Liberal Arts researchers link the past, people, and places to the present, society, and world
The College of Liberal Arts encompasses tremendously varied disciplines, types of research, and ways of understanding and making a mark on the world. The connection between these six researchers is found in their far-reaching impact.
The word “connections” prompts us to envision a résumé full of references, all sorts of influence-peddling, or even something as mundane as plugging a cell phone charger into the wall.
Connections between research and society are sometimes more difficult to see until a government agency, a nonprofit think tank, or an institution of higher learning releases new information that affects our lives.
Indeed, research in the humanities not only makes connections between college and community. It connects past and present, home and abroad, individual and group. In some cases, it can even bring us closer to our own identities.
Just as a sense of place is crucial to Southern literature, historical research is crucial to explaining who we are. Carroll Van West, an MTSU History professor, can testify to that—not only from his research, but also from his connections with the people who live in hamlets from one end of the state to the other.
“What drives me and a lot of my research is the interest in local history when I go to these places,” West said.
The director of the Center for Historic Preservation knows that community landmarks such as schools, churches, and cemeteries bring people together with a sense of pride and purpose. They remember where they experienced their first kiss, their first movie, their final goodbye to a friend.
Whether they realize it or not, it’s all evidence of where history hits home. It’s not always about wars, legislation, or lengthy speeches on the Senate floor.
Carroll Van West
History Professor Carroll Van West’s contributions to the historical record were legion long before he became Tennessee state historian in 2013. His study of how capitalism transformed rural Montana in the 19th century is an authoritative source on the subject. His history of Tennessee family farms, which started in 1987, eventually became a book, a traveling exhibit, and a program of MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation. This Tennessee Century Farms program continues to document farms that have remained in the same family for 100 years or more.
A major contributor to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, West broadened the scope of Tennessee history with his work to make diversity, race, change, place, faith, and continuity bigger themes in the discipline. From that development, West has extended his outreach to interpretations of the South in general through partnerships with the Alabama Historical Commission and other groups that resulted in two National Register Multiple Property nominations.
An ongoing partnership spearheaded by West is a detailed field study of the Trail of Tears in collaboration with the National Park Service and Cherokee Nation. Yet another ongoing field investigation chronicles existing historic properties along the trail. Amy Kostine, a former graduate student who began work on this project at MTSU, is now project coordinator for the Trail of Tears and the Santa Fe Trail in Missouri.
West earned his bachelor’s degree from MTSU, master’s from the University of Tennessee, and doctorate from the College of William and Mary.
“Historical research is crucial to explaining who we are.”—Carroll Van West
Roots of problems today
Of course, what U.S. senators do is important, too, and is part of what connects us to our common heritage. Kent Syler, former aide to U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, found that out in researching letters written to the office of the late U.S. Sen. Albert Gore.
Syler, assistant professor for the Department of Political Science and International Relations and the Gore Center, pored over the Carthage native’s legacy in the MTSU center that bears his name. Syler discovered rancor over race relations that mirror those of the present day. The 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis sparked a flood of constituent mail to both Gore and U.S. Rep. Richard Fulton.
“The most letters and petitions came from people who were upset with President Lyndon Johnson for declaring a national day of mourning and that flags be flown at half-staff for Rev. King,” Syler said. “They felt that he didn’t deserve that, that he created havoc in the cities with his demonstrations. He (King) was being blamed, really, for all the violence in the cities and the civil disobedience.”
When Syler’s students read these letters, the millennials who have witnessed the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement were thunderstruck.
“These aren’t issues that we’re dealing with for the first time,” Syler said. “It gives us good historic foundation on a lot of different problems the country faces, a lot of different conflicts.”
Disenfranchisement from democracy
Racism is a political issue that has clouded U.S. elections in many ways over the years. Pippa Holloway, a History professor and incoming president of MTSU’s Faculty Senate, is intrigued by what the disenfranchisement of current and former prisoners says about our democracy.
Holloway said she became interested in the subject in 2006 while she was registering public housing residents to become voters. A line on the registration form asking if the individual had ever been convicted of a felony became a sticking point.
Her research led her to find that Tennessee has one of the most complicated schemes for regaining one’s right to vote in the nation. Today, most former offenders can avoid a court petition, but they must have paid all their court fines and fees and be current on child support payments. Given employers’ reluctance to hire convicted felons, this creates a substantial Catch-22.
“The financial burden on ex-offenders in Tennessee is significant and quite unique,” Holloway said. “There’s only a handful of other states that do this.”
Evidence uncovered and analyzed by Holloway shows that, historically, complex laws preventing citizens with prison records from voting were thinly disguised attempts to keep African-Americans out of the polling places.
“My research on the 1870s and 1880s really proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that these laws did racist work,” Holloway said. “They were expanded in the 1870s and 1880s in order to prevent African-Americans from voting . . . and these laws are still doing that work today in many ways.”
