A meeting of the minds: Bringing together readers and writers

Of the many forms of entertainment readily at our fingertips, from television and movies to YouTube and the many vast and varied wonders of the rest of the internet, reading is probably still the most liberating.

Picking up a book not only takes the reader to another world, it gives them a hand in creating it. To read is to draw your own landscape, compose your own soundscape, shape the features of the characters yourself, the way that only you see them, with the writer as your hopefully expert guide. More than watching TV or going to the movies or perusing the endless pages of the web, reading is, at its essence, a creative pursuit. And that’s what makes the relationship between reader and writer so unique — it’s co-creative in a way that little other entertainment is.

Cultivating that relationship is the special draw of events such as Western Carolina University’s annual Literary Festival, an event that pulls together authors and poets from around the region and around the nation, giving them a venue to interact with their readers, past, present and future.

ALSO: Literary festival ‘invaluable’ teaching tool for WCU professors, students

Mary Adams, a professor at WCU and director of the festival, has been putting the lineup together for years. Each time, she tries to get a good mix of new and old, of regional and national, to offer readers access to some of their favorite authors as well as exposure to some excellent writers they may never have read otherwise.

This is partially what the festival is about — instilling a love and appreciation for reading in both newcomers and veterans, kindling excitement about written words by revealing the creator behind them.

One of this year’s featured writers, author Susan Vreeland, is a well-known novelist whose historical fiction is often rooted in art history. She believes that this is one of the most important and gratifying things about readers and writers meeting, peeling back the layers and exposing the story that lies beneath the story on the page.

“I’m telling them the story behind the story,” said Vreeland. “That’s what authors can offer, how they came to write the books what motivated them to.”

Vreeland, whose works have been made into movies and performed on stage, believes that the reader — or actor — interpretation of the writer’s work is an essential part of what makes literature, literature.

She gave the example of an actor portraying one of her short stories. He came to her, curious about whether she meant his character to be a constant teaser. No, she said, she hadn’t, but if that’s what he saw in it, it is what he should portray.

“That was a surprise, kind of a delightful one where he saw maybe more than I remembered,” said Vreeland. “It’s the viewer’s participation and you don’t want to deprive them of that.”

Adams, the festival’s director, said that she hopes this is just what festival-goers will be exposed to, meeting the writers and hearing their stories, putting a face on what might otherwise just be words.

“I would like people to read more and to have contact with the people writing the real books today, that people can come away with a greater love for reading,” said Adams.

Alan Weisman is another best-selling author gracing the festival this year. His most recent book, The World Without Us, explores what our planet would be like if humanity disappeared from it.

Weisman said that, especially in writing this particular book, the experience and interpretation of the reader was vital to him.

“I did not want to write another environmental book that gets read only by environmentalists,” said Weisman. He knew, he said, that average readers aren’t usually enticed by environmental tomes, and part of his mission in writing the book was to bring those readers into the dialogue.

“They find them [environmental books] scary, or they find them depressing or they find them overwhelming,” said Weisman. “Our mission [as writers] is to reach as wide an audience as possible, that it would be attractive or irresistible or seductive to that big readership out there.”

And, as the book is now in 34 languages and has long remained a bestseller, the strategy seemed to have worked.

The response to it, Weisman said, was somewhat surprising to him, but what his readers have drawn from the book and brought to the table in discussions around the country and the world is the resilience of life on earth.

“I have given countless talks, and it’s crossed a lot of boundaries — I’ve spoken to all different types of religious groups, I’ve been on Catholic radio programs, I’ve spoken to Mormon audiences, and ultimately, I think readers find out that life is this incredibly wonderfully powerful resilient force that always comes back no matter how messy things get,” said Weisman.

As a writer, he said, he’s been surprised by the wide range of people that responded to his work and pleased by their reactions.

“I really hoped that readers would take from all of that is not the message that this world would be better off without us, but if we would just lighten up on nature, we’d give it a chance to do the things that it does so beautifully,” he said.

And it’s venues like the Literary Festival that allow readers to glean those insights from writers, making the reading experience deeper and richer.

For writers, the chance to interact with their audiences, they say, improves and informs their craft, allowing the creativity of the reader to spill over into the work of the writer.

So many writers became so because they began as avid readers, so rubbing elbows with fellow and future bibliophiles is, to many, a privilege.

“I was so curious about so many different things,” said Weisman, which is why he became a writer to begin with.

