by Mark Watson
I think of elementary school as my inglorious entry into “the academy.” Like many Appalachian people, I went to school in places that graphically illustrate the extreme inequality of American education. My 1923-built elementary school (thankfully since abandoned) was located along the Chesapeake and Ohio (CSX) railroad tracks and next to the major local river. The school was built when the river valley was “booming” from the coal industry in the surrounding hills. But after more recent re-routings of the river due to upstream, wealthier development, our classrooms routinely flooded out. Over the years, local “state of emergencies” would be declared, with the American Red Cross intervening to set up shelters and hand out flood cleanup kits.
If there was going to be a lot of rain, my classmates and I would push all the desks and chairs to the end of the room farthest from the river and roll up the classroom carpet, sliding it to the far end and lifting it up on top of the desks to help keep it dry. After the water receded, they’d mop out the rooms and we’d be back in school. I recall using textbooks—largely out of date, teachers said with memorable anger—that were clearly damaged by flood water. Keep in mind that the rivers in central Appalachia are pretty damn polluted—the whole place suffers from acid mine drainage, poorly developed sewage systems, leakage from local industrial ruins, and so on. The Ohio River is the most polluted body of water in the United States for this reason. Meanwhile outside, you could see the train roll by, carrying cars of coal and timber. Wherever the money made off those resources went, it wasn’t to the school or the kids in the community. Much of the coal was heading down to the Ohio River and burned in electricity plants or sent on barges to Pittsburgh and other cities. To the local social elite, we were seen as one of the poor “hillbilly” elementary schools in the county—nobody expected much out of the two hundred of us who went there. Being called “Appalachian” when I was growing up was entirely an insult, a label of deficiency, that we began to experience at elementary school.
When I was in middle school and high school, I pretty much hated the education system, the local elite that included arrogant teachers, and what I perceived as the shit-kicking, rub-dipping rednecks around me. I was more interested in music and hanging out with friends and band mates who played heavy metal. I discovered visual art during this time. I have no idea what my life would have been like without it—who knows if I’d have graduated college. My mom had always encouraged me to make art from a very young age, but like most kids, school had pretty much sucked the creativity out of me. Between soul-crushing, working-class public school, riding the school bus, and homework, there was no time for art. During my sophomore year I was trying to maximize the number of study halls I had, and a teacher suggested I take an art class instead of yet another study hall. So, I did and found a lot of support from the art teacher that year. She strongly encouraged me and gave me freedom to make pen-and-ink drawings and paintings in a largely individualized way. I ended up signing up for several independent studies with her and working a lot of the day in the art room. She left at the end of the year for a better job elsewhere, but her replacement, and the student teacher that year, were important supports. I took the AP exams in Studio Art, Art History, and English Literature on my own and received 4s or 5s—high enough to get college credit. I also received an art scholarship from a couple universities and chose the nearby school, Ohio University, as a painting major.
When I was in college at Ohio University, I mainly hung out with other Appalachian kids from the economically-depressed upper Ohio valley—southeast Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and southwest Pennsylvania. We were pretty alienated. Students from outside the region were often openly hostile to Appalachia, either seeing it as poor and ignorant, or an unimportant, pointless community to talk about. This had a strong class dynamic as well, as most students were upper-middle class with no reason to feel solidarity with Appalachians. My girlfriend was from the region, too, and we used to jokingly reduce each other’s accent to a more neutral one: if you wanted to be taken seriously as an art major, you needed to pronounce “color” and “collar” differently! And I learned I couldn’t call a winter hat a “toboggan” anymore. Sometimes students would talk about being from the Midwest, and we used to joke we were from “the Mideast”—full of poverty, resource extraction, and religious fundamentalism. I don’t believe OU had any kind of specific “Appalachian Studies” curriculum at that point. I had professors who literally said things like, “The problem with this part of the country is that there isn’t enough critical thinking!” I heard a joke either from a professor or non-Appalachian student about local kids doing a Christmas pageant at a school. The kids who were supposed to dress up like the three wise men came mistakenly dressed as firemen. The teacher asked why are you dressed like that? They responded, “Well you said they came from a far [fire]!” Hilarious how those hillbilly kids talk, isn’t it?
If you wanted to be taken seriously as an art major, you needed to pronounce “color” and “collar” differently.
I excelled at college and loved the independence that came with it. Through my earlier interest in music, I had met individuals who read books and were curious (one of my old professors called these locals the “Appalachian hippies,” which is sort of its own subculture within a subculture). I had also been reading and thinking seriously on my own. The arrival of the Internet was instrumental in this—I was able to find so much information, download new music on Napster without having to find the money for it (and there weren’t any local record stores anyway), and chat with people from other parts of the country with similar interests (this was the time of ICQ and talking to random people in chatrooms). I recall discovering James Wright’s poetry, based in the bleak working-class conditions of Martin’s Ferry, Ohio on the West Virginia border, whose work I still read and love. In college, I expanded my intellectual interests and was very obsessed with perfection at everything, maintaining a 4.0 for most of my time. I admired my professors and really liked the seemingly laid-back, independent-minded world of academia. I wanted to become a professor myself.
