“History of Southern Appalachia” course revision report
This Collaborative grant has supported a variety of revisions to the History of Southern Appalachia course. The most pressing concern when the proposal was offered was to broaden the perspectives and increase the number of local informants who could share useful information with students during the course. About a dozen were contacted in the summer between the course’s first and second offerings; more than a dozen more have been engaged as the course has been offered a third time and as I plan for a fourth iteration in 2018. Most of these are individuals with long-term experience on the Plateau, and the majority are natives of the area. They range from people whose life and work experience shed light on important industries (coal mining and timber extraction are the two areas that dominate), to individuals who grew up in marginal positions on the Plateau (the children of immigrants, or people who were neither in the Town or Gown segments of Sewanee, or who are gay, or who left the area for better opportunities elsewhere, and etc.), to academics who have long studied the area, to officials in the local and state governments who can put local experience into a broader perspective. For good and ill, I’ve been able to talk to and correspond with many more of these informants than I’ve been able to work into the course, so far. It is also worth noting that the quality of information these individuals bring to the study of southern Appalachia can diverge widely: many are captivating and well informed, but some have an axe to grind about specific topics, individuals, and historical trends, others know their own specific experience but cannot speak to broader implications, and some are reluctant to address still-controversial topics (it is, for example, still difficult to convince people in Grundy County who were involved in coal mining in the 1960s and 1970s to talk about union and anti-union activities there). As a result, some informants have not been included in the course after the initial experience. Finally, some people are willing to speak with me at length about their experiences, but are unwilling to speak with Sewanee students — for reasons they are not willing to divulge. So, I am still adding to my group of informants, and expect to continue doing so for as long as I offer the course.
One indirect benefit of interviewing so widely has been that, in addition to people who might inform the course, I’ve also explored a number of places and areas that the students benefit from visiting. This has led to a second major change in the course: in addition to the regular classroom hours, we now spend three hours in the field each week. The practical result of this is that the course now demands twice as much time “in class” from enrolled students (and their professor). I thought this might dampen enthusiasm for the class or reduce enrollments, but it seems not to have had either effect. Instead, we are able to engage in a great deal more experiential learning, and are often able to meet with local informants on their own turf, which seems to make them more comfortable and forthcoming than they would be in a Sewanee classroom. Although this expansion more than doubles the amount of time I spend preparing for meetings and with the class, the students have a much fuller experience of the region, and I think they learn better as well as more about Appalachia. I will continue to include this field element in future offerings of the course, if able.
Finally, I have been forced to concede that I cannot control the weather. The taught the course in the spring semester the first and second times it was offered — hoping to introduce students to the region’s geology while the trees were bare and the lay of the land was much more apparent — but experience has taught me that too many of my field trip sites are vulnerable to the ice, snow, and heavy rain that mark the months of January and February in Appalachia. While many students were willing to meet on Saturdays to pursue previously rained out excursions, and we did so several times one spring, we could never muster the full class to these extra meetings. Nor were we always able to easily schedule time with local informants. As a result, I now offer the course only in the fall semester. The geology is not as clearly defined, but at least we are able to be in the field without too much complication or danger.
The course will be offered next in the fall semester of 2018.