When Suzanne Dansby was a Sewanee student in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Gerald L. Smith, the Robert M. Ayres distinguished chair of religion, was near the beginning of his career. Smith noticed that professors in the earth sciences were spending a lot of time in the field with their students—scouting plants, looking at rock formations, observing wildlife at ephemeral ponds—and he wondered how he could apply those principles to a religion class.
Smith looked around and realized that religion, as practiced by rural people in the Southern Appalachians, was bound tightly with how they lived their lives, how they celebrated their triumphs and solved the problems of their existence in a rural and isolating landscape. Smith began taking religion students on field trips and connecting them through physical experience to the religion of the Appalachians.
Dansby was one of the first students to experience that new experiential teaching method, and she remembers it sharply.
“I can remember, even as a student here over 30 years, ago, he took his students outside of the classroom for learning. This gives students an opportunity to truly absorb the matter at hand, not just to memorize or learn something by rote. Smith sent his students out on ‘missions,’ or into the field, to learn more firsthand, and to actually experience, what they are studying.
“My mission experience from his class had a lifetime impact on me. Our assignment was to find a church in the community and attend a service there,” she remembers. “We had been studying churches that involve snake handling and had people who spoke in tongues. I was intrigued and mesmerized by this notion. Dr. Smith said there were such types of churches right there in our own area. Another friend and I found one down a dirt road, located in the woods. I don't remember exactly where. All I remember is that it was remote, was a Church of God, and had a small pond next to it, which they used for baptisms. It was white, simple, and very small. And, of course the service was very fundamental in nature...there was barely anyone in attendance...and they stared at us outsiders! It was scary, but a most moving and educational experience of a lifetime.”
Smith may not have intended that his students experience fear, but he did intend that their experience be sharp and memorable. From the “mission trip” of Dansby’s day, Smith continues to develop articulated experiential learning activity.
A Smith story: “I took my class down the mountain near the community of Orme, which a hundred years ago was a thriving mining community. We pulled up next to a stream, and I asked the students to stack up the stream-rounded rocks, from 8” to 18” in diameter. We spent fifteen minutes doing that and then I asked them to measure the pile. Then we drove down the road to a church that was built by hand with those same rocks by the people who worshipped there. Because they had moved rocks themselves, they could more fully understand the effort and commitment and dedication that it took to build a house of worship. I could never have conveyed that aspect of rural religion through a lecture or discussion.”
As a student, Dansby benefited from this experiential learning—learning that is both engaged with community and kinesthetic—and she was also moved by the people she met. “After one of our trips, Suzanne came to me and said she would like to help in this area one day,” Smith remembers.
Just before Christmas Dansby took a significant help toward a goal she identified decades ago. Meeting on campus, Smith had told her about some of the new activity taking place through the Office of Community Engagement and the Collaborative for Southern Appalachian Studies. She wanted to learn more and met with faculty, staff, and students who were involved in those activities.
One approach she learned about was a system of financial incentives for faculty to incorporate experiential learning into their courses—following the Smith example. A grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation was in part providing annual funds for this activity on a temporary basis. Dansby began to wonder if she could help encourage more broadly the kind of learning she found so beneficial as a student.
From those conversations was born a new endowment, the Gerald L. Smith Experiential Learning Fund. The purpose of new endowment is to foster community engagement, place-based study in the local area, field work, and hands-on learning so that students will gain insight into how Appalachian people have encountered the region physically, intellectually, and spiritually. While Dansby understands the efficacy of experiential learning in general, she also remembers the importance for her of learning about the local area, and asked that the fund support projects in the Southern Appalachians.
Through the Smith Fund, faculty will be able to earn summer salary to develop new course components or course support to cover the extra cost of taking students off campus. Students will be able to participate by applying for a research assistantship or internship on projects in the local area. Awards for both faculty and students will be restricted to projects that are in the humanities and humanistic social sciences or are interdisciplinary with strong input from the humanities.
“Thank God for Suzanne Dansby,” Smith said, when he learned about the new endowment. For Dansby, the gift is motivated by what she learned from Smith as well as what he meant to her and means to the community. “Jerry Smith is an icon at Sewanee, who has immersed himself in this community for over 40 years, in so many, and in more ways than any one person could explain,” she says. On a more personal level, he was my advisor and a mentor. He cares for his students, and he listens to them. He was there for me during a time in my life when I needed the support of someone like him, for this I am most grateful.”
Thanks to the Smith Fund for Experiential Learning, this student-professor relationship will be honored in perpetuity, and the Smith Fund will influence new generations of professors to teach outside the classroom and convey lessons that last a lifetime. Former students of Smith are encouraged to contribute to the Fund. For more information, contact Terri Williams at 931-598-1128 or email email@example.com.