Vreeland was a high school teacher with three decades of education under her belt before she turned to writing, and she sees her writing as an extension of her educational career, it’s next incarnation.

That’s why, for her, the reader is so important — they are, essentially, who she is writing for, and to expose them to new art, new time periods and new understanding is, she says, a great gift.

The greatest part of what she does, said Vreeland, is the knowledge “that something I write could reach into a person’s mind and heart and uplift that person and broaden his thinking and his understanding of life and humans.”

That understanding, she said, is the goal of writing and a contribution to culture that will last as long as the word is printed on the page.

“Each time we bring our readers imagination to the fore, each time we stimulate our readers’ imagination so that they live in another time and place,” said Vreeland, “that’s another step upwards for the human race.”


Spring Literary Festival

WCU’s ninth annual Spring Literary Festival will feature Cathy Smith Bowers, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Fred Chappell, Délana Dameron, David Gessner, Elizabeth Kostova, Don Lee, Bret Lott, Lee Martin, Ginger Murchison, Susan Vreeland, Frank X Walker, and Alan Weisman, as well as the Gilbert Chappell Distinguished Poet’s panel, with Distinguished Poet Mary Adams.

When: April 3-7

More information: www.litfestival.org

Literary festival ‘invaluable’ teaching tool for WCU professors, students

Samantha “Sam” Gampel, a sophomore at Western Carolina University, wants to write novels and earn her living as a professional writer.

So in Gampel’s book, there’s nothing quite like rubbing shoulders with real working-for-a-living writers such as the ones headlining this year’s literary festival at the university. This is learning in action for students such as Gampel, and the festival, she said, hugely enriches her experience of attending school in Cullowhee.

“I think it is amazing to get all of these writers to come here,” Gampel said. “And it really opens your eyes to some you hadn’t heard of before.”

WCU’s literary festival runs April 3-7. The Visiting Writers Series has 13 authors featured this year, providing an opportunity to combine hands-on learning with classroom teachings that excite not only students such as Gampel, but professors at WCU, too.

ALSO: A meeting of the minds: Bringing together readers and writers

“It’s invaluable,” said Deidre Elliot, an associate professor in the university’s English Department and director of the professional writing program.

That’s because professors can assign readings by authors, then — tah-dah — students can meet and talk to the authors firsthand. They can ask questions, and learn directly about both the craft of writing and how some writers successfully make livings practicing their craft.

“It is totally enjoyable (for a student) to see the real person who was in a textbook,” Elliot said.

Catherine Carter, a fellow associate professor of Elliot’s at WCU and director of English education, said there are a variety of ways she and other faculty incorporate the festival into teaching students.

“The most usual are that we assign students to read some of the authors’ works and discuss them in class, and encourage — or, on a few occasions, beg, bribe or threaten — students to come to readings,” Carter said. “This is good not only because there’s something kind of cool about authors who are still alive and who are right there in the flesh … but because the etiquette of reading itself is worth teaching.”

The etiquette being such niceties, Carter said, as refraining from texting or playing games on cell phones while the authors read.

Carter also likes to encourage local teachers to bring students from the area high schools.  “We had a class down from Summit (charter school in Cashiers) last year, and that was really nice,” she said.

In fact, WCU will reserve local classes and their teachers some seats at the readings, particularly those held during the day, to encourage participation in the festival.

Mary Adams, a WCU associate professor who oversees the literary festival, said whenever book orders for classes are due, she pins fellow professors down on which attending festival authors’ books they’ll teach.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of trying to find a theme that works,” she said.

This year, for example, an English class is focused on the figure of the vampire in literature and popular culture — poetry, fiction, nonfiction, television, film and the Internet. One of the books being read is Elizabeth Kostova’s “The Historian,” a tale of three generations of historians on the track of the original Dracula. Kostova’s book was the fastest-selling debut novel in American publishing history, and the author is set to speak Sunday, April 3.

Meeting and hearing the authors they read in class, Adams said, “makes a huge difference” for students, “and it is very moving to the authors.”

This is a big reason why the literary festival, which has a fairly small budget, is able to attract well-known writers, she said. The authors can depend on the university to pack in interested and engaged audiences.

WCU budget cuts, reorganization trigger controversy

At the outset of the state budget crisis, Chancellor John Bardo and Western Carolina University’s Board of Trustees maintained the process of cutting $8.6 million would be transparent.

