Rural Life Center unites Kenyon and community

R ural life? Those of us who live in Gambier say we're living it, aren't we? Well, not really, those in the know would argue, if we can't tell straw from hay, afternoon "dinner" from evening "supper," a welcome rainfall from a storm threatening the region's economy. Making sense of the College's place in the local scheme of things is part of the mission of Kenyon's new Rural Life Center (RLC).

According to RLC director Howard L. Sacks, a professor of sociology who in 1994 became the first three-year incumbent of the College's National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Teaching Professorship, education about the natural and social life that surrounds Kenyon is essential to the College's mission. Building on the success of Sacks's Family Farm Project (1994-97), in which students developed prizewinning public exhibitions and publications on rural life, the RLC will enable students to encounter directly the values of social responsibility and citizenship so critical to the liberal-arts approach to education.

"In a globalizing world in which we connect through the Internet to everywhere, how do we develop a sense of place and relationships to others in `real-time' communities?" asks Sacks. "This question has profoundly important psychological, social, and moral implications for all of us: it means not being simply an isolated person who could be anywhere."

The center debuts at a critical time for Knox County. Facing enormous development pressures as Columbus expands to the north, residents recently joined in a long-term planning initiative, "Focus 2100" (addressed elsewhere in this issue of the Bulletin) to determine how to preserve rural life while accommodating growth. "One of the things we need to do as a community is take greater advantage of Kenyon's resources," Tom Heine, president of the Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce, remarks on the valuable contribution the RLC will make to such discussions. "This opens a new avenue for us to access Kenyon's outstanding faculty, administration, and staff. It really ties us all together."

Likewise, former county extension agent Mark Bennett sees the RLC as playing a crucial role in future planning. "The College has always been viewed as an institution that is good, but also as one that wasn't particularly willing to associate with the rest of the community," says Bennett. "The Family Farm Project really put a dent in that kind of thinking. People now see Kenyon is a part of the community and more of a friend."

Currently, the RLC is a set of projects documenting and interpreting Knox County life, not a tangible gathering place (although Sacks hopes that such a facility is a possibility in the future). Coursework and extracurricular activities will provide opportunities for original research and creative work for students and faculty members in the arts, the humanities, and the natural and social sciences. As was true in the Family Farm Project, students' work will be shared broadly by way of exhibitions, lectures, and publications about rural life, as well as via the Internet.

The first project, "Living Together," part of the fall 1998 "Fieldwork" course, focuses on the many different groups--ethnic and social--that contribute to Knox County's makeup. Students will present their research in a series of articles to be published in both the Kenyon Collegian and the Mount Vernon News.

Also ongoing is a student photography competition, "Envision Knox County," in collaboration with Professor of Art Gregory P. Spaid '68. Until February 1, students may submit their photographs, which are to be accompanied by brief narratives on Knox County life.

For the 1999 spring term, the RLC will host "Visits," a series of public conversations with area residents on a wide variety of aspects of county life. Among the topics already scheduled for discussion are defining identity in a rural setting, the healing arts (including lay practices), and land-use planning.

Beyond the academic year, the RLC will host a summer "field school" in collaboration with the Library of Congress, to take place on the Kenyon campus June 13-July 3, 1999. Open (with an enrollment fee) to county residents, teachers, local historians, and others interested in documenting their communities, the school will feature nationally recognized experts in all aspects of fieldwork: documentary photography, interviewing techniques, media for field use, and handling of archival materials. Participants will work on a project entitled "Life Along the Kokosing," examining the natural and social history of the river. A proposed activity named in the final "Focus 2100" plan, this project promises to become a long-term effort.

Finally, the RLC is in the process of building partnerships with institutions concerned about rural life. The Bailey Scholars Program at Michigan State University's College of Agricultural and Natural Resources, a group of students and faculty members learning together as peers, plans to visit the RLC, and it has already invited Kenyon students to visit and examine the Michigan program.

Another partnership has emerged based on common interests. The Kellogg Foundation-funded Rural Sociological Society, which seeks to bring the study of rural issues into the mainstream in the College curriculum, is enthusiastic about the innovative teaching methods and mission of the RLC. "Getting out and about in these ways is a good thing," says Sacks. "It enables students to see the broader significance of their work at Kenyon."

For Christina Le Stage, a senior from Eagle Bridge, New York, who is involved in the RLC "Fieldwork" course, perhaps nothing defines the "Kenyon experience" more than its embeddedness in country life. "A lot of people come to the College and feel that because it's in a rural area, that's a drawback, that there's nothing to do, that it's in the middle of nowhere," she says. "But being in a farming community shapes what Kenyon is and the kind of experience you're going to get."

Alumni and parents who would like to share in a "grounded" experience of Knox County are invite to contact Howard Sacks, director of the Rural Life Center, at 740-427-5850 or via e-mail at rurallife@

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