Michael Joslin

Professor, journalist, photographer, and a lover of Appalachia–Michael Joslin reflects on his extensive career

Walking through the narrow corridors of Michael Joslin’s studio library, I had a glimpse of his more-than-40-year career as a photographer, freelance journalist, and English professor. Joslin, who recently retired from Lees-McRae, built his library inside a wooden cabin on his farm. The library contains thousands of books, magazines, and encyclopedias that Joslin has collected over the years. 

“Have you actually read all of them?” I asked, astonished by the number of books Joslin owns.  

“Yes, for the most part,” replied Joslin, in his characteristically confident tone. 

A few weeks ago, Joslin told me via email that he decided to retire from his position as English professor and director of the Stephenson Center for Appalachia. Joslin made the decision to bring his 32-year teaching career at Lees-McRae to an end on  his 72nd birthday.  

The news of Joslin’s retirement came as a surprise to me, as it did to Joslin himself.  

“I hadn’t planned to retire; it was kind of a shock,” admitted Joslin. 

Joslin invited me to visit his farm last Monday and talk about his career and lifetime achievements. It was humbling to interview the professor who was my English advisor over my two-year journey at Lees-McRae. Joslin introduced me to the thrilling world of journalism in his journalism class this past spring. On that Monday morning, the roles inverted, and the apprentice became the interviewer. 

I met with Assistant Professor of English Matthew Wimberley to drive to Joslin’s farm, which is located along Greece Creek. As we pulled into Joslin’s driveway and stepped out of the truck, Joslin’s Labrador retriever, Crockett, greeted us enthusiastically, jumping around us.  

Joslin was wearing a khaki green long-sleeve shirt and brown working boots. He had just cut some kale stalks and was preparing to dry the seeds for his garden. It was somewhat surprising to find Joslin in his farmer outfit, without the iconic cowboy hat and leather messenger bag he wore around campus.  

Working the 250 acres of his farm has fostered in Joslin a deeper bond with the mountains. In one stretch of his farm, Joslin grows squash, zucchini, potatoes, peppers, and kale. In another, he keeps two mountain workhorses and a flock of chickens. On occasion, Joslin likes to venture into the highlands nearby in search of forgotten 19th-century barns and cemeteries. Likewise, Joslin finds delight in photographing the mountain views and the summer fireflies, which decorate the back of his property like hundreds of Christmas lights.  

After giving me a tour of his farm and sharing a lunch of sandwiches with home-pickled jalapeños, Joslin and I sat in his living room to start our interview, Crockett laying down between us. 

Learning about Joslin’s career, I realized that more than a lover of letters and literature, he is a fervent lover of Appalachia. In the early ’70s, when Joslin used to visit the Appalachian Mountains as an undergraduate student at the University of South Carolina, he was surprised by the distinct culture of the area. 

“I felt attached to the culture,” said Joslin. “I like the straightforward nature of the people. I like the fact that the region was not a hierarchical area. People felt very egalitarian regardless of their social sphere.” 

Such was the impression that Appalachia left in Joslin that after finishing his PhD in Philosophy and English from the University of South Carolina and accepting an assistant professor position at Jacksonville University, he had the yearning to one day return to the mountains.  

“I was not made for that kind of city life,” admitted Joslin. 

So, in 1982, Joslin left the beaches of Florida to move into the heart of Appalachia.  

In 1983, Joslin began his career as a freelance writer and photographer. Since the early days of his journalism career, Joslin focused on documenting the folk of Appalachia. Joslin has published over 1,000 articles in multiple magazines and newspapers. For many years, Joslin wrote weekly pieces for the Johnson City Press and other newspapers.  

When asked to single out one of the most memorable articles of his journalism career, Joslin recalled his investigative report on the attempt to develop Grassy Ridge Bald. In the late ’80s, the family who owned Grassy Ridge was planning on leveling the area to turn it into a resort. Such a project would have destroyed the grassy and shrub balds, which date back to the Ice Age and are home to dozens of rare indigenous plants. Joslin wrote multiple articles on the development project, arguing against it based on the will of the family’s father, Cornelius Rex, who wanted the area to be preserved. 

“I received a call from Al Gore’s office, and they even put armed guards to keep me off the mountain,” said Joslin, as he let out a short laugh while recalling the national attention his report received. 

Ultimately, the government acquired Grassy Ridge, making it part of the Appalachian Trail protected area. 

At the time, his calls to preserve the Roan Highlands generated large controversy. Many warned Joslin of the dangers of advocating for the federal government to seize property, particularly in southern Appalachia.  

Throughout his journalistic career, Joslin used his pen to champion nature conservancy, but he never officially joined any conservancy organization in the area. 

“I had to be independent, as you may remember from the course,” said Joslin, testing what I had learned in his journalism class.  

