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Hearing the voices of Appalachia

Furman seniors Maddie Allums, Lucy Lansing and Anna Lackey will present their literary research at the Appalachian Studies Association Conference.

The accomplishments of Furman’s science students are well documented, but the university’s unique undergraduate research opportunities don’t end in Plyer Hall. Just ask seniors Maddie Allums, Lucy Lansing and Anna Lackey.

Their work in a senior seminar class on Appalachian Literature has been accepted for presentation at the 41st annual Appalachian Studies Association Conference which will be held April 5-8 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Calling it a “huge accomplishment,” Assistant Professor of English Laura Morris said the trio earned their way with outstandingly insightful papers based on one of the five books they were required to read.

“They were really thinking not only about the writing but also about the issues in Appalachia,” Morris, a West Virginia native who joined the faculty in 2015, says. “They were thinking on a much broader plane in terms of how the literature speaks to the world.”

Students started with a project proposal before moving on to research followed by a literature review. The final step was a seminar-length paper, about 20 pages, which had to be condensed into a conference-length of 8-10 pages. Lansing focused on “The Birds of Opulence (Kentucky Voices),”a 2016 novel by Crystal Wilkinson that deals with mental illness among women.

“This book is set in Afrolachia, which is black Appalachia,” she says. “People who are not from Appalachia generally think mental illness is the fault of the people there. They’re lazy, they don’t take help when they should … but women in Appalachia have the cultural resources to solve a lot of these problems for themselves, and they don’t really need people coming in who don’t know what they’re talking about telling them what to do.”

Lansing, an English/political science double major, was drawn to the work because of her interest in social justice and discovering that, as a native of Rome, Georgia, she’s from Appalachia herself. “I’ve done a lot of research in my time at Furman, but not a lot in English,” she says. “It was really fun.”

Allums decided to tackle the first book in the syllabus with a paper titled “An Intersection of Dichotomies: Gender and the Rural/Urban Binary in The Dollmaker.”

“I’m sorry. It will take the breath out of you,” Allums, an Atlanta native, says with a laugh. “I’m a sociology major (along with English) with a particular interest in gender, and I was struck by the huge contrast the author Harriette Arnow drew between the men and women in the novel. Even though we read other books throughout the semester, this stuck with me the whole time. So, when it came time to pick a topic, I thought, ‘I want to know what’s going on here.’”

Morris thinks research has always been a key part of being an English major.

“I think that we often see the students as learning how to do research, but we don’t always see the product of it,” she says. “We are bringing research into the humanities, and research is coming out of English departments. Our students are doing important work, good work, and they should be seen and heard.”

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