Academics, English, Academic Community Engagement

We all know the stereotypes of Appalachian people. Uneducated. Addicted to either opioids or home brew. Bereft that their coal mine or factory jobs have disappeared but unwilling to look for work elsewhere.

The real story of Appalachia is far more complex and varied than one might imagine. To smash those long-perpetuated stereotypes and give Siena Bonner scholars an accurate perspective of the region and its people, Siena hosted “Camp Appalachia” during the last week of July. This annual experience is usually an in-person trip to West Virginia, but lingering pandemic restrictions required creativity on behalf of the organizers.

Todd Snyder, Ph.D., and Josh Iddings, Ph.D., collaborated with the Office for Academic Community Engagement and Kiara Woodward ’21 and Alexis D’Aloia ’21 to recreate Appalachia for two years’ worth of Bonners, as last year’s Appalachia trip was cancelled altogether.

Their challenge: give 20 students a powerful taste of Appalachian culture, history and economy while remaining in Loudonville.

“It was a hurdle to make the program as engaging as possible and make it feel different than a just week on campus,” said Woodward. “We had to focus all our energy on West Virginia and making it come alive.”

She and D’Aloia had taken part in a previous Appalachia road trip and said by the end of their journey she and their fellow Bonners had become family with each other and the native Appalachians they visited. 

They planned the week with Snyder and Iddings, both of whom have close ties to the region. Snyder was born and raised in West Virginia; his father - who spoke in person at the camp - worked in the coal mines for four decades. Iddings hails from eastern Kentucky and his father was a railroad employee.

They taught in-person classes in Appalachian history, culture, and music, and arranged Zoom presentations with fiddler Matthew Stallard, and “Affrilachian” poet and social activist Crystal Dawn Good and others.  They also streamed services from a small Southern Baptist church. 

“There are multiple identities in Appalachia,” explained Snyder. “A lot of people connect with the unfavorable stereotypes from the media such as the ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ or ‘Deliverance.’ It’s really a very complicated and nuanced culture, and we wanted them to be able to resist the easy answers of what it means to be Appalachian.” 

Ruth Kassel, Ph.D., ACE’s associate director, said one of the goals of the camp was to lead the students toward “I wonder” questions.

“Instead of asking ‘Why don’t they just move to a better place’ or ‘Why is there so much drug abuse,’ let’s ask ‘I wonder what keeps them in their hometown’ or ‘I wonder what challenges they are facing,” said Kassel. “With this kind of approach and sense of curiosity it’s hard to be negative and rely on assumptions.”

Iddings said that there were benefits to having a virtual element to the camp.

“We were able to welcome prominent guests like Crystal Good and Matt Stallard who otherwise might not have been able to speak to our students,” he said. “They were understanding what we were trying to teach.”

Iddings agreed with Snyder that exposing the students to varied information about Appalachia can help dismantle stereotypes and lead to greater understanding. They will take a course this fall on Appalachian Rhetoric and conduct research on a specific topic from the summer program that piqued their interest.

“We wanted to challenge their preconceived notions of Appalachia and its people,” he said. “For example, we created a Spotify playlist of music specific to the region that went beyond bluegrass and folk and into heavy metal and other genres.”  

When stereotypes are moved out of the way, and Appalachians and their region can be understood more clearly, Iddings said it’s time to ask whose interests are served by creating and then perpetuating those stereotypes.

“Portraying Appalachians as lazy, poor or uneducated benefitted those who led the coal and steel industries in the region and needed a cheap labor source. To see these people as ‘less than’ means that those who did the hard work didn’t get to benefit from the great wealth that was created.”

Abeer Jafri ’23 said learning about the Appalachian culture helped dispel negative stereotypes.

“Dr. Snyder and Dr. Iddings used their personal experiences of growing up in the region to open our eyes to many facets of a huge part of America we tend not to learn about,” she said. “It was really interesting to see how aspects such as religion and the coal industry shape the modern context, as well as the politics of Appalachia. As someone going into medicine, one of the most surprising aspects was the difficulties of the opioid crisis, and I hope to home in on that as I continue my research for my paper next semester."