Faculty and staff, they said, would see their opinions truly matter as the university tries to maintain academic integrity in the face of deep financial cuts.

That promise of organic, grassroots problem solving didn’t hold true when it came to the College of Education and Allied Professions, according to Jacqueline Jacobs. The tenured professor submitted a letter of resignation two weeks ago. She will finish out the academic year.

Jacobs said Dean Perry Schoon, who has been at WCU since 2009, used the crisis as a smokescreen to reorganize the College of Education and Allied Professions as he saw fit, absent meaningful oversight or opinion outside a select few.

“The continued actions by Dr. Schoon, as dean of the college … and the support for him to behave as he has, create such a negative work environment for me and constitute such a total disregard for faculty voice that I find I cannot continue at WCU,” Jacobs wrote in her March 7 resignation letter.

Recommendations by Schoon that certain faculty not be reappointed is being reviewed — at Bardo’s request — by the university’s assistant provost, legal counsel and the chair of WCU’s Faculty Senate. The Faculty Senate serves as faculty’s “voice” for advising the chancellor and provost (second in command behind the chancellor) on the conduct of university affairs.

SEE ALSO: Hunt for new WCU chancellor in the homestretch

For his part, Schoon maintains reorganizing the College of Education and Allied Professions will save $250,000 in administrative and overhead costs, and preserve four faculty positions. Saving money in the tumbledown of a $2.4-billion state shortfall is indeed critical — WCU has eliminated 10 positions university-wide already; up to 15 more will be cut by July.

“During the unpleasant task of identifying spending reductions, we have kept in mind the chancellor’s directive to do all we can to protect the academic core,” Schoon said. “The college’s faculty were involved in this process, and their input has been essential in identifying and recommending programs and resources that are most critical to our core mission.”

That’s only part of the story, and not particularly accurate, according to Jacobs. The nonpublic part, at least until now, is that the reorganization of the College of Education and Allied Professions was forced on faculty and staff, some of whom are afraid to speak out for fear of job repercussions, Jacobs said.

And about that involvement of faculty Schoon refers to?

“It is true that there were faculty involved, but they were appointed by the dean as a task force reporting to him and as the Leadership Council which reports only to him,” Jacobs said. “That is, faculty in these groups were not elected by the faculty to represent them.”

Here’s why this internal debate at WCU should matter to anyone outside academia: The College of Education and Allied Professions is where most of the K-12 teachers, principals and superintendents who serve Western North Carolina receive their training. What happens here, in other words, counts in the region’s classrooms, and will matter to the children in WNC for decades to come. WCU is also the only university in this region that provides a doctoral program for educational leaders.


Reorganizing, or a power play?  

There are three issues: Schoon’s recommendation that three tenure-track professors not be reappointed; the reorganization of the College of Education and Allied Professions, which reduces the number of departmental-level units from five to three; and questions about Schoon’s handling of the doctoral program. About 40 people are seeking that advanced degree.

First, the tenure-track issue. To get tenure, a faculty member must jump through certain hoops at different times for a number of years. Tenure means job protection and ensures the possibility of promotion.

The three faculty members recommended for job elimination by Schoon were in their third- to fifth-year of the tenure track process, meaning they have invested a lot into WCU. And, for its part, the university has invested much in them.

Normally, tenure track professors are invited by mid-February to remain on board with the university for the next year. The controversy erupted after interim Provost Linda Seestedt-Stanford asked the Faculty Senate for an extension to act on tenure track faculty reappointments.

The provost indicated to the Faculty Senate more time was needed in light of the budget situation — it was still not known how much money the university would have to cut — and reorganization efforts then under way.

The Faculty Senate, thinking it was a university-wide request that a multitude of deans had sought, capitulated, albeit reluctantly.

“The Senate voted to support the provost’s request on the grounds that this condition, while upsetting, may be the best chance we have to save as many faculty jobs as possible,” Erin McNelis, chair of the Faculty Senate, wrote in a faculty-wide letter sent Feb. 8.

The problem? This would, the Faculty Senate noted, remove the built-in “system of checks and balances in the collegial review process. However, the case remained that the decisions had been made by the deans, facing a tight timeline and with the best knowledge of the budget situation they possessed.”

Additionally, these were real people whose jobs and lives were on the line, and who would be placed, the Faculty Senate letter stated, “in limbo” by the acquiescence of the very group ostensibly serving as their voice.

