CFT Mini-Grant Report: Visiting Ballet Instructor Kevin Thomas

On Tuesday, April 27, Kevin Thomas, artistic director of Collage Dance Collective was a virtual guest teacher for Ballet II and Ballet III. On that day, these classes were also open to any Sewanee students who have ever expressed an interest in theatre and dance.

As Mr. Thomas introduced himself, he joked about his extensive use of French, his native tongue, when he teaches. He shared a bit about his background as a former principal soloist with Dance Theatre of Harlem, a guest performer with the Royal Ballet, and on Broadway in Phantom of the Opera. He taught from one of the studios in Collage’s newly opened 22,000 square foot complex (built during the pandemic!) where the professional company rehearses and he and his faculty train 250 students. We were inspired to learn that they also engage with an additional 500 students in the Memphis community each week.

I was particularly impressed with Mr. Thomas’ ability to “read the room” over video and teach the mixed levels of students who were present, offering them specific, useful feedback that they can continue to work on beyond this class, and offering appropriate levels of challenge. The students commented that he made them feel simultaneously at ease and inspired to put forth their best effort. As a participant-observer, I danced parts of the class with the students while observing them and, at other times, stood back to fully observe and remain out of the camera’s view. It was a gift for me to witness the different approaches to exploring concepts that the students most connected with and which images and phrases allowed them to access familiar ideas in new or more fully-realized ways.

I also observed Mr. Thomas’ values as a teacher emerge as he guided the students through the class, some of which illuminated areas that I tend to place less focus, and revealed some areas that I can place more attention in my own teaching. In particular, an emphasis on strength in the arms coming from the back, “like bird wings” was a powerful image for the students. We now have access to visual examples of Collage’s professional company performing this imagery in Kevin Thomas’ re-imaged choreography of The Firebird ballet, inspired by African culture. The ballet premiered the same week as our classes in an on-air broadcast by a Memphis television station. We all left the classes sweaty, uplifted, and inspired.  

-Courtney World, Associate Professor and Director of Dance

The Woman Behind the Woman: White Allyship in the Archives

Aided by technology and supported by the Center for Teaching, my RHET 331: Voices of American Women class welcomed Dr. Wanda Little Fenimore, Assistant Professor of Speech Communication at the University of South Carolina-Sumter, to remotely join us on March 29, 2021. An award-winning teacher and scholar of rhetoric and public address, Dr. Fenimore holds a doctoral degree from Florida State University and previously taught at Hampden-Sydney College, where she also served as the Associate Director of the Ferguson Center for Public Speaking. Dr. Fenimore has recently completed a Mellon Faculty Fellowship through the American Council of Learned Societies to finish her upcoming book Elizabeth and Waties Waring: Paving the Rhetoric Road to Brown v. Board of Education. Students had the chance to read an advance copy of Dr. Fenimore’s forthcoming article on Elizabeth Waring in Rhetoric & Public Affairs to foreground a robust and engaging discussion of allyship, archival work, and research strategies.

The conversation began with an overview of the life and times of Elizabeth Waring, a largely forgotten yet rhetorically significant elite white woman who‒along with her husband, Judge J. Waties Waring‒publicly advocated on behalf of desegregation in the years leading up to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Dr. Fenimore has spent the past several years locating and excavating Elizabeth Warings’ speeches. Many of these texts have been previously unavailable to scholars of women’s rhetoric in the Civil Rights Movement until now. As part of her time with us, Dr. Fenimore generously contextualized her research trajectory within a broader struggle to find complete and authentic texts amid “archival absences.” Such absences reflect how women orators, even those who are prominent in their own time, oftentimes end up lost to rhetorical history. In the case of Elizabeth Waring, her voice has been obscured because archives privilege the papers of her husband. Dr. Fenimore’s scholarship identifies, navigates, and rectifies the archival absence surrounding Elizabeth’s rhetorical contributions to anti-segregationist campaigns both in and beyond the South.

Elizabeth Waring’s anti-segregation rhetoric, Dr. Fenimore argues, presents us with a nuanced and timely look at the rhetorical strategies and missteps of white allyship. RHET 331 students engaged unpublished archival materials to unpack key differences between “provocative” and “problematic” white allyship. In the end, we found ourselves (as one student aptly put it) able to discuss “the complexity between analyzing historical rhetoric both as progressive for it’s time and still maintaining problematic aspects.”

