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Propose a Commons Seminar

Deadline for proposal for Spring 2017: June 1, 2016 (we are no longer accepting proposals for Spring 2017)

Eligibility to teach a Commons Seminar

  • Any individual or team holding academic appointments in one of the four undergraduate schools and colleges or the professional schools is eligible.  Specific requirements for instructors who are members of one of the professional schools are detailed below. Instructors who are on annual contracts are responsible for securing a teaching appointment for the academic year or semester in which they offer the seminar in order to be eligible. 
  • Any qualified university graduate student or staff professional who partners with a VU faculty member is eligible. The faculty member must serve as the instructor of record, and is required to take an active role in the teaching of the seminar. 
  • Because Commons Seminars are offered by departments or programs in one of the four undergraduate schools or colleges, faculty members from the professional schools must seek an instructional partner within the undergraduate department through which the course is intended to be offered.  

See the revised Submission and Approval Process for Proposals

Requirements for Instructors from the Professional Schools without an Undergraduate Division (School of Nursing, School of Medicine, Law School, Owen Graduate School of Management, Divinity School)

Commons Seminars cannot be offered through the professional schools.  In order for undergraduate students to receive degree credit for these courses, Commons Seminars must be offered through a department or program in one of the four undergraduate schools or colleges (Blair School of Music, College of Arts and Science, School of Engineering, Peabody College).  

  • Interested instructors from the Professional Schools need to identify a department or program in one of the four undergraduate schools or colleges through which to offer the course.  
  • The course instructor (or one member of the instructor team) should have an affiliation with the department or program through which the course is to be offered.  This affiliation does not have to be a formal secondary appointment, but the faculty member should be approved by the department chair as an affiliated faculty member.
  • If none of the course instructors proposing the Commons Seminars have such an affiliation, they are required to find an instructional partner from within the undergraduate department or program through which the course is to be offered. The level of participation by this instructor can be determined by the teaching team, but the minimum requirement is that this instructor must serve as a guest lecturer or discussion facilitator in at least one class session.
  • The instructor/s need to request approval of their Commons Seminar proposal from the department chair or program director through which the course is to be offered (not from their home department in the professional school).  

Scope and Content 

Commons Seminars are one-credit, spring-semester seminars sponsored by the faculties of the university's schools and colleges, and offered through the Office of the Dean of The Ingram Commons in the Houses of The Ingram Commons. They have no prerequisites and are open to first-year students from any of the four undergraduate colleges or schools.   Each seminar is capped at fifteen students and meets for the equivalent of fifteen contact hours during the semester in a variety of formats.  

The Office of the Dean of The Ingram Commons seeks a wide range of topics that appeal to faculty and students from all disciplines.  Commons Seminars present instructors with the opportunities for team teaching, experimental approaches to instruction, and the creation of unique intellectual experiences that are not typically offered by the department or school. We encourage, in particular, trans-departmental and trans-institutional teaching teams to submit proposals.  Seminar proposals that are linked to The Commons Reading for the Class of 2020, Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South, by Andrew Maraniss, are also welcome.  Please click here to see this year's course descriptions for the range of approaches and strategies to teaching such a course. 


A $2,000 research fund will be made available to or shared among the instructor(s) of each course. 

Course Funds

A fund of $500 will be available to each instructor or instructional team to support the educational goals of the seminar: e.g. group travel expenses, tickets, special materials for group projects, etc.  Whenever possible, you will need to use Vanderbilt's tax-exempt form.  Please inquire with Christina Bailey about expense policies and reimbursement procedures before making any purchases.  

Course Proposals 

Course proposals should be no longer than one page.  They should outline the scope and topic(s), questions the course examines, methods of evaluation, and required text(s) if any.  A class-by-class syllabus is not necessary.  The course descriptions from Spring 2016 can serve as models.  Instructors are encouraged to write the proposal addressing first-year students so that, if approved, it can serve as a course description on the website.  You are welcome to include your preferred structure and times for teaching the seminar.  The Office of the Dean of The Ingram Commons will contact you regarding scheduling after the courses have been approved.  