“I was gravely disappointed that the faculty (senate) would capitulate to bad management on the part of the deans, but understood that they felt they were protecting faculty jobs,” Jacobs wrote. “When it turned out to be only three, third- to fifth-year faculty … in one department (ours), I was appalled.”

So was the Faculty Senate, which rushed to send a second letter in an attempt to clarify members’ position.

“Your Faculty Senate leadership has recently become aware that there is a great deal of angst among some faculty regarding the recent 3rd – 5th year non-reappointment recommendations for reasons of institutional needs and resources.  … the senate planning team determined that they did not have adequate knowledge of the processes or procedures surrounding these decisions and determined that a more thorough investigation is in order before further response.”

As it turned out, the provost disregarded at least part of Schoon’s recommendation, opting to reappoint two of the three faculty members in danger of losing their jobs.

That third faculty member is still waiting to hear whether she has employment. Since this person, Jacobs wrote, is the only faculty member in the College of Education and Allied Professions’ doctoral program with doctoral-level training in higher education administration, “‘institutional need’ is clearly not a consideration.”

Why the emphasis on institutional need and resources? Because that’s a specified reason, as laid out in WCU’s faculty handbook, allowing the university not to reappoint faculty members — that is, if they don’t fill said institutional need or resource.

Jacobs characterized the still possible non-reappointment of this third faculty member in the College of Education as “beyond belief.” She added in her letter, the “return of my salary, through my retirement, eliminates any effort to claim ‘budget’ as the reason for non-reappointment … based on ‘institutional needs and resources.’”

McNelis told The Smoky Mountain News this week that Bardo asked that the “processes tied to those reappointment decisions” be looked into.

“In doing so, we’ve looked into the college’s program prioritization, program review, budget and potential restructuring, as they relate to recommendations for reappointment,” the chair of the Faculty Senate said.

McNelis did not say when the results of that review would be made public.


‘Failure of leadership’

Secondly, the issue of reorganization.

Schoon said he took no joy in having to make these tough choices.

“Both the need to reduce the budget and to make organizational changes to achieve greater efficiency led to very difficult decisions, some of which we know regrettably affect people’s lives and families,” Schoon told The Smoky Mountain News.

Jacobs, at least, isn’t buying it.

“I want the record to show that my decision is predicated on what I believe to be the failure of leadership in this college and university as evidenced by how our college has been informed of Dr. Schoon’s reorganization plan, as opposed to being integral in the discussion of reorganizing it,” she wrote.

Schoon disputes the allegation that faculty members were excluded. In fact, he said faculty members were given “extensive input” into reorganization and prioritizing programs. A faculty task force was specifically created to guide the process, and input was sought from a leadership council that included the department heads of each of the five departments in the college.

Schoon said a proposal for reorganization was provided to the college in early February. “The college faculty then had the opportunity to provide input to their department heads, who discussed the aggregated information and provided it to the dean. In addition, several programs requested direct meetings with the dean and subsequent discussions were held,” Schoon said.

And lastly, the issue of the College of Education and Allied Professions’ doctoral program, which critics say is now bereft of faculty oversight. This, if true, leaves the university’s flagship doctoral program adrift.

“Doctoral students are overseen by the director of the doctoral program,” Schoon said in response. “The assignment of that directorship may change in the reorganization but it will remain with a faculty member.”

Jacobs, however, said the professors for graduate students have been split across three departments. She maintains the program’s faculty should be kept together in the same unit to ensure quality programming for students.



The Players

• Interim Provost Linda Seestedt-Stanford, who came to WCU in July 2007 and is founding dean of WCU’s College of Health and Human Sciences. She is serving as interim provost and senior vice chancellor. Filling that position permanently has been postponed until a new chancellor is hired. She asked for more time from the Faculty Senate to delay making a decision on faculty reappointments, triggering the ensuing controversy.

• Dean Perry Schoon of the College of Education and Allied Professions, who became the dean in June 2009. Critics say Schoon used a power vacuum at the university — a retiring chancellor, interim provost and $8.6 million in budget cuts — to reorganize the college he oversees to suit himself, not the needs of WCU and the students.

• Erin McNelis, the current chair of the WCU Faculty Senate. McNelis, associate professor of mathematics and computer science, has been on the WCU faculty since 2002. She’s charged with helping to sort out whether Schoon’s actions on certain faculty reappointments were within university guidelines.