I was selected to be a McNair Scholar, which is a federal TRiO program supporting minority and low-income students who want to be professors. I think I was the only white man in my cohort, although there was at least one other white Appalachian girl who I mainly remember because she was homeless and staying with her biology professor. This was by far the most racially-diverse setting I’d ever been in. It was interesting and useful to see the commonalities and profound differences students from primarily urban African-American, Latino, and white Appalachian backgrounds experienced in college. I found these students to be at least sympathetic to what was happening in the Appalachian region—which was more than the average OU student. One of my McNair peers, himself from a Latino background in the suburbs, was researching Appalachian identify formation at a local school, comparing it to how Latino students elsewhere come to their identities.
Like a lot of students in the McNair program, I used to feel like I didn’t really fit in in Athens (despite being one of the few “natives” of the region). I was pretty mature for my age and didn’t like the woo-woo college bars and, despite my parents’ generosity and scholarships/grants/student loans, I didn’t have the money, cars, and laissez-faire attitude of typical students. I always knew I was leaving, hopefully for somewhere more interesting. Being politically conscious, I tried to get involved with campus activism, but I didn’t feel like I belonged in that world at all—a bunch of middle-class, suburban white kids with dreadlocks and naive hippie-ish attitudes.
I was selected to be a McNair Scholar, which is a federal TRiO program supporting minority and low-income students who want to be professors. I think I was the only white man in my cohort.
Like many college students, I participated in work-study, which proved influential for my academic path. I took a job as a curatorial assistant at the campus museum, which happened to have a world-class collection of Native American art originally obtained by a business school alum who worked in the uranium mining industry. In the mid-twentieth-century he collected large amounts of Navajo, Pueblo, and other primarily southwest art when prices were very low. When he passed, the collection was left to the university. During my time there, I worked with a curator who was researching the collection and had the opportunity to pursue my own research on Native art. I received funding and assistance to travel to the southwest and conduct archival research, getting hooked on the research process. I received a great deal of emotional support from the curator and her husband and colleague, who was my primary mentor as an undergrad.
I decided the small world of art history and the even smaller world of Native art history were what I wanted to focus on in graduate school. This was largely the result of my job and education at Ohio University, but personal background always plays a part, too. I recall the African art history professor commenting that lots of Jewish people (like her) collected and studied African and modern art because so much other Western art was a little too Jesus-centric for comfort. It would be interesting to see if or how Appalachian backgrounds shape scholars’ interests. Like a lot of educated people from our part of the country, I intuitively identify with all the “small” peoples, underdogs, and peripheral regions of the world for whom industrial capitalism has created massive, perhaps unsolvable, problems. The idea of a “poor people’s movement” has always appealed to me, like it does for many Appalachians. Postcolonial, feminist, and Marxist methodologies have also appealed to me from the time I learned about them. Native Americans were people I always was curious about given that the part of Appalachia I’m from is full of Adena and Hopewell earthworks, artifacts, and roads—it was basically the center of those civilizations. The Indigenous past was part of the landscape.
With the assistance of the McNair program, I applied to Columbia and a number of top programs. I chose Columbia because I wanted to go to New York City and the department was generally seen as a very strong, perhaps the top, art history program in a number of fields. After dealing with the awkwardness of being an Appalachian kid in Ohio, New York was liberating to me. There are so many people from all over the world and the general culture is very accepting of outsiders. To most New Yorkers, I was just a white guy from somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Most native New Yorkers I knew had very little sense of geography outside the metro, not unlike how most Appalachian people have no idea of the vast difference between New York City and most of the “the northeast.”
Not surprisingly, though, Columbia was full of people who struck me as almost pathologically detached from reality. They were well-off, mostly white kids whose experiences were limited to their own wealthy-family/private-school/Ivy-League bubble. The school preached meritocracy to these students—I’d actually never heard the term “meritocracy” before going there and initially thought it was a neologism—and many of them were smart and competitive with each other. But it was obvious to anyone that this idea of meritocracy was hollow—in fact, the MSNBC host Chris Hayes attended Columbia during my time and wrote a whole book on it, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. Columbia, on the other hand, was pretty complicated. It was the first and only time in my life I’ve been in an environment where new ideas, thinking, and research were highly valued as part of the general culture. Even undergraduates would pay lip service to those things, despite most of them being somewhat like sheep (as a faculty member there put it, quite accurately). I loved how international the graduate school was—my roommates over the years were almost entirely from countries on other continents. Also, the school’s endless money meant we could get research and travel support that made things a lot easier for kids from poorer backgrounds.