A history of hands-on experience in the political arena makes Kent Syler, MTSU Political Science assistant professor, valuable in the classroom and the media. He drove a campaign sound truck in 1978 and worked in numerous campaigns.
The former student government president earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MTSU. He managed U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon’s initial campaign for Congress in 1984 and the 1994 and 1996 reelection campaigns. From 1985 until Gordon’s retirement in 2011, Syler served as the congressman’s Tennessee chief of staff.
With Gordon, Syler designed and taught a course at the Paris Institute of Political Studies to enlighten European students about the basics of American government and politics.
From 1990 to 1991, as the Cold War came to an end and the Soviet Union began to dissolve, Syler assisted the Task Force for Parliamentary Assistance for Eastern Europe in developing parliamentary institutions in emerging democracies. He trained candidates for the Civic Forum pro-democracy group in Czechoslovakia and also helped the Romanian government reform its adoption system.
When reporters need analysis on local, state, or national races, they turn to Syler. He is committed to Nashville’s WSMV for television coverage, but has been interviewed by the Nashville Ledger, Associated Press, The Tennessean, and others. The New York Times published a story about his students’ examination of constituent letters to U.S. Sen. Albert Gore.
Between his punditry and his pedagogy, Syler finds time to serve as chair of the Murfreesboro Greenways Committee and is a past president of the Murfreesboro Rotary Club.
“Millennials who have witnessed the . . . Black Lives Matter movement were thunderstruck.” —Kent Syler
Comparing countries’ corruption
Since free and fair elections are international issues, MTSU’s Stephen Morris finds a surprising connection between the United States and our neighbor across the Rio Grande.
“Public opinion about corruption in Mexico is almost on par with public opinion about corruption in the United States, suggesting that there are certain similarities that are worthy of comparison,” said Morris, a Political Science and International Relations professor.
For more than 30 years, Morris has studied political corruption in Mexico. He finds that the public in both Mexico and the U.S. deem political parties to be their countries’ most corrupt institutions. The perceptions differ only slightly down the list. Congress is considered to be the second-most corrupt institution in the U.S. while, in Mexico, the legislature ranks third behind the police.
Along with more than 100 academics and civic leaders, including James Chaney of the MTSU Department of Global Studies and Human Geography, Morris signed a letter calling on the U.S. Congress to stay out of the Mexican elections this summer. It’s a move that resonated with American political observers.
“If we don’t want Russia to interfere in our elections, we certainly would not have any moral high ground if we were to interfere in the elections of other countries, which we tend to do quite often,” Morris said.
To help document the voting process in the Mexican election, Morris headed south to be an impartial observer under the auspices of the nonprofit organization Global Exchange with some funding from MTSU.
Sharing research internationally
American researchers’ international contacts are beginning to grow more important as relations with other countries shift due to changing American policies. Andrei Korobkov explores migration among the former republics of the Soviet Union, which Korobkov calls one of three major migration systems in the world. The U.S. is not the only country that is reeling over immigration policy.
“We see, for example, a quick rise of political populism in major European countries, but also in Russia as a reaction to the inflow of migrants,” said Korobkov, a professor of Russian Studies.
This populism, which also emerged in the 2016 American presidential election, prompts Korobkov to see continued unpredictability under Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump.
“The electorates of Putin and Trump have a lot of similarity among themselves,” Korobkov said.
Moreover, the friction over Russian influence on the 2016 American election, as asserted by 17 U.S. intelligence entities, could yet make it extremely difficult for researchers in both countries to share more important knowledge.
“The amount of joint projects between American and Russian academics is sharply declining,” Korobkov said. “The ability to travel to do the research is also declining.”
History Professor Pippa Holloway, the incoming president of the MTSU Faculty Senate, is working on two major projects simultaneously, but that’s not unusual for such a prolific researcher. At the moment, her efforts are “They Are All She Had: Formerly Incarcerated Women and the Right to Vote” and “Subjected to Still Greater Punishment: Testimonial Incapacity as a Collateral Consequence of Criminal Conviction in the South.”
Holloway also has published articles on prostitution and public policy, race and partisanship in disenfranchisement laws, and what it means to be gay in the rural South.
Her awards include a Sexuality Research Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council, the Willie Lee Rose Prize from the Southern Association for Women Historians, and the Soros Justice Fellowship from the Open Society Institute’s U.S. Justice Fund.
Holloway has delivered professional presentations at the University of California, Berkeley, University of Florida, University of Richmond, Vanderbilt University, and Stony Brook University and for the Southern Historical Association, and the American Historical Association.
She has taught classes in post-Civil War U.S. history, Southern history, the history of sexuality and LGBT history, 19th century history, and historical research methods.
Holloway earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina, master’s from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and doctorate from Ohio State University.