• Jacqueline Jacobs, a respected tenured professor in WCU’s Department of Educational Leadership and Foundations who quit in protest this month over a re-organization and attempted non-reappointment of three other faculty members in the College of Education and Allied Professions.

• Chancellor John Bardo, who after 15 years in the top slot at WCU steps down July 1. Has his pending retirement created a leadership void at a university struggling to deal with $8.6 million in budget cuts? Bardo says no — he described himself recently in a board of trustees’ meeting as a lame duck, but asserted, “this duck still has legs.”

Hunt for new WCU chancellor in the homestretch

It’s not a bad job, really. There’s a nice house, more than 7,000-square-feet, that’s currently undergoing a nearly $300,000 facelift. You don’t have to pay for utilities, grounds keeping or for a housekeeper. Then there’s the salary, ranging from $236,979 to $379,180. Oh, and free use of a car.

So perhaps it’s not that surprising a whole lot of people apparently want to become Western Carolina University’s next chancellor. Longtime leader John Bardo exits the scene in fewer than four months. He’ll leave July 1 after more than 15 years on the job.

Steve Warren, WCU’s board of trustees’ president, indicated the search is progressing well and is in the homestretch. He said the 16 members of the search committee (which he also chairs) believe they will have Bardo’s replacement hired when the position officially opens. A search firm started with a pool of 22 candidates; the committee has since winnowed that to an unspecified number.

The committee has been tightlipped about exactly who they are talking to about the job, but Warren said during a recent trustees’ meeting that the candidates are of extremely high caliber.

“In terms of the quality of the candidates we have reviewed, they are just outstanding,” Warren said, then added, “everyone wants to play for a winning team.”

The chancellor-to-be has to meet some towering expectations, including interpreting what the board of trustees mean by “the importance of a successful athletics program” (the football team went 2-9 this fall, with the last winning season in 2005); the unique culture of Western North Carolina; the relationship between WCU and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; WCU’s “passionate dedication” to teaching and learning; and so on, according to a job description.

What’s absent from that shopping list is mention of the difficulty any chancellor is going to face given the anticipated cutback in state dollars. The university is preparing for $8.6 million being slashed, tumbledown from a state facing a more than $2 billion shortfall.

Bardo has been dealing with much of that financial fallout now. The university is cutting 10 positions this spring and another 15 come July 1.

“I’d rather deal with it myself than to leave it for the next person,” said Bardo, who told the university’s board of trustees this month that the two most difficult parts of his job are telling parents when a child has died, and informing faculty or staff they no longer have jobs.

Bardo makes a base salary of $280,000.

Jobs lost, but construction and buying continue without pause on WCU campus 

A $138,000 fountain, the crowning jewel in a larger, $2.3 million construction project, is being built at Western Carolina University. This is just one of five big-ticket undertakings now under way on campus during this time of state-mandated budget cuts.

In the College of Education and Allied Professions (Killian room 218) there’s a new $5,752.30 table for meetings, and chairs that cost $6,142.50. They replaced what were described as perfectly adequate furniture. Not to mention four treadmill workstations ordered in 2009 for the same WCU college, for several thousand dollars each.

University officials defend the purchases and construction projects. They point the finger instead at state guidelines mandating exactly how money can be spent.

The university is faced with $8.6 million in cuts because of a trickledown state shortfall. In response, WCU this month announced it was cutting 10 positions. Fifteen additional positions are anticipated for elimination by July 1.

Campus leaders met this week (March 16) with the western legislative delegation — members of the General Assembly representing WNC — to argue their case for continued state support. Chancellor John Bardo said he would ask legislators to minimize budget cuts, not to take more than they must, to give universities maximum flexibility to minimize damage, and for WCU to be allowed to retain tuition money from a proposed 6.5-percent increase.


Just filling in holes

Bardo, in an interview with The Smoky Mountain News, defended construction projects under way on the campus; the dean of the College of Education did the same for expenses incurred under his watch.

“I can’t move money from capital expense to pay salaries,” said Bardo, who retires from WCU this summer. “I guess I could stop the construction and leave a hole. But I still couldn’t use the money.”

That ensuing hole would be the fountain, part of WCU’s move to create a new pedestrian walkway and gathering area between several major buildings in the center of campus.

