Engaging Diverse Rural Audiences in West Virginia: An Interview with Renée K. Nicholson

An interview with Renée K. Nicholson, director of West Virginia University's Humanities Center, on making inroads into rural communities, and embracing creative and unconventional pathways in the humanities as a young humanities center.

Aaron Fai: What has it been like to take over directorship of WVU’s humanities center during the pandemic?

Renée K. Nicholson: The pandemic suddenly uprooted so much of what we call “normal,” but in hindsight, I wonder if it didn’t speed up some changes that would have happened anyway. I stepped into the director role in July 2020, when things were still relatively unknown about the upcoming year. It became a great lesson in flexibility and working with what you have in front of you.

Our Center is relatively new, not even ten years old. There had been only a founding director and an interim director before I took over the role. On the one hand, there weren’t entrenched ideas about how our Center worked, so it allowed me to be nimble in managing our activities during COVID. On the other hand, there were times when I wished I could take a longer look at how the Center operated, just to feel more grounded, but the pandemic wouldn’t afford anyone the opportunity to feel secure and situated, and I try to focus on what I learned that year.

One of the first things we created was a YouTube Channel for our Center. I wanted to figure out ways to make events happen, even if they couldn’t occur in-person. I took a lot of cues from the Late-Night Shows, watching how Trevor Noah and Seth Myers used their homes as places to reinvent their offerings. Some segments worked better than others, but they were all available on YouTube and were very “lo-fi” in production. People were hungry for content, to be stimulated, and I wondered how we could provide compelling virtual content to our campus community. Because of the success of our YouTube channel, we now offer most of our events in a hybrid format, continuing to reach extended audiences both in-person and online.

The Center also had to address research in creative ways. The interim director, a wonderful colleague from our Art History program, initiated a grant program, “Life in the Time of COVID-19,” which directly addressed the pandemic. These projects continue to have relevance. One has continued the work, gathering stories and looking at COVID-related health outcomes in Amish communities in the Appalachian areas of southern Ohio, thanks to an additional grant from the National Science Foundation. Another, a photovoice project, compared past flooding in the community of Rainelle, West Virginia, to the community’s experience of COVID. Our event series will open with a feature of that work in Rainelle, in an event hosted at our Health Sciences Library. These are just two in a vast collection of vibrant work.

The 25th Anniversary of National Poetry Month also happened during that first academic year that I was at the Center. Collaborating with the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, we put together “Celebration of West Virginia Poetry,” a series of readings by WVU and West Virginia Poets, student writers, and those who wanted to share the work of their favorite poet.

Aaron Fai: Please tell us about some of the state partnerships and engagements your center has been doing, and how you have managed to collaborate with the rural areas.

Renée K. Nicholson: As an employee of the only R1 university in our state, and given our land-grant mission, I often think about rural places, and the ability for those communities to attend our programming. What might it mean to these places if the programming came to them? Our Center is part of WVU Libraries, and this creates many opportunities to connect with community libraries throughout the state. Most of West Virginia is situated in rural areas, and with over 30% of the state lacking broadband access, local libraries are often places that communities use to access reliable internet.

I’ve talked a bit in the above question about our YouTube channel and our hybrid events, and this has been an exciting part of how we reach out to West Virginians. Having online content makes it easier to reach a wider audience, allowing people around the State of West Virginia to access our programming. By providing more ways to connect, the Center really supports WVU’s Land-Grant mission. It also allows us to collaborate more with the West Virginia Humanities Council, which is about two and a half hours away in Charleston, our state’s capitol.

We have also connected with a lifestyle magazine, Elk River Living, which serves the counties along the Elk River. A monthly magazine, they now have a recurring “Humanities Corner” column featuring our events, especially those available via Zoom and through the YouTube Channel. This has expanded our audience and it allows more people to feel like a part of our campus while joining us from their homes, many of which are too far away to attend events in person. Monthly, I connect with the editors of Elk River Living, and it’s been both satisfying and enjoyable to see how our collaboration grows.

Lately, I’ve been connecting with our divisional campuses in Beckley and Keyser, West Virginia. Because of our hybrid approach, our events forge deeper partnerships and connections with these campuses and our main campus in Morgantown. As we build out our health humanities programming, we can also link with our regional health-focused campuses in Martinsburg and Charleston. Our administration embraces a concept of “One WVU,” and these technology tools allow our Center to embody that idea in a very specific, and, as it turns out, very measurable way. Being able to track and show our increased audience numbers reinforces the good work we do through the Center.

A specific program that is close to my heart is our Appalachian Writers of Color series. As we all know, the pandemic forced many issues around systemic racism to the surface, and I felt the Center could and should be instrumental in celebrating the diversity in our region. By showcasing and celebrating voices of color from within, we can work to combat negative stereotypes, enrich cultural understanding, and celebrate a diversity that’s often hidden from view. Since the 2020-2021 academic year, this series has featured a group of emerging writers, the Affrilachian poet Amy Alvarez and the Affrilachian Scholar Theresa L. Burriss, the Cherokee and Appalachian novelist Annette Clapsaddle, and the queer and Indian essayist Neema Avashia. This year will feature Whiting-award-winning novelist Steven Dunn and rapper Deep Jackson, both from southern West Virginia.

One of our presenters this past year is the dancer, writer, choreographer and activist Phil Chan, who wrote the book Final Bow for Yellowface, which addressed outdated and harmful stereotypes of Asians in performing arts productions, particularly classical ballet. One of my initiatives has been to reach out to dance studios around the state, many of which perform a yearly Nutcracker. The Chinese divertissement in the second act is often a problematic portrayal of Chinese people, and Chan has pointed out ways to overcome this. One way that he helped the New York City Ballet was to change the costuming to a cricket, which is a positive symbol in Chinese culture. By removing the gestures that are offensive, much of the choreography can be retained. The audience was particularly receptive to this, and given the dance studio owners and teachers in the audience, we’re actively wondering how many crickets we may see on stage this December.

