The 32 Annual Appalachian Studies Conference is over and Shawnee State University has welcomed its students back from spring break. I stand corrected (sitting on my ass actually) that the ASA Conference was being held for the first time in Ohio. As one of my mentors, Professor Rodger Cunningham points out, the conference has been held in Dayton at Sinclair Community Collage. (Rodger also corrects my misconception that Akron was the capital of Eastern Kentucky. It must be a county seat of Eastern Kentucky at least. ) It was, I believe the first time the conference was held in an Appalachian Ohio County.
The conference seemed to have a moderate attendance. I see on the history section of the ASA site, that the conference in 1999 in Abington, VA hit the 700 person mark. My experience as an event planner tells me that this conference was around half of that number. More than once I heard comments about presenters and attendees who had planned on coming to the conference but who had been unable to because of budget constraints. This is no doubt due to our economic down turn. I think that those who did attend the event were pleased with the facility and enjoyed spending time in Scioto County. One complaint was the lack of coffee service. Being a caffeine addict, I was more sensitive to hearing this complaint than perhaps others.
Although the attendance may not have been at its peak these sessions did not seem to suffer for quality and if anything were a bit less woolly than they had been in the past. I sensed more of an advocacy and utilitarian nature to the sessions than I had in the past. This is not to say that there has not always been a great focus on advocacy with ASA and there are still papers and presentations that focus on the rarities in Appalachia but this year seemed to strike me with more of an “okay what do we do with what we know?” spirit.
Many of the sessions concentrated on building sustainable communities with industry and agriculture. The theme of the conference was connecting Appalachia to the world through the arts but in reality it would have been more accurate to have just labeled it: connecting Appalachian to the world, period. There were many fewer presentations like: “The Impact of Laplander Feminist Rhyming Schemes on the Bluegrass Music of Appalachian Utah.”. It seems like those who are still in the Appalachian Studies community are more interested in finding ways to benefit the people of the region and less in saying something provocative to get attention or just poking hillbillies with a stick and recording how they react.
I am a bit concerned that as the Appalachian Studies community moves from scholarship for scholarship's sake to a more activist role, that many of the nation's colleges and universities that have supported Appalachian centers and programs may start to withdraw that support. I would normally say good riddance if I thought that there was a substitute means of support but I really don't see how other public and private philanthropy will pick up the slack. One frightening example of this “pull back” is Radford University. I hear that Radford is in the process of dismantling its Appalachian Studies programs. What I find most disheartening about this possibility is that Radford has been one of the most useful programs when it comes to Appalachia.
Much of the work at Radford has been focused on improving the lives of Appalachians in Virginia and indeed within the region. This stands in stark contrast to the pointless scholarship that I rage against at other institutions. I fear that that this move by the Radford administration is due largely to ignorance and bigotry. The ignorance comes from the misguided notion that natives from Appalachian can choose not to be Appalachian. We can call ourselves Appalachians, Americans, Virginians, Ohioans or whatever but the outside world will always see us as hillbillies. The bigotry of course comes from the fact that the public at large thinks that there is something wrong with being a hillbilly. In my contact with the students and faculty of Radford's Appalachian programs in the last decade I have found that this group of people take the common sense approach of fixing the world's perception of what Appalachians or Hillbillies are about without making natives of the region feel as if they have to be anything other than themselves. Being a hillbilly is a good thing.
I was glad to spend a bit of time with folks who love the Appalachian people and who have worked tirelessly on their behalf. It really charges your batteries to see folks who you have known for almost 20 years still going and offers some bit of hope to meet new advocates. Next years ASA conference will be held at North Georgia College and State University in Dahlonega, Georgia on March 19-21. So if you have the time and a couple hundred dollars please think about attending.