By design, Dr. Fenimore also created a space for students to reflect upon their own challenges in researching lost, marginalized, misunderstood, and/or underrepresented women orators for their RHET 331 final research paper. The assignment requires students to select and analyze a speech by an American woman orator, deeply research the existing literature about speaker and text across disciplines, account for the historical context and rhetorical situation surrounding the text, and advance an original and supportable argument about the text. As one student noted, “I thought the presentation was very engaging and Dr. Fenimore gave some great interactive opportunities for us to consider our own research.” Another student appreciated the chance to collaboratively discuss “what rhetorical research best practices look like.”

We greatly appreciated the opportunity to connect with Dr. Fenimore, add to our analytical tool boxes as rhetorical critics, and deepen our understanding of the significance and responsibilities of white allyship through a historically-grounded case study with lessons for the current moment. Many thanks to the CFT for making this visit possible!

Melody Lehn, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Women’s and Gender Studies

Mini-Grant Report: Race, Revolution, and the Great Dismal Swamp

This past fall my students and I welcomed two guest lecturers to my class on African American History to 1865. Jeremy Williams (Johns Hopkins) led a session on Race and Revolution, while Dr Marcus Nevius (Rhode Island University) spoke on his award-winning book City of Refuge. Both visits were supported by a CfT mini-grant.

Jeremy Williams’s lecture on Race and Revolution was an opportunity to explore the following central focus questions: How has the American government, American broader society, and/or American people reconciled race and revolution? How does your knowledge of slavery in the United States affect the way you understand race? Do the history of slavery and African American people in the US affect the way that you view patriotism? Why or why not? What parallels do you see between the concept of race/revolution of the 1700s and our present-day state of race and politics? The class wrestled with these questions through the exploration of the 1619 podcast, small group discussion and participation in a spectrum activity. 

Dr. Nevius’ presentation was based on his award-winning book, City of Refuge. The book is a story of petit marronage, a clandestine slave’s economy, and the construction of internal improvements in the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina during the first half of the nineteenth century. Petit marronage was a type of escape in which enslaved people repudiated legal and cultural enslavement by taking flight to remote swamps and forests throughout the Americas. The vast wetland in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina in particular was tough terrain, considered uninhabitable territory at this time. Once in the Dismal, former slaves who had endured the difficulties of the Underground Railroad engaged in various clandestine exchanges of goods and provisions that sustained maroon colonies and helped to create a sense of community. 

In his examination of life, commerce, and social activity in the Great Dismal Swamp, Dr Nevius engages the historiographies of slave resistance and abolitionism, highlighting each as they unfolded within the Dismal’s early nineteenth-century extractive economy. City of Refuge is a close study of the ways that American maroons shaped, and were shaped, by the complex historical problems of race and economic development in the Early American Republic. It uses a wide variety of primary sources—including runaway advertisements; planters’ and merchants’ records, inventories, letter-books and correspondence; colonial, provincial and state records; abolitionist pamphlets and broadsides; slave narratives; county free black registries; and the records and inventories of private companies—to examine how American maroons, enslaved canal laborers, white company agents, and commission merchants created and sustained communities under extraordinarily difficult geographical and social circumstances.

Anthony Donaldson Jr, History

Mini-Grant Report: A conversation on Blake with Paul Yoder

My seminar on William Blake was privileged to have as a guest Paul Yoder, Professor Emeritus from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Paul is the author of The Narrative Structure of William Blake’s Poem Jerusalem: A Revisionist Interpretation (Edwin Mellen Press, 2010) as well as a number of articles. He and I first met at a conference around 1996, and (as often happens when scholars work in closely related areas) we continued to find ourselves on the same panels over the years. The result has been a deeply rewarding intellectual friendship. We’ve read and commented on each other’s work, sometimes challenging each other in the best sense of Blake’s proverb that “Opposition is True Friendship.”

Since Paul retired from teaching a few years ago, we had discussed his coming to Sewanee to give a talk. By the time we got serious about it, the pandemic was upon us, but Zoom and the CfT came to the rescue. While the class did not read Blake’s 100-page illuminated poem Jerusalem (Paul’s particular specialty), we did read his shorter epic Milton, which casts the poet Milton as a character who returns from heaven to earth (by way of Blake’s left foot) in order to correct errors in his poetry, his theology, and his relationships with women. This is the last text we tackle as a class, and it’s always the most difficult, even for students familiar with Milton’s work. So my idea was not to have Paul give a lecture, but rather for the two of us to model how literary scholars talk through a challenging text and make arguments about it.

It worked beautifully. Since Paul and I already knew each other well, we were able to launch right into conversation about Blake’s relationship to Milton and to his readers as demonstrated on the opening pages:

The students were somewhat shy, but they did join in and ask questions. I had given them an article of Paul’s to read beforehand, which helped them get a sense of his voice and his interests.

