Transatlantic Mountain Cultures: Appalachian and Carpathian Perspectives

Poster Appalachi

As a native of Appalachian Ohio, where the undulating landscape is dotted by farms and small homesteads, I can’t help but think the similarities between my home and the Carpathian Mountain region are more than just coincidence. As I travel through rural Romania, I am often struck by the piecemeal cottages and and horse-drawn carriages. For me, it conjures some of my happiest childhood memories. Whether it was chasing chickens with my childhood playmate in front of their trailer or learning how to safely drive past an Amish horse-and-buggy as a teenager, Romania takes me home.

Left to right: Dr. Cristian Pralea, Dr. Anne Murray, Me, My wilfe Anne Elise, and Dr. Georgeta Moarcas.

Left to right: Dr. Cristian Pralea, Dr. Anne Murray, Me, my wife Anne Elise, and Dr. Georgeta Moarcas.

Over the past year, I have been very glad to discover that I am not the only one to have noticed the uncanny similarities between the Appalachians and Carpathians. On 12 April 2013, I co-hosted the first Transatlantic Mountain Cultures lecture series here at Transylvania University with Dr. Cristian Pralea and Dr. Georgeta Moarcăs. Thanks to our video conferencing set up using Skype, students and faculty from both sides of the Atlantic were able to ask questions and participate in the discussion.

where there are mountainsHomeplace GeographyDr. Donald Davis, author and Fulbright Scholar, spoke with us from his study in Washington DC about some of the reasons for the similarities between the two mountain regions and the history of Carpathian-Appalachain exchanges. He has been studying the similarities between the Appalachians and  Carpathians for the past decade and has written several books. I was particularly intrigued by his thoughts on how the mountains shape people and their culture more than people shape the mountains. It seems true to me that the landscape has a powerful effect on the culture and behaviors of people. When we live in a synergistic way with the land, everything from our eating and sleeping to our social  interactions and world view are in some way shaped by the land.


Famous statue of the Mothman in Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

Dr. Dan Shope  of Shawnee State and Dr. Moarcăs both spoke about the myths and legends that haunt the cultures of these two mountain regions.  Dr. Shope gave a thorough description of West Virginia’s “Mothman” and cultural coping mechanisms. With beautiful pictures of the mountain villages, Dr. Moarcăs presented on the “Sylvan Maiden” and “St. Theodore’s Stallions” myths from Maramueș. The Sylvan maiden “leads men astray.” Men reported waking up in the woods with thorns in their feet, without being able to remember what happened to them (they also swear they  weren’t drinking). St Theodore’s stallions punish women (through disembowelment) for doing work on forbidden days. One of the major differences we noticed between the myths is that although the Mothman is a scary creature, the myth is celebrated with a festival and generally not feared in the same way the Sylvan Maiden and St. Theodore’s Stallions are. The Romanian myths also had a stronger sense of punishment for breaking social conventions, whereas the contemporary Appalachian myths tend to be a way to explain tragedy and hardship through governments cover-ups and supernatural beings.

DSC08122The final presentations touched on education in Appalachia. I presented my Master’s thesis on perceptions of inequality in rural, Appalachian schools and Dr. Anne Murray of Pfeiffer University, current Fulbrighter in Bucharest, Romania presented on the John C Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. While my research focused on some of the damage done to rural schools by our culture of competition, testing and standards, Dr Murray proposed the “folk school” as a possible model for some things we could do in public education. Although the John. C  Campbell folk school is for adults, its cooperative nature as well as its commitment to the preservation of traditional arts and lifestyles make it an appealing model of education in a rural setting. Dr. Murray also led a workshop for us the following day where she taught faculty and students traditional methods of bookbinding.

Sadly, the conference went too long, so we did not have time for Dr. Pralea to present on the Merry Cemetery in Săpânța, Maramueș. He uses the Merry Cemetery as an example of an idea he developed with Dr. Dan Shope called “Post-industrial Negotiation”. It is a way to explain the Mothman phenomenon and the humorous approach to death in the Merry Cemetery as a coping strategy for the de-industrialization and exploitation of rural people and areas. But, I suppose it is best to leave some things undone in order to have something for our next Transatlantic Mountain Conference.


Semester Reflections

DSC06515Now that we’re at the end of our semester break and classes start again next week, it’s time to write down some of the thoughts that I’ve been stewing over the last few weeks. Having finished my first semester teaching at the university level, I want to take the opportunity to be a “reflective practitioner” and write about what went really well and what I want to change in my classes.

My goal is not just to give students more information, but to cultivate a deeper understanding of American thought. So, I design my classes around a constructivist learning theory in which students must construct meaning out of the materials they are given in class. I am primarily there to guide the meaning-making process through lectures, leading collaborative discussions, and evaluating projects or writing assignments. Dr. Robert Marzano’s research emphasizes the importance of identifying similarities and differences for increasing student understanding and raising achievement. Although Dr. Marzano is one of the hot names in education right now, many of his ideas are not new (which is probably why many of them work). The idea that students should make connections across themes, subjects and disciplines is a major theme in Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. In fact, Socrates was certainly “identifying similarities and differences” in the Meno when he teaches a geometric proof to illustrate his theory of knowledge. When I talk about getting students to identify similarities and differences, I’m not talking just about two column “compare and contrast” charts. What I am talking about is making deep, meaningful connections across cultures and across disciplines.

John Winthrop

John Winthrop…sometimes I think we forget what a utopian socialist ideal the Puritans had. Click here to read!

