Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Medievalist Goes Public - Laura Michele Diener writes for Yes! Magazine

Laura Michele Diener is an associate professor of history at Marshall. She works on medieval textile history, and I first met her when she gave a terrific presentation on using textile creation in the classroom. Recently, though, I've become aware of her public writing on contemporary issues.

One of my theories about academics turning to public writing is that we don't have to limit ourselves to writing about our narrow subject areas. Yes, if something directly related to our formal expertise emerges in the news, we really should engage. But the process of becoming an expert, a teacher, a writer, a thinker, builds habits of mind and habits of articulation that can serve in countless endeavors.

Diener's experience exemplifies the possibilities. She's written two terrific pieces for Yes! Magazine  - First on mountaintop removal and second on rural women and domestic violence. In the latter, she writes:
Transformations like Howard’s are not easy to pull off in rural Appalachia, where poor roads, low incomes, and a fiercely traditional culture combine to leave women facing domestic violence in physical and emotional isolation. But a handful of nonprofit shelters and advocates have managed to make progress in this difficult setting.
The secret of their success seems to be listening carefully to the women they serve and then handcrafting programs for those women. The advocates have found that when it comes to domestic violence, a one-size solution does not fit all. It is important to consider community and culture in order to make real differences in the lives of domestic violence survivors, a lesson for shelters everywhere.
I spent much of the month of May visiting some of these rural shelters. Even though I’ve lived in West Virginia for eight years, as I drove into the state’s southern counties I felt like I was entering a different world. The six-lane highways turned into narrow roads curving around mountains. Trucks carrying lumber hurtled past me on the switchbacks. Densely green woods surrounded me with cool, still beauty, and the towns were few and far between. I lost cell service almost immediately. For me, the solitude seemed idyllic. But this kind of isolation can be deadly for a woman trying to escape from an abusive home, especially if she is responsible for children and animals.
I spoke with Diener and asked her a few questions about the process of writing these articles.

DP: How and why did you decide to start writing about contemporary issues in West Virginia?

LMD: I've been teaching Women's Studies classes at Marshall University since I arrived there in 2008. At first I kept those classes focused on ancient and medieval women, which is what I know best, but as I got to know my students, I realized what incredibly rich narratives they had to tell, and how rooted their experiences were in place. Through their stories, I started getting interested in contemporary regional issues such as the impacts of coal on the history and environment of Appalachia. 

Then in January 2014, there was a chemical spill in the state capital that poisoned the water of 300,000 people in nine counties. People were left without water for weeks, and questions about water safety still remain. It was a horrifying situation. I wanted to know how the water crisis affected people differently, depending on their situation--their age, income-level, etc . . . Being someone who likes to research, I started traveling around, interviewing people and taking pictures. It was a way for me to get to know my new state and to make sure that people's stories were being recorded. Each person I met opened up new questions for me and I've been writing about these questions ever since.

DP: How different was the process of writing the domestic violence story from your historical research?

LMD: I started by speaking with people I knew through my work with Women's Studies. We held a Women's Studies conference at Marshall last spring and I listened to a fantastic paper by Mandy Sanchez, a sociologist at WVU, about rural women and domestic violence. Her paper was focused on the positive steps that a shelter in Cambridge Ohio were taking to reach out to rural women. Her research reminded me of some of the shelters we had been working with through Women's Studies, particularly SAFE in Welch, WV, and the idea for the article came to me during the conference. So, I immediately called Mandy, and asked for some references, and then I started calling around to different state coalitions on domestic violence. 

Once I made some contacts, I drove out to the organizations and met people for interviews. In that sense, my process was pretty different from what I do as a historian, because it was all about making connections with living people. One conversation would lead to another, because everyone would say, "oh, you must talk to this person." At the same time, my historical research process is not that different, just with books instead of people, where one book leads to another.
DP: How did you decide on Yes! Magazine

LMD: I went to a rally called The People's Foot that was organized by a number of local environmental organizations that was held to call attention to the environmental and health impacts of mountaintop removal mining. It was really inspiring and I wanted as many people to know about it as possible, so I decided to write an article and just searched via google for a magazine that might be interested. 

After that first article, my editor at Yes! asked if I would be interested in writing a story about Appalachian women. I knew I wanted to write something that addressed pressing issues but also demonstrated some of the positive work that people are doing. 

Go read Diener's work!