Why is Appalachian Studies important?

Lees-McRae College has always had a strong sense of place. First founded out of a necessity for educational opportunities in the Southern Appalachian region and with a desire to support the community, the college has continued to keep that goal at the center of institutional strategy and planning, exhibited through the college’s mottoIn the Mountains, Of the Mountains, For the Mountains.

One way the college ensures its students graduate with a deep knowledge and understanding of the area in which they attended college is through the Appalachian Studies minor program. The program, which all students are required to engage with through two general education courses"History of Southern Appalachia,” and “Appalachian Literature”explores the region from all angles, including cultural traditions, history, ecology, and more.

“It’s very easy to think of App Studies as part of humanities. It’s cultural of course, but particularly here, how can we not think of it as the sciences too? I think that’s one of the really exciting opportunities for our students,” Director of the Stephenson Center for Appalachia Catherine Pritchard Childress said.

Another unique perspective Lees-McRae students can explore when studying Appalachian Studies is the outdoor adventure angle that is part of Outdoor Recreation Management (ORM). “Here students get that first-hand, field work experience,” Childress said. They are doing hiking, backpacking, and cycling classes, and being in nature gives them almost ethnographic research experience. That’s a really important part of Appalachian Studies here.”

While there are many paths and angles students can take when approaching Appalachian Studies, the overarching goal and mission of the program is to prepare students to be stewards of this region and give them the adequate knowledge for a more nuanced and complete perspective on Appalachia and its people, traditions, and cultures when they go out into the world.

Like many other Lees-McRae faculty, Childress herself identifies as Appalachian. She grew up in the region and feels a strong tie to the people and cultures of the area. According to her, one of the most persistent issues of Southern Appalachia is the reduction of its residents and their experiences to “hillbilly” stereotypes. She describes the lazy, uneducated, overall-wearing moonshiner as the persistent mental image of Appalachian people and explains how Appalachian Studies at Lees-McRae works to provide a fuller picture.

“One thing that Appalachian Studies does, and a very important thing, is subvert and dispel those myths and stereotypes to present a more complete view of what Appalachia is, and who Appalachians are,” Childress said. “Part of Appalachian Studies too is to encourage generation after generation to ask these important questions. Knowing these questions exist, and sending students out into the world who are equipped to address them, that’s where we’re going to get change, and going to get people who are activists.”

Childress believes that scholarship can go a long way in addressing societal and cultural issues, and she hopes that the Appalachian Studies minor is doing just that. In Spring 2024, this mission will continue to expand, as Childress introduces a new course, “Diverse Voices in Appalachian Literature.” Through this course, Childress plans to offer both literary analysis and cultural awareness to her students, continuing to broaden the representation of different kinds of Appalachians, and further strive toward the program’s goal of providing a richer understanding of the region.

While she specifically references Appalachian Studies’ applications for ORM majors, Biology majors, and English majors, Childress believes that anyone who plans to continue living or working in the Appalachian region would benefit from completing the Appalachian Studies minor. While many Lees-McRae students have grown up in the region, many others come from across the country and around the world; however, studying at Lees-McRae makes every student a part of Southern Appalachia, if only for a few years.

“I love that students have these Appalachian Studies courses in their curriculum, because many students may not even realize or think about the fact that they are a part of Appalachia,” Childress said. “These students may or may not come to embrace their Appalachian identity, but I can’t help but think that any time any of us see ourselves represented in a class, or on a page, or during a field trip, that we feel just a little more valued. Part of the big picture, and not just isolated.”

By Maya JarrellNovember 01, 2023