Preserving and reviving community
Kevin Smith, an MTSU Anthropology professor, understands all too well the heartache of information lost as 21st-century “progress” marches over our legacies. Smith, with help from the Dorothy Cate and Bill Frist Foundation, is working to preserve what is left of Native American settlements in the Old Town area of Franklin, Tennessee, through non-invasive documentations of museum collections.
“There were about 40 major towns, which would be similar to county seats in a modern sense, located on the Cumberland River and its tributaries, including the Harpeth River, which runs by Franklin,” Smith said.
These towns were in existence between 1000 C.E. and 1450 C.E., Smith said, but so much evidence of them was lost to the construction of skyscrapers and interstate highways.
“We’ve already lost over half of the towns that existed at 1250 C.E., with almost nothing known about them,” Smith said. “Some of these places were occupied for five centuries—far longer than Nashville’s been occupied.”
At the root of it all, of course, are students. Smith said too many universities offer no anthropology field experience for undergraduates, but MTSU does. Volunteers can sign up to work in the field on Saturdays, and retirees and amateur archaeologists take part.
“One of the things that I’ve always done is require the students to interact with the public,” Smith said. “So our excavations are open to the public and the students take turns giving tours.”
To connect people with parts of their lost legacies, Smith suggests the establishment of informational signs at places where modernity has replaced community. The value of such work is not only educational. Heritage tourism, the appeal of historical sites to the public, can be a boon to local and state economies.
Economic benefits from the past
Van West, who also is the Tennessee state historian, sees this in several Center for Historic Preservation projects. The center’s specialists connect property owners and local groups with funding agencies to create their own historic projects. Forming partnerships with organizations, the center empowers local governments and nonprofits to set up tours and exhibits.
“The more distinct and strong your community is, the more attractive you are to those from outside,” West said. “They can go anywhere, but why not go to some place that really has a strong sense of pride in themselves as shown through their understanding of their own history.”
Smith claims that most of what constitutes Tennessee’s tourism industry can be traced back to mineral spring resorts, which collectively became the third-largest industry in the state in 1900. People flocked to some 80 resorts from across the state and from other states to escape summertime heat and insects, staying for as long as a month to six weeks.
MTSU’s Stephen Morris started researching Mexican corruption some 30 years ago and produced one of the earliest works on the subject. He deepened his exploration through presentations at various Mexican universities, participation in symposia on corruption and transparency sponsored by the Mexico City and national governments, and collaboration with Vanderbilt’s Latin American Public Opinion Project on Mexico.
Morris, a professor in Political Science and International Relations, has served as a reviewer on works and theses, published articles in both English and Spanish in Mexico, and participated in radio and television interviews. In 2012, Morris and MTSU colleague Andrei Korobkov brought experts from Mexico, Russia, and the U.S. together for a one-day symposium in conjunction with Vanderbilt.
With the level of violence and homicide in Mexico reaching all-time highs last year, Morris notes that at least 82 candidates and office-holders have been killed since September 2017, causing fear and reluctance to participate in the democratic process to rise.
“I have long admired my colleagues in Mexico who speak truth to power, who fight against odds, at risk of violence and death threats, strive to uncover and denounce corruption and the abuse of authority, and who struggle to make the Mexican government accountable to the people,” Morris said.
He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Georgia State University and his doctorate from the University of Arizona.
While air conditioning and bug repellent have altered the landscape a bit, today’s music industry in Tennessee remains a byproduct of this phenomenon.
“The growth of the music industry is at least strongly supported by the mineral spring industry because all of these resorts were paying local bands to play every week,” Smith said. “That’s really what gave them enough money to keep them going the rest of the year.”
“Public opinion about corruption in Mexico is almost on par with . . .[that] in the United States.”—Stephen Morris
New and old knowledge
As the music industry keeps Tennessee in the national spotlight, so the data collected by MTSU researchers keeps Tennessee in general and the University as a whole in the national and international spotlight by providing the kind of trustworthy, fact-based, peer-reviewed information that can improve people’s lives. The higher the profile, the more likely that research grants, donations, scholarships, and prestige will follow.
“It brings some practical policy conclusions and recommendations that you give to the government, among others,” Korobkov said. “It creates networks others can follow, and it generates, among other things, new knowledge.”
In some cases, “new knowledge” is “old news” to disadvantaged and overlooked segments of society. Syler found that out by examining letters to Gore, who served in Congress during 1939–71. Advocates for a limited federal government were making almost the same points about desegregation of public facilities then that are being made today about national health insurance.
“If you took out ‘so-called Civil Rights Act’ and put in ‘so-called Affordable Care Act,’ the small government letters were the same,” Syler said.