Bardo said he was aware of complaints, that the building goes on, almost unabated it seems, even while real people are left packing their bags and saying goodbye. This hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“I went through all of it at the open meeting (on campus),” the chancellor said. “People don’t want to hear, and I understand. But this is the way the state has set it up.”


Creating a healthy workplace, that’s all

Dean Perry Schoon said, via email, the tables and chairs are “part of a long-term plan that involved updating an existing room into a smart classroom/conference area for graduate coursework, and converting an existing office space into classroom space.”

There was more, along the same lines, but here’s the bottom line: Schoon said, as did Bardo, “the funds used for this purchase are non-recurring dollars and thus cannot be used for faculty salaries.”

The treadmills, the dean said, tapped “non-instructional funding.” They were setup in both the Killian and Reid Gymnasium buildings (the College of Education encompasses space in both buildings).

“The workstations are being used in research studies on health conducted by our faculty in concert with graduate students,” Schoon said. “In addition, all faculty and staff in those buildings have access to the rooms where the workstations reside and are thus able to work in a healthier environment rather than being static all day at their desks …”

It remains unclear why the WCU employees couldn’t use equipment already available in Reid. Or even get some exercise by simply walking next door to use equipment available at the new $16.7 million Campus Recreation Center.

App brings art to the people – and their smart phones

For those looking to learn more about the sculptures that dot the campus at Western Carolina University, well, there’s an app for that. Or at least there will be soon, thanks to a collaboration between the school’s Fine Arts Museum and Computer Information Systems students in the College of Business.

As a part of a class, now one of the major’s capstone courses, students are building a mobile application that will guide users on an audio-visual tour of the pieces that comprise the school’s public art program.

It’s an idea that really excites the Denise Drury. She’s the museum’s interim director, and she’s stoked about bringing art to the public.

“I’ve always been really passionate about public art because I feel like it’s kind-of a gateway,” said Drury.  “A lot of people get into art by seeing it outside.”

She hopes that adding an app to the school’s public-art approach, it’ll entice a whole new demographic into the museum and into interaction with the arts.

The school has run a public art program in some incarnation since the 80s, said Drury, ranging from specifically purchased pieces that find their permanent homes somewhere on campus to regional art competitions whose winners display their creations temporarily at the university.

Currently, the school has nine outdoor sculptures gracing the Cullowhee campus, as well as an indoor, two-dimensional sculpture that hangs permanently in the school’s Belk building.

Included in that number are the winners from a contest last fall that stand sentry in the courtyard outside the school’s Fine and Performing Arts Center.

The goal of the proposed app is to curate these works, giving students, faculty and visitors an interactive arts experience on their own terms and timeline.

Currently, Drury said they’re working on two different content styles – one a richer, more descriptive tour that would include a detailed explanation of the artwork, background information on the artist and their creation, and possibly even commentary from the artists themselves.

The idea is to pack the app with information for off-site users who aren’t standing in front of the works.

“We feel like this is a very good program for people who might not be able to make it to the campus,” said Drury.

But they’re hoping to build in some unique features for on-campus art lovers, too, including a GPS locater that will guide users from one sculpture to the next, highlighting their distance from the various public art pieces.

“It’s just an added incentive to get people out and walking on campus, people who visit Western for football games and are tailgating, people who are coming for a performance and get here a little early,” said Drury, as well as the thousands of students and faculty who pass the sculptures every day.

Associate Professor Dan Clapper is one of them. He teaches the app-writing class, only in its second semester, and he, too, thinks the possibility of new ways to interface with art is an intriguing.

“As a faculty member here, I drive by a lot of those sculptures everyday and I’m curious about them,” said Clapper.

His student team who are working with Drury and her staff to create the app are, said Clapper, treading new territory in how to convey that information, though.

“It’s all kind of new for us, I think it’s new for people in general,” said Clapper. “We don’t really know how long people want to listen to an audio clip when they’re standing in front of a sculpture.”

And that’s where testing comes into play. Drury and her staff provide the content for the app, while the students find a way to make that content work. But there are a multitude of options for introducing users to art. Should there be detailed descriptions? A bank of photos? Artist profiles? Art history information? Will people want to stand in front of a sculpture listening for 30, 60, 90 seconds?

These are all answers that student testing will hopefully answer. And at the end of the process, the result will not only be a great app, but a cadre of students who have hands-on experience in a marketable arena that everyone from museums to fast-food restaurants want to get in on.

