By Winnie Andersen
The Feb. 10 common hour event “Wild in the Kitchen” was the first of three conversations in Professor of Sociology and Director of the Rural Life Center Howard Sacks’ Visits program. For this conversation, Professor of Anthropology David Suggs and several local experts on mushrooms, muskrat, crappies and deer shared their local knowledge, and then the floor was opened for discussion.
Sacks said these conversations draw together a “diverse audience” of Kenyon faculty, administrators, students and Knox County residents to discuss topics of local interest and that this integration is “a very healthy thing for our community.”
Suggs shares Sacks’ goal of connecting people to each other and to a sense of place. He said, “I hate the phrase ‘life in the real world.’ … [We need to] realize we’re in this together.” He said he “admire[s] tremendously” the effects these conversations are having in helping the Kenyon community work toward this goal.
Another goal of the program, Sacks said, is to “give people at Kenyon an opportunity to be exposed to aspects of Knox County life with which they might not be familiar,” including hunting, trapping and fishing. “Folks out in the [Knox] community … have a great deal of … expert knowledge,” he said, “and another aspect [of the program] is to break down that knowledge barrier between lay knowledge and expert knowledge. We tend to assume that knowledge is held by experts who have professional degrees, but we don’t have a monopoly on knowledge, and part of what we want to do in the first [conversation] is bring that knowledge basis in the community out to campus.
Sacks said the first conversation went “tremendously” in this respect. “Participants shared technical knowledge with us, but more than that, they shared a way of seeing the landscape and a way of seeing the community that we don’t necessarily see,” he said.
For example, he said they “talked about the experience of walking through the woods on a crisp winter day when you’re trying to be quiet to hunt for deer. … [It’s] a sense of landscape we don’t often get working from a more theoretical level.”
Suggs, a fisherman, has personally benefited from this local knowledge. He grew up in Texas, and “learning to fish there didn’t mean I could just come here and fish,” he said. “The seasonality and movement of fish is different.” He said he was not successful his first year, but he “start[ed] to build a knowledge base based on what the locals tell you, based on what you learn from the particular environment.”
According to Sacks, the first conversation sparked action outside of the event itself. He said several students went up to the mushroom hunter, a Knox County resident, and expressed their interest in mushroom hunting. The mushroom hunter offered to take the students on a mushroom hunt in late April. Other students are going deer hunting with a Knox County resident as a result of the conversation.
Additionally, Sacks said students were eager to continue the discussion after the event ended.
He said that Professor of Sociology Jennifer Johnson, who teaches a course in the sociology of food, asked her students at the beginning of class what they thought of the conversation.
She assumed they would talk about it for five minutes and then move on, but the students were deep in conversation 25 minutes later. Sacks said he had a similar experience with his Community seminar. Talking about “a sense of environment, community, food and its place in society [has] a strong educational purpose,” he said
Sacks said the goal is to create “an informal forum for conversation … and then nice things happen. … Students and others take it upon themselves to extend it.”
Sacks said the Visits program was started in the late 1990s and was successful for four years, but they had to stop the conversations when he entered the administration as provost.
Now that he is back on the faculty, he plans to continue the program every spring, varying the topics based on people’s interests and the classes being taught.
The two remaining conversations this year are “Reimagining Main Street” on Tuesday, March 29 and “Jewish Knox County” on Thursday, April 21. Both will take place during Common Hour in Peirce Hall Lounge.