By Robert L. Baker
This past weekend, several students and professors representing the University of North Georgia made the journey over land and ice to the 36th annual Appalachian Studies Association Conference. The men and women from UNG represented the largest body of ASA Conference attendees produced by the school to date. The conference gave professors an opportunity to extend their research, catch up with old friends, and coach their current students of Appalachian studies. For those students of Appalachia, the conference represented one thing: a learning experience.
For many, the ASA Conference proved to be a testing ground. Many students had not presented scholarship at a conference before. Although many of us are used to presenting in front of our cohorts, not too often do we have the opportunity to present in front of such a diverse population of academia. Every move made and every argument stated became subject to the intellectual prowess of the noted scholars of Appalachia. Needless to say, some of us shimmered with nervousness and stood in awe.
Each student of North Georgia presented their research in the face of personal adversity. Glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, caused anxiety which inhibited some students’ performance. Each student dealt with this fear in their own way. Personally, I avoided going to the conference for a few hours, watching television and relaxing to avoid getting nervous. Another student went to the conference to watch others deliver and feed off of their composure in the environment. Despite these phobias, UNG students pressed through their presentations. They remained composed, stayed within the allotted time limits, and refrained from vomiting.
In addition to the fear of public speaking, some presenters dreaded the eventual questioning that comes at the end of every session. Unsure of how to answer, if their answer will be adequate, and the ultimate fear of not knowing the answer caused many students to experience unwanted panic. However, UNG students performed as any competent young scholar would. They remained calm, used reason to elaborate on their research, and demonstrated the humility it takes to say, “I’m not sure, that was not within the scope of my research.” Not all students faced strictly self-imposed adversity.
For a couple of UNG students, adversity came in the form of rejection from notable Appalachian scholars. That rejection represented a humbling experience for us all. Seeing that form of adversity reminded us that the research we do must be complete. It must answer numerous questions that others may have. Even when those steps are taken, that research may fall on deaf ears. Rejection can be demoralizing but ultimately, it demonstrated a moment of growth. As students of Appalachia we now know that we must consider numerous points of view in order to strengthen the integrity of our work. Holes must be filled and counter arguments have to be addressed. Finally, we as scholars must be ready to defend our research.
Jonathan Winskie, Jeremy Conner and I enjoyed the honor of having Dr. Jonathan Dean Sarris comment on the quality of our work. In that commentary, Dr. Sarris said the state of student research in Appalachia “is strong.” At the ASA Conference students from North Georgia delivered quality research that spanned numerous topics and fields of study. The level of mercury in Lumpkin County’s water supply stunned attendees while the presentation on the effects of the New Deal on Toccoa, Ga., generated much discussion. The poster presentation of heirloom seeds drew the attention of many in attendance including some notable scholars. The session consisting of Winskie, Conner, and I, convened by Dr. Whittemore, quickly turned into an overcrowded room full of noted scholars, laughter and praise. These are only a few of the events I personally witnessed containing UNG presentations, though I know students and faculty presented more. In North Georgia’s first big appearance at the ASA I have to agree with Dr. Sarris, the state of student research in Appalachia is indeed strong.
BIO: Robert L. Baker is a graduate of Carson-Newman College, now Carson-Newman University, with a B.A. in history. He graduated from North Georgia in 2011 with an M.A.T. and is currently enrolled in the M.A. in history program at the same school. In his spare time, he teaches social studies at Collins Hill High School in Gwinnett County, Ga., and runs a blog titled The Historic Struggle.