The reach and influence of Appalachian culture in Southwest Ohio is indelible. Throughout the region Appalachian people have woven themselves into the fabric of life, and this is at the core of the work of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. The cultural influence of Appalachian culture in our area has also given rise to the Miami University regional campuses’ Appalachian Studies Program. More than half the population of the city of Hamilton, for example, claims some tie to Appalachia, and there is a real need to provide the focus and attention of academic rigor on the issues, history, and culture of Appalachia in an area like this. I spoke with Matthew Smith, Director, Public Programs (Miami University Regionals), about his role in the Appalachian Studies Program at Miami University Hamilton and got a sense of what this program is all about.
Matthew Smith may seem to be an unlikely person to be heading up the Appalachian Studies Program. He is a transplant from the United Kingdom, but with his Ph.D. in American history and his multiple connections to Miami University, he fell into this position quite organically. Initially, Smith inherited the program from Dr. Curtis Ellison, Professor History Emeritus. Dr. Ellison directed and taught programs in American regionalism which included Appalachian Studies. Since taking on the role of Director of Public Programs and the Appalachian Studies Program, Matthew Smith has had his hands full. “We initiated several programs on Appalachian culture, bluegrass music, and history,” Smith explained. The Appalachian Studies Program extends from the classroom and into the community.
The university complements the regional campuses’ Appalachian music, history, and film courses with speakers from the Appalachian community. Scholars, writers, artists, poets and others offer programs about Appalachian heritage that are open to the public. One of the priorities of the MU Appalachian Studies program is to involve the community. Matthew Smith pointed out that “a majority of the people of Hamilton, Ohio claim some connection to Appalachia.” That Appalachian life and culture is threaded through the communities served by the regional campuses is one of the facts that drives this program.
Connecting the academic arena with the community and beyond has led to programs involving Appalachian arts from all over the region. Matthew Smith told me, “we were in the process of setting up a screening of Mountain Minor before the pandemic interrupted that. We are still planning on events like Falcon Theatre’s performance of (core member) Pauletta Hansel’s Coal Town Photograph.” But again, the restrictions and limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic have put so many of these things on hold. Still, Smith and others involved in the Appalachian Studies program are optimistic. Work continues in areas that are not as limited by social distancing.
A speaker series on bluegrass led the Appalachian Studies program to get involved with the publication of a book, Industrial Strength Bluegrass: Southwestern Ohio’s Musical Legacy, edited by Fred Bartenstein and Curtis W. Ellison with contributors include Phillip J. Obermiller, Lily Isaacs and Daniel Mullins. This is a wide-ranging study of bluegrass from southwest Ohio. This project has also led to a recording with the same title that involved Joe Mullins, whose pedigree in bluegrass follows his father, fiddler and radio personality Paul “Moon” Mullins. Smith told me that the recording “features well-known recording artists like the Oak Ridge Boys, Vince Gill, and Lee Ann Womack.”
But the Appalachian Studies Program also exists in the classroom. The significance of Appalachian culture in southwest Ohio—indeed, to the entire country—takes on scholarly dimensions through Miami University. UACC Research Chair and Miami university professor Ashley Hopkins offers course on Appalachian history and culture. Her course, “An Introduction to Appalachia,” is a rigorous investigation into the history and culture of Appalachia. The very notion of Appalachian identity is in the foreground in this course, as is the complex history of the region and its people. Hopkins invites students to get an understanding of the “historical, economic, and political forces that have shaped the region today.” This course is also careful to emphasize the role of displaced Appalachians and the challenges they continue to face to this day. From the classroom to community engagement, Miami University’s Appalachian studies program is both academically rigorous and open enough to reach beyond the academy.
Matthew Smith explains that “the Appalachian Studies program works to offer to the regional campus communities a sense of ownership in the grassroots work of Appalachian studies.” In recognizing the importance of Appalachian culture and history in the regional campuses, Miami University facilitates a dialogue between Appalachian studies as an academic discipline and the community consciousness of its Appalachian identity. In the same ways that the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is committed to community engagement, Miami University has developed its own ways of working within communities that allows local Appalachian people to engage their history and identity while shaping the field of Appalachian studies.
The Miami University Appalachian Studies Program: Exploring Appalachian History, Culture and Heritage in the Miami Valley can be found at this link: https://miamioh.edu/regionals/arts-culture/appalachian-studies/index.html.
You can also find them on Facebook at this link: https://www.facebook.com/MiamiRegionalsAppStudies.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.