This week’s blog post comes to us courtesy of Amanda Jo Slone (Fiction ’17). As Amanda Jo describes below, what began as a conversation with a colleague quickly morphed into a rich teaching and learning experience for all involved: Amanda Jo, her colleague, their students at the University of Pikeville in Kentucky, and everyone in the audience at the Appalachian Studies Association Conference in Ohio where Amanda Jo presented on her experiences this past spring. Amanda Jo Slone is a writer, educator, and mother from Draffin, Kentucky. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Still: The Journal, Appalachian Heritage, Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel and other journals. Amanda Jo is the editor of the literary journal, The Pikeville Review.
In March 2017, I wandered into a required faculty meeting and found an empty seat next to a colleague I only sort of knew at the time. One year later, that same colleague and I joined University of Kentucky Law Professor and author Richard Underwood to present “CrimeSong in the Classroom” at the Appalachian Studies Association Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. Our session was about a collaborative project we worked on during the fall 2017 semester, but for my colleague and me, this session also featured the power of creative collaboration in our professional and personal lives.
When I sat down next to University of Pikeville Assistant Professor of Theatre Kim Willard during that fateful faculty meeting, I had no idea that our small talk and banter would lead to the best experience I have had in the classroom and one of the most meaningful friendships and creative partnerships I have experienced. I had just finished reading Professor Underwood’s book, CrimeSong: True Crime Stories of Southern Murder Ballads and was excited to talk about it to whomever would listen. I was raised in a family of musicians, and I grew up fascinated by the stories I found in traditional country and folk music, particularly the stories in murder ballads. Underwood’s book reveals historical facts behind many of those songs and pieces together the real life stories of traditional murder ballads. I rambled about the book and how much it meant to me and almost simultaneously, Kim and I had an idea: we should co-teach a class about murder ballads. We approached our dean as soon as the meeting was over and secured his blessing to write a proposal for the course.
Appalachian Murder Ballads: This course is an experiential study of traditional Appalachian music, particularly the murder ballad, and the adaptation of ballads to the stage. Students will study well-known ballads as literature with a focus on the historical events that inspired the songs and the role this art form has played in Appalachian culture. Students will use their study of the ballad to create an original stage script that will be performed at the end of the semester.
Once the original course description (listed above) was written, the rest quickly fell into place. We were awarded a $5,000 grant from the Appalachian College Association for undergraduate research. The grant provided for the research materials our students needed and for all of the materials needed for the production of the play at the end of the semester. Nineteen students enrolled in the course, and of those nineteen, only six had taken theatre courses before. We had a wonderful mix of disciplines in the course: History, Biology, Criminal Justice, and Nursing majors enrolled. During the first class period, we made a list of what everyone believed they could bring to the table. We were blown away by the skills and talents they offered up. Some students were musicians, artists, writers. Some claimed they were not artistic, but adept at research and critical analysis. What they all brought was an inspiring openness to art and learning. Each class period was an energetic burst of creativity.
At the end of the semester, our Appalachian Murder Ballads course presented their original production, “No Mortal Can You Trust,” for the Pikeville Community. The play portrayed the stories of Stella Kinney, Lula Viers, Pearl Bryan, and the Ashland Tragedy, all subjects from popular murder ballads. The students researched the stories, designed costumes, created a set, and wrote the script. Kim and I stood amazed by their combination of talents and their eager collaboration. They pushed past boundaries and limits they set for themselves, and they created a piece of art to add to Appalachian Literature and Theatre.
It was after the play opened for the public that I began to realize the way the experience had affected me on a deeper level. I felt energized in the classroom and proud of the discoveries our students had made along the way, but I found the semester changed me in other, more personal ways as well. Kim and I had spent the last several months working together every day. We co-taught the course, with each of us present at every class meeting and each of us constantly learning. Kim sat in when I did writing workshops on the script and coached students on how to find their written voices. I attended every rehearsal where Kim brought the students out of their acting shells. We diminished our own creative comfort zones by allowing ourselves to collaborate on every level of the creative process. That energy lasted far beyond the fall semester. Kim and I have become close friends and professional partners on campus. We are always brainstorming another project. We are always working together. We share our creative endeavors and push each other to continue to cross creative lines. Our collaboration has made me a better writer and a better teacher.
Art, especially for writers, is often created alone. Sometimes we live in our heads with our world of words, and it’s not always easy to let someone else in. I cherish my rare quiet time and the solitude I sometimes need to finish a story or essay, but more and more, I am also thankful for transformative power of creative collaboration.