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Humanities Center Flourishing within WVU Libraries

A poet laureate, an author and a rapper walked into  a library — it’s not a joke. It’s the new normal since  the WVU Humanities Center became part of WVU

The trio are among the past year’s highlights: a luncheon to honor Marc Harshman on his 10th anniversary as West Virginia’s Poet Laureate; a homecoming for author and WVU alumna Valerie Neiman, who read selections from her novels; and “From WV to NY: Hip-Hop Geography,” a panel discussion around hip-hop, Black culture and place, that featured hip-hop artist Deep Jackson and novelist Steven Dunn, both West Virginia natives.

“I am pleased for the Humanities Center to be part of WVU Libraries,” Dean of Libraries Karen Diaz said. “We are discovering a number of great synergies in working together to support multiple areas of campus. We are both committed to roles we can play in strengthening the University’s R1 status and commitment to the land-grant mission.”

Humanities Center Director Renèe Nicholson agrees the new arrangement benefits the campus and beyond.

“Both the Center and the Libraries serve the entire community, supporting faculty, staff, and students across all of WVU’s colleges and campuses,” Nicholson said. “As well, initiatives in the Libraries, such as programming connected with the West Virginia and Regional History Center and Art in the Libraries, integrate well with the goals and activities of the Center.”

Traditionally, humanities disciplines include areas such as philosophy, history, literature, law, languages, religious studies, Native American studies, women and gender studies, and often spill over into other disciplines. Yet, all disciplines have some connection to the humanities, since every discipline has a history, culture and specialized language that contextualizes each discipline and how it goes about its work.

The Center supports the University’s land-grant mission through events and programs that enhance student success and improve the lives of West Virginians. One example is the Humanities at Work initiative that assists undergraduates and graduate students in the humanities with career planning and support.

In addition, the Center provides grants for programs that use the humanities to enhance the academic journeys of students and improve the lives of West Virginians.

Perfomance at “From WV to NY: Hip-Hop Geography,” event

Deep Jackson, a Welch, W.Va., native, performs at “From WV to NY: Hip Hop Geography,” a panel discussionaround hip-hop, Black culture and place, presented by the Humanities Center on Oct. 20, 2022, in the Mountainlair’s Blue Ballroom.

This financial support often provides early funding for work in or connected with the humanities, with the goal of producing more scholarship that is published and/or receives next-level funding, such as funds through National Endowment for the Humanities and other sources. Many outcomes of the Center’s advocacy help strengthen WVU’s R1 status. Also, in partnership with the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences and the Research Office, the Center has been part of a faculty writing group focused on gaining fellowships to support the writing and publication of scholarly books. Many participants in the group are in humanities disciplines.

In fall 2022, while integrating into its new home, the Center established four signature initiatives:

  • The Appalachian Writers, Artists and Scholars of Color Series, established in the fall 2020, continues to help showcase, center, and support diverse voices from the region. It also serves the land-grant mission of WVU.
  • Connective Tissue: Health Humanities at WVU focuses on the human conditions of health and illness by drawing on methodologies in the humanities and fine arts to fortify clinical science and patient-provider relationships. Because of the potential of the health humanities to improve care to West Virginians, this initiative also serves WVU’s land-grant mission. 
  • Humanities at Work, a collaboration with WVU Career Services, supports student success by offering workshops, panels and other events and activities to help undergraduates and graduate students in the humanities disciplines with career preparation. 
  • Humanities Accelerated fortifies humanities research at WVU by providing financial and other kinds of support, which not only strengthens scholarship and programs, but can impact WVU’s R1 status. 

By focusing the Center on these four initiatives, the goal is to achieve a level of excellence in each. While there are many other areas of the humanities, the Center’s support of humanities scholarship will certainly help fund work in public humanities, environmental humanities, digital humanities and more.

“Book it!” Panel Explores Careers in Publishing Industry

In fall 2022, the WVU Humanities Center and the WVU Career Services Center partnered to create the Humanities at Work initiative to address the career development needs of humanities students. 

“Studying the humanities can help students work more effectively and creatively in any career pathway they choose,” Humanities Center Director Renée Nicholson said. “The skills developed, such as writing skills, ethical decision-making, social cohesion and others are highly prized in workplaces, allowing graduates to be vital members of a flourishing workplace regardless of the industry they enter.”

The Center launched the initiative with an online panel discussion titled “Book It: Careers in Book Publishing and Promotion.”

Students interested in book-related careers could learn about job opportunities post-graduation, including how to prepare academically, personally and professionally to pursue these career paths.

Studying the humanities can help students work more effectively and creatively in any career pathway they choose.  Renée Nicholson, HUMANITIES CENTER DIRECTOR

Panelists included Sara Georgi, managing editor for WVU Press; Rebecca Colesworthy, senior acquisitions editor for SUNY Press; Ellen Whitfield, publicity director for BooksForward; and Lacey N. Dunham, writer and director of Literary Education Programs for the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.

Each speaker shared a presentation about  their occupation and how they came to be in their position, followed by a Q&A session. A recording of the program is available on the Humanities Center’s YouTube page.