In this academic context far from home, Appalachian-ness came largely to mean working-class-ness. For most of my twenties and thirties, I have been the only Appalachian guy around. But class was an obvious way of connecting with people everywhere. The city was so damn expensive—it was hard to find anywhere to live outside university-owned subsidized apartments or really bad apartments in the outer boroughs. I was constantly brushing up against very wealthy young people from all over the world, who seemed to all share a kind of transnational elite culture that gave them obvious advantages. At the same time, some of my professors were from long-established Ivy League families and carried themselves like a Hollywood caricature of the privileged, self-obsessed ivory tower intellectual. I, for the most part, minimized my dealings with Columbia aside from the formal Ph.D. academic program. I joined the Working Families Party and worked at a homeless shelter as a night volunteer. I dated women with few or no Columbia connections. I still strongly consider myself working-class, even though I’m a professor. You can’t just lose your culture because your paycheck is somewhat higher—class is more than just an abstract relation to “the means of production” or a measure of wealth. And to me “Appalachian culture,” to the extent that that’s a meaningful term, is primarily a working-class culture comparable in some ways to other ethnic working-class cultures in the U.S. and other parts of the industrialized world.
The idea of a “poor people’s movement” has always appealed to me, like it does for many Appalachians. Postcolonial, feminist, and Marxist methodologies have also appealed to me from the time I learned about them.
I went on the job market after the Great Recession turned a bad situation for academics into an even worse one. Many states had hiring freezes after 2008 and in the years since state funding for education has never recovered. The Recession and the reelection of Barack Obama helped spark the anxious, old, middle-class-white-people-based Tea Party movement, which elected many anti-university Republicans into statehouses and governors’ mansions across the country. Few states have had real salary increases during that time and when faculty retire or leave their positions, they are not being replaced. Meanwhile, the cost of college for undergraduates has skyrocketed with the hostile attitude from lawmakers. Class sizes are increasing everywhere, while university system administrators are often fascinated more with Silicon Valley-derived “big data” and “scalable” solutions, partnerships with private consultants, and other expensive, anti-faculty solutions to problems that are caused by the “starve the beast” approach to university funding.
In all of this, the most privileged students and faculty are somewhat insulated and isolated. Everyone knows rich people and fancy colleges will protect their own. But things are falling apart at minority and working-class schools. I work at a primarily black college in south-metro Atlanta, having been hired because of my specialization in a “diverse” area of art history. Almost all of my students are African-American or other racial minorities, and are mostly working-class or poor. A large majority are also female. Our university is always, it seems to many of us, at the bottom of the university system food chain when it comes to appropriate resources, including hiring the needed number of full-time faculty. If you compare our school to most of the primarily-white schools in Georgia, you’ll see a night and day difference. Everyone knows this—even my conservative colleagues say it’s hard not to see it as structural racism.
I’m convinced the system we’re working in is not going to last. The American public university is being destroyed, much as central Appalachia in many places was destroyed. It’s being stripped down and sold for parts. And the people in power do not care. In this environment, the existence of an “academy”—a community of full-time, career-long professors working with autonomy from outside reprisals and pressures—is a myth. The vast majority—76%—of today’s college instructors are not professors, but rather instructors on temporary contracts. Over half of those 76% are part-time, which typically means they are stringing together benefit-less jobs at several universities in an effort to stay financially afloat. In my state, these jobs at state universities pay around $2,500 a class, which is actually more than many other states.
You can’t just lose your culture because your paycheck is somewhat higher—class is more than just an abstract relation to “the means of production” or a measure of wealth.
What can faculty do? Easily the best thing I’ve done professionally is get involved with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). I serve as president of my chapter, which is one of the most lively, amiable, effective faculty groups I’ve been a part of. Being in a real faculty organization is transformative—we never realize how degrading, isolating, and competitive our work is until we’re in a union together. Faculty at my university are far more outspoken and critical after the AAUP chapter has stirred things up. This is precisely what we need, but on a mass scale. In the deteriorating social conditions around the country, many millennials like me are setting up AAUP chapters or taking them over. I have been attending the AAUP organizing institutes in the summer and the national business meeting, which has given me a taste of faculty organization as a national movement. There are dynamic new leaders, often women or people of color, emerging from around the country. We feel our backs are against the wall—there is no future for most faculty if we do not fight now. Cynicism and careerism are no longer viable options. We must organize around the university as a public good—joining the AAUP at aaup.org is the first step in doing so.
Mark Watson is an Associate Professor of Art History at Clayton State University in south-metro Atlanta. He earned a BFA in painting and art history from Ohio University in 2005 and a Ph.D. in art history from Columbia University in 2012. His research and teaching interests include Native American art, contemporary art, art and social movements, and the environmental humanities. His publications have appeared in Art History, American Art, Third Text, the Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, and other venues.
* * *
Our collected volume of essays, Demand the Impossible: Essays in History As Activism, is now available on Amazon! Based on research first featured on The Activist History Review, the twelve essays in this volume examine the role of history in shaping ongoing debates over monuments, racism, clean energy, health care, poverty, and the Democratic Party. Together they show the ways that the issues of today are historical expressions of power that continue to shape the present. Also, be sure to review our book on Goodreads and join our Goodreads group to receive notifications about upcoming promotions and book discussions for Demand the Impossible!
* * *
We here at The Activist History Review are always working to expand and develop our mission, vision, and goals for the future. These efforts sometimes necessitate a budget slightly larger than our own pockets. If you have enjoyed reading the content we host here on the site, please consider donating to our cause.