Student portrayals

Dr. Blevin Shelnutt, assistant professor English at Concord University, addresses her students after their presentations from semester-long research on "often unrepresented voices in American and Appalachian literary canons."

ATHENS — In early December, Concord University students presented culminating research from a semester of study of voices often unrepresented in American and Appalachian literary canons.

According to the professor of the course, Dr. Blevin Shelnut, the class, English 327: American Literature to 1865, is a study of literature from the era of colonial settlement to the Civil War. In addition, the presentations are part of the Bonner Foundation’s service-learning course development program.

“I applied for that grant with the vision of trying to make my American literature class speak outside of just the concerns of the classroom or literary history and think more broadly about why literature matters,” Dr. Shelnut said. “That is how we have had this focus on a relationship between history and stories.”

The presentations were held in the President’s Room of Marsh Library at Concord University and were open to the public, as part of the service-learning initiative.

According to a press release, Dr. Shelnutt, assistant professor of English said her students spent the semester reading American literature alongside perspectives of people whose voices have been left out of traditional stories about the region’s and nation’s history.

“I have been encouraging them in our reading and in their research outside of class to be thinking about the perspectives in particular of people who have been overlooked in history and how that changes things,” Dr. Shelnutt said. “In part, the goal of service-learning is to bring what we are doing in the University, back into the community. So I encouraged them from the beginning to pay attention to how what we were reading, even if it was American literature more broadly, to think about how it was relevant to where we are right now.”

During the presentations, students presented from behind a podium on topics ranging from Mary Draper Ingles to Voodoo. The presentations were followed by a lively discussion among the students. Concord’s Appalachian Book Collection, recently donated by alumna Judy Ann Teaford, served as a research tool for the project in addition to countless other sources.

“Some of them, in their final projects, ended up going more American history as opposed to Appalachian history perspective, but a lot of them were able to latch onto a figure or a way of life that is important here that helps us get outside of traditional narratives focused on traditional narratives of Appalachian history,” Dr. Shelnutt said. “It helps us think where we are and what the past looks like here.”

The fourteen students in Dr. Shelnutt’s class have been working on these presentations since the beginning of the fall semester. They’ve researched as a class, as well as on their own time.

“I think it was beneficial for them to do this kind of independent research on their own,” Dr. Shelnutt said. “They came up with the topic and I had to approve it, but that is why there is such a range in what they were looking at, although today ended up being a lot about Native Americans but on Monday we saw someone focusing on child labor, someone focusing on iron mill workers, someone focused on spiritual healers in the Appalachians.”

Dr. Shelnutt was excited about the learning opportunity for her students. She said that independent allowed her students to take accountability for their learning in a new way for a 300 level class.

“This is a literature course, it is part of the Humanities Department and I think it is really important for them to be able to articulate the value of what they are studying as humanity students to the rest of the world and being able to make a tangible connection between doing this kind of study and the world they are living in,” Dr. Shelnutt said.

Students were also required to design a visual component from their research. Dr. Shelnutt plans to work with Marsh Library to have the student’s posters displayed in the library as part of the service-learning component of the project. She wanted her students to include a visual exhibition in a different way so the public could benefit from their projects even if they were not able to attend the week’s presentations.

“Part of service-learning is to make this open to the community, not just doing these presentations with us in the classroom, but we are hoping to have them on exhibition,” Dr. Shelnutt said. “Also, I think it is important for students to be able to express arguments in different ways, so not just in the traditional form of an essay, but to think about what kind of questions it opens up when you are expressing an argument visually.”

— Contact Emily Rice at

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