Students were encouraged to work with Danica Ryan, the humanities-focused career development specialist at WVU Career Services. Ryan hosted a series of major-specific sessions called “What Can You Do with this Major,” and showcased the many resources students could use to find internships and jobs relevant to their skills. 

The Center and Career Services also collaborated on a humanities-focused session with CIA-recruiters, who talked about their internship programs for undergraduates and graduate students. The CIA and other federal agencies often recruit from humanities majors because of their strong writing abilities, sharp abilities to research, aggregate data and find trends, and foreign language proficiency. 

Reflections on West Virginia Poet Norman Jordan

In April, the WVU Humanities Center and the West Virginia and Regional History Center hosted Dr. Brucella Jordan for an evening of reflection on the life and work of her husband, Norman Jordan (1938-2015), one of West Virginia’s foremost Black poets. 

“It was a privilege to be able to daily observe the activities and thought processes of a truly creative person,” Brucella Jordan said. “He was a poet who saw poetry in everything; in every day, night, activity, life. Living and observing was a poetic drama that inspired him to see it clearly, play with it, and then interpret it to the rest of us in his writing and actions. I could see that working within him up-close and from afar.” 

Norman Jordan was a leading voice in the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. He authored five books of poetry, including “Destination: Ashes” and “Above Maya,” and his work has been included in more than 42 anthologies. 

In 2008, he was inducted into the Affrilachian Poets Collective. The term “Affrilachian” stands for an African American who is a native or resident of the Appalachian region. 

Amy Alverez, a teaching assistant professor in the Department of English, believes the work of the Affrilachian Poets brings the true nature of Appalachia to the forefront. 

“The region is often thought to be solely white and rural, but Appalachia is a richly diverse tapestry of peoples and locales,” Alverez said. “The work of Affrilachian Poets encourages those who live here and elsewhere to see and value the multiple experiences and perspectives that people of color have in this region.” 

Alverez first encountered Norman Jordan’s work in the late 1990s as a fan of hip-hop. Jordan’s poem “One-Eyed Critics” was sampled by rap artists Mos Def and Talib Kweli on their debut album, “Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star.” But of course, Norman Jordan had been influential for decades before as a poet, playwright, educator and scholar. 

“The work of Norman Jordan has been important to me as a  poet, educator, and scholar of both the Black Arts Movement and the Affrilachian Poets,” Alverez said. “I admire his later period of work, which he named ‘stick poetry’ — these short, impactful poems key in on his experiences, observations and insights.” 

The fourth of nine children, Norman Jordan was born in 1938 in the small coal mining town of Ansted, W.Va. It was there that his love for poetry was instilled. 

When he was about 7 years old, his grandmother had him recite a poem in a church play she directed. When he was 10, a teacher named Mrs. Childs included poems in her lesson plans, and they would often read poetry together. 

Through Mrs. Child’s encouragement, he became familiar with the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Phillis Wheatley, James Weldon Johnston, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and others. She also encouraged him to memorize poems and to start writing his own poetry. 

Norman and Brucella Jordan

Norman and Brucella Jordan

In 1951, his family moved to the East Side of Cleveland, Ohio. It was during this time that he wrote what he considered to be his most popular poem, “Hometown Boy.” 

After a four-year stint in the Navy, Norman Jordan returned to Cleveland and began frequenting the Cleveland Public Library. It was there that he discovered international poets. Works by Chinese, Cuban, South American and African poets fascinated and inspired him as well as the poetry of American Beat Generation poets like LeRoi Jones, Allen Ginsburg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane Di Prima and Bob Kaufman. 

“It was in the early 1960s that Norman’s style of poetry began to change and what really catapulted the recognition of him and his poetry at that time was the Civil Rights Movement,” Brucella Jordan said. “Norman was actively involved with the CRM in Cleveland in terms of social, and political activism and he would soon also become one of the most prominent figures and a driving force in the Black Arts Movement of that era.” 

Norman Jordan returned to West Virginia and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theater from WVU in 1977 and soon after received a master’s in African American Studies from Ohio State University. 

He would later co-found the African American Arts and Heritage Academy, a weeklong summer program that offers teenagers the opportunity to study an artistic discipline of their choice. He also co-established the African American Heritage Family Tree Museum in Ansted with his wife, who is currently the museum’s curator. 

Brucella Jordan is a historian and former professor who has been involved in a variety of historical projects. She holds a bachelor’s in history and government from the West Virginia Institute of Technology, a master’s in public history and a Ph.D. in history from WVU. She has taught classes primarily in African-American history at WVU, Marshall University Graduate College, WVU Tech, and Lane College in Jackson, Tenn. 

She has portrayed the historical characters Anne Spencer and Ida B. Wells for ten years under the sponsorship of the West Virginia Humanities Council. She is the author of “Flashback: Poetry and Commentary,” “Anne Spencer: Poet of the Harlem Renaissance,” “African American Migration to Ansted, West Virginia” and “Aunt Artie’s House.”