5 Questions with Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt

This week we bring you the next installment in a series of interviews with AMS faculty members: 5 Questions with Associate Professor Elizabeth Engelhardt.

1. What have been your favorite projects to work on and why?

My favorite project is always my next project. There is an interesting way that all of the projects lead one to the next. Even as writing a book about Appalachia might on the surface seem really different from writing a book about Southern food, I did the first research on the food project out of a bunch of material I was finding in Appalachia and didn’t know what to do with. So it sort of led me off into then doing the next project. You know, it’s easy to look backward and put a straight line on it, thinking, “Clearly I progressed from this to that.” I don’t think it was a straight line, but I do think that one has led to the other, which is one of the great joys of this particular career.

2. How do you see your work fitting into larger conversations in the academy and contemporary society?

One of the things that I love most about studying food is that there’s knowledge in all kinds of communities, and it has led me into conversations that are really thoughtful and challenging in university classrooms, but just as much in public libraries, waiting in front of a food trailer for someone to hand you food, at festivals or churches or in family kitchens. For me, that is not only one of the challenges of doing the research but also one of the places where I think the things we do in American Studies make real bridges to the communities in which we are living.

I have been increasingly thinking about what it means to do public humanities, where we need to be humble in that process but also where we are better for engaging in that process. I feel like my scholarship is better for the places I get out and talk with communities and sometimes those are communities in the present. Sometimes that is a real-life conversation where you’re sitting down across from each other. Sometimes those are archival communities that I get to listen in on through our historical methods, through our archival methods, and sometimes they’re communities that are best talked about through fiction, where the world of literature is a place where we can find these otherwise lost or subverted connections.

I just recently started working with an archive of letters from farm women around the U.S. South. It is striking to me how they are united by their love of plants, their love of heritage plants in particular. The earliest letters are from the 1920s and they go through the early 1970s. So it’s at a time in the U.S. South where there is a real transition to industrial foodways, to more national food distribution processes, and these are a group of people who believe very strongly in the old knowledge and the old plants and what gardeners know and what farm women know. That’s their language for themselves, they call themselves “farm women” or “farm ladies.” But reading those letters, not only do I find them interesting academically, but I also find them interesting for how this group of women who are otherwise vey hard to document are having exactly those same kinds of conversations about books they love, histories they’re interested in, plants they love, and connections between universities and communities. I don’t think I’m doing anything different than the women in those collections are doing.  But I still think we have a lot to learn from that process.

We sort of act as if this idea of storing things in the cloud is a brand new idea. These women are saying very clearly, “This knowledge doesn’t exist in libraries. This knowledge exists between all of us and we need to be talking to each other. Hey, I know this person and you know that person. How about writing to this person?” And it’s exactly like cloud computing, it’s just happening through the rural mail system.

3. Are there other projects, people, and/or things that have inspired your work?

I think at age 2 I felt like I wanted to make the world a more just place. I did not think that everything worked fairly, and I wanted some explanations for that. In some ways I ask some of the same questions today as I’m doing my writing, as I’m doing my scholarship, as I’m doing my teaching. “How do we make this place better for all of us? How do we figure out who’s not included? How do we find ways for all of us to really hear each other?”

I had an amazing godmother who comes from a town in western North Carolina that was then drowned by the TVA dams. In high school, she worked at a general store carrying 100-pound bags of flour and goods, which was not something that women tended to do. When her daughter started high school, Imogene went to college. When she was in her fifties she decided she had always wanted to know how to build houses, so she joined a housing crew for the summer. She gave me my first Margaret Atwood book, but she also gave me my first Wilma Dykeman book, my first explicitly feminist novel and my first explicitly Appalachian (and I would argue also feminist) novel. So she has always been a real inspiration for me.

I think it’s also important that I went to a little public school from Kindergarten through graduating high school in western North Carolina. 45 of us started Kindergarten together; I graduate with 99 people in my class. I think 85 of us went to college. It was a little, amazing public school. It was also one of those havens of really fascinating teachers. I had a band teacher who had the high school band playing Dave Brubeck and other crazy, experimental jazz and experimental modernist music.  He put on one of our summer marching halftime shows, which featured an overture written by one of the people in the band. I had a theater teacher who had us performing scenes from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I’m not sure many public high schools could get away with that today. These teachers introduced me to this world of weirdness and challenge and bizarre and wonderful and fascinating art, and they never assumed that we were too young or too innocent or too whatever to engage those materials. That was really important for who I am today.

I just feel like the world is a really big and interesting and fascinating place, and the fact that I can have conversations about that, that I can read and write a little bit about it is amazing. And I can then be a part of other people figuring out what their contribution to it is going to be. It means that I can play a role in keeping the world one big and weird and wonderful place and have us think about how to make it open for those same folks who have been left out of it, who at age 2 made me think “that’s not fair.”

4. What is your background as a scholar and how does this background inform and motivate your current teaching and research?