My most successful classes centered on subjects that I could easily connect to the experience of my students.  For example, I taught John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity with Ayn Rand’s Anthem and excerpts from The Virtue of Selfishness. These texts generated lively conversations and provocative writing from students, because the similarities and differences between socialism, communism, and capitalism speak to many of the policy issues Romanians deal with today. I also had them read Chief Seattle’s 1854 Treaty Oration with John Muir’s essay Man’s Place in the Universe and Theodore Roosevelt’s Conservation as a National Duty. These texts combined with my lecture on the US National Park System and the Hetch Hetchy dam sparked considerable debate , because Romania is having its own conservation crises with the Roșia Montana mining controversy.

Ayn Rand...the antithesis of socialist Puritans

Ayn Rand…the antithesis of socialist Puritans. Didn’t believe in God or altruism.

Lastly, I also taught a few classes on slavery, the Civil War, and racism in class. While our texts were from Frederick Douglass and Aristotle, the conversation really picked up when we related my history lecture and the texts to ethnic relations with Roma (Gypsies) and Hungarians. Ultimately, I believe using a constructivist learning model requires an understanding of the life of dialogue. The teacher must see himself in the student. Music is a powerful tool for creating meaning and opening dialogue. During our unit on slavery and the Civil War, my wife Anne Elise, came to class as a guest presenter. We played Follow the Drinking Gourd together with the students joining in on the chorus. Many people believe  this song was an oral map of how to get North to freedom. Here is a video a student took:

Although we had many amazing class discussions, there were still too many students who were silent. I understand that some folks are not comfortable speaking publicly, but it is still important to be actively engaged in class. This is especially true for American Studies majors whose degree emphasizes speaking and writing skills. Several of those who did not speak as often as I would like were still able to get a good grade because I provided plenty of other opportunities such as papers and a written final exam for them to demonstrate what they had learned. I also need to spend more time this semester workshopping how to develop a good thesis. Most students have a strong command of the English language, but have not learned the kind of writing we value and expect in the United States. However, I will be speaking on this at a “Language for Specific Purposes” conference in Bucharest next week. So, I guess I’ll write more about it then.

DSC06712Both the music Anne and I led in class as well as some review games for the final exam were very successful in engaging students who tended to be more silent; so I’ll definitely be doing more of both this semester. I still wonder how I can change my teaching style to invite participation from students who are less willing to volunteer their ideas openly. I’ve thought about  just calling on folks whom I haven’t heard from, but I don’t want embarrassment or discourage anyone. I’m going to be looking for some good small-group-oriented cooperative learning strategies for next semester. Popular activities like “Think-Pair-Share” and the “Jigsaw Classroom” seem a little juvenile to me, but if anyone has had success with them at the university level, I’d love to hear about it!

Romanian Students Discuss the “Tyranny of the Majority”

click on image to read the “Tyranny of the Majority”

Do we have to know who we are before we can know what we need? Our hour-long discussion on Alexis de Tocqueville’s section on the “Tyranny of the Majority” from Democracy in America culminated when a student posed this wonderful perennial question.

This past Monday, I taught my third university-level textual analysis class. So far we have read John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, James Madison’s Federalist no. 10, and most recently a small section of Democracy in America. Our overarching theme has been an inquiry into American identity. In my first lecture I argued that the United States is in an identity crises. Our civil discourse is becoming increasingly polarized and there is not a consensus regarding what the common good is let alone how we can achieve it. Where and when did the breakdown begin? How can we reconstruct it? Should American identity be remade or rediscovered?

I began our discussion of de Tocqueville with these words from our reading:

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. In any constitutional state in Europe every sort of religious and political theory may be freely preached and disseminated; for there is no country in Europe so subdued by any single authority as not to protect the man who raises his voice in the cause of truth from the consequences of his hardihood. If he is unfortunate enough to live under an absolute government, the people are often on his side; if he inhabits a free country, he can, if necessary, find a shelter behind the throne. The aristocratic part of society supports him in some countries, and the democracy in others. But in a nation where democratic institutions exist, organized like those of the United States, there is but one authority, one element of strength and success, with nothing beyond it.

Why does Tocqueville say that there is no real freedom of discussion in America when our “freedom of speech” is one of the freedoms we are most proud of in America? I think this reaches to the heart of our current identity crises and political gridlock. Freedom of speech is largely an illusion in America because the majority has deemed some words and ideas anathema. It is impossible to enact a plan to cut the debt because one plan is labeled “elitist” another is “socialist.” The majority has decided that both aristocratic elitism and socialism are politically incorrect words that should not even be considered. So, while candidates call each other “elitists” and “socialists” their ideas are not given a deep consideration in the public discourse.

Who is the majority?

First we asked, “Who is the majority?”  After a brief discussion, we decided that the majority was a group united around a common ideal opposed to another less powerful group united around the opposite ideal. We then went back and forth between whether or not the majority is worthy or unworthy to rule. One group seemed to be echoing Thomas Paine by saying that the majority should rule because they best represent the needs of a society while the other side took up James Madison’s argument that needs of the majority should not oppress the minority. While we argued about whether or not our mixed government and free speech on the internet provide protection and a voice for the minority a student asked the question at the heart of the argument. Do we have to know who we are before we can know what we need?

When Tocqueville published Democracy in America in 1835 he asserted that, “If America has not as yet had any great writers, the reason is given in these facts; there can be no literary genius without freedom of opinion, and freedom of opinion does not exist in America.” It does not exist in America, according to Tocqueville, because anyone who publicly speaks contrary to the opinion of the majority is made “a stranger in his own country.” We have had some great writers and orators since 1835. Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, and Martin Luther King Jr. became some of the heroes who showed us who we are and gave us a path forward.With the presidential election days away, we need to ask ourselves who we are and what do we really need. Where is the literary genius who can shine a light on who we really are? Are we left so intellectually and spiritually impoverished by the tyranny of the majority that the heroic literary genius described by Tocqueville is among us, but is merely another voice crying in the wilderness; and nobody hears.