Most college courses are completed when the semester ends. Grades are submitted and the class disperses. For students in two community-engaged courses affiliated with Sewanee’s Collaborative for Southern Appalachian Studies, however, the lessons continue. So do opportunities to share knowledge with others.
Last spring, students in Dr. Margo Shea’s Introduction to Public History and Place-Based Research Methods courses researched, developed, and delivered walking tours of the historic Highlander Folk School in Monteagle. More than 300 people visited the site to learn about its significance locally, its role in popular education, labor and civil rights movements, and its closure in Monteagle and continued work in New Market, Tennessee. This fall, the story continues, with Sewanee students continuing to interpret the site for a variety of audiences.
Along with Shea (a public historian and a Mellon Fellow with the Collaborative, teaching and doing community-engaged participatory research), three students presented at a National Council on Public History conference organized around the theme “Outside History” in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Margaret Stapleton, C’18, Tori Hinshaw, C’19, and alumnus Chris Murphree, C’16, reflected on the challenge of developing a tour, the uncertainties associated with a grassroots historical interpretative project, the excitement of bringing so many people together to share their own histories with Highlander, and the sense of responsibility to weave those stories into the tour itself week by week. They also discussed what it means to present difficult or controversial history without focusing too much on any one perspective. The students facilitated a discussion with more than 25 conference attendees about possible next steps for interpreting and preserving the Highlander site in Monteagle.
Two more Sewanee students, Grey Jones and Lexy Rouse, both C’17, also have continued to share the Highlander story on the Mountain. In early October, they led a tour for Sewanee Elementary School fifth graders, for whom Highlander is part of a larger curriculum unit on Tennessee history. Jones and Rouse, together with Shea, gave the fifth graders a taste of the folk school’s history in relation to themes such as the Great Depression, the Cold War, and the civil rights movement. (Photo, left: Lexy Rouse discusses the legacies of Myles Horton and Highlander with fifth-grade students at the Summerfield cemetery, where Horton is buried.)
Shea notes that it is unusual to work with students after a class ends, but says these were exceptional students and the courses were a unique learning experience from the beginning. She adds that the students have been willing repeatedly to go beyond what is expected of them. “It has been inspiring and humbling as an educator to tap into the ideas of Highlander itself in my work with students and audiences of all ages. As Myles Horton used to say, ‘we make the road by walking,’ and in the case of this project, every step, every voice, every new opportunity to share the story adds another layer of depth and significance to the history of the school and its values of cooperation, creativity, and the power of acting on a shared vision together.”