genres. A recent trip to the NorVa to see Celtic punk band Flogging Molly speaks to her democratic musical tastes.
Carstens is a thinker and a doer—a confluence that makes perfect sense in light of her role as the driving force behind the sweeping curricular reform that will take effect at VWC beginning this fall. These changes will shift the College from a three-credit to a four-credit structure. But more importantly, they will merge classroom learning with real world experiences in new and meaningful ways.
It’s called “inquiry-guided learning,” explains Carstens, and it’s “based in the idea that deep learning takes place when students are engaged in asking questions and going through the processes of discovery and making new knowledge instead of just being told the facts.”
It’s a concept that is already in play in some respects at Virginia Wesleyan and at many colleges and universities. Science students, for example, tend toward inquiry-based practices because of the nature of the research process and activities in the lab and elsewhere. Books and lectures are important, but a hands-on perspective is crucial for knowledge retention. The upcoming reforms at VWC will apply that principle in a broader way across the entire curriculum.
Before being named associate dean of the College in January, Dr. Carstens served as associate dean of inquiry-guided learning and director of first-year experience, roles that grew out of the College’s required reaccreditation process. The results of that process feed into the larger curricular reform transition, which Carstens has been charged with overseeing.
“Yes, you are helping people, and it is focused on the needs of the community,” Carstens says of "service learning" programs, “but you have concrete academic goals and students are trying to learn academic concepts connected to their experiences.”
Though her duties as associate dean have consumed much of her time lately, Carstens has been able to explore new ways of implementing the changes in her own classroom. Along with fellow VWC faculty members Gavin Pate and Wayne Pollock, she attended a workshop last month for a national program called TimeSlips, which uses interactive, creative storytelling to engage patients with memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s.
She hopes to get students in her creative writing class involved in the program in the second half of this semester. Programs like this one, often referred to as “service learning,” are meant to create an intersection between volunteerism and academics and are one example of an inquiry-based activity.
“Yes, you are helping people, and it is focused on the needs of the community,” Carstens explains, “but you have concrete academic goals and students are trying to learn academic concepts connected to their experiences.”
Dr. Carstens and her colleague Joyce Howell, Professor of Art History, submitted a chapter earlier this month for an upcoming collection called The Power of Inquiry as a Way of Learning in Undergraduate Education (a volume in the series “New Directions for Teaching and Learning,” edited by Virginia S. Lee, published by Jossey-Bass). It includes details about the reform process at Virginia Wesleyan.
“Our focus is on the value of having had our faculty go through a collaborative learning process themselves,” Carstens says, “first in shaping what inquiry-guided learning would mean in our freshmen experience program and then in imagining how expanding that kind of active and independent learning throughout the curriculum could make the entire curriculum more engaging and transformative.”
Carstens’ time at Wesleyan has certainly been engaging and transformative thus far. She says she has been particularly affected by the diversity and the sense of openness that comes out of a small liberal arts college where students and faculty get to know each other so well.
“Our students are very outspoken,” she notes. “I think they’re very comfortable saying what they feel, and I think we get a richer discussion in the classroom because of the kind of area we come from – not just people from the immediate area but because of the military, people have moved around, and you get this sense of worldliness that comes into the student perspective that I find very stimulating.”
Dr. Carstens currently lives in Norfolk with her husband David Pagano, who teaches American literature and film at Old Dominion University, and her 12-year-old son Benjamin.