From the educational side, Drury said she’s thrilled to be embracing technology and bringing learning to people on their terms.

“It’s something that a lot of our colleagues are doing in the arts, so we feel like it’s a natural progression for us,” said Drury. “A lot more people are buying smart phones and using them as learning tools.”

From a technological perspective, the app-writing class is pretty cutting edge, and Clapper sees it as an exciting technology that’s only going to get bigger.

“I think it’s a technology that’s really just starting to take off, and as more and more people start to have smart phones, we‘ll see a lot more applications,” said Clapper.

This semester, the class is also working on an app for the Catawba County government, the Mountain Heritage Center and a continuing project that will map out a tour of Cherokee history.

The Fine Art Museum app should be available by early summer.

Help restore the Cherokees’ rivercane

Volunteers are needed to help transplant rivercane from near Western Carolina University to a site near Cherokee as part of a rivercane restoration project.

Rivercane is a mainstay of Cherokee culture, and traditionally has been used in making baskets, blowguns and mats. It once was plentiful along stream banks and floodplains in Western North Carolina, but the species has been heavily impacted by development. WCU and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are working together to restore the native bamboo. Not much rivercane still grows in Cherokee, so WCU students and faculty members started working with Cherokee tribal members last fall to move plants from  Cullowhee Valley to the site near the Cherokee school.

“Over the course of four days in October, volunteers dug up rivercane behind the baseball stadium on campus, wrapped the roots in plastic, loaded them onto a truck and replanted them in Cherokee,” said Adam Griffith, a staff member in WCU’s Program for the study of developed shorelines. “The dense network of tough underground stems and roots made the digging difficult, but the result was the planting of more than 50 feet of underground stems and 30 above-ground stems.”

A much larger rivercane transplantation effort is planned for March and April to a site at the new Cherokee Central School.

“The long-term goal of the project is to establish a patch of rivercane on Cherokee tribal land that can be used for educational purposes and even harvesting by Cherokee artisans,” Griffith said.

The transplanting work is scheduled for March 11 and 19, and April 1, 2, 8 and 9.

Visit rivercane.wcu.edu or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Area landowners who have rivercane on their properties they’d like to donate are asked to contact Griffith.

Mountain women defying tradition: WCU exhibit showcases groundbreaking roles of Appalachian women

In modern America, the term ‘women’s work’ is not exactly a complimentary phrase. It’s less descriptive, more derisive, not so much an adjective as an epithet.

It’s a wordplay not lost on the curators of the exhibit by the same name that’s taken up residence at Western Carolina University’s Mountain Heritage Center. The display showcases Appalachian women who have, over the last century, ventured outside the traditional vocations of their gender, catapulting them to prominence and success in a range of fields.

There’s a corner devoted to Samantha Bumgarner, a Jackson County native and the first woman to be recorded singing country music; a panel paying homage to Gertrude Dills McKee, the state’s first female senator; and half a wall in honor of the legendary Monteith sisters, Edith and Edna, one of whom was the Jackson County postmaster for 45 years, against all gender odds.

The gallery showcases these women’s spunk and tenacity, as well as their commitment to Western North Carolina, that set them apart from other women of their eras.

Those unique stories of perseverance in the face of mainstream ideas and norms, said curator Pam Meister, are exactly what set Appalachian women apart in the last century, and it’s exactly what she and her colleagues wanted to celebrate with his exhibit.

“There are amazing stories to be told,” said Meister. “North Carolina’s very first woman senator grew up in Dillsboro and lived in Sylva. The very first woman to be a licensed dentist from North Carolina is from Sylva. The very first woman ever to be recorded singing country music and the first person of any gender to be recorded playing banjo is a Jackson County native,” she rattled off, listing just a few of the women who made the region what it is today, and who made such an exhibit worthwhile.

The showing is not, however, only about women flying in the face of tradition, but embracing tradition even as they embraced non-traditional careers and passions.

On display is a magnificent and intricate quilt, hand-stitched by the Monteith sisters, juxtaposed against a series of forceful letters written by Edna Monteith lobbying for her reappointment as postmaster.

Covering one wall is a plethora of photographs that features Appalachian women that spans the last 150 years, all doing work of some kind or another. Meister calls this the “Family Photo Gallery” because it mirrors the wall of family photos found in many homes and illustrates the wide range of work long undertaken by Appalachian women, whether traditionally in the realm of the gender or, in the case of Monteith, Bumgarner and Dills McKee, decidedly less so.

