As class registration quickly approaches, students should keep in mind a new American Studies course: Diversity in the Heartland (AMST 391.00Y), which aims to create partnerships between Kenyon students and their rural neighbors in Knox County and the surrounding areas.
This yearlong special topic course will examine the meaning and presence of diversity in historically unexamined rural communities. Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies Ric Sheffield, chair of the Department of American Studies, created the course to promote the exploration of diversity in local communities. Born and raised in Mount Vernon, Sheffield has experienced both of the perspectives that the course addresses, and he hopes that Diversity in the Heartland can be a tool used to bridge the gap between Kenyon and its surrounding communities.
Open to rising sophomores, juniors and seniors, Diversity in the Heartland focuses on community-engaged learning that lets students structure the class. Capitalizing on Kenyon’s proximity to Mount Vernon and the ties between the College and neighboring communities, Diversity in the Heartland will have students document the untold histories of a population long understudied.
Sheffield has had an idea for a course like this since he assisted Professor Emeritus of Sociology Howard Sacks in a co-taught American studies senior seminar, The Community Within, in the early 1990s. In Sheffield’s 30 years of teaching at Kenyon, he has had many students question the presence of racial diversity in Mount Vernon.
Noting that the demographic makeup of Kenyon differs from that of the surrounding areas, Sheffield encourages students to think beyond their traditional definition of diversity. While Kenyon’s diversity is evident in the makeup of the student body and fostered through on-campus offices like the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, rural and small communities harbor countless personal histories that speak to larger conditions and trends. In Mount Vernon, “diversity is just manifested in a different way,” Sheffield said. “Urban folks historically think of diversity in terms of race.” But what Sheffield calls the “invisible” diversity of rural communities hides in the untold experiences of their individual members.
“There are these insular communities that I think have really remarkable stories to tell about perseverance, about adapting and becoming integrated into these communities,” Sheffield said.
Through this course, Sheffield hopes to revive the spirit of a liberal arts education by reminding students that to be a student at Kenyon means to not only receive an education, but it also means to be a community member of Knox County. When students spend their four years at Kenyon confined to the Hill, they fail to engage with the experience of education that extends beyond the classroom. “I think you can learn a lot about your own humanity,” Sheffield said, “when you come to an area like this and you don’t simply pull yourself back and say, ‘Let me just have nothing to do with that world.’”
Students will conduct interviews with community members, take surveys and uncover history through personal artifacts. They will draw from archived evidence and, at the end of the course, compile their findings in new archives to highlight the history of people who make Knox County what it is today. Ultimately, Sheffield wants the class to focus on storytelling — brainstorming ways to make their findings digital and accessible to many others.
In the course, students will share stories and uncover characters that make up the rich world beyond the Hill. “We’re going to build this amazing sort of representation about rural diversity,” Sheffield said. In Diversity in the Heartland, students will learn what diversity can encompass and how rural diversity is anything but an oxymoron.