University research can provide those marginalized Americans with evidence they can use to make the case for a different way to think about democracy. The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit prison reform group, states that Florida has the largest number of disenfranchised citizens in the nation. More than 1.5 million Floridians have lost the right to vote. Holloway wonders if restoring voting rights for convicted felons would change the culture.
“What would it look like if incarcerated people saw themselves as members of our (body) politic, and what would they do upon release?” Holloway said. “If society tells you (that) you don’t matter, are you more likely to reoffend?”
Regardless of what it might mean for the crime rate, it might result in changes in political strategy and even the redrawing of political districts.
“In this last election in Virginia, there’s good evidence that ex-felons who got their voting rights restored helped tip the balance in a number of the legislative races,” Holloway said.
Catching MTSU Professor Andrei Korobkov between excursions abroad can be challenging. A specialist in migration patterns among former Soviet republics that have formed their own nations, Korobkov is in demand as a speaker at international conferences and as a commentator for radio, television, and online.
From 2012 to the present, his invited and featured talks have included such prestigious locales as New York’s Harriman Institute, the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., Irkutsk State University in Siberia, the Greek island of Rhodes, the University of Oxford in England, the Kennan Institute in Berlin, and the International Studies Annual Convention in San Francisco, among other educational gatherings.
During his attendance at the National Research University Higher School of Economics International Academic Conference on Economic and Social Development in Moscow this past April, Korobkov raised MTSU’s global profile with interviews on four separate BBC programs, four different programs on the American government’s Radio Liberty, and eight other interviews on various Russian TV and radio stations.
Korobkov, who heads up MTSU’s Russian Studies interdisciplinary minor, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Moscow State University and doctorates from the Russian Academy of Sciences and the University of Alabama. His additional areas of expertise include nationalism, state- and nation-building, economic reform and issues of regional economic development, energy policy, social stratification, and employment policy.
Informing and improving lives
The role of university research in educating and informing citizens can give them the tools they need to alter the balance of power worldwide. Morris said academics and nonprofit think tanks are popping up all over Mexico to try to unravel its labyrinthine election system, the nexus between narco-traffickers and politicians and the potentially dangerous ramifications of defying the power elite.
“The only option is, really, greater involvement of the people through civil society organizations, by strengthening transparency so that the public has more information about what the government is doing,” Morris said.
Connections abound, even in our fractious, segmented world. All the more reason to maximize those connections, to touch people where they live, to enhance their understanding of who they are and who came before them, to improve the economy with fresh ideas instead of lamenting obsolete concepts, and to infuse future generations with faith in existing institutions and the knowledge and courage to create new ones.
“We live in trying times, realizing that America means many different things to many different people, but that we can unify at crucial times in our history,” West said. “That’s important to know, too.”
Tennessee’s tourism industry can be traced back to mineral spring resorts.—Kevin Smith
Saving “Old Town”
Coming in the January 2019 MTSU Magazine Protecting what most of us can’t see—clues that a great civilization that MTSU anthropologist Kevin Smith knows thrived there long ago—is where Dr. Bill and Tracy Frist come into a fascinating story about property along the Harpeth River in Williamson County, Tennessee.
Dr. Frist, a heart and lung transplant surgeon and former U.S. Senate majority leader, and his wife, who is one-quarter Native American, purchased the land in 2015 with the aim of preserving the site called “Old Town.” The Frists asked Smith to lead the scientific research component of the preservation effort of the property, which contains the remains of a people whose nomadic forbearers arrived in the region some 12,000 years ago. “Academic institutions like MTSU are at the front of discovery and play a vital role in uncovering that untold history for scholars, archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, and schoolchildren for generations to come,” Frist said.
Anthropology Professor Kevin Smith specializes in the archaeology of the southeastern United States with special interests in prehistoric chiefdoms in Middle Tennessee from about 900 to 1500 C.E. His expertise also covers the Tennessee frontier during 1780–1820 and African-American lifeways from slavery through Reconstruction.
Smith’s current research projects include various slave housing projects and miscellaneous pending field projects from frontier forts to Middle Woodland mounds. From 2005 to 2015, he worked on the Castalian Springs Mounds Archaeological Project.
Last summer, Smith held a reunion of African-American descendants of slaves once owned by Frank Rogan, son of Irish émigré Hugh Rogan and one of the largest slave-owning plantation owners in middle Tennessee. Some 150 descendants toured the Sumner County site where their ancestors were baptized Roman Catholic, the Rogans’ faith. The documentation of those baptisms facilitated the discovery of about 3,000 names of the slaves’ descendants.
“I’ve been able to figure out pretty confidently which one of the cabin sites that we excavated with MTSU students between 1996 and 2001 at Bledsoe’s Fort was Hugh Rogan’s cabin,” Smith said.
Smith began teaching at MTSU as an adjunct professor in 1988 and has been a full-time faculty member since 1994. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Vanderbilt University.
written by: Gina Logue
featured photograph by: Israel Palacio