That’s kind of a long answer for me. Out of that crazy, wonderful public school system I ended up very fortunately getting a scholarship to Duke University, which was a little different than most scholarships because it was explicitly a leadership scholarship, so during my entire 4 years of college, the question that was asked again and again, was, “How do you give back to your community?” The scholarship was established because Duke figured out they didn’t have many students from North or South Carolina, so the question was usually framed as, “How do you give back to North or South Carolina?” Early on, I made a shift to say, “What are my responsibilities to the mountains, to Appalachia, to this particular place that I’m from, this small part of North Carolina?” The political reality is that the mountains are generally not included when people talk about North Carolina in particular.

When I went on to grad school at Emory, it felt important to me as well as a really good fit to be a part of the Women’s Studies program there. The Ph.D. program at Emory was still in its early stages, although they had already granted a couple of Ph.D.s. In fact, nationally, the idea of the Women’s Studies Ph.D. was still being worked out. “Is this going to be a thing?” For me it felt important to say I believe in this and I think this is an avenue of scholarship that is important, and I also think it’s the kind of program that should exist. But when I went to choose a dissertation topic, those questions from Duke were very much in my mind. “What’s my responsibility to the mountains?” So the fact that I ended up with a dissertation about Appalachia was not really a coincidence.

After I got my Ph.D. from Emory, I was a visiting professor there for a year. I taught for two years at Ohio University, which is actually in the Appalachian Regional Commission’s designation of Appalachia. There are a few counties in Ohio that are in Appalachia, which was a very different view of Appalachia than the one I grew up with. My first tenure track job was at West Virginia University, and I was there for three years. I love the state of West Virginia. I still do volunteer work there; I still have real connections there. But that was a university that did not have a lot of resources and had not made as strong an argument as it could have to the citizens of the state of why you need a flagship university and what that can do for your state. So in many ways, for me, I’ve been able to do more for Appalachia and for that question, “What’s my responsibility to my home communities?” from this position in Texas, which is where I went next, than I was in West Virginia, which is ironic. But it also can be true.

As I’ve been here now for seven years, I have also been able to shift that question to think about what my responsibility is to this community, and so a lot of my work with Foodways Texas has been trying to answer that question. I believe strongly in the intellectual project of Foodways Texas because I think that the food studies questions and story in Texas are important and crucial for the rest of the nation. But it also bears a piece of that research which, for me, is in answer to “What’s my responsibility to where I have landed?” It’s a way to get my head around “How do I answer that question that started a long time ago in my undergraduate program?”

5. What projects would you like to work on in the future? In what directions do you imagine taking your work?

That collection of farm women’s letters is on my mind right now because I am interested in the hidden food archives of women and men’s letters, knowledge of plants, the kinds of conversations that happen in curb markets and farmer’s markets that I started to deal with in A Mess of Greens but really didn’t get to expand.

I’m just now working on a project to do a biography of one of the first Appalachian women novelists who I ever read, that same Wilma Dykeman who I mentioned earlier. It’s a project in its infancy, but it turns out that not only did she write novels about Appalachia, but she also wrote a book about why integration was crucial, and she wrote that book in the year following Brown vs. Board. She and her husband traveled around the U.S. South and tried to get a handle on what was going on. She wrote a book about birth control; she wrote stories about questioning the death penalty. She wrote about social justice activists. She is one of the first people to write about environmental justice in Appalachia. And there doesn’t exist a biography of her, so I’m working with some people in North Carolina to think about whether it’s time for that to happen, so I’m really excited about that.

I’m excited about the Foodways Texas oral history project that we have going on right now, the Iconic Texas Restaurants project is just taking off, and it’s clear just how much interest there is in this state for that kind of project. So I’m very excited about that. I’m also working on an anthology with some folks over at the University of Mississippi on southern food methodologies, because we all feel that the field has matured enough to have a conversation about the methods that we can use to do any given project, so that’s pretty exciting also. And I probably have six others.

*Bonus Question* If you could describe American Studies in one sentence, what would you say?

I think American Studies resides in the conversations we have; I think it resists absolute definitions, which I think is a very good thing.

For me, American Studies is a place where we try to understand these big, complicated communities and then we go about doing our best rather than stopping the project before it even starts because we don’t have the toolbox in place to answer it. To me that’s what is exciting about it. I played with the metaphor of the potluck in the beginning of the Barbeque book. I’ve played with the metaphor of the farmer’s market or curb market. There’s something I like about those metaphors for what American Studies is also. I don’t think that it is a field that I will ever or should know every conversation that is going on within it, much like at a potluck you’re not a part of all of the conversations that are happening or at the farmer’s market you’re not a part of all the exchanges that are going on. I think that little bit of chaos is really helpful.

2 comments on “5 Questions with Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt

  1. [...] are very excited to share the news that one of our faculty members, Elizabeth Engelhardt, will be featured on a television show on the Longhorn Network called Game Changers, which [...]

  2. [...] and upward we go until the end of summer! Here, Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt tells us what she did this summer through this photo [...]

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