Appreciating Appalachia

FRIDAY afternoon's attempts to get the Board of Visitors to take "Curriculum Internationalization" seriously must be met with a certain amount of skepticism. As students and faculty members push for a more global view of academics, it is embarrassing that we have yet to study a region full of fascinating history, language, music, environment and culture: Appalachia.

The University is located in the foothills of one of the world's oldest mountain ranges. In these mountains are people and stories that have merited best-selling series such as the Foxfire books published by high school students in Georgia. This is a culture that is distinct from the suburban United States, even in its cities, but there are no classes devoted entirely to studying Appalachian history, music or environment. Many students, in fact, are unclear about the correct pronunciation of the region. In elementary school, I was taught "Say it right, or I'll throw an apple atcha," but many students at the University seem disinterested in what it means not to let the people from a place choose how to name that place.

A quick search of the University's undergraduate record produces no results that include "Appalachia" or "Appalachian." In the COD, however, there is one class offered through the religious studies department called "Pilgrimage and the Appalachian Trail." In this class, students study writing done on and about the trail. The class culminates in students climbing the trail's northern terminus, Mount Katahdin, in Maine, although the state of Virginia has over 500 miles of the trail. While there, hikers will see flora and fauna that don't exist in other parts of the southern United States. Were environmental science students to take advantage of studying the region in-depth, they could see some wildlife that usually exists in Maine and farther north.

There's more to Appalachia than its wilds, however. During the Civil War, both sides fought extended guerilla campaigns there and as coal began to feed the country's need for energy, organizing projects and unions sprung up throughout the region. During the New Deal, small farmers and sharecroppers were forced off their land to form several new national and state parks. These small facts may get tucked into the occasional history course here at the University, but any student wishing to study them in-depth is at a loss unless he or she designs an independent study project. If you wish to explore the region in a class with others, you are out of luck.

The music of the region is distinct, too. The Carter Family of Virginia not only gave rise to pop country music but also bluegrass and old time music made popular in films such as "O Brother Where Art Thou?" This music continues to have a distinct influence on American music, including rock and roll. Students can study some of these musical styles in Prof. Richard Will's Roots Music in America, but there is no class completely devoted to studying the diverse and distinct music of the region in which the University is located.

There aren't many people living in Appalachia, but its history is rich enough to merit devoting at least one class to studying the mountain south. We don't need to create a new program for every interesting topic in the world. That isn't exactly what universities are for. But if they are for enriching the lives of their scholars and providing diverse viewpoints, then one class on Appalachia would go just a small step in the right direction.

Direct Action organizer Ryan McElveen said that curriculum internationalization is about students taking ownership of their education.

"When students see that they aren't represented in the curriculum they feel that they aren't represented in the institution," McElveen said.

These words ring true as the University attempts to court students from geographically underrepresented areas to contribute to our community, but geographic diversity is right under our noses as well. According to Dean of Admissions John Blackburn, the Admissions Office has done a lot of work attempting to recruit students from Southwest Virginia who are academically, but not financially, capable of attending the University. This past fall, Blackburn said, the University ran a program with Harvard and Princeton in Abingdon to encourage students from that region to apply to schools that may initially seem out of their league. Other recruitment efforts in that area have landed us folks like Heath Miller and Thomas Jones.

Another link between the University and Appalachia is our sister school, UVA at Wise. Formerly Clinch Valley College, this small school is an off-shoot of our University, but how much do we know about our brethren to the southwest?

Don't get me wrong, I think we need a curriculum that engages and includes history and languages from all over the world to make sure that students leave the University with a world view that encompasses as many cultures as possible. Incorporating as many sides of the collective human story makes us better scholars and better people in the long run. The problem is that part of that world we are excluding is right in our backyard.

Maggie Thornton is a Cavalier Daily Viewpoint Writer. She is a fourth year in the College.

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