In summary, this was a great way to boost a class toward the end of a long semester. As one student wrote later, ”It was very interesting to hear Dr Yoder speak as it helped to open up Blake’s poetry and lent a different point of view to the poem we discussed.” Another student added, “It was so fun to talk to Paul and get a chance to hear his take on a variety of Blake topics!” I’m grateful to the CfT for the funds to make this virtual visit possible.

 Jennifer Michael, English

Mini-Grant Report: Students Gain Perspective on Human-induced Changes in Soils

Throughout the Advent 2020 Semester, students engaged in weekly encounters with soils and their natural environments.  The typical lab experience juxtaposes the basics of soils and hands-on interpretation of a very complex natural community.  Students learned soil sampling techniques while collecting data to augment long-term data sets that will be used to teach future students, and for research by faculty and students.  Our goal was to learn more about soil ecology and physical properties and to investigate how the soils may vary with time and human influence.  A CfT mini-grant supported the laboratory analyses for some of the studies undertaken by the students. One of our interests is the long-term sustainability of human impacts on soils and forests under diverse uses.  

We focused on two forest sites on the Domain.  Both are long-term experimental sites where Professors Karen Kuers and Deborah McGrath and I have conducted research and teaching over the past 25 years. The “Chipper Site” is a forested site that was cleared of poor-quality hardwoods in 1976 to investigate the sustainability of conversion to pine and hardwood plantations.  Kuers has focused on the above-ground ecology and I have documented soil conditions

Sewanee’s sewage is recycled at the Sewanee Utility District spray fields along Sherwood RD.  The water is cleaned by a series of ecosystem-based steps ending with spraying of effluent in the surrounding 68 acre forest.  The students studied the merits of this system and helped collect soils data that Professor McGrath and I use to document the long-term effects of effluent on the soil and forest ecosystem.  These data sets are frequently used as teaching aids in our courses.

An ongoing forest harvest and restoration plan for a Domain stand along Sherwood RD was also considered by the students.  We focused on the use of Best Management Practices-protocols used to minimize and mitigate the effects of harvesting on water, soil, and other ecosystem components (images of students sitting on a pile of harvested trees and a log-loader).  Forest harvesting is a crucial, first step to restoring the forest vegetation.  In Easter 2021, students in two of my courses will be able to observe the results of the harvesting and preparations for forest restoration.  The students will learn to conduct research to collect information relevant to prescribed burns which will take place in 2022 by the OESS.

Scott Torreano

Professor of Forestry

Mini-Grant Report: (Re)Shaping Ministry for the 2020s

As part of an expanded requirement in contextual education I was asked by Dean Jim Turrell to develop a new course to eventually be taken in conjunction with the third semester of contextual education. The course focused on what I call “Outward-facing Ministry,” that is, outreach and ministry beyond the parish walls, in and in partnership with the wider community, the real parish boundary. We read books and articles on leadership, community and congregational analysis, sociology of religion, and planning and evaluation, with enough theology to keep us well-grounded. The course was titled, “Leadership, Innovation, and Outreach: (Re)Shaping Ministry for the 2020’s.”

I chose to do three things that made all the difference:  

  1. The course was taught entirely online.
  2. Because the seminarians were not able to be on-site for contextual education, I invited four recent alumni of the School of Theology to join the weekly class to share the wisdom of their experience as a way to “reality-test” the readings, presentations, and conversation. I requested and received a mini-grant from the Center for Teaching to purchase the course books for the alumni.
  3. I invited every (living – Durkheim and Geertz were each a no) author to Zoom into the class for an hour or so. With the exception of Ron Heifetz (Leadership Without Easy Answers), an admittedly big ask, each author said yes. 

You can read more about the course here:  https://theology.sewanee.edu/media/features/the-leadership-of-jesus-the-promise-of-resurrection-for-a-dying-church/ 

I told the class in the syllabus, the first meeting, and throughout the semester that the course was a work-in-progress, and an important goal was to learn how to teach the course more effectively when it transitions from an elective to a core requirement in Advent, 2021. We all embraced that role, sometimes with more gusto than the instructor might have liked, but I learned a lot and look forward to teaching it again, incorporating what the class taught me to make it more effective the next time around.  I also learned that in this particular instructional environment authors are happy to Zoom in, even if the only compensation they receive is a boost in royalties because the class bought their books. I have taken that learning and applied it to my work on another project for the School of Theology, creating a pair of webinar series that will include an incredible array of voices we could not afford to bring to Sewanee even if we could get them to travel here. But for a modest honorarium and two hours of their time, the leading theologians, biblical scholars, preachers, and activists in the world will be with us this year. 

Bill Brosend

School of Theology