The working legacy of Appalachian women, said Meister, is their ability to take to what work needed to be done, mixing the traditional with contemporary, male work with female.

“We wanted to do something that would show the scope [of women’s work],” said Meister, noting that, as they researched and stories developed, connections between working women that spanned generations began to appear, highlighting the strong culture of working women in Appalachia that began centuries ago. “Strong Appalachian women have been there from the time of the Cherokees right up to the present.”

Emma Wertenberger, who works with the Appalachian Women’s Museum and contributed a great deal to the exhibit, said that illuminating the corners of Appalachian female life that were outside the norms was an important part of it.

“We know what the traditional roles were,” said Wertenberger. “But what never gets focused on were the women that were in non-traditional roles.”

It’s those women, she said, and how they were able to blend the long-held realm of women’s work — still difficult and intense work by any standard, especially in the mountains — with successful forays into fields dominated by men that paved the way for modern Appalachian women who are now, with ease, able to do the same.

“Samantha Bumgarner was the mother of all of female Southern women who sing and make money off of it,” said Wertenberger with a laugh.

And indeed, the women who line the walls of the exhibit show that neither the workplace nor the home are the sole preserve of one gender. And the long and storied fight that they represent has laid the framework for the tradition of strong Appalachian women to continue to grow.

Second City brings new comedy show to WCU

Second City, the world-famous improvisational comedy troupe, is bringing its show ‘Fair and Unbalanced’ to Western Carolina University’s Fine and Performing Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 17.

Originally formed in Chicago in 1959, Second City has since built its reputation as a major starting point for aspiring comedians, actors, writers and directors.

Tickets are $10 for the general public and $5 for WCU students. The show is intended for audience members 18 or older.


Speech by civil rights educator begins WCU’s celebration of Martin Luther King

The Rev. Jamie Washington, social justice educator and president of a Baltimore-based multicultural organizational development firm, will be the keynote speaker for Western Carolina University’s annual celebration in honor of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Founder of the Washington Consulting Group and a senior consultant with the Equity Consulting Group of California and Elsie Y. Cross and Associates of Philadelphia, Washington will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 19, in the Grandroom of A.K. Hinds University Center as part of a program sponsored by the Office of the Chancellor.

He will discuss the nation’s progress in the area of civil rights and race relations, and what additional steps are necessary to achieve King’s vision in a talk titled “Beyond the Dream to the Vision: The Charge for the Next Generation.” A reception will follow the address.

Washington has served as an educator and administrator in higher education for more than 20 years, most recently as assistant vice president for student affairs at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. He holds a doctorate in college student development with a concentration in multicultural education from the University of Maryland College Park, and earned his master’s degree in divinity at Howard University in 2004.

Other events planned at WCU as part of the King celebration range from service activities to cultural events.

The exhibition “With All Deliberate Speed: School Desegregation in Buncombe County” will open at 8 a.m. Monday, Jan. 17, on the second floor of Hinds University Center. The 15-panel exhibit explores the events, legislation and actions of people that led to the desegregation of Buncombe County from the 1950s to the present time, and will highlight the students of ASCORE (Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality) who worked to integrate schools and businesses in Western North Carolina in the 1950s and 1960s.

A unity march also is planned for 4:30 p.m. Jan. 17, followed by a reception to mark King’s 82nd birthday, to be held in the theater of the University Center.

The film and discussion “Our Friend Martin: An Adventure Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.” is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 18, in the University Center theater.

The Koresh Dance Company will perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 20, at the Fine and Performing Arts Center. Known for its powerful stage presence and high-energy style, the company presents a combination of ballet, modern and jazz dance. Tickets are $5 for the event, part of the 2010-11 Arts and Cultural Events Performance Series at WCU. For tickets, call 828.227.2479 or visit the FAPAC box office.

A poetry slam will be held at 6 p.m. Jan. 20 in the Starbucks coffee shop in the Courtyard Dining Hall.

In addition, days of service will be held Jan. 17 and Saturday, Jan. 22. Participants should register through the Center for Service Learning website, servicelearning.wcu.edu.

University administrative offices will be closed Jan. 17 in observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

For more information, contact James Felton, director of intercultural affairs, at 828.227.2924.

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