In the early years of Joslin’s career as a freelance writer and photographer, he complemented his income teaching in academia. Between 1985 and 1989, Joslin worked as an adjunct professor at East Tennessee State University. Joslin would not begin his career at Lees-McRae until 1989.

Michael Joslin

I showed Joslin a picture of himself from the Lees-McRae yearbook of 1990. This was Joslin’s second year teaching at the college. He was still an assistant professor of English at the time. He was in his early forties, though his long, full beard made him look slightly older.

Back in his early years at Lees-McRae, Joslin never imagined that the college would become the place where he would spend the rest of his career. Joslin had not planned to pursue a full-time career teaching in academia. A succession of random events influenced Joslin’s decision to enter the lecture halls. 

In the summer of 1988, the Johnson City Press sent Joslin to report on the plan to turn Lees-McRae into a four-year college. Writing this piece, Joslin became close to the people of the English department and the librarian, Richard Jackson. Bradford L. Crain, president of Lees-McRae at the time, learned that Joslin was an adjunct at East Tennessee State University and offered him an English position.

“I said no,” recalled Joslin. “I really liked the freelance writing I was doing. Plus, East Tennessee State University would offer me a temporary full-time job whenever I needed the money.” 

After Joslin’s refusal, Jackson attended a photo exhibit Joslin did featuring Grandfather Mountain. Jackson pushed Joslin to apply for the job. Jackson, who was an important figure in Appalachian studies, knew that Joslin shared his passion for Appalachian folklore and that he would appreciate the college’s focus on Appalachia. Ultimately, the librarian’s insistence convinced Joslin to send an application.  

“They invited me to an interview, but I was still debating,” said Joslin. “An important factor was that my older son had broken his arm twice that year. I had no health insurance, and it ate all my money out. Also, my youngest son was born that May. All together it convinced me to take the job.” 

Joslin began teaching at Lees-McRae in the summer of 1989. At the time, Joslin did not imagine that he would spend the next 30 years of his life at the college. However, Joslin was certain he would not move out of this corner of Appalachia. He had fallen hopelessly in love with the Blue Ridge Mountains.  

“I knew I was not going to move anywhere else,” said Joslin. 

In the following decades, Joslin became close to his fellow English faculty members and entered the circles of the Appalachian studies movement. Like in his journalistic career, Joslin was a fervent champion of Appalachia throughout his career in academia.  

“There was a strong sense of not just serving Appalachia, but being part of it,” said Joslin. 

That sense of service to Appalachia and its people guided Joslin throughout the rest of his career as a professor, photographer, and writer. At the college, Joslin became the director of the Stephenson Center for Appalachia in 2009. With the help of his wife, Pam, Joslin established an annual Appalachian Heritage Week event. Joslin has also published seven books promoting Appalachian culture, history, and folklore, the latest ones being “Mountain Spring” and “Mountain Summer”—the first two books of a four-book series about the seasons in Southern Appalachia. 

As Joslin remarked in an interview for Lees-McRae in 2015 when one of his short stories was featured in the 30th-anniversary edition of Now and Then: The Appalachian Magazine, “the intent behind my writing and photography is to represent the richness of mountain culture and my admiration for the ingenuity and strength of its people.”  

Joslin’s dedication to Appalachia has granted him a permanent place among some of the most important Appalachian scholars. Lees-McRae was a critical ally to Joslin in reaching his career achievements. Over the years, the college supported Joslin’s work of promoting Appalachian culture among students and the local community through courses focused on Appalachia, multiple yearly lectures, and giving presentations at local schools.  

“I would like the college to maintain the connection to the community and to serve as a resource,” said Joslin. “This bond to Southern Appalachia is the strength of Lees-McRae. The environment of Lees-McRae is one that not even a college with a million-dollar endowment could create. No amount of money can create a field station like the one the Biology program has, or create a river running through the middle of campus like the Elk River or a mountain-facing campus like Beech Mountain. This is what makes Lees-McRae distinctive.” 

Joslin has left an unerasable mark on the college and the lives of those who had the honor of being his pupils. After retiring, Joslin plans to dedicate himself to photography, working on his garden, riding his horses, and enjoying the other pleasures of mountain life.  

“I knew it was time for me to retire,” said Joslin. 

Some of Joslin’s projects for the near future are publishing the next two books of his tetralogy, “Mountain Fall” and “Mountain Winter,” as well as a book on the important people and events in the history of Lees-McRae.  

“I want the best for Lees-McRae,” said Joslin as we wrapped up our interview. “Always from the beginning, the relationship between faculty and students has been the strength of the college. We must serve not just as instructors, but also as mentors for students. Part of that has to do with recognizing the value of being in Appalachia.” 

By Juan Sebastian Restrepo ’21June 22, 2021