Scheduling is flexible in order to support the pedagogical flow of your course.  Possibilities include but are not limited to: 

  • fourteen 50-minute sessions 
  • twelve 60-minute sessions 
  • ten 75-minute sessions
  • eight 90-minute sessions (+ one 50-minute session during the first week of classes) 
  • six 120-minute sessions (+ one 50-minute session during the first week of classes)
  • four 180-minute sessions (+ one 50-minute session during the first week of classes)

Except for the fourteen-session schedule, you have the option to:

  • meet weekly and complete the course before the end of the semester
  • offer a combination of weekly and bi-monthly classes
  • schedule meetings for every other week 

All seminars have to meet during the first week of classes so that students can be introduced to the course expectations and decide whether or not they want to stay in the course before the end of the add/drop period on Monday, January 16.

Advantages and disadvantages of the scheduling models: 

The small number of contact hours makes intentional scheduling important.  Weekly meetings (particularly the longer sessions) have the advantage that instructor and students get to know each other and build a sense of learning community, but this schedule offers less time for extensive homework (reading long texts) or projects.  If such projects are part of the course design, starting off with weekly meetings and then changing to meetings every other week might be a good option.  If you prefer to meet every other week, assigning projects to small groups allows students to interact with one another outside the classroom, which can help build the community among students. 

Please note the following important dates for Spring Semester 2017: 

Monday, January 9: First Day of Classes
Monday, January 16: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (no classes)
March 4-12: Spring Break 
April 24: Last Day of Classes

Choosing Time and Day for your Commons Seminar: 

The ideal time frame for start and end times is 2 pm to 7 pm.  This schedule will avoid the heaviest class times on the one end and extra-curricular and house activities on the other.  Of course, other times can be arranged, including weekends.  

Classes should start at the regular class times for the day: M/W/F: 2:10, 3:10, 4:10 pm.  After that, they can be scheduled off schedule.  T/R: 2:35, 4:00 pm.  After that, they can be scheduled off schedule.

Mondays are in general challenging because no classes are held on Martin Luther King Day (1/16/2017).  If you still intend to have your seminar on Mondays, try to avoid Monday evenings.  Classes after 5 pm will reduce the pool of potential female students by over 50% since sororities meet on Monday evenings. 

When scheduling long classes (e.g. 3 hour sessions), consider students' need for food, esp. dinner.  

Building Learning Community in Commons Seminars 

The limited amount of contact hours and the infrequent meetings make building a community of learners more challenging than 3-credit courses.  Past instructors have used discussion boards on Blackboard or class blogs on Facebook to keep the conversation moving between sessions.  Small group assignments are another way to keep students engaged with one another. 

Assignments and Assessment 

The general recommendation is to plan for 2-3 hours of work outside the classroom for each contact hour.  Commons Seminar instructors should think of reducing reading and writing assignments to a third of a regular 3-credit course.  Expectations for a first-year writing seminar of 3 credits, for example, is a total of 18-25 pages of written assignments, thus for a Commons Seminar this translates to 6-8 pages.  You may also consider other forms of assessment such as creative projects, whether individual or group.  While the amount of assignments is limited, the quality of the students' work should be the same as for a 3-credit course.  For resources from the Center for Teaching on course design and teaching seminars for first-year students, see below.  

Submission and Approval Process for Proposals (new for Spring 2017 Seminars)

Commons Seminars receive formal academic approval from the faculties of the undergraduate school or college in which they are offered and will then be selected by a faculty committee from within The Ingram Commons.  

Please request approval for your Commons Seminar from the chair of the department or program through which you plan to offer it.  Then submit your course description, along with a copy of the approval email, to Assistant Dean of The Ingram Commons Nina Warnke by June 1, 2016. A faculty committee within The Ingram Commons will select the seminar offerings for Spring 2017.  

You will be notified by July 15 if your course has been selected.

Center for Teaching Resources 

Teaching First-Year Students;  First Day of Class; Team Teaching;  DiscussionsCooperative Learning;  Classroom Assessment Techniques;  Course DesignUnderstanding by Design


Further inquiries about eligibility, format, scheduling, and other procedures should be directed to Assistant Dean of The Ingram Commons Nina Warnke.