Aaron Fai: It’s not very often that we see folks with MFAs leading humanities centers. What do you think creative writing and the arts in general have to offer the humanities and/or humanities administration?

Renée K. Nicholson: When I stop to think about it, I’ve not been someone who follows the typical pathway. I come from a background in dance, and I think that informs many of the ways I approach other kinds of work. Dance is inherently collaborative as an art form. While as an individual dancer you hone your body for the technique, performances include working with other dancers, choreographers, artistic directors, musicians and conductors, costume designers, and technical theatre professionals. So, I think my approach has often been to think about the ways we work together, forging relationships and integrating our talents and knowledge. Collaboration can often make for meaningful partnerships. A quick example—as our upper administration recently took a hard look at our academic offerings, and the need to better support humanities majors has become more and more pressing. Working with the chairs and directors of humanities programs, and working with our Career Services Center, we are offering a year-long series of workshops to help humanities students with internships and career planning. I hope to expand this to our system of two-year community colleges and find ways to help students in those institutions continue their humanities education through WVU.

While my dance background gives me some experience with collaboration, earning an MFA in Creative Writing also exposed me to various workshop experiences. Workshop models can be interesting ways of soliciting feedback, and with some new anti-racist approaches, I believe there are many ways to use the workshop approach beyond the traditional writing workshop. My dance and MFA experience intersect through the work of Liz Lerman whose Critical Response Method centers on gathering critical feedback while also reducing bias by focusing on the purpose of the product. Lerman’s approach also allows creators to play an active role in the critique of their own work. I haven’t done much yet with these tools, but I am challenging myself to find ways to integrate them into the Center’s work.

Making art challenges one to take risks, and then assess the outcomes, and that is particularly useful in administration. Fortunately, the workshop method has given me strategies for taking in and using criticism in useful ways.

Aaron Fai: What priorities do you have for your center for the upcoming year?

Renée K. Nicholson: Every year the Center is involved with the selection and programming around our Campus Read. While many universities have a common read for incoming freshman, our Campus Read program seeks to engage the campus community beyond the first-year experience. Last year, our selection was Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River. Cantú is a Latinx writer who provides an unflinching and deeply human portrayal of the situation at our southern border, drawing from both his years of experience in the Border Patrol and from other points of view that he develops after he leaves the service. Not only did his book address a timely issue, but the Latinx population in Appalachia is a fast growing one. In a very white state and at a very white university, having diversity of ideas through programs like the Campus Read is a top priority for the Center.

This year we welcome Charles Yu, author of Interior Chinatown. Through humor and satire, this novel asks critical questions, such as “Who gets to be an American? What does an American look like?” and we grapple with those questions as we read and discuss. There’s a very interesting intersection between WVU’s culture and the world of the book, in a scene that depicts an Asian business man singing John Denver’s classic, “Country Roads,” a song we hear often on campus at sporting events and elsewhere. Yu reminds us how this song yearns of home, and that discussion is one that I’m eager to see develop through our program this year. One of our professors in Chinese Studies used the book in a summer study abroad class in Taiwan, which was grant supported by the Center, which we’re excited to include a panel discussion from these students among our Fall activities.

Bringing diversity to campus drives much of what the Center does. I think of it as “Diversity and Appalachia.” We want to celebrate the diversity from within the region, and also look for voices to bring to campus from outside. Here, too, we partner with others on campus. In February 2023, our Art History program will host Marie Cochran, a renowned curator of Affrilachian Art.

One of my passions is narrative medicine and health humanities work. I’ve worked with palliative care and infectious disease physicians at WVU Medicine on story projects with patients with ALS, cancer, and HIV. COVID halted many of these projects, given the protocols needed to keep both patients and health professionals safe. However, one of the goals of our Center in the coming year is to have vibrant health humanities offerings. Together with my colleagues in WVU Libraries, we are working with a donor to establish the Shumway Family Fund for Narrative Medicine and Health Humanities. The first awardee of this fund is a collaborative team from WVU Medicine, Penn State Medicine, and WVU’s School of Education. They are working on a project that looks at “pain contracts,” or the contracts between patient and provider when a patient needs to be on a controlled substance under the care of a physician. The researchers on this team include palliative care and literacy specialists, who have been analyzing these contracts using instruments that establish reading levels. They are assessing how the cultural constructs and relationships between patient and physician may be affected by these contracts. While the team is initially focusing on the implications for West Virginians, several other contracts from around the country will also be analyzed and compared. The team is presenting at conferences both in medicine and in education, as the final results will impact policy in each realm. Because the work will first focus on the standard contract used at WVU Medicine, we anticipate that the work can lead to better outcomes for West Virginians, which is exciting to consider.

I also recently helped the West Virginia Nursing Association with some writing projects focused on helping nurses deal with burnout, a increased problem as the pandemic has stretched out. In the coming year, I’ll be participating in a series of seminars as part of a Mindfulness Initiative with our Executive Dean and Vice President of the Health Sciences Center at WVU, Dr. Clay Marsh, and Dr. Jay Cole, Special Assistant to WVU President Gordon Gee. The connection between health and the humanities is one I am personally invested in, so these opportunities feel particularly exciting.

That said, I’m energized by all our initiatives and programs, and I am excited to see how they grow over the next year. If you are familiar with the Center’s offerings, then I think you’ll be excited by our robust slate of events this year. And, if you are just learning about the Center, I hope that you’ll join us in exploring the ways in